Why and How You Pray—Does It Matter?
“OH, KAMI-SAMA,a please help me pass the exam. Because I haven’t prepared for the test well enough, I’m depending solely on you.” Written prayers like this are offered at religious shrines all over Japan as highly competitive exam time draws near. Concerned grandparents of students make offerings of 10,000 yen ($50, U.S.) so that daily prayers will be said for a year in behalf of the scholastic efforts of their grandchildren.
Many of the students who flock to shrines at this time of year have little faith in God. “No, I don’t usually believe in God,” one said. “But I pray for divine help only in times of trouble.”
Their attitude illustrates the Japanese proverb: “Lean on God when in trouble.”
But what happens when the crisis is past? God is usually forgotten until the next crisis.
What Do People Pray For?
Usually, people pray because they want something. A Western magazine article cited the prayers of children, most of which were requests: “Dear God: I need a raise in my allowance. Could you have one of your angels tell my father? Thank you.” “Could you please send our family some money?” “Please help me in school.”
In Japan it is customary to visit shrines at the beginning of the new year and offer prayers to Ebisu, the God of Wealth. Vast numbers of Japanese did so last year, with over three million people visiting certain shrines in Kyoto and Tokyo alone, to pray for money in the coming months.
Persons desiring protection from accident or disaster visit Japanese temples for Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, as well as Shinto shrines.
Philippine Catholics may pray to the “Santo Niño,” or “Holy Child,” for good luck. One man bought a 14-karat gold crown studded with real rubies and diamonds for his statue of Santo Niño in gratitude for the financial help he believed the image had given him.
Some prayers express appreciation, but far more are requests—for almost anything.
Will the Prayer Be Answered?
For each person who feels that his prayers for success or money have been answered, there are many who are disappointed. Vast numbers of Tokyo students pray for help during exams to enter private high schools, but only 22 percent score well enough to be admitted. Most lose out. Why weren’t their prayers heard?
A family of five visited a Shinto shrine to have their car exorcised to protect it from accident. Driving away from the shrine, they hit a bridge abutment and all five were killed. What went wrong? Consider:
To Whom Are You Praying?
Japanese students often direct their prayers to Michizane Sugawara, long venerated as the “God of Learning.” Mr. Sugawara was a ninth-century Japanese poet and scholar. He has been dead for a thousand years. Is it logical to believe he can really help to improve a person’s test scores?
The truth is that, in Japan’s highly competitive exams, most of Mr. Sugawara’s petitioners evidently do not have their prayers answered. That should not be surprising. On this matter common sense agrees with the Bible. It says of dead persons: “They are conscious of nothing at all . . . there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [the grave].” (Eccl. 9:5, 10) Mr. Sugawara, who is presently in Sheol, cannot help any student whether he has studied well enough or not to pass his exams.
What about prayers offered to images, such as the Buddhist Kannon, or to any other image? Simple observation shows that the world is full of persons who pray to such images for success and happiness, yet who remain unsuccessful and unhappy. Why?
If prayers to a dead person are not helpful, would prayers to a lifeless image be any better? Reasonably, no. Again, the Bible gives a viewpoint of matters in harmony with common sense, saying of images: They are “the work of the hands of earthling man. A mouth they have, but they cannot speak; eyes they have, but they cannot see; ears they have, but they cannot hear. A nose they have, but they cannot smell. Hands are theirs, but they cannot feel. Feet are theirs, but they cannot walk; they utter no sound with their throat. Those making them will become just like them, all those who are trusting in them.”—Ps. 115:4-8.
“The Hearer of Prayer”
Does this bleak summary mean that all prayer is futile? Not at all. Many sincere prayers are answered every day, as the following article will indicate. What is necessary, however, is to pray to the right person. But who would that be?
Would it not logically be someone infinitely more powerful and wise than a mere inanimate image, or even a dead human being? Should it not also be a person who has shown a sincere interest in humankind and a loving desire to help? Since no human person has the needed power, one would have to pray to a superhuman person, and what superhuman person could be more powerful than the Creator of all things?
Yes, in harmony with the Bible, common sense tells us that we should direct our prayers, not to fellow creatures like ourselves, nor to the lifeless creations of man, such as images, but to the living Creator of the universe.
