The cognitive science of prayer

Napoleon must have been an interesting fellow.

No, not THAT Napoleon. Yes, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest military leaders in history and he led the French army from victory to victory across Europe in the early 1800’s.

That was before he got greedy, marched his Grand Armee all the way to Russia, got bogged down there in heavy winter snows and then lost most of his starving freezing men on the way back to France.

No, not that Napoleon.

And no, not Napoleon Dynamite, from the famed 2004 comedy movie hit about a high school boy in a small Idaho town. In this election year if you have no idea what “Vote for Pedro” means, you’ll just have to check out the movie.

In this case we’re referring to Napoleon Hill. And if you can’t recall his name then perhaps you’ve heard of his most famous book- Think and Grow Rich.

It’s still one of the top 10 best self help books of all time, selling over 15 million copies. Not bad for a text written way back in 1937. Despite all of the history that has passed in these last 83 years the book is still popular.

The story goes that around 100 years ago Hill somehow met famed steel magnate and later philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in the history of the world. Carnegie allegedly challenged Hill to interview other successful businessmen (Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, etc.) to find their secrets and then boil them down into plain language in a book for the masses.

Some folks dispute that Hill and Carnegie ever met, but something clearly happened because Hill’s 14 points in Think and Grow Rich have been driving businesspeople and entrepreneurs to this day.

Point #3 is Faith. In this case it’s faith in yourself that you can and will succeed in your endeavors – that you really can think and then grow rich.

But Hill was clearly also a MAN of faith, a believer. Among his numerous quotes were…

“O Divine Providence, I ask not for more riches but more wisdom with which to make wiser use of the riches you gave me at birth, consisting in the power to control and direct my own mind to whatever ends I might desire.”


“If you pray for a thing, but have fear when you pray, that you may not receive it, or that your prayer will not be acted upon by Infinite Intelligence, your prayer will have been in vain.”


“If you make your prayers an expression of gratitude and thanksgiving for the blessings you have already received, instead of requests for what you do not have, you will obtain results a great deal faster.”

Sound like solid wisdom to you? Amen and amen.

So if the basis from Hill is that you really can think and grow rich, you can – but you won’t be doing it all yourself. To call this thinking and examining would then move prayer into the realm of science.

Yes, prayer and science in the same sentence. Is that such a crazy idea?

There is a LONG list of famous prayers from history, and not just in our Christian faith. Devout Muslims famously prayer five times every day. Jews are said to have three main prayers, one for morning and afternoon and evening. Many Hindus have a shrine in their homes where prayers are offered each day.

But the granddaddy of all prayers is probably our Lord’s Prayer. Catholics just call it the Our Father. Remember the story of where it came from? Matthew 6 and Luke 11 tell the tale…

The Luke version just has the Lord with his disciples when one of them asks Him how to pray. In Matthew, Jesus was giving his famous Sermon on the Mount. Surrounded by thousands, He mesmerized the crowd with his wisdom and authority.

Let’s go with the Matthew version…

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” – Matthew 6:5-13 NIV

At some point later someone apparently added “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.”

Look at the start of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not about the person praying. It’s all about thanks to God, that He is always in charge. Only later are we to ask for things for ourselves. Talk about getting your priorities in order, the right order.

In just a short span Jesus scientifically took apart the essentials of life and put them in the correct framework, most important first. Keep the babbling and public posturing out of it.

Napoleon Hill had similar thoughts. Acknowledge all the blessings given to you before you start asking for more. Realize that all things come from Him or they’ll never come at all. Be forever thankful for what you have, no matter the amount, and watch for even more blessings then coming your way.

But here’s a thought – Hill’s book was called Think and Grow Rich. When we hear that title we automatically think of money, earnings, a big bank account, living in luxury. That’s no surprise at any time but especially in today’s society which is all about accumulating everything you can get. Gimme gimme gimme.

But what exactly is the definition of “rich?” Dig a little deeper in the dictionary and you’ll see something like “pleasantly deep or strong” and “interesting because full of diversity or complexity.”

Growing rich isn’t just about money. It’s more about living a complete life filled with experiences, helping when you can, forgiving others just as you are forgiven, and in doing so with humility receiving even more blessings of various kinds.

Want your prayers answered? Study the science of prayer and remember our Lord – with a little help from Napoleon Hill…

From George Churchgoer

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