“Oh, I’m so sorry you’re going through that. I’ll be praying for you.”
When someone tells me a personal struggle, I tend to choose between two responses. If the problem seems solvable, I offer to help. If not, I offer to pray.
I might pray about it once or twice. But without a system in place or a particular connection to the issue, these commitments tend to fade into obscurity.
Even when we have clearer incentive to pray, often we still find it unnatural.
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The pattern is hardly surprising. I suspect we neglect prayer at least partly because, unlike much of our daily activity, it doesn’t produce anything instantly. In other words, beneath our neglect of prayer is a question: do our prayers really make a difference?
It doesn’t take long to realise that our question is not whether prayer does anything. After all, every action does something.
Our question is whether prayer is effective in one way or another. Does prayer do something the way donating to charity does something or the way reading the Bible does something? Does prayer bring about change “out there” in the world or change within ourselves?
In the darkest moments of our lives, this question hits many Christians like a ton of bricks. It isn’t just that we wonder if it’s worth praying for a parking spot. It’s that we wonder if it’s worth praying for our sick relative, for a desperately needed job or for peace in Ukraine.
Of course change in us and change in the world are not completely disconnected. When we spend time regularly praying for someone, we suddenly find ourselves thinking more about them and how to bless them. When we fail to pray, our faith is merely theoretical. But in mysterious ways prayer shapes us into active members of the family of God.
Still, this is not quite what we mean when we ask whether prayer does anything ‘out there’. What we mean is that prayer doesn’t make sense and we aren’t sure we’re being answered.
If we pray for something bad, he won’t do it. If we pray for something good, he would have done it anyway. Is there any room, then, for our prayers to be effective?
One of the questions with which everyone must wrestle is why God grants some requests and not others. There are helpful responses to this question. But for now I will only point out that this is not really a question about prayer. In fact it is a question about God’s methods of working in the world.
But deep down we have another question about prayer. Christians believe that the sovereign God is infinitely wise, good and powerful. If we pray for something bad, he won’t do it. If we pray for something good, he would have done it anyway. Is there any room, then, for our prayers to be effective?
We might rephrase this question, ‘Does prayer actually work?’
C.S. Lewis was convinced that even if every prayer “worked” it wouldn’t prove anything like the Christian doctrine of prayer. When God speaks, the world changes. If every prayer were granted, the divine authority to speak change into existence would be ours. But it is, of course, only his!
Prayer is not a mechanism to grant our wishes. God is not a machine.
No, God is a person and prayer is conversation. The kind of prayer we have in mind is petition. We ask God for something exactly the way we ask others, the only difference being that he is God and they are not.
But this is, of course, quite a significant difference. We wonder whether God, with his eternal plans and infinite qualities, can truly respond to our prayers.
According to the Scriptures, God genuinely responds to our prayers in action.
When Moses cried out to the Lord to remove the plague of frogs, “The Lord did what Moses asked.” (Exodus 8:13) Would he have done so if Moses had not asked? While we’re asking, would he have led Israel out of Egypt or spared Lot from destruction, if his people had not pleaded with him?
Knowing what we know about God, there is a slightly nonsensical element to these very natural questions. From eternity God knew, and even ordained, that Moses would pray to him, that Israel would cry out and that Abraham would plead for Sodom. As Lewis wrote in a letter, “Prayers are His prayers really: He speaks to Himself through us.”
According to these Old Testament passages and others throughout Scripture, God genuinely responds to our prayers in action. The apostle James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask God,” (4:2) and later, “Pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (5:16)
But at this point we can no longer avoid the question. How is it that our prayers can be answered by God, who always acts rightly and is sovereign over everything from eternity?
The great French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once said, “God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.”
C.S. Lewis later added, “Not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind – that is, His over-all purpose.”
In other words, when we are sceptical about prayer, why are we not also sceptical about charity or about preaching the gospel? God will bring about the best outcome no matter what we do! We rightly ridicule the idea that we should not obey God because he is sovereign. If we took that seriously, what an absurd life we would lead! In fact we obey God partly because he is sovereign.
Having come all this way, we find we have come to another question that is not really about prayer. It objects not only to prayer but to the rules that govern all human activity.
The testimony of Scripture is that we really have been brought into the company of the living God and told, ‘You may ask me to do anything’.
Our prayers are ‘effective’ only when God chooses to do what we ask. In this sense, prayer is different from other activities. When we kick a ball, the ball always moves. Sometimes it moves where we want it. Other times it hits someone in the face. We are free to do good or harm. Prayer is not like that. Otherwise, as we noted, it would be a power far too dangerous for anyone except God.
Yet the testimony of Scripture is that we really have been brought into the company of the living God and told, ‘You may ask me to do anything’. We have not been told that he will do just anything. But we have been told that God listens and responds in action.
Sometimes he will say no. Sometimes not yet. Perhaps our prayers are often answered in ways and places we cannot see, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
When we doubt, we can be assured not only that God hears our prayers, but that he acts.
Exodus 2 ends like this:
“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” (2:23-25)
One of the best sermons I have ever heard was on this passage and its context. I still remember how it ended: “God heard, God saw and God remembered.” We pray to that God. He hears us, sees us and remembers his promises.
As Exodus unfolds, it becomes abundantly clear that when God hears, sees and remembers, he acts. And in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has enacted the ultimate Exodus, bringing his people from death to life.
So when we ask exactly how our prayers can cause things to happen, we pull the thread of a profound mystery – the same mystery of how my kicking causes a ball to move, when really it is God who moves it.
But our assurance that God answers prayer does not come from counting every answered request, nor from understanding the mechanisms of prayer. It is a personal assurance that comes from deeply knowing the God who speaks to us and lives in us. When we doubt, we can be assured not only that God hears our prayers, but that he acts.