Pray to God, but Row Away from the Rocks

Edgar Lungu, President of Zambia, January 2015

Edgar Lungu, President of Zambia

In recent news, Edgar Lungu, current president of the nation of Zambia, proclaimed Sunday, October 18, 2015, a day of prayer and fasting to save the kwacha. The kwacha is Zambia’s currency.

You see, since the start of 2015, the kwacha has fallen 45% in value against the U.S. dollar. This took place in the midst of a global drop in the price of copper, Zambia’s main export, and nationwide power shortages due to drought conditions hitting Zambia’s hydroelectric power plants hard.

You can read all about it in these articles:

As part of the day of prayer, sporting events would be postponed to another day, and bars would be closed until 6:00 PM.

But not everyone in Zambia was gung-ho about the idea . . .

Prayer, or a distraction?

Opponents of President Lungu say the day of prayer is just a distraction. “Stop the policy inconsistencies, put all economic fundamentals in place, and then maybe you can pray,” said financial analyst Mambo Hamaundu.

In other words, Lungu’s critics believe that the solution to Zambia’s economic woes lie right here on earth: it involves taking the steps required to put Zambia’s economy on a sound—and more diversified—footing.

Prayer and action go together

But is there really a contradiction between the two?

It is possible both to call on God for help and take the practical steps necessary to face the problem.

In fact, the main purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind and get God to take action. Rather, it’s to put us in the right frame of mind to accept help and inspiration from God within our mind and heart, and then take the practical steps necessary to overcome our adversities.

Think about it. God is already perfectly aware of our situation here on earth. God is ready and willing to do everything possible to improve our situation, and especially to provide for our eternal wellbeing.

If things are messed up here on earth—currencies failing, economies faltering—is it really because God isn’t doing enough?

Of course, there are natural disasters that we can’t do anything about; we just have to deal with them. But let’s face it, most of the major social and economic problems we face, we created ourselves. And if things are going to get better, we are the ones who are going to have to change, not God.

So what does prayer accomplish?

Prayer is a wonderful tool to enrich our lives. If it is effective prayer, it helps open our minds and hearts to see things in a new way, in a clearer light. It shows us where we have been getting off track so that we can get back on track.

Think of prayer as a meditative communication with God, not as submitting a request to some divine suggestion box. God is not going to magically fix our problems if we all just stop and pray about it—especially if prayer is the only action we take.

However, perhaps if we all stop for a moment and pray about it, God will inspire us to make the hard decisions and take the difficult steps that will, in time, solve the massive problems we humans face here on earth.

And yes, sometimes through prayer we do open up new channels for God to bring healing to a sick person or comfort to someone in emotional distress.

Pray for the kwacha?

Perhaps Zambia’s national day of prayer and fasting will bring about some good for the kwacha, and for Zambia’s economy.

But that’s not going to happen by God miraculously intervening in Zambian politics and finance.

If the day of prayer does have an effect, it will be to help put the leaders and people of Zambia into a mindset in which they will take the steps needed to face and overcome the difficulties facing their economy. This includes having the political will to take the hard steps necessary to put Zambia’s economy on a more solid and stable footing.

The same goes for the rest of us, too—no matter what we are praying for.

Prayer is not about getting God to rescue us and fix our problems for us. Instead, effective prayer involves listening to God as we pray. And if we listen deeply enough, and are willing to let God into our hearts and minds in a new way, God will give us the strength and wisdom to deal constructively with the issues we face.

And so we’re back to the old adage:

Pray to God, but row away from the rocks.

