The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: What is the "Power of Prayer?", part 1

Mary S. asks, “When we talk about the ‘power of prayer,’ does that really work? Please don't get me wrong. I believe in prayer! I just have questions as to how prayer works. What happens to that person that does not believe in prayer? Does God "work" for them too? Why do we pray?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Here is one set of responses to Mary’s question. A second set will be published next week.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I think prayer can be different from person to person or from faith to faith. As a child being raised in a Catholic household my prayers were always rote prayers and done at bedtime. The purpose was, I think, to build a connection with God. Now as a Unitarian Universalist minister prayer takes on many forms, is seldom rote, and has many purposes. The most important purpose is to get a person in touch with what is most important at that moment. 

“When we ask for others to keep us in their prayers our request is more about feeling supported then about the actual outcome of the event. If prayer brings you clarity, or makes you feel supported, or calms you down, then I would say praying has worked. A large part of understanding Unitarian Universalism is to know that we are each on our own faith journey and that each one of us needs to be respected by others and respectful of others. We do not concern ourselves if some of us pray while others do not. If you find prayer to be a helpful practice for you then I would encourage you to pray.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“In Hinduism there are different levels. People are drawn to the type of prayer that they are capable of cognizing. A common way of praying is in a transactional form of petition. This is when one prays for some acquisition or event: asking to get the new house or car, or make mother well. Some believe that prayer is like a letter to a senator, in that if God gets plenty of them he’ll change his mind on a course of action. The Vedas tell us that we carry some of the power of God in us. The more we are attuned to that Source, the more we can shape our destinies. Someone might pray, “Lord, give me this job.” So, is God going to enter the mind of the boss and slyly urge him to dash plans to hire the one who is more qualified? I think not.  But I do believe it’s possible for the one praying to develop a magnetism that may allow events to unfold in a positive manner.

“This might explain why certain secularists seem to draw so much success to themselves.  They have learned to develop what is called in the Yoga tradition Dynamic Will. A belief in a deity is not mandated for this to be activated.”

“But the most effective kind of prayer is when the mind is stilled to the point where the presence of God is overwhelmingly felt. All desires melt.”

The Rev. Steven Manskar, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, responds:

“I think the best definition of the purpose and power of prayer as a spiritual discipline comes from a scene in the film, ‘Shadowlands.’ It’s the story about C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman. Joy was being treated for breast cancer shortly before she and Lewis were married. She was eventually hospitalized and underwent an aggressive course of treatment. Lewis visited every day and spent hours in prayer.

“With much joy Joy and Lewis received news the cancer was in remission. Following the good news Lewis returned to his teaching duties at Oxford University’s Magdalene College. As he was putting on his academic robe Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is surrounded by many of his friends and colleagues. Some of whom are skeptics, agnostic, and atheist. They celebrated with their friend the good news of Joy’s recovery. One says, ‘I know you’ve spent every day praying for Joy. And now God is answering your prayer!’

“Lewis turns to his friend and says, ‘That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows our of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.’ ”

My response:

I don’t know exactly how prayer works. But I think it works best when the pray-er is focused on absorbing and emulating the characteristics of the God depicted in sacred teachings. The best prayer realigns our relationship with God. It changes our understanding of the world. We may not get what we want, we may not always get what we need, but we find that we want and need less than we thought, and that our needs can be fulfilled in unexpected ways. When we become our best selves, the world around us becomes better with us.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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