What makes prayer effective?

It is not words themselves that heal, but an understanding of the spiritual truth behind the words.

In a conversation a couple of years ago, a family member described all the symptoms of panic attacks she was having and said she was taking medication to control them. As she talked, I realized that I had been healed of these same symptoms over thirty years ago. I had completely forgotten about them. At the time, those symptoms had been aggressive to the point where I sometimes had to leave work early. 

Over the course of several months, I called a Christian Science practitioner many times for treatment through prayer. She stressed the truth in this Bible verse: “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7). She also often reminded me that I was relying on a Science that could be proved—that it is fact, not theory. The attacks became less frequent, and eventually just faded away and were forgotten. 

How was this accomplished? What is it that makes such prayer effective?

Jesus’ disciples saw that his prayers healed people. They wanted their prayers to be effective as well. So they asked him to teach them how to pray, and he gave them the Lord’s Prayer. The Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, calls it “that prayer which covers all human needs” (p. 16).

Effective prayer is listening for and being receptive to what God knows and is telling us at any given moment.

The Lord’s Prayer is encapsulated in the two great commandments identified by Jesus: “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:29–31).

It is an understanding of God’s omnipotence that heals. It is not the words of a prayer that heal, but an understanding, a knowing, of the spiritual truth behind the words. Mrs. Eddy, the Discoverer of Christian Science, found that the spiritual significance of the Bible makes prayer based on the Bible’s teachings effective. She said, “Take away the spiritual signification of Scripture, and that compilation can do no more for mortals than can moonbeams to melt a river of ice”(Science and Health, p. 241). And regarding her ill health in her youth, “. . . she learned that her own prayers failed to heal her as did the prayers of her devout parents and the church; but when the spiritual sense of the creed was discerned in the Science of Christianity, this spiritual sense was a present help” (Science and Health, p. 351).

So what is the spiritual significance of the Lord’s Prayer?

Science and Health includes a line-by-line spiritual interpretation of the prayer (see pp. 16–17), but here are a few notable points. First, it starts and ends with God. After focusing our attention on God, “Our Father . . . ,” and on the facts of God’s harmony, oneness, power, presence, and supremacy, the prayer proceeds to petition. This part of the prayer also requires something of us. We must accept the ideas—the inspiration or daily bread—that we are given, and we must follow this inspiration, which leads to forgiving and being forgiven and away from sin, disease, and death. The prayer closes with a final statement of God’s allness.

The words I, me, and my do not appear in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not about self—what I want, what I need, what I think—the “me, me, me” that often seems to be our thinking. It is about “us” and “our”—about the entire world. Jesus expected his followers to pray for the world, not just for themselves. This is echoed in the following counsel from No and Yes by Mrs. Eddy: “True prayer is not asking God for love; it is learning to love, and to include all mankind in one affection” (p. 39).

The effective prayer of understanding and obeying the leadings of divine Love, God, can free from any oppressive condition—anything not created or sanctioned by God, good.

The first chapter of Genesis in the Bible tells us that God created man in His own image—as “very good”—and Christian Science teaches that because God, good, is all-power, evil is powerless and can be proven so. Therefore, in prayer we must see evil as powerless and know that it cannot find a foothold in our thinking or anyone else’s.

Mrs. Eddy also writes, “. . . pleading with infinite Love to love us, or to restore health and harmony, and then to admit that it has been lost under His government, is the prayer of doubt and mortal belief that is unavailing in divine Science” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 59). We must instead pray from the standpoint of spiritual fact—that God is omnipotent Love, that we are Love’s totally loved children, and that our health and harmony cannot be lost under His loving government. This makes prayer effective.

Prayer is not an intellectual exercise any more than it is a mere repetition of words. Nor is it a personal plea. Rather, effective prayer is heartfelt listening for and humble receptivity to what God knows and is telling us at any given moment—and willingness to follow that inspiration, even if it is not what was expected.

Effective prayer includes inspiration. This inspiration could be an instantaneous consciousness of the infinitude of good, or it might gradually develop through reasoning on the basis of divine law. Either way, the result is the understanding of and faith in God that overcomes evil with good. In the case of my healing of panic attacks, it was gradual, but I recently had an experience of seeing an immediate change.

Our oldest cat seemed to lose interest in eating. I had prayed for him over several days, but I was still concerned that he wasn’t eating much. Finally, I just stopped and asked God, “Dear Father, show me what You see.” And He did. I glimpsed the cat’s true, spiritual nature. Immediately this dear cat got up, went over to his dish and started to eat. And that was the end of it. He went back to his normal eating habits and even regained lost weight.

I still struggle sometimes to be consistently receptive and obedient to what God is telling me. But I am seeing progress. I am seeing that prayer based on divine inspiration, our daily bread—and on following that inspiration in the way that Jesus demonstrated—is effective. It is a law, a Science, that can be relied on.

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September 27, 2021

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