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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33 comments on “Pray to God, but Row Away from the Rocks
  1. SeunAlaba says:

    Went through this article Sir cause i’ve been bothered by a lot of issues,especially as it regards prayers. I’ve heard several testimonies of answered prayers which surely to those involved are not coincidences,or things that would otherwise have happened had they not prayed. But i’ve found that personal experiences have got me doubting the effectiveness of prayer(you mentioned ‘effective prayer’ in the article sir),as it regards changing situations,especially those that you are seemingly helpless against. And how exactly does one even pray effectively….Also Sir,just out of curiosity,do you think miracles could still happen(or something most persons would consider a miracle)

    P.S- I submitted a conundrum on this issue Sir,but understanding that getting a reply to a conundrum is not guaranteed,but acknowleging a response to your article is,i decided to do this.(smiling). Apologies if it’s inconvenient. Thank you Sir

    • Lee says:

      Hi SeunAlaba,

      Prayer, and the response to it, is different for different people. I do think that prayer can be effective, but exactly how it is effective is not something we can predict beforehand because it’s in God’s hands, not ours. Some people do apparently receive miraculous responses to prayer. Others pray fervently, but nothing seems to happen. And though there are some general principles relating to prayer, I doubt we’ll ever know exactly why God takes action in response to one prayer but not to another.

      I will say, though, that what God is most concerned about is our spiritual and eternal wellbeing.

      People commonly think that if they pray for some material thing, such as money or a car or a house or physical health, and their prayer is answered, that is a great blessing from God and a confirmation that God really cares. And that’s not necessarily false. But all of these things are temporary. Even if they are granted, as good as that may be for those who receive the answer to their prayer, it is only a real blessing if it helps them to move forward in their spiritual life.

      So I would suggest not getting too hung up on whether prayers for physical and material things get answered. Those things are important to us, but only in a temporary way.

      The best and most effective prayers are prayers for spiritual things, such as a softening of your own heart toward those you consider enemies, or new understanding of how you can serve your fellow human beings better and more from the heart, or for release from a crippling sense of guilt about past actions. These are the types of prayers God most likes to hear. When we pray them sincerely, God will work on our spirit from the inside out to help us move forward in those ways.

      Here is a particularly clear and beautiful statement about prayer from Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia #2535:

      Regarded in itself prayer is talking to God and at the same time some inner view of the things that are being prayed for. Answering to this there is something like an inflow into the perception or thought of the person’s mind, which causes a certain opening of the person’s inner self towards God. But the experience varies according to the person’s state and according to the essence of whatever the person is praying for. If the prayer springs from love and faith, and if they are wholly heavenly and spiritual things about which and for which the person prays, something like a revelation is present within the prayer that shows itself in the emotions of the one praying in the form of hope, comfort, or some inward joy.

      In other words, the greatest results of prayer are an inner opening of our mind and heart to God’s presence and to new light and love from God that we feel within ourselves.

  2. Tori says:

    I often pray for those who are going through difficult times and pray they get better. I usually encounter these people on social media and stuff. Sometimes I end up avoiding certain parts or the site all together because it’s too overwhelming for me to handle. No matter what, however, I always pray for them. Oftentimes I’m not specific, but I trust God that he knows who I’m talking about (He does, doesn’t he?)

    But is that bad? Is it bad to avoid sites if it’s too much for me to handle? Of course, if somebody is directly talking to me, I will listen and do everything I can to help. If I come across it, I will usually comfort them (I’m a really shy person so sometimes I’m too cowardly to actually say something and I pray instead). Most of the time, however, I just won’t LOOK for it.

    Is that bad though? Am I doing something wrong? Am I overestimating prayer? Or am I being too hard on myself and expecting too much out of myself (It’s a really, really bad habit I have)?

    The people in my life aren’t upset with me for it (Or at least I don’t think they are), but what about God?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tori,

      You’re not doing anything wrong. Remember, you’re not God. God is infinite, and can handle the problems of every single one of the seven or eight billion people on this earth. You’re finite, with only so much time and emotional energy. It’s not your job to solve all the world’s problems nor to help and comfort every single person who’s in need. That’s God’s job. There will always be far more than any one of us human beings can handle.

