Spiritual Principles series
There are several different types of prayer – several different types of conversations we may have with God, if you like to look at it that way. Sometimes we need to ask for forgiveness, sometimes we want to thank him or tell him we love him, sometimes we just want to meditate on God.
In this post I am talking about when we want to ask God to do something, for us or someone else. And the simple question is, does praying make a difference?
Two extreme views of prayer
God is sovereign and will do what he wants?
Reformed theology tends to emphasise God’s sovereignty. He knows everything, plans everything, controls everything. He knows what is best and even though we may not understand it, everything he does is perfect. Prayer doesn’t change God’s plan, so for these people, prayers tends to reduce to ….
- God ordains that we should pray, so we should, or
- God leads us to pray so that we can play a part in what he was going to do anyway, or
- prayer is us aligning our will to God’s (“your will be done”).
Trouble is, this view of prayer is very de-motivating (at least that’s how I found it when I was taught this as a young christian), and it sort of makes God out to be a bit strange and us to be naive. But it is also contrary to the way God is portrayed in the Bible. The aloof, immutable, puppet-master God is the God of philosophy, but in the Bible God changes his mind, answers prayer, allows people to argue with him, and is sad when we jilt him. Sometimes his plans don’t work out. So prayer is more than what this view says, because God is different to what this view says.
Name it and claim it?
At the other end of the spectrum is this modern phenomenon of prosperity teaching, where God is more like a vending machine – say the prayer and out will come the answer like clockwork. And, oh happy day, the main thing God wants to do is give us money, big house, fast car, beautiful woman, and, if we are lucky enough to be a successful megachurch pastor or televangelist, even our own private jet. Or if we are more spiritual, he guarantees to heal us and bless us with many converts.
But we all know Jesus didn’t suffer and die to give us a Porsche, but to establish God’s kingdom. And if he suffered and died, and so did Paul and many others of the apostles, we know we too will sometimes do it tough – Jesus promised it would be so. So slot machine prayer isn’t the whole story either.
Power and authority
God is sovereign, which means he knows everything, he has the authority to do what he wants and the power to carry it out. But we also know that much of what happens on earth is contrary to God’s wishes. How come?
Delegated authority, limited power
The Adam and Eve story tells us truths, whether we believe it is historical or legendary. God gives humans authority on planet earth – they get to name animals (early biological classification), care for the garden (early ecological management) and be responsible for their actions (early failure and excuses). God is sovereign, but in this little corner of the universe, he is going hold his sovereignty in check and allow us to call the shots.
Creating autonomous life with the ability to go against his plans is the greatest and most self-giving of God’s actions in creation.
But we only have limited power, fortunately. We can kill, maim, destroy, but we can’t destroy totally. We can love, care for and build, but there are limits to our abilities.
And so the history of the human race is the outplay of our autonomy and limited power, exercised for both good and evil.
God’s power and our choice
And it seems to me that God keeps to his side of this amazing deal. The universe keeps running; the sun comes up in the morning; the water cycle keeps moving water around; sex results (sometimes) in the amazing miracle of pregnancy where minute cells somehow come together, reliably in more cases than we might expect, to produce a wonderful living human being, full of potential. And he leaves each one of those lives to decide how they will live.
God is still sovereign. He still has the power to make things happen or to stop them. Sometimes he does so, but often he leaves us free to do good or not.
Prayer is asking God to act on our behalf
If a parent tells their child that they are now old enough to look after their own room, then the parent would be inconsistent if they stepped in and cleaned up the first time it got messy. It is now the child’s responsibility. But the child can ask the parent for help. And if a student is doing a maths exercise in class, the idea is to try to do it themselves – but they can ask the teacher for help if they are struggling.
I think prayer can be like that. We can ask God to come into a situation, ours or someone else’s, which is otherwise our responsibility, and act on our behalf. When we are confused, we can ask for the best advice in the universe.
This view of prayer accounts both for God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. We have been given limited authority and autonomy, but we can use that autonomy to ask him to act or guide. He has the power because he is sovereign, and may choose to answer that prayer. It may be that the prayer is the difference between him acting, or not. I think sometimes he is waiting to be asked.
