Effective Prayer

by Agnes L. Tierney

The habit of turning instinctively to God at any moment of life is of immeasurable benefit to mind and spirit. The entreaty of the moment may be for one’s own strength, forgiveness, courage or power to endure. It may be petition for the well-being of another. It may be an involuntary expression of gratitude for joy or peace in one’s own or another’s life.

Whatever the need, longing or aspiration this instinctive prayer may take the form of silent communion, of petition in words, or in times of perplexity or trouble, enjoyment or happiness, of something akin to intimate conversation. Since the increase of scientific knowledge, there has been widespread skepticism regarding the value of prayer as petition. This has affected not only the world at large, but the Christian church as well. The discovery of the unchanging action of the laws of nature, the relentless progression from cause to effect, and the thought of the confusion that would result if a single natural law were suspended for a moment led many people to discount prayer in the usual sense of the word. The belief that God rules in His universe, that His purposes are good and that He cannot be swayed from His just intent precludes in the minds of such people belief in the efficacy of prayer.


A moment’s consideration of the millions of conflicting prayers that daily ascend to God might discourage the expectation that any one prayer will receive attention. And so, since the warp and woof of the universe is too vast and intricate a weaving for finite comprehension, an attitude of wonder and acceptance is the only reasonable one for insignificant beings on an unimportant planet. The answer to these objections is based on a more spiritual interpretation of prayer than these arguments employ. The minds and spirits of men seem to be controlled by other, more flexible laws than those which govern matter.

And yet if, as scientists now declare, matter in its last analysis is a form of energy—a principle which some of them do not hesitate to call “spirit”—can we deny that spiritual influence in the material world is possible? But whatever the future holds of discovery along this line, it seems beyond question that God works out His purposes in the life of this world through the influence of mind and spirit upon mind and spirit. Hence, while the laws of spirit are as yet but dimly understood, there are several ways of regarding prayer which do not interfere with belief in the immutable laws which seem to rule in the world of matter.

Prayer as a means of communion with God.

There are times when the entire being reaches out to God, not with a request, but with a wordless yearning for His Light and Truth, His guidance, understanding and love. This attitude of the soul forms a channel for the inrush of spiritual powers which bring refreshing streams of new life and vitality to the parched nature.

Prayer as confession.

How often the need is felt for laying bare the heart before the One who knows it altogether, for penitence for wrongdoing, for forgiveness and the power to start afresh. This is the prayer which cleanses and invigorates and gives that humility without which words and acts lack power to touch the lives of others.

Prayer as a form of energy in the spiritual world.

If we believe that God is spirit and that the spirit in every human breast is embedded in and surrounded by His spirit, there is nothing contrary to what we know of spiritual laws in the idea that a fervent prayer may initiate currents of energy, which, gathering strength and direction as they flow through Infinite Understanding and Love, reach the object of prayer, affection, or concern. This is the cooperation with Him which we believe He asks of His children. This theory of prayer turns intercession for others into joyous privilege. It makes the answer to prayer depend, not on an arbitrary decision of God, but on the depth and sincerity of the love prompting the prayer and the openness of heart of the one prayed for. The waves of reclaiming love are ceaselessly beating against the wayward heart, and, if we can cooperate with God, the united influence of human and divine love may in time soften the most callous nature. Akin to this is the prayer which we cannot doubt may bring material help to the suppliant. Such help is dependent on the will of another. Through a law of the spirit these petitions touch the hearts of those who are susceptible to spiritual intimations. There have been too many coincidences of this kind in the history of prayer for us to believe that the fulfillment is mere chance. The failure of such petitions does not argue indifference or withholding on the part of God but, rather the closed heart of those who should answer the prayer. We know only too well, if we are honest with ourselves, how many intimations of this kind are of God. Yet we have turned from them in order to provide for ourselves more things than were needful.

Prayer as the soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed.

This is perhaps the most complete definition of prayer as a force in our own lives. This is the prayer of dominant desire, the prayer which molds character, the prayer that never ceases. Prayer on the lips has no effect unless it sets the life in its direction. If we pray that our treasure may be in Heaven yet make the accumulation of treasure on earth the pursuit of our lives, that pursuit is the real prayer. If we pray that our children may give wholehearted service to God, yet make their social advancement or conformity to conventional ideas our aim, that aim is the real prayer. If we pray that we ourselves may be used to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, yet cling to the things which divide our allegiance or blind our vision, that clinging is the real prayer. The soul’s sincere desire must be one with the uttered words or the prayer is worse than useless; it is hypocritical.

Prayer as a source of insight into the part we must take in the fulfillment of our own prayer.

“Here am I, use me” should be the spirit of the concluding words of all prayer for better conditions in the world. Millions of parents in enemy and allied countries prayed and agonized alike during World War I that their loved ones might come through the fight unhurt. It was prayer against the efficiency of men intensively trained to kill, against the accuracy of mechanisms cunningly devised for a wholesale slaughter, against the law of probability which spares or destroys according to mathematical averages, against the spirit of evil dominant in the hearts of men. If all who prayed for their loved ones’ safety had entreated that they themselves might be instruments in the work of diffusing the spirit of goodwill and forgiveness, and the casting out of the demon of fear, the war could not have continued and the prayer of millions would have been answered by removing the causes of death and destruction. When we pray for peace we must ourselves promote peace. When we pray for the regeneration or outward well-being of others we must remove from our own hearts the coldness or covetousness which may stand in the way of their amendment or opportunity. When we pray for our enemies we must do all in our power to make them our friends. God works not alone by His Omnipotent power, not only for some far-off Divine event, but here and now through us. “What a man’s hand is to a man, that I would fain to be to God” … the instrument through which my prayers are answered and His will is done.

When we read the Gospels we find that with the exception of the prayer of confession (which He nevertheless exalted in the second of the two who went up into the temple to pray) Jesus Himself used all these forms of prayer. His communion with God was unbroken. He prayed for His friends and for His enemies. He prayed for strength to endure His trial. He taught His disciples to pray for daily bread. His aim was never divided. He prayed “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” and consecrated His whole life and being to that accomplishment. His dominant desire was to lead men to know God as Father, and through this knowledge to turn from lives of selfishness and sin to lives of self-sacrifice and love. He answered His own prayers by laying down His life to make effective in the lives of men the Good News He proclaimed. It is for us still to entreat Him humbly, “Master, teach us to pray.”


Agnes Leo Tierney (1868-1947) grew up in the home of her maternal grandfather, William R. Hazard, in Poplar Ridge, New York. She graduated from Sherwood Select School (where she later served as principal for three years) and from Cornell University in 1895. She taught briefly at Germantown Friends School and Friends Select School in Philadelphia. She served with the American Friends Service Committee, Friends Social Order Committee, Germantown Friends School Committee, and the boards of Pendle Hill and Christiansburg Institute in Virginia. As American Clerk of the AllFriends Conference in London in 1920, she was sent by the AFSC to Germany with Alfred C. and Eleanor Garrett in 1923.

Both in Germantown and at her summer home at Pocono Lake Preserve, she entertained visitors from all over the world. She wrote Pendle Hill pamphlets and articles for The Friend (Philadelphia), was a minister of Germantown Monthly Meeting (Coulter Street) and a popular speaker with young people.

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