      Whatever help you do give to others, that’s a good thing. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do. If you run yourself ragged trying to deal with everyone’s problems, you’ll just wear yourself out and get sick or have a nervous breakdown, and then you’ll be no good to anyone. Be happy with the little good that you can do. God is.

      • Tori says:

        Thank you 🙂

      • Tori says:

        However, like I said, sometimes I get too shy to actually speak up, so I pray instead.

        For example, I was looking up a question on google and I came across many Yahoo questions about committing suicide. I was deeply concerned for these people, especially when people were being terrible to them by giving them ways to do it and joke answers. There were some people who were encouraging them to stay alive, of course. I tried to see if there was a way I could tell them to not commit suicide anonymously because I don’t have a Yahoo. No luck.

        Instead, I just prayed to God they wouldn’t do it and they’ll get help and get better.

        But is that enough? Should I have said something? Should I have just made a Yahoo account and say something? I know it probably wouldn’t help because I’m one person, but I feel like it’s enough to just show you care…

        This happens quite often actually; I get too scared to speak up and say something and I end up resorting to prayer.

        Am I overestimating prayer? Is prayer alone not good enough? Will I be punished for not saying anything, especially if they don’t listen to the people who are telling them to stop?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tori,

          This life is messy. We really can’t fix all the problems of the world, or all of everyone else’s problems. It’s just not humanly possible.

          What I find good here is that you truly care about these people who are on the edge of committing suicide. If that concern is strong enough in you, perhaps it will lead you to take training on suicide prevention, and maybe even go into doing work (paid or volunteer) in which you can be of real help to people who are contemplating suicide.

          I can’t tell you whether you should make a Yahoo account and respond to all of those people. But if you feel strongly in your heart that you want to be able to help people who are on the edge of suicide, then perhaps it will lead you to take some practical steps toward equipping yourself with the knowledge and position to be of real help to at least some of them, even if you can’t humanly help all of them.

          There are good and bad ways to talk to people who are thinking about killing themselves. If you truly care about them, it would be best for you to learn more about it. It’s similar to going into water rescue. If you don’t get the proper training, instead of saving someone who’s drowning in the local lake or river, you might end out not only not saving their life, but also drowning yourself.

          Of course, prayer is also good. But even prayer is meant to lead us to concrete action of one kind or another.

        • Tori says:

          So is prayer alone enough?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tori,

          Enough for what?

        • Tori says:

          Is it good enough that I just pray? Like, is that okay or do I actually have to do something as well??

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tori,

          It depends on what you want to accomplish, and what your abilities and position are. In some cases, praying is all we can do, because we’re not in a position to do anything physically about a particular situation. In other cases we are able to do something physical (or interpersonal), and that will accomplish things that prayer alone cannot. But we do have to keep in mind that we cannot be all things to all people. Once again, that’s God’s job, not ours.

        • Tori says:

          I see. Thank you!

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tori,

          Have you seen the movie Bruce Almighty? Besides being very funny and a lot of fun to watch, it some great scenes about what can happen if we try to play God. Particularly one where Bruce attempts to answer prayers via computer. I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t seen the movie yet. Anyway, there’s a good reason God is God, and we are not. 🙂

  3. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    Is part of the point of prayer for us to learn of our total reliance on God? I don’t believe that God ever withholds anything we need from us, but as it says in the book of James ‘you have not because you ask not,’ so does it make sense to say that sometimes what we need IS to learn that we need to ask God for things, and so God will not do certain things because we have not prayed for them?

    I ask because sometimes I see a stranded motorist walking around dangerously close to the traffic and I pray for their well being, but I also ask ‘would God let this person get hit because no one prayed for their well being? And if so, is it the point that we need to learn to pray for each other?’

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      It’s not that God wouldn’t do things for us because we have not prayed for them. God wants to do us all good continually. The issue is not God’s willingness, but our receptiveness. When we pray to God, we are making ourselves more receptive to the good things God wants to do for us—which aren’t always the same as the things we are praying for.

      Prayer opens up new, and stronger, channels on our end through which God can flow into our lives.

