Does prayer do any good?


I was visiting an old Kentucky farmer in the hospital. He had "the cancer," as the old-timers said. Not surprising, since he had smoked since he was seven. When he wasn't smoking, he was chewing tobacco. He had an addiction to steroids. I was his 26-year-old pastor, still a little unsure what to say to a man who was dying.

We talked about the weather, about his farm and about his "young-uns," the youngest of whom was 20 years older than I. Then the conversation turned serious. He said his doctor came by and told him the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do. He said, "Preacher, I've been praying, but it don't seem like my prayers are doing much good. How 'bout you pray for me?"

What do you say to that? Here was a man who was dying, who was praying but felt like his prayers weren't escaping his hospital room. Still, he was asking for prayer.

I think we've all been where that man was, maybe not in a hospital room, but in a situation when you feel like prayer is your only hope, and it doesn't seem like it's working. We've faced financial darkness and prayed to win the lottery, but our number doesn't come up. We've faced an empty bedroom and prayed he or she would come back home, but there is no knock on the door. We've faced our own addictions and begged God to take away our cravings, but before we know it, we've caved in again.

Maybe you have prayed with all the faith you can muster that God would spare a life and the next day you're planning a funeral. Maybe you've prayed that God would open a door or even a window, but the door doesn't swing, and the window is stuck shut. Maybe you've prayed for your child to do right, even claiming the Scripture, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it," only to have him take the first exit ramp he could.

You might agree with that old Kentucky farmer, that your prayers don't seem to do much good.

Part of our problem is we forget prayer at its best is a conversation with God. You ask God what's on his mind and tell him what's on yours. I think that's what Jesus meant when he said, "Thy will be done " When you tell God your financial troubles, if you pause and listen, you might hear God saying, "Spend less." God is smart that way. When you ask God to bring him or her back, God might say, "I'd like to, but I gave them free will, just like I gave you. They are off making their own mistakes now. Let's talk about you building your life on me, not them." When you ask God to make the cravings go away, he might say, "I will, one minute at a time. You have to walk with me every minute."

Prayer is not like Amazon or Walmart. You don't put in your order. You ask God for his wisdom and his provision. The two go hand in hand.

Moses once had a conversation with God that saved a nation. The Israelites were being hardheaded as usual, once more refusing to do what God wanted them to do. God told Moses, "I will destroy these people, start over and make you into a great nation." If I had been Moses, I would have taken that deal in a skinny minute. But Moses didn't. He talked it over with God, reminding him how he would look to everyone if he brought his people out of slavery and then wiped them out. His act of amazing grace would look like a cruel ploy. God, amazingly, agreed with Moses. Apparently, God is willing to hear our side of the story.

In that Kentucky hospital room, fumbling for a prayer that was hopeful, I thought to ask that old Kentucky farmer what he wanted me to pray for. I was expecting him to say, "Pray I'll be healed, of course."

He said, "Preacher, pray it will be quick. I don't want to suffer. I'm ready to meet Jesus; I believe." I was surprised. I could tell he'd given this a lot of thought. Maybe he'd even talked it over with God. So, I took his hand and prayed. I thanked God for his faith. I asked God to be merciful and not make him suffer. I told God we knew we weren't in charge of the timing of such things, but if it worked out with his plans, it would be a good thing if death came sooner instead of later. I said, "Amen," and the old farmer said, "Thank you, preacher. That was just the prayer I needed."

I did the man's funeral six days later.

Did my prayer make a difference? Only God knows. But I can tell you what I know: That prayer made a difference in me. Maybe that's why you should start your conversation with God.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.