Q & R: A great question about prayer … and a hint about my next book

A reader writes …

have read “A new kind of Christianity” and loved it immensely. I have a couple of your other books on order, but so far this is the only one I’ve read. I apologise if you have addressed this question before in your other books, but I have not read all your work yet. I read on your blog that you are writing a book on prayer, so was hoping you could respond to this question for me.
I am confused about prayer and the point of intercessory prayer. I understand prayer is great for developing, strengthening and maintaining your relationship with God, and to provide a means of listening to God and aligning yourself with his desires and intents for you on earth. However I don’t understand what intercessory prayer achieves. Does God really intervene directly in our lives? A dear friend recently told me she was abused for many years as a child. She prayed to God for it to stop, but it didn’t. She questioned, if God is all-powerful, why didn’t he stop that? Why didn’t he intervene?
People pray for sick people; sometimes they get better, sometimes they don’t. Other friends of mine have a daughter with leukaemia. They say things like “God was merciful and her blood count was good today”. So what, if her blood count was bad that means God was punishing her or something??? They think that because she has leukaemia, God must have specifically chosen her to have it so that he could in some way be glorified through their reaction to it. I can’t believe that and don’t want to worship a God who would work that way.
I know “God is not a slot machine” and we shouldn’t pray for a specific thing and then be baffled if it doesn’t happen. But I don’t really get how the whole system hangs together. Does God intervene, or not? If he does, why doesn’t it happen more often when people earnestly pray for things like healing? Why do miracles sometimes happen, but usually don’t? Is there a better way of praying that doesn’t lead to the confusion of apparent negative answers? I get very angry when people are told “It’s because you didn’t have enough faith that your prayer wasn’t answered.” I think that’s a load of BS, but frankly I don’t understand how it all works and would love a clearer picture of how to pray for others in a way that doesn’t lead to disappointment and confusion.
Many thanks if you have the time to respond to this.
God bless you richly for all you are working towards. Your vision of what Christians could be here on earth is inspiring. A very deep thank you to you from me.

You have articulated this question so well … and your theological instincts, I think, are good, i.e. you are excluding bad-faith potential answers in a wise way.
My friend Kent Annan is writing a book on suffering, based on his work in Haiti before and after the earthquake, that grapples with these issues more honestly than anything I’ve ever read. It comes out in January – here’s the link …
My next book – we just decided on a title (TBA soon) – is about the spiritual life, and it deals with intercessory and petitionary prayer in some detail. Like you, I find a host of problems arise whenever people try to turn prayer into a fast, easy, convenient, and guaranteed (!) technique for achieving results “out there.” I’m especially interested – both in my life and in the book – in how prayer achieves results “in here” – in my soul, my character, my innermost being. And then I’m interested in how “in here” results bring change “out there.” So instead of seeing the two dimensions in opposition or as unrelated, I want to see them as interrelated.
The deeper issue you’re raising – especially in the area of “intervention” – is God’s agency, i.e. what kind of relationship God wants to have with the universe. The only place i’ve written on this in some detail is The Story We Find Ourselves In.
As you can tell from NKOCy, I think that many of our concepts of God’s agency come from imperial, Greco-Roman frameworks, where they served the political purpose of pacifying people for submission to the powers that be. In contrast, the view of God’s agency that is emerging today is much more relational than mechanistic, and much more inherent than interventionist, and it leads more to contemplative activism than to docility or imperial collaboration.
I hope that helps a little … this isn’t the kind of question you find a quick answer to, at least not a quick good answer to!