Doctrine Ch.15 - Prayer

What’s the point of telling God what he already knows or trying to change his mind? In a glimpse behind the scenes, the Bible shows that prayer helps align spiritual forces with God’s will.

Does prayer work? Christians agree that it does—but who or what does it work on? Since God sees everything, the purpose of prayer can’t be to tell God things that he doesn’t know about. So is prayer trying to change God’s mind about what he should do? Or trying to change the minds of others, for example by making them decide to follow Jesus? The idea that we can somehow persuade God to change his mind or that God interferes with people’s free will is hugely problematic.

       One common conclusion is that prayer only changes us. That is, when we pray, it changes our minds. When we pray about something, we may, for example, suddenly realize how we could help in a situation or accept the situation as part of God’s will, so that prayer helps us to cope with it. This is undoubtedly true on many occasions, but the Bible makes it clear that prayers often also result in dramatic changes to a situation.

       The doctrine of prayer as presented in the Bible suggests that God works as a result of prayer, on the world around us and also on ourselves. Prayers in the Psalms often request God’s strength to cope with a situation. However, these Psalms usually also include requests that God should step in and change things. In the Bible, prayer is a way of getting things done by divine intervention—affecting both the person praying and the situation she is praying about.

       I’d better admit it: I often do pray as though I want God to reconsider what he appears to be doing—as if I know better than he does. But didn’t Moses do this? He asked for God’s mercy on the Israelites after they’d built the golden calf (Exod 32:11-13), and Psalm 106:23 says that Moses “stood in the breach”—that is, his prayer plugged the gap in the defenses for the nation. But did that prayer change God’s mind? In Ezekiel 22:30 God said that he longed for someone to stand in the breach again for Israel, “but I found no one.” In that situation at least, the prayers were working to further God’s will, not to change it, because Ezekiel said that God was longing for someone to stand in the breach like Moses did—that is, he wanted someone to bring about that change in God’s action by praying!

5-minute summary

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Prayer as work

The Bible gives only a few small hints about how prayer works. It suggests that our prayers actually change things directly—with God’s permission or help, of course. That is, our prayers are part of the work that is needed in order to accomplish God’s will. Prayers aren’t needed to persuade God that he should do something; they are somehow being used by God to get that thing done. We’ll turn to the biblical evidence shortly, but first it is interesting to realize how many problems are solved when we understand prayer in this way.

       It explains the apparent contradiction in Jesus’ teaching on prayer when on one hand he tells us to keep on praying, but on the other he urges us not to pray with empty repetitions. For example, he says we shouldn’t just keep on talking at God, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8), and yet he says we should “always pray and not give up” like a persistent widow nagging a lazy judge (Luke 18:1-5). So God knows what we need, but he still wants us to pray persistently for things that are already his will. This persistence makes sense if our ongoing prayers are actually helping to bring God’s will into effect. This also fits in with the emphasis on praying “your will be done” (e.g., Matt 6:10; 26:39) and praying “in my name.” Somehow, we are getting God’s will done by praying for it.

       So how does God answer prayer? It’s an old joke that you’ll have heard many times before, but I’m going to tell it again: A man prays, “O Lord, you know the mess I’m in, please let me win the lottery.” The next week, he prays again, and this time he’s complaining, “O Lord, didn’t you hear my prayer last week? I’ll lose everything I hold dear unless I win the lottery.” The third week, he prays again and this time he’s desperate, “O Lord, this is the third time I’ve prayed to you to let me win the lottery! I ask and I plead and still you don’t help me!” Suddenly a booming voice sounds from heaven: “My son, my son, be reasonable. Meet me halfway. Buy a lottery ticket!”

       That joke illustrates an important aspect of how prayer works. We might imagine that God does everything by direct action—by snapping his fingers like a genie or thinking things into existence. But the Bible also describes lots of things being done for God, by people or by angels. So if we have a part to play in answering a prayer, we should get on and do it!

Prayer as a fight

Daniel gives us an intriguing insight into what actually happens when we pray. He decided to pray seriously about the future of Israel, which was in exile in Babylon. His fasting and prayers continued for three weeks before an angel arrived with an answer. The angel also gave Daniel an explanation for the delay: “Since the first day … your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia” (Dan 10:12-13). These “princes” appear to be angels because one of them is Michael, the angel over Israel (see 12:1). So the answer to Daniel’s prayer was delayed by the interference of an enemy angel!

       It seems that prayer can be a battle against spiritual evil. There is no way of telling how metaphorical this account is, but we can see that Daniel’s prayer was meeting resistance. The implication is that if he hadn’t persisted, the answer would not have come. So Daniel became an essential part of that battle by continuing to pray. In that kind of situation, Jesus’ teaching on persistence in prayer makes sense because it is actively affecting the situation—even when we can’t yet see it.

       Even praying for people to be saved is portrayed as engagement in a battle. Paul said that when unconverted people read the Bible, they can’t see the truth because there’s a “veil” over their eyes, but the Holy Spirit gives them freedom to understand (2 Cor 3:14-17). That freedom is what we pray for, so that they can decide to follow Jesus. We aren’t praying to change their minds—because you can’t make someone fall in love, even with Jesus—and we aren’t trying to change God’s mind because he already wants all to be saved. Our prayers are battling the evil one who wants to keep them blinded by that veil.

       Not all prayer concerns combating evil. Even if God answers it by sending an angel, this doesn’t mean that it involves a spiritual struggle. When the church prayed for Peter in prison, an angel was sent to release him, but this is not described as a battle of any kind. Those who were praying didn’t know that would happen—they were as surprised as he was (see Acts 12:6-16). They simply prayed to God and left him to work out how to use those prayers. How prayer works behind the scenes is no doubt a complex matter, and it won’t always work in the same way. For instance, it may sometimes cause an angel to do something, or it may prevent some spiritual evil. Our prayers may power a slow progress or trigger a quick release, so some prayers take very little time to be answered, and others take longer for a variety of reasons.

       However, a “delay” in prayer being answered is not always due to something invisible happening in the background, as in the cases of Daniel and Peter. We should be aware that sometimes the delay means we are praying for the wrong thing, as Paul realized with regard to his thorn (2 Cor 12:7-9). But we don’t have to worry about these complexities because prayer is a simple request directed to God, and he figures out how to use it. We shouldn’t be tempted to try bending the forces of nature or communicating with angels (Col 2:18). Even Daniel, who was very aware of angels, still directed his prayer to God himself (Dan 10:12).

Prayer changes things

Prayer isn’t just for recluses. Paul was a pragmatic and ferociously active believer who wasn’t put off by shipwrecks, life-threatening punishments, or opposition. But he prayed as seriously as any contemplative hermit or passive visionary and urged others to pray for him: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … be alert and always keep on praying” (Eph 6:18).

       Because we pray directly to God, prayer really does change things. It isn’t just about aligning our minds with the will of God; it aligns the world with the will of God. God isn’t inviting us to give him a wish list; he is inviting us to be his agents in bringing about his will. When we pray “Your will be done on earth,” we aren’t muttering a pious hope: we are actually helping to achieve it.

       All this means we might achieve much more for God if we change the busy schedules that stop us from praying. As John Wesley said, “Prayer is where the action is.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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