In October a few years ago, the Australian bishops called the entire Catholic community to pray for marriage and family. The initiative was joined by around thirty other Christian churches making it the largest ever prayer campaign in the nation. It raises the question: does prayer really make a difference?
Cynics might say that a prayer campaign is just a badly disguised way of making a value statement. It’s certainly true that we pray for what we value, and that it’s hard to be motivated to pray for something about which we don’t care.
Atheists would say that prayer is no better than wishful thinking; if there is no God how can praying to a ‘non-existent entity’ possibly make any difference? Ipso facto, if there is any positive result of prayer it must be coincidence or perhaps some kind of ‘spiritual placebo effect’.
Which is why we find the results of a series of studies on the impact of prayer in relationships so intriguing.
In one study, subjects were assigned to either pray for a friend, pray about any topic, or think positive thoughts about a friend every day for 4 weeks. Those who prayed for their friend reported greater forgiveness and an increase in selfless concern compared to the control groups.
Other studies, all with equally rigorous controls, examined the relationship between prayer and trust, commitment, gratitude or fidelity in intimate relationships. In all of these studies, prayer was found to have a positive, prosocial effect on their relationships, increasing the trust, commitment, gratitude and fidelity in the subject.
One could argue about the cause of why prayer seemed to have a positive effect, but the evidence was clear – praying did indeed made a positive difference.
Could prayer be the secret weapon to successful marriage?
Marriage is hard going in this culture. A generation ago, people who stuck to a commitment, even when it got unpleasant and unfulfilling, were held up as virtuous role models. The community noted what a dedicated mother or father they were. Friends privately congratulated them on their perseverance and family worked quietly in the background to ease the burden and support the family.
Now such stayers are derided as weak for not pursuing their self-interests with greater dedication. When difficulties arise, friends are more likely to encourage them to cut their losses and pursue happiness elsewhere than they are to support them in enduring in their marriage. Disruption to children is justified with statements like, ‘You’ll be a better parent if you’re happy’.
Why prayer works
Without this backdrop of social support for marital endurance, many marriages simply don’t have the stamina to survive routine setbacks and challenges. And this is particularly where prayer can play a life-altering role.
Prayer works because it connects us with the ultimate accountability partner; God cares about us and God cares passionately about our marriage. When we engage God in our challenges, we can be absolutely confident that all the grace we need will be available to us if we are willing to accept it.
Praying into a difficult marital situation helps us access spiritual strengths that can support us in our difficulties. Praying every day, even when there is no urgent need, helps prevent such situations developing or worsening. And it’s free. Like OMG (literally in this case)! Why would we NOT pray?
Which brings us back to the Bishops’ prayer initiative. If prayer works in the individual case, we can be confident that it also works at the communal level. We need to collectively commit to transforming the culture to be less individualistic and more marriage friendly.
Joining together in prayer is a powerful gesture of united affirmation of our convictions. It is also a ready channel for the grace of God.
So let’s pray for marriage. Pray for our own marriage – that it can be the sacramental sign to the world it is meant to be. Pray for the marriages of our loved ones. And pray for the marriage culture.
Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children.
Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links.