DO OUR PRAYERS REALLY AFFECT OTHERS?
(Sermon preached at Blackburn Baptist Church, Victoria, Australia, by Rev. Tom Keyte, sometime in the late 1970s).
Bible Reading: Ephesians 1: 15 ff.
Hugh Redwood was a well-known newspaper man. He was the first appointed religious editor of any major religious paper. At a Salvation Army meeting, when the appeal was made, to his great astonishment, he found himself kneeling at the penitent form. The Salvation Army treated him poorly - exhibited him as a real live star reporter - that didn't happen every day. It all went to his head, and there were troubles, especially when a new captain came to lead the Corps. And Hugh Redwood left in high dudgeon.
Many years passed and he rose to the top of his profession. Going home from the office one Sunday night, he went into his study and started to tinker with the crystal set that he'd made - it was the early days of radio. The only thing he could pick up was someone talking about religion - and he usually avoided this subject like the plague. It was Canon Elliot of St Pauls, and something in the speaker's voice captured him. He was talking about prayer, and our duty to pray for our friends - very down-to- earth and practical. You can't remember them all, he said, so start a card index and pray for them. You'll never know what might happen if you pray for someone this night. And in that moment, there came to Hugh Redwood the overwhelming feeling that he was being prayed for. He got down on his knees and gave his
life back to God.
Which brings us to our topic - Do our prayers really affect other people? Prof Tyndal back in the 19th century was sceptical about this, and proposed a test. He divided the patients in a hospital ward into two groups. One group was prayed for and the other not - just to prove if prayer did anything. Of course that's an impossible test. No one can say whether people are not prayed for. How do you know? You can't say people are prayed for because not all who say they pray do in fact pray. And you can't get a situation in which all factors are removed except prayer.
Well it's possible to explain it other ways, but I have no doubt the correct answer is the one the Psalmist gave - 'This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.'
Do our prayers affect others? Yes, of course they do, but how? Being prayed for is a tremendously rich experience. There are people here who pray for me and I want them to know I'm deeply grateful. I couldn't do my work without it.
It's an essential part of prayer. The Bible is full of it. Jesus prayed for his friends, and his enemies. And in the letter to the Hebrews we read that he lives to make intercession for us now. Jesus is praying for you now!
Paul in most of his letters refers to his habit of praying for his friends.
What it must have meant for Peter to hear Jesus say 'Peter: Satan has made a bid to have you, but I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail.’
And in the Lord's Prayer it's all bound up with others - our Father, our daily bread, our sins. In intercession - God and I and others are bound up in a loving circle. So much comes to us through human channels and we can't avoid that.
Now what happens? Do we tell God something God doesn't know? Obviously not. And yet sometimes I hear a great deal of information given to the Lord in prayer as if God didn't know. In a Baptist Church in Victoria, I heard an old deacon say in his prayer: 'Lord, you've simply got no idea of what goes on around here on Saturday nights!' Now I think God does!
Do we remind God of something He's forgotten? Or are we urging God to do something He is reluctant to do? Obviously, no, and no.
An invaluable clue is in the story of the paralyzed man and his four friends, who broke apart the roof and let him down to the feet of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralyzed man 'Son, your sins are forgiven!' And later 'Get up and walk'. Their faith created a certain situation in which the power of God could be liberated.
Think of a vacuum chamber with an electric bell inside it. The air has all been pumped out of it and you can see the hammer striking the bell - but you hear no sound because there's no sound in a vacuum. Then gradually the valve is turned and air is let back into the chamber, and the ringing of the bell becomes audible. Prayer somehow lets air into the situation. - creates the conditions in which something can happen. But it's frightening to think that power like this can be put into our hands.
Remember what James said (in J B Phillips' translation): 'Tremendous power is made available through a good person's earnest prayer.' Nobody knows what might happen if you pray for a friend today. This is one of our primary responsibilities, that we pray for others.
One of the obstacles in our thinking about these things is the idea that we're separated from each other, as the planets are separated from the sun and each other. But there are some new insights from the social sciences about all this. As John Donne put it 'No one is an island.' You can only understand an individual in the context of his or her relationships. As you can only understand the meaning of a word in its context on the page or screen. If you see the word 'fast' what does it mean? Speedy? Immovable? Flighty? Someone's going without food? You only discover the meaning of that word in the context of the sentences in which it appears. And people are like that - all bound up together in the bundle of life. How each individual fares is everybody else's business - not just your own. Scientists tell us that when a boy throws a stone at a tin on a post he's affecting the balance of the whole universe!
