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Is Prayer a Waste of Time

Updated: Jan 16

We know prayer as a solemn request for help or an expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. It is an earnest hope or wish. Prayer can be traced back hundreds, even thousands, of years before the common era (before Christ). It is hard to know who was praying or to whom or what they were praying. To be sure, many dynasties reigned, and they worshipped many gods. Presumably, they prayed to those gods.

The three Abrahamic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, trace their origins back to Abraham, arguably the first human to worship only one God. This was around the year 2000 B.C. It was a turning point in the history of homo Sapiens. Whereas at the time people were worshipping many gods, performing human sacrifice to those gods, and fighting to the death to prove the superiority of those gods, Abraham professed one, true God. From that point forward, there are many references to prayer.

Prayer comes in many shapes and sizes. Orthodox religions point to scriptural dictates on when, where, and how to pray. Some religions have strict guidelines as to how often one should pray.

In Islam, for example, practitioners are called to pray five times daily and face Mecca when they do. This instruction came from their prophet, Mohammed, when, around the year 621, he was said to have ascended to the heavens after being escorted by the angel Gabriel from Mecca to Jerusalem (the location of The Dome of the Rock), in a single night (known as the night journey). In his ascent to speak with God, Muslims believe that several prophets greeted him, from Jesus to Moses. God instructed Mohammed that his followers would have to pray fifty times a day. As Mohammed descended prepared to deliver that message, Moses suggested that he petition God for a lower number. This negotiation apparently went on several more times, until Mohammed refused to go back after five times a day was suggested.

The Catholic religion speaks of 5 forms of prayer: blessings and adoration, which acknowledges one’s dependence on God; petition, when we ask God for physical or spiritual gifts; intercession, when we ask God to intervene on behalf of others; Thanksgiving, we thank God for everything he does for us; Praise, we express our love for God. I would argue that most prayer, no matter what your faith, has some of these characteristics.

Prayer can take many forms, such as spoken aloud, quietly, in song, with others, or alone in meditation and contemplation. An adage is that when we pray, we talk to God; when we meditate, God talks to us. Possibly, in your quietest moments, you have heard that voice.

Oftentimes, we turn to prayer out of desperation when we need something. Does prayer help people recover from illness? Some studies say yes, some say no. But when prayer doesn’t seem to help, what happens to the faith of devout believers? When you’ve prayed and prayed and yet a loved one does not get better and perhaps dies, what then?

Over my 30+ years of medical practice, I have been around death and dying a lot; around people who believe in prayer and others who did not; around people who believe in God and an after-life and those who did not. It’s been my observation that people who call themselves religious and/or God-fearing die just like those who do not.

Why pray, then? Does praying really work?

If God is the almighty, the overseer of humankind, the one that decides who is to live and who is to die, who is to fall ill, and who is to stay healthy, then what can we do about it? If we are to trust the Old Testament scripture, which states, “…The number of your days God will fulfill…” then why waste our time praying if we die when our time is up, regardless of prayer, medical care, whatever. But consider whether there is more to this story.

We humans influence our lives by the choices we make. What if some of those choices lead us to illness or death. Perhaps, those circumstances lead us to face death when it is not our given time. You and I, simply stated, have no idea. Pray, then, with the intent that you are somehow, yes, through processes the mortal brain cannot comprehend, helping to grasp a person from the grips of illness or death and placing them back on their Godly timeline. If they don’t make it, well then, it was out of your hands, and that was the precise time they were supposed to die. Regardless of whether my belief is right or not, one thing is for certain, this understanding has given me and others great comfort over my medical career.

You cannot underestimate the comfort and peace prayer can give you. If all of us exist in the image of our Creator, then conceivably we have some connection, and, yes, influence on various outcomes in this life. Prayer can give us a sense of doing something when circumstances seem completely out of our control. This peace can open you up to feel grace amidst sadness and hopelessness.


So, the next time someone dies on your “prayer watch,” and you are tempted to think, “what’s the use, prayer doesn’t work,” stop yourself. There is someone else whose time has not come, who needs you, needs your caring. If the time is not right for them to die, they will survive and reaffirm your faith. But if they end up dying, pray that they will discover in death something impossible for us to comprehend fully in life—a spiritual plain not governed by reason and logic or bound by natural laws. A space where our soul remains alive and breathes in a way that defies the understanding of our mortal sensibilities. That’s the place I choose to call heaven, the realm of God.

© Dr. Charles F. Glassman, CoachMD

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