Thoughts and prayers. Some people find them valuable, while others would actually pay to avoid them. So what is the value of prayer?

A recent study found that Christians generally value the offer of thoughts and prayers, even from a stranger. According to The Washington Post, two sociologists studied a group of North Carolina residents in the fall of 2018, after Hurricane Florence struck.

They talked with more than 400 residents, asking them to describe the hardships they had suffered. Then they made an offer of a thought or a prayer, and they tied the offer to money.

What did they discover? Christians valued prayer from a stranger, putting its worth at more than $4.00.

The nonreligious participants, however, said that they would pay more than $3.50 to avoid a Christian stranger’s prayer.

This finding “raises an interesting point,” said a Denver psychologist: “some people, maybe, just don’t want your thoughts and prayers.” Perhaps they are atheists or agnostics, who do not believe in the power of prayer. Or maybe they feel that the offer of a prayer is a platitude, one that takes the place of meaningful action.

Even within the Christian community there are many faithful people who desire a strong link between words and actions. In his New Testament letter, James writes, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16). Faith without works, according to James, is dead.

In a similar manner, many Christians today will argue that prayer without action is dead.

But not every human need can be met with gifts of clothing, food or other contributions. At times, there is really nothing we can offer except for thoughts and prayers. Think of a relative dying of a terminal illness. Or a friend going through a divorce. Or a family member who is feeling deeply discouraged.

Yes, we can visit them, listen to them, love them and support them. But there is not much we can give them, except for our thoughts and prayers.

All of which raises the question, “What is the real value of prayer?” Most of us would argue that it is worth more than $4.00.

One value of prayer is that it changes us. More than changing the outcome of the situation in front of us — whether it is a natural disaster or a terminal illness — prayer changes our relationship with God. Psalm 31 is a prayer for deliverance, and it includes the appeal to God, “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me” (v. 2).

This prayer is all about the deepening of a relationship. It asks for God to hear us and rescue us, and it requests that God be a rock of refuge, a place of safety and stability, a mighty fortress, a location of salvation.

Early in my novel City of Peace, a pastor named Harley Camden is asked to visit an inmate named Muhammad Bayati, held at the Prince William County Adult Detention Center. Bayati has been accused of killing his daughter.

“Pastor Camden, this is Muhammad Bayati,” said a corrections officer. “You have twenty minutes. Good luck.”

Harley walked cautiously into the room, jumping slightly when the guard closed the heavy steel door behind him.

“Mr. Bayati?” he asked, putting out his hand for a shake. “I’m Harley Camden, the pastor of Riverside Methodist Church in Occoquan.”

The inmate looked him in the eye and offered his hand but didn’t say anything. “May I sit down?” Harley asked. Muhammad nodded.

“You probably wonder why I am here,” Harley continued. “I was called by a corrections officer since I am the only clergyman in Occoquan.”

“I’ve heard about you,” said Muhammad. The man had a brown face with deep lines, bushy eyebrows and large brown eyes that were as dark and deep as the inky water of the Occoquan River at night. Muhammad was balding, with a fringe of gray hair around the back of his head. His orange jail jumpsuit hung on his slender frame, and his long fingers continued to massage his wrists.

“I understand that an imam visited you a couple of days ago,” Harley offered. Muhammad nodded. “Was that helpful?” the pastor asked.

“We prayed together,” Muhammad said. “Prayer is always helpful.”

He looked Harley in the eye and said nothing more. He seemed comfortable with awkward silences.

“So, you pray five times a day?”

“Of course. I am Muslim.”

“And how does it help you?”

Muhammad squinted. “You should know how. Prayer reminds me of who God is, and where I stand in relation to God. Allahu Akbar.”

“Which means what?” asked Harley.

“God is the greatest.”

“Indeed,” said Harley. “God is the greatest. Have you been able to keep up with your prayers here in jail?”

“Of course,” Muhammad answered, with just the hint of a smile. “There is not much else to do.”

Bayati sees the value of prayer in its ability to remind him of who God is, and where he stands in relation to God.

He prays in order to deepen his relationship with God, a value that is shared by Harley Camden. What is the value of prayer for you? Join the conversation through a comment below.