Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
21st Century Errors about Prayer's Efficacy
08/31/2008 - Tur8infanOn the same Catholic Answers Live episode (May 8, 2008), in which Steve Ray seemingly endorsed 18th Century superstitions (see my previous discussion), Mr. Ray discussed another Rosary-related topic.
A caller (Willie in Fredericksburg, TX) asked:
I tell somebody I'm going to say a rosary for them, and then I do, and in the process I might have told somebody else, and so I end up with two, three, four people - I'm just wondering, is that diluting it some way? Or is better to say individual - well its probably better - but is it diluting it some by combining several people?
Steve Ray responded:
I think that's a good question, but I don't think you have any fear of that, because if you are praying the rosary with sincere intent to pray it for several people instead of just one, the weakness would not be with you, but the weakness would be with God. And God isn't weak. He can make sure that that prayer that you pray is responded to for each of those individuals, because God is perfectly capable of hearing your prayer and reaching out his wonderful fingers to touch 4, 5, 6, or 10 people just as well as one. And as long as its your intent to pray for them, and you say, "Lord, this person has a real need here, and this person there, and this person there, and this person there, and I only have a half an hour to pray Lord, but I really really want you to help every one of those people I'm going to pray for, so when I pray, would you please make up for any of my weakness of mind, and my weakness of memory, and you take care of them for me." I guarantee by my little experience with God, and by knowing who He is and what He wants to do. He actually wants to help those people more than you want Him to help those people. So I think you add as many people as you want, and you pray for them, and then you watch God work in their life.
Let's assume for a second that Steve Ray actually understands Catholicism, and further let's assume that his statements are accurate. After all, he was introduced in the show as "one of the leading proponents of the faith" and he himself stated "if I don't know something, I'm going to be honest and right up front and let you know that."
If Steve Ray is right, isn't it somewhat limited to pray as Steve proposes? Wouldn't the following be a still more generous prayer?
Lord, I only have one half hour to pray, but I really really want you to help every one of the people on Earth who has a need, and each person in Purgatory who is suffering the temporal punishment of their sins. So, when I pray, would you please make up for my finite mind and my finite knowledge of all their particular problems, and their particular names, and take care of them for me.
In fact, if God would like to help all those people, wouldn't God being willing to accept an omnibus request of that sort? I hope that most readers sense intuitively that a rosary prefaced in such a manner would not be used by God for billions of times more good than the same rosary prefaced by "So that Joe, my neighbor, will get a job."
What's wrong with Steve's answer is that he doesn't see the problem in the man's question. Prayers, including collections of prayers, like the rosary, do not have merit. I've seen this problem in other contexts, normally in the context or people talking about requesting the prayers of "Saints."
This problem usually becomes visible to us, Reformed folks, when we see Catholicism interacting with this verse:
James 5:16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
What James writes is true, of course. The problem that we see is not people taking James at his word, but instead drawing inappropriate conclusions from what James says.
The inappropriate conclusion is that prayers have intrinsic power on God, as it were.
Thus, the improperly adduced formula works out to something like A*B = C
where A = the effort in prayer;
B = the level of righteousness of the person praying; and
C = the effectiveness of the prayer.
And even A could be then broken down into categories of length of the prayer, sincerity of the prayer, inconvenience suffered in praying, etc. etc.
This is all a mistaken notion. It is the error into which the heathen fell:
Matthew 6:7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
And we even see an Old Testament example:
1 Kings 18:26-28
26And they [the prophets of Baal]] took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. 27And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. 28And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.
I don't think that there should be any doubt about the sincerity, length, or inconvenience of their prayers. They offered Baal not only the bullock, but their own bodies (leaping on the alter themselves, so that when he answered with fire, they would themselves be consumed - and cutting themselves to spill their own blood and prove their devotion). Obviously one problem was the god to whom they prayed: they prayed to a god that did not exist.
But Elijah did not just pray to a different god, Elijah prayed differently. After building an altar and dousing it in water he simply prayed: "LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again." (1 Kings 18:36-37)
No long prayer from morning till noon - no shouting - no cutting himself - none of these things marked Elijah's prayer. Why not?
Because, while God is pleased to answer prayer, God cannot be moved. God is the uncaused cause. God is pleased to give good things to those who ask him, but He gives those things freely. Much speaking doesn't impress God. Saying the same from prayer one time, ten times, or a hundred times doesn't impress God.
Recall also Jesus warned against the scribes describing them as those:
Mark 12:40 Which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.
Luke 20:47 Which devour widows' houses, and for a shew make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation.
Be careful not to over-react. The point is not that long prayers are necessarily only for show ... instead the point is that even those wicked people who take houses from widows can make long prayers. Long prayers are not, in themselves, meaningful. They match the world's expectations of religion, but they are not what God sees.
1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.
5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
What is James saying, he's making clear the same concept that Proverbs describes:
Proverbs 15:29 The LORD is far from the wicked: but he heareth the prayer of the righteous.
And the Psalms say:
Psalm 34:17 The righteous cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles.
Psalm 69:33 For the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.
So then, the primary problem underling both Willie's undoubtedly sincere question and Mr. Ray's sincere answer is that prayer is not something that has power in itself. The power of prayer cannot be "diluted" because prayers do not have intrinsic power or certainly cannot, by its strength, move God.
(I should mention in passing that there is another problem with Mr. Ray's answer - namely that God doesn't have to wait around for people to pray, in order to help them. God does whatever he pleases to do.)
How then should a Christian pray?
God delights in answering prayers, so pray for what is on your heart. Jesus provides what we call "The Lord's prayer," and what used to be called the "Pater Noster." This template for prayer provides us with a way in which we should pray:
"Our Father which art in heaven,"
We pray to God and to Him alone.
"Hallowed be thy name,"
We reverence God in our prayers, not invoking his name lightly or trivially. We place his glory before all else.
"Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"
We pray for things that we know to be agreeable to God's will, including the promotion of His kingdom by the salvation of men. We qualify all our requests with acknowledgment that his will has the preeminence.
"Give us this day, our daily bread"
We pray for those things that are necessary and convenient for ourselves. Notice that Jesus mentions daily bread, not either weekly crumbs or daily feasts.
(Proverbs 30:8 Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me:)
"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors"
We pray that God will forgive our sins, and we forgive those who sin against us.
"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"
We further pray that God will sanctify us, enabling us to avoid sin.
"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever."
We again acknowledge that all things are under the rule of God, controlled by the power of God, and directed to the glory of God, both in this life, and in that which is to come.
We pray the prayer sincerely, assenting to the words that come either from our own mouth, or - if we add our amen to another's prayer - to the words of that other person.
That is the form of prayer that is honoring and acceptable to God. A prayer that is not simply reciting rote what the beads say comes next, but a prayer that expresses our true desires to God.
In conclusion, allow me to leave you with an example. If you are parent, consider what request from your child you would prefer to hear: a request made clearly and tailored specifically to the item the child wants, "Father, may I play baseball with my friends?" or rote recitation of some formula? Surely you'd rather simply hear his request than the rote recitation or the combination of the two.
Hopefully, this example, and the Scriptural evidence above should help you see that praying the Rosary - even if the Rosary were limited to prayers to God - is not the proper practice of Biblical Christianity. It's not what God has asked from us, and it is not how God wants us to pray. Our prayers do not have merit, but instead are like incense that we offer before God.
Thus, we sing:
Psalm 141:2 Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.