      Praying for others opens up channels also. We are not islands unto ourselves. We are a human and spiritual community, affecting one another every day and every moment through a multitude of spiritual and interpersonal connections. Just as one or a few people in a community can open up new possibilities for that community by articulating needs or potentials in the community, so that others begin thinking about them and (ideally) doing something about them as well, so one or a few people praying for others in our wider spiritual community can open up new possibilities for God to act both directly and through other people.

      God is always ready to act for our good. And God can act more strongly for our good when we open up pathways on our and for God to come into our lives in new and stronger ways. Prayer is one of the ways we do that.

  4. Aruthra says:

    Hi Lee,
    What are your thoughts on fasting? Should that be a regular practice? Why did Jesus fast? Why was He was criticized by the Pharisees for not fasting often?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Aruthra,

      I do think that fasting is a good and healthy practice, especially when a person is sick. However, it is best to learn something about fasting before engaging in any long fast. Periodic short fasts are good for the body, helping it in its cleansing and detoxifying processes.

      Jesus’ fasting, however, was focused on spiritual cleansing and enlightenment, not on physical health. Long fasts such as his forty day fast in the desert after his baptism can clear the mind so that it is more receptive to spiritual truth flowing in from God. However, once again, it is not advisable to undergo long fasts without gaining knowledge from people who are experienced in fasting. For neophytes, it is best to do long fasts only under the supervision of an experienced person.

      • Aruthra says:

        People say Jesus said” when you fast” and not “if you fast” meaning it is a regular practise of Christians to fast. Is it really necessary for us to fast (in my case, on every Sunday night).

        • Lee says:

          Hi Aruthra,

          Whether or not to fast is a personal decision. There is no commandment in the Bible stating that we must fast regularly. Jesus’ disciples apparently did not make a regular practice of fasting:

          Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

          Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” (Mark 2:18–20)

          Still, there are many places where the Bible mentions fasting, and Jesus himself did fast, such as after his baptism. So although it is not absolutely commanded in the Bible, it is supported in the Bible. It says “when you fast” because fasting indeed was a common practice in the cultures of the Bible.

          I would add that “fasting” means “not eating.” Simply not eating certain foods, such as red meat, while continuing to eat other foods, is not fasting; it’s a diet. Fasting means eating no food at all during the period of the fast. However, if you fast, you should continue to drink water, especially if it is a long fast. During a fast, the body engages in a cleansing process that requires water to carry the waste products out of the cells. Not drinking water while fasting can cause toxicity in the body.

          As a spiritual practice, fasting represents a process of spiritual cleansing, meaning cleansing of the mind and heart. In the Bible, people often fasted as a sign of repentance. And repentance is a process of cleansing our heart of evil desires, our mind of false thoughts, and our hands of wrong actions.

    • Aruthra says:

      Hi Mr.Lee,
      Does fasting bring protection/breakthrough? Like it brought in the old testament when people fasted for different reasons?

      Ezra declared a corporate fast and prayed for a safe journey for the Israelites as they made the nine-hundred- mile trek to Jerusalem from Babylon (Ezra 8:21-23).
      Darius Fasted for the safety of Daniel (Daniel 6:18-23)
      Elijah fasted for 40 days during his long journey (1 Kings 19:7-8)
      Ezra fasted for a safe journey (Ezra 8:21–23)
      Esther fasted for the safety of the Jews and asked Mordecai to spread the word to the Jews that they should fast for 3 days without food or drink (Esther 4:15-17). Finally Esther was accepted into the presence of the king and the Jewish people were saved. (Esther 5:5)
      King Jehoshaphat called for a fast in all Israel when they were about to be attacked by the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:3–4)

      • Lee says:

        Hi Aruthra,

        First, you have to understand that people in Old Testament times didn’t have any genuine inner spirituality. They were focused almost entirely on external behavior—and in religious matters, on external rituals. In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples largely sidelined all of these external rituals in favor of an inner spirituality of faith and love that led to acts of love and kindness to others. Today, for people who aspire to genuine spiritual life, external rituals such as fasting are not really necessary, though there is nothing particularly wrong with them. Fasting does have health benefits, and it can be good for clearing the mind.