Which of the many gods and spirits worshiped today fits that description? Notice how clearly this God is identified in the Bible: “For this is what Jehovah has said, the Creator of the heavens, He the true God, the Former of the earth and the Maker of it . . . ‘I am Jehovah, and there is no one else.’”—Isa. 45:18.
But is this mighty Creator truly interested in the prayers of his human creation? Or is he indifferent to man’s plight as are the callous gods of so many religions? Notice this warm description: “O Hearer of prayer, even to you people of all flesh will come.”—Ps. 65:2.
Thus the Bible describes Jehovah God as the great Hearer of prayer. He invites the sincere prayers of people of all cultures and backgrounds. ‘That sounds good,’ you might say. ‘But does the record bear out that description?’ Yes, indeed!
About 3,500 years ago, long before Confucius or Buddha were born, the historical record tells us that Jehovah God ‘heard the groaning’ of his worshipers who were slaves in Egypt. He answered their prayers by sending Moses to deliver them.—Ex. 3:6-10.
Five hundred years later his faithful servant King David could truthfully say: “Blessed be Jehovah, for he has heard the voice of my entreaties.” (Ps. 28:6) A thousand years later God’s Son, Jesus Christ, showed that his Father had not changed, by promising: “Most truly I say to you, If you ask the Father for anything he will give it to you in my name.” (John 16:23) This is still true!
‘Ask in My Name’
But why does the Bible indicate that we must approach God in the name of Jesus? Why can’t we pray directly to Jehovah God?
The fact is that Jehovah God has answered the sincere prayers of many persons who did not know that they should approach him in the name of Jesus Christ. Indeed, such persons have often prayed simply to “God,” without even knowing his personal name, Jehovah. They have generally prayed for knowledge of God, indicating a desire to serve him, and their prayers have been heard in countless cases.—Acts 17:26, 27.
But as these sincere persons have grown in knowledge of the true God, they have adjusted their prayers in harmony with that knowledge. Just as they have learned to make use of God’s name, Jehovah, they have also learned to make use of his channel for prayer, Jesus Christ. This reflects their humility, a quality that Jehovah God approves.
Humility? Yes, because it takes humility for us to admit that we are sinful, imperfect. We would not think of requesting an audience with the ruler of our country if we had only rags to wear and were not washed, would we? Likewise, a humble person realizes that he has no right to a direct hearing with God in an unclean, imperfect state. So humble persons are grateful that the clean, perfect Son of God is willing to represent them before his Father. They are thankful to be able to address their prayers to Jehovah in the name of Jesus Christ.
What counts in prayer to Jehovah God is not necessarily our location or posture, nor our external appearance. It is not necessary to pay money so that someone more “holy” than ourselves can pray for us, since all men are imperfect and unclean in His sight. (Rom. 3:23) What is God looking for? “To this one, then, I shall look,” Jehovah says, “to the one afflicted and contrite in spirit and trembling at my word.”—Isa. 66:2.
Does this mean that if we want more money or success with our exams we need only to shift our prayers to Jehovah God, praying for these things in the name of Jesus Christ? No. Usually, a policeman would not help you to break the law, would he? Likewise, God logically will not help you unless what you ask for is in harmony with his will. Otherwise, God would forever be contradicting himself.
“According to His Will”
The Bible clearly says this: “No matter what it is that we ask according to his will, he hears us.” (1 John 5:14) This is because Jehovah is a God of justice. His natural laws, such as gravity, reflect that, being applied equally to everyone. If you did not study for an exam, would it be just for God to intervene and cause you to score better than others who did study? Really, it would not be fair to the other students, would it?
The basic things God expects us to pray for are contained in the following Model Prayer, given by Jesus Christ. Notice the priorities in it: “Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth. Give us today our bread for this day; and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the wicked one.”—Matt. 6:9-13.
Jehovah God expects persons who pray to him to be more concerned about his will and purposes than about their own goals and ambitions. That is only reasonable, since God knows what is best for all of us. There is nothing wrong with praying for material things, our ‘daily bread,’ but nothing is said about praying for riches. Rich people are usually not concerned about God. Notice that God is pleased with prayers that show concern for him and his purpose first, and ourselves second. Such prayers are all too rare today.
Is there any evidence that such prayers are truly being heard and answered today? Really, does it pay to pray?
a Japanese for “God.”