What we do affects all other people. Unseen filaments running somehow from mind to mind connect us together in countless ways. Now I'm not suggesting that our prayer for others is explicable in terms of ESP or telepathy or something like that. We do not need to create the channels between opurselves and others: we need to understand and hallow the channels already there. Leslie Weatherhead writes: imagine several Indian farmers digging wells on their neighbouring properties down to a common underground lake. If one farmer was foolish enough to poison his well he'd affect all the other wells in the neighbourhood. But if one were to put into his well some life-giving salt or chemical of some kind it would enrich the whole reservoir of the rest. And at the very least our prayers help to increase the reservoir of love and goodwill and healing in the world, and offset the forces of evil in the world.
I would like to see from our gathering together this morning that every one should compile a prayer-list and use it systematically. There's not a person who can't do that. And if you're too busy to do it you're too busy. This is a priority. You never know what you may be doing if you pray for others this day. And we all have the right to expect that from each other. - it's the true ‘priesthood of believers’. Your friends and loved ones; people you don't like - they need it more than those you love; also those who've injured or hurt you in some way. Jesus said pray for those who persecute you. And pray for the church and its total ministry across the world.
I love the story of the missionary coming to the end of his career. He served on a lonely station in Africa where he was the only white person. And when we was at home in his hut in the evening, and train the light of his torch around the photographs of his friends on the walls, and while he held them in the light he would pray for them. Not a bad kind of description: we hold our friends in the light, and pray for them.
Healing will be a part of it. This has been so neglected for so long in the church but is now coming back into recognition. Of course this aspect bristles with questions and needs treatment on its own. But it is part of intercession: 'The prayer of faith will save the sick', says James. 'When he saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, "your sins are forgiven you!" ' Our prayer sometimes seems to fulfil the function of oxygen in an oxygen tent, with a patient in a bad way. The oxygen comes in and revives him - and gives the healing forces in his body a chance to take over. Those healing forces come from God.
Three kinds of results will follow this ministry:
1. Changes in the person we've prayed for - strength and comfort and healing and conversion and reconciliation. And if here this morning we could see all the changes which have taken place in people's lives because of all the prayers that you have offered this week, we would experience a result which is stunning.
2. Changes in the person who prays. There are many stories of people who've been healed themselves in the course of their praying for others. And how many grudges and resentments have died when we have prayed for those who've offended us. You can't continue to regard as an enemy someone for whom you sincerely pray. There's a lovely thing in the book of Job. His 'friends' were very self-righteous and cruel to poor Job. But in the old version this lovely touch occurs: 'And the Lord turned again the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends.' That's worth thinking about.
3. An ever-deepening of the awareness of people and their needs, and of God and his resources. And this growing awareness is where real intercession takes place.
Some rules about praying for others. We don't know all the positive and negative factors governing all this, but people who have practised it have brought some of this to light. And they're all inter-related, and in a sense all variants of the first:
 THE LORD LOVES. Leslie Weatherhead, out of a very long experience of this sort of thing, could say that it is demonstrated that more healings take place when the person who is prayed for is loved. They're more loved; prayer is more effective when we share in some way the pain and struggle of others. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said to her husband, 'And when I sue God for myself, he hears that name of thine and sees within my eyes the tears of two.' That's intercessory praying.
 Then, the law of faith: what I have been saying can even be dangerous unless it's supplemented by faith. We can be sucked into a whirlpool of pain and despair, unless we hold confidently to the belief that God wills that all should be free, and whole. The more sensitive one is to evil, and its power in a world like this, the more we must come with an ever-deepening certainty, the saving power of Christ.
 And then there's a law of persistence: we give up too often, too soon, because the answer is slow in coming. And often because the answer has apparently come. Sometimes I think we've been guilty of losing the battle for someone's welfare because we haven't kept on praying after the first signs of change have appeared, forgetting that there are such things as relapses.
 Another 'law of effective praying': the law of praying for the whole person - not only for some annoying or disabling symptom.
There was a woman of whom I read who had a neighbour deeply troubled about the drinking habits of her husband. And the two of them contracted to pray together about it. They concentrated in meditation picturing the man cured of his desire for drink. A week or two later he said 'Something strange has happened to me: I don't want to drink any more'. And this went on for some months. But then they had a flaming row and she said 'I suppose you're going to get drunk again!' And he did. You see these people had been praying concerning the symptom, rather than the underlying marriage relationship from which the drinking came. Pray for the whole person. And allied to this is praying positively rather than negatively.
One greatly skilled group was concerned at the lack of results concerning someone who was quite desperately ill, and a wise person said: 'You've been seeing her sick; you must see her well.'
 Then there's the law of praying dangerously. Intercession isn't simply handing someone over to God and washing our hands of that one. There's no real intercession unless we too are involved. Let me quote James again; he has a very pungent comment here: 'Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes, and haven't enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, "God bless you: stay warm and eat well", if you do nothing about it.' Praying for other people can be costly: and not only in that sense. Praying for other people can make us vulnerable, deeply vulnerable. It may even involve going down with somebody else into their own private hell, and being the instrument of God's healing there. And that may be the result of our praying.