        For people in Bible times, fasting was usually a sign of mourning in times of sadness and struggle. Because of this, it also took on the meaning of humbling oneself before God. In the Bible passages you mention in which the people fast for protection, they are fasting to show their humility before God as part of their petition for God to grant them their wish of divine protection. The fasting doesn’t directly lead to protection. It is simply part of their process of humbling and prostrating themselves before God to gain God’s favorable response to their prayers.

        Spiritually, fasting represents mourning due to a desire for love and understanding when these are absent or difficult to find. It also represents a state of inner trial, struggle, and temptation, when we must “empty” ourselves of wrong attitudes and desires so that good attitudes and loves can take their place. There may be a “breakthrough” in this sort of spiritual fasting as we leave behind parts of our thinking and feeling that have held us back, and adopt a new approach to life.

        For a passage where the Bible itself urges more than mere external fasting, see Isaiah 58.

        • Aruthra says:

          Got it Lee. Thanks.

          To worship God and humble ourselves before God and seek for His help sincerely and desperately.

          Luke 2 tells the story of an eighty-four-year-old prophetess named Anna. Verse 37 says, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Anna was devoted to God, and fasting was one expression of her love for Him.

  5. K says:

    If God is omniscient (He already knows what we want and need beforehand) and already has everything planned out (from a timeless perspective), then how does prayer fit into that? (George Carlin once made a skeptical joke on that).

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      That’s not quite how it works.

      If God sees everything from a timeless perspective, this means that God doesn’t know things “beforehand”—which would imply that God is embedded in time. Rather, God simply sees things in a timeless present. This also means that God doesn’t “already” have things planned out. That, once again, would imply that God plans things from a time-bound position. Further, even from an ordinary perspective, God doesn’t “have everything planned out” because God has created human beings (and I believe the universe in general) with a freedom to act from their own motives, or from their own nature, even if that is not always the same as God’s will and motives.

      These are difficult concepts to wrap our time-bound, finite human minds around. But here are two articles to get that brain-bending process going:

      In general, God does not determine everything in the universe. Humans, in particular, have the ability to make choices that change both their own future and other people’s future, and the future of the natural world and its ecosystem. God does not “plan everything in advance.” Rather, God provides for good to happen, and permits evil to happen when the eternal consequences of not permitting it would be even worse. The latter would principally involve destroying human freedom, which would make it impossible for us to have a freely chosen relationship with God, to regenerate (be spiritually reborn), or even to be human at all.

      When it comes to prayer, it’s important to understand that the purpose of prayer is not to get God to change God’s mind or to do something that God wouldn’t otherwise do. God’s mind is already perfect. It cannot be changed as a human mind is changed. And even if that were possible, any such change could only be for the worse, not for the better.

      Rather, the purpose of prayer is to change our mind and heart, bring us more into alignment with God’s wisdom and will, and thereby open up new and stronger channels for God’s love, wisdom, and power to flow into our lives, and into the lives of those we care about and pray for.

      This is not inconsistent with God’s omniscience or omnipotence, but rather helps to bring us into harmony with God’s omniscience and omnipotence so that God is able to more fully express them in our lives, and in the world. Part of God’s will is that we should be human, which means having spiritual and moral freedom. Without that, the whole purpose of Creation—which is an eternal heavenly community from the human race—would be impossible. Therefore our freedom, including our freedom not to follow God’s will, is a central part of God’s purpose, and does not violate God’s “deeper” will.

      The two articles linked above should help to make this a little clearer, even if it is difficult for us time- and space-bound humans to grasp these things.

  6. AJ749 says:

    Hi Lee i have a question regarding praying and i couldnt find another article regarding prayers. The basic question is what is the right way to pray ?