This type of prayer is Biblical
The New Testament teaches that God is sovereign (Romans 9:14-24) yet Jesus also portrays God as a person who can be persuaded to change his mind (Luke 11:5-10, Luke 18:1-8). We shouldn’t allow a difficult passage on God’s sovereignty to keep us from the clear truth that Jesus said God is willing to change his mind!
Simple prayer lessons
We should be asking God for guidance and intervention.
It is quite clear. Jesus said we should ask, confident God will answer (Luke 18:1-8). James said we don’t receive from God because we don’t ask (James 4:2-3). Paul said we should be praying all the time (Ephesians 6:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
This does present problems. For a start, I am way short of living so close to God that I can be praying all the time. And on top of that, God doesn’t always seem to answer – people we pray for get sick and die, we pray for guidance and our plans turn out badly, and so on.
Nevertheless, my wife and I choose to pray together every morning for each other, our family and friends, the christian work we are involved in, our church and its leaders, our country, and our world. And while we can’t prove our praying changes anything, we believe God guides us and works through us. Once he may have saved my life.
We should pray about all things.
There are some obvious things we all know we should pray about – for friends and family who are sick or doing it tough (James 5:14-15), for christian work we are involved in, for the conversion of those outside God’s kingdom, for ministers and leaders, for our country and, yes, for world peace! But I think there’s more.
I suggest praying about our holidays, our jobs and careers (should we assume we should try for every promotion without asking God?), buying a house, getting married. And when we are troubled by difficult Bible teachings, or how to apply teachings to the big issues of our time, surely we should be asking the Holy Spirit to guide us into his understanding (James 1:5) rather than assuming we already know?
Because I think this type of prayer is giving back some of our autonomy to God and asking him to do what we are free to do, but not always able to do, I believe praying for those things directly within our responsibility – our family, our choices, our work, our ministry and our friends – is one of the most important ways to pray.
Praying in faith
This is a difficult one. Jesus made some big promises about prayer being answered (e.g. Mark 11:24, John 14:13-14), but God doesn’t always seem to deliver on them. That ought to tell us something – perhaps our understanding is deficient.
Most of Jesus’ promises on answered prayer are conditional – on our praying in faith and in his name (John 16:23-24). But praying in his name surely means praying in a way that represents him (like an ambassador acts in the name of the government who sent them). Perhaps it is only then that we can have real faith, and be confident that he will answer?
So I think we should be asking God to guide our prayers, to be giving us insight into situations and to be renewing our thinking, so we think like him (Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 5:14-15) and thus can pray in faith and as his representative. This isn’t a game, but part of us offering our autonomy back to him.
Our attitude is important
On the positive side, we should be seeking God and his kingdom more than a particular result we want (Matthew 6:33). On the negative side, praying while persisting in some sin (1 John 3:21-22), or failing to forgive others (Mark 11:25), only makes things difficult.
God sees our need before we ask (Matthew 6:8), but I think we should be quite specific when we pray. Jesus asked the blind man Bartimaeus what he wanted him to do (Mark 10:46-52), even though that was probably obvious. When Bartimaeus said quite specifically he wanted to see, Jesus healed gave him back his sight.
When praying for people’s conversion, I think it is good to ask God to do specific things such as open their eyes, show them the truth, convict them of their need and give them both faith and understanding – these are all things that Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do (John 16:8-11).
Jesus said God wasn’t impressed by fancy words (Matthew 6:7-8), and I don’t think he’s impressed by pretence either. Let’s be honest. If we don’t have faith, admit that to God, and ask for more (Mark 9:24).
So, does it make a difference?
We can never know for sure that a particular prayer will be answered the way we want. But there is plenty of evidence that praying makes a difference.
I have already mentioned that I believe prayer was a factor in God warning me of a dangerous situation while driving. But there are many other examples:
- Missiologists often say that most revivals begin with concerted prayer. Many third world christians pray much more than we tend to.
- There are many examples of God answering prayers for healing, guiding people through dreams and visions and acting in people’s lives to offer them hope.
I haven’t experienced many of those things, but it is clear that they happen, and we never know when God will act.
So I believe it is a good spiritual principle to pray often, specifically, about everything, so that our lives are truly in God’s hands.