How to be Irrational and Better Off For It

In 1889 in Bristol, England an extraordinary man died, and his passing attracted the attention of the English press of the day:

The Daily Telegraph wrote that George Müller ‘robbed the cruel streets of thousands of victims, the jails of thousands of felons, and the poorhouses of thousands of helpless waifs.’ And how had he done this? The Liverpool Mercury wrote ‘How was this wonder accomplished? Mr. Müller has told the world that it was the result of ‘Prayer’. The rationalism of the day will sneer at this declaration; but the facts remains.’ [The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphan p. 196]

George Müller book coverwas famous for founding orphanages in 19th century England, caring for as many as 10,000 orphans through his life. His story is wonderfully recounted in The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans by Janet and Geoff Benge, which I’ve just finished reading with my kids for the second time (it’s that good).

What strikes me about these press reports is that over 125 years ago the Liverpool newspaper commented that the “rationalism of the day will sneer at this declaration”—the declaration that prayer was behind George Müller’s success. I think we often fall prey to believing that our culture is progressively worse or has more challenges than in the past. While this may be true in some respects, it is striking to see that back in the late 19th century prayer was considered ‘irrational’. Rejecting or minimizing prayer is not new to the 21st century.

Why is prayer so “irrational”? Maybe it’s because it relies on the unseen, on a spiritual world that isn’t tangible, so it’s easy to dismiss. It can seem pretty naïve—it’s one thing to say you believe in this stuff about God, but a whole different thing actually to base important life decisions on it. Müller was famous for never directly asking for money, and the book is full of examples of how that made things look really perilous at times, yet they continued to pray and God kept answering. One time, as the kids sat down to eat breakfast, they prayed and thanked God for the food, even though they actually didn’t have anything to eat. As they finished praying, suddenly, the baker showed up with enough bread for everyone, and the milkman’s cart broke down in front of the orphanage, so he supplied them with free milk.

Armed with these instances of seeing God come through, Müller,muller pic and so many others through the centuries, even in the face of skepticism, have held on to the power of prayer. James 5:16 assures us, ‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Stories like George Müller encourage me in prayer. They remind me that God’s involvement is what matters most. He really is active and in charge of what happens in this world, and that matters most. And so they encourage me to keep praying despite the skepticism, including sometimes, my own.

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