    I hope that makes sense, the reason i ask is because ive recently gone back to praying before bed and i confused on whats the best way to pray i ask god to show me truths or even signs that its working and on some occasions i potentially have seen coincidences that make me think its worked but nothing concrete, i also ask god/Jesus to help get rid of any falsities/anxiety i may have and to some extent it helps . I know god works in ways we cannot know but i just wanted to know does swedenborg say anything about the right way to pray

    • Lee says:

      Hi AJ749,

      There’s not really a right or wrong way to pray. You can think of prayer as a conversation with God. So whatever is on your mind that you want to express to God or ask of God, say it in your mind, or out loud if that works better for you, and know that God is listening. Having said that, God does pay more attention to prayers for spiritual things, such as calming your fears and dispelling the false ideas in your mind, than to prayers for material things. Not that God won’t answer prayers for material things, but those are temporary, whereas spiritual things are eternal.

      Here is a good book on prayer from a Swedenborgian perspective:

      Talking with God, by Gwynne Dresser Mack

      The link is to its listing on Amazon. Unfortunately, it is long out of print, but there are used copies available. I hope at some point to do a reprint of it. Highly recommended, if you can get yourself a copy.

  7. AJ749 says:

    I see thank you lee, sometimes its for the happiness of my friends and family , sometimes its to see spiritual truth, sometimes its to help remove any anxietys i may have. Regarding the anxiety one what could i say to help with that ?

    • Lee says:

      Hi AJ749,

      Of course, that’s personal to you. However, if there’s a particular source to the anxiety you’re feeling at the time, you could pray for strength and understanding to deal with and overcome that source. If it’s generalized anxiety that seems to have no particular source, you could pray for focus and meaning in your life to transcend the anxiety and move forward through it.

  8. K says:

    Chris says in Matthew 7:7-8:

    “7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:

    8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”

    And yet there are people starving in insane poverty in Africa, the much-discussed war continues in the Ukraine, and horrible atrocities against children happen every day on this planet.

    I take it those verses and others like them have a spiritual meaning, rather than a literal “God will answer any prayer you ask”? An (in)famous site with 50 “proofs that God is imaginary” claims that the absence of prayers being answered is evidence against the existence of God.

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      Yes, any time people read the Bible in an overly literal way, they are bound to be disappointed in the end. Obviously not every prayer is answered. In the Gospel of John Jesus qualifies this by saying that what we pray for in his name will be granted:

      I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:13–14)

      This does not mean that if we literally add at the words “in Jesus’ name we pray” at the end of the prayer, he will do it. Rather, it means that if we have the character and thoughts of Jesus living and acting within us as we pray, then we will be given what we pray for. (“Name” means “quality” or “character.”) Jesus had already said this earlier in the same Gospel:

      If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you will, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

      In other words, prayers that come from the Lord’s presence and words within us will be answered. This means that the prayers that are answered are primarily prayers about spiritual things, such as in the story in 1 Kings 3:1–14 of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom rather than for material things.

      As I point out in the above article, it’s our job, not God’s, to fix up the mess we have made of this world. And if we sincerely pray to God, God will give us the strength and wisdom to do that work.

      See also the section titled “8. Answered prayers are unconvincing” in this article:
      God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks? – Part 3

      Skeptics and atheists are usually very materialistic in their thinking. As a result, they commonly read the Bible just as literally as fundamentalist Christians do, if not more so. That’s why they neither understand nor accept the Bible’s message.

      For some of Swedenborg’s commentary on those verses from Matthew, see Apocalypse Revealed #376; True Christianity #226:3; Apocalypse Explained #411:15.

  9. caionsouza says:

    Hello Lee!
    I always had an conflicts about how effectively is praying and God’s omniscience, since he already knows what we truly want, what’s is the point of asking, right? This article definitely cleaned all of those issues, thank you my friend! 😊

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