When My Wife Passed Away, I Asked: Does Prayer Work?


I pray regularly, for healing, mine and others, for the souls of departed family and friends, for forgiveness, for stronger faith, for peace and justice in the world. Does it work? 

I believe it does, but God responds on his timeline and in ways I might not see or understand.

In the Baha’i writings, Baha’u’llah explained the purpose and the process of prayer:

Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men. Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb. Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul.

This passage focuses not on results, but on process. Baha’u’llah says that by praying, I transform myself and even other people. He doesn’t tell me about material results.

When he says, “The grace vouchsafed unto him,” it helps me recognize that grace is unearned, so prayer is a gift from God, for my benefit. I don’t pray like a child making wishes. A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, explains:

The true worshipper, while praying, should endeavour not so much to ask God to fulfil his wishes and desires, but rather to adjust these and make them conform to the Divine Will. Only through such an attitude can one derive that feeling of inner peace and contentment which the power of prayer alone can confer.

Let me offer a personal example. In 2017, my wife Terri spent the last several months of her life in hospitals. On top of lupus, heart trouble, and kidney failure, she had another, almost certainly fatal condition. I prayed by her side throughout those months. Once my wife entered the first hospital that year, she never came home and passed away in December.

Does that mean my prayers didn’t work?

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The previous quotation answers the question. I prayed not for my own wish fulfillment, but to adjust my wishes and desires to God’s will. Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’u’llah’s son and successor, wrote this about praying for healing:

The prayers which were revealed to ask for healing apply both to physical and spiritual healing. Recite them, then, to heal both the soul and the body. If healing is right for the patient, it will certainly be granted; but for some ailing persons, healing would only be the cause of other ills, and therefore wisdom doth not permit an affirmative answer to the prayer.

People seem to love stories of miraculous healing, of those near death recovering and returning to full functioning. This expectation makes it tempting to feel angry at God if a sick loved one dies despite many prayers – or even to deny God’s existence because he didn’t appear to respond. With faith, however, I accept God’s will, referred to often in the Baha’i writings with words such as “He doeth whatsoever He willeth.” This belies the assertion of some doubters that religion infantilizes people. Instead, it can give us a mature way to understand and accept reality.

The following advice about prayer from Abdu’l-Baha runs the gamut from hope to resignation:

O thou who art turning thy face towards God! Close thine eyes to all things else, and open them to the realm of the All-Glorious. Ask whatsoever thou wishest of Him alone; seek whatsoever thou seekest from Him alone. With a look He granteth a hundred thousand hopes, with a glance He healeth a hundred thousand incurable ills, with a nod He layeth balm on every wound, with a glimpse He freeth the hearts from the shackles of grief. He doeth as He doeth, and what recourse have we? He carrieth out His Will, He ordaineth what He pleaseth. Then better for thee to bow down thy head in submission, and put thy trust in the All-Merciful Lord.

In the light of this passage, I try to pray with the faith that God has the power to grant hope, heal ills, and relieve me from grief, and with the faith that any response or apparent lack of response is God’s will and is beyond my control.

Do I wish my wife had recovered and lived longer? Terri had been ill for most of our marriage. She wore herself out serving others, including me. Almost everyone she met loved her; she made a difference in many lives as a counselor, social worker, teacher, mother, and “Aunty.” Through all that, she fought pain, fatigue, lupus, and heart trouble.

Near the end of her life, Terri was in constant pain and only vaguely aware of her surroundings. It would have been selfish and cruel of me to attempt to prolong her suffering. So, I chose to place her in hospice, a service that makes terminally ill people comfortable but does not treat their illness and doesn’t try to revive patients when their death approaches. I kept praying, of course. 

Terri passed away, and I believe that in the next world, she is free from the physical burdens of this life and that her spirit is doing greater things. I feel her presence from time to time. I’m grateful to God that her suffering is over. I have no wish to deprive her of those blessings.

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I grieve, but I keep praying for her soul and for my own healing, too. I have Parkinson’s and atrial fibrillation. Do I want to be cured? I would rejoice if I were cured, but in my faith, I accept that “He doeth whatsoever He willeth.” In our merely human way, we might accuse God of unfairness and cruelty. My faith says unfairness and cruelty are not attributes of God, but flaws of human beings who fail to follow God’s commandments.

The Baha’i teachings also tell me I can’t understand God, except to the extent He reveals himself through His messengers. That messenger today is Baha’u’llah, who wrote when describing the Creator:

The quintessence of knowledge is powerless to comprehend Thy nature, and the inmost reality of every praise of Thee falleth short of the seat of Thy great glory and of Thine all-compelling power. Every utterance that seeketh to describe Thee, and every knowledge that attempteth to comprehend Thee, is but an expression of Thine own creating, and is begotten by Thy will, and fashioned in conformity with Thy purpose.

So when I pray, I pray with the knowledge that prayer is a gift from God that benefits me and transforms me in ways I can’t fully understand, and that any outcome that might follow my prayers is according to God’s will and wisdom.

Does prayer work? It works for me.



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