As I close I come to the deepest thing I want to say - that the real bond between us is the Holy Spirit himself, and he is the real inspiration for it all. He is the sphere, if you like, in which prayer operates.
In J V Taylor's book on the Holy Spirit - the best I've ever read – The Go-Between God - he describes a West Indian woman in London, who in her flat had just received the news that her husband had been killed in a street accident. She sat in the corner of the sofa paralysed, immovable. Nobody could get near to her - it was almost as if she were in a trance. And then the teacher of one of her children came, and saw the situation in a moment and sat down beside her, and put her arm across her shoulders and held her tightly. The white face was pressed to the brown one. And as the intolerable pain of this seeped through to the visitor, her tears began to fall, on to their hands clasped in the woman's lap. This went on until the grieving woman herself began to weep, and their tears were mingled, and their healing began.
Now I'd like to read you Taylor's comment on that. 'That is the embrace of God. That is his kiss of life. That is the embrace of his mission with our intercession. And the Holy Spirit is the force in the straining muscles of an arm, the Holy Spirit is in the thin film of perspiration between a white cheek and a brown one. The Holy Spirit is in those mingled tears falling on to those clasped hands. He is as close and as unobtrusive as that, and as irresistibly strong. Nobody knows what you may be doing if you pray for a friend this day.
Before we sing our hymn I'm going to ask you to do something. First of all, bow your heads and your hearts in prayer; remembering that you are in the presence of God, who knows every thought and intention of the heart. First of all, pray for someone you love, who has a need... Now think of someone
you don't like, someone who irritates you and gets on your nerves, and you find it hard to tolerate them. Pray for that person. And pray not merely for the removal of the things that irritate you so that the person will be more acceptable to you, but pray for his or her welfare in the sight of God.
And now think of someone who's deeply hurt you, who's injured you in some way, so that you find it hard not to think of them without deep resentment. Someone you even hate if you let yourself do it. Now pray for that one, with a request for forgiveness, and being willing to forgive. Pray for that person's true welfare. Lord, hear our prayer and answer us for Jesus' sake.
(These notes of Tom Keyte's sermon were transcribed from an audio-tape by
Rowland Croucher. April 2002).
Begin with a few short summaries of the stories of biblical intercessors - for example, Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33), Moses (Exodus 32:11-14), Nehemiah (1:4-11), Habakkuk (1:1 - 2:20), Jesus (John 17), Stephen (Acts 7:60), Paul (Colossians 1:9-12).
My (Rowland Croucher's) mother prayed for me more than I pray for myself. Anyone else in that fortunate situation?
Jacques Ellul (Prayer and Modern Man) says there's only one reason to pray: We are commanded to pray. What other reasons have influenced us?
Have you ever been so concerned about someone that you felt driven to pray for them?
Hugh Redwood, the well-known London journalist, tells how at the time of disastrous floods in London, he found his way to a true faith. He saw the evidence of the reality of God at work in the lives of the Salvation Army officers who were working hard to bring relief to those in need. He recounted one experience when they were trying to help a family who had lost everything. The Salvation Army had been able to re-equip them as far as clothing was concerned with everything except shoes: there were no shoes left. However the workers were not worried for all they did was soaked in prayer. Four pairs were needed and they were sure that they would be provided. Just at that very moment a parcel was handed in. They opened it and inside were four pairs of shoes, all of the correct sizes. The Salvation Army officers took it as a matter of course; they were so used to God answering their prayers. Hugh Redwood's comment was significant: "You might call that coincidence" he said, "but if so, it is the first and only time I have seen four coincidences wrapped up in one brown paper parcel!!" Discuss the issue of prayer and coincidence!
Maybe throw this one into the discussion: 'When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't pray, they don't.' -- Arichbishop William Temple
When Princess Diana and Prince Charles got divorced, Queen Elizabeth saw to it that Diana's name was removed from the list of beneficiaries of the public prayer. Want to comment on that?
Rollo May, the therapist, used to teach his counselor-students (see his The Art of Counseling) not to think negatively or critically about your clients. They'll pick it up, even if unspoken. What do you make of that? And the great modern teacher on intercessory prayer, Frank Laubach believed your thoughts affect others - for good or ill - and this natural process of 'thought transference' is what God, who created us with this facility, uses to answer our prayers. Do you agree?
I received an email that said: 'Why would you want to pray for the world, when the Scriptures tell us not to.' Do they? (See, e.g. " I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone" 1 Timothy 2:1)
Talk about these: "He prayed for his enemies, and you do not even pray for your friends." Johann Arndt, True Christianity. "When you pray for your friends, be ready to lend a hand. Lip service does nothing for God." Dennis Kean
What are the advantages of praying for others in a group, as well as individually?
Is there anything else in Tom Keyte's sermon you'd like to discuss? There are some big questions he did not address (like 'unanswered' prayer, how to pray for another's healing etc.) you might like to discuss.
Rowland Croucher, 13th April 2002
Revised June 2014