HAVE WE SETTLED FOR FAR TOO LITTLE?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say: “Prayer doesn’t change things, it only changes us”. Now it’s true that prayer does indeed transform us. It increases our intimacy with God, it gives us an opportunity to confess sin, it allows us to express our dependence upon Him, it gives us a sense of perspective, and some would even argue that it gives God a means by which to speak to us.
But is prayer only about ‘personal transformation’?
Many famous people throughout history have certainly thought so. Mother Teresa once said: “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts”. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards explicitly stated that prayer is unable to change things. He once preached: “It is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing by our prayers… The mercy of God is not moved or drawn by anything in the creature… He is self-moved”.
Perhaps the most significant argument came from the early church leader Origen: “First, if God foreknows what will come to be and if it must happen, then prayer is in vain. Second, if everything happens according to God’s will and if what He wills is fixed and none of the things He wills can be changed, then prayer is in vain.”
But as much as this all sounds very profound and spiritual, it’s simply not true.
The Bible repeatedly teaches that prayer does change things. That it’s not just about ‘spiritual transformation’. That there is in fact a God on the other side of our prayers who hears and responds.
GOD WANTS TO DO MORE
Of course God wants us to experience ‘personal transformation’. But God wants to do more than just simply change us. He wants to change the world around us. Consider the following…
1. THE BIBLE TEACHES THAT PRAYER AFFECTS THINGS
James, the brother of Jesus says: “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well… The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:15-16).
Jesus said: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). He taught us that our Father in heaven will give good gifts to those who ask him (Matthew 7:11). He promised: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14).
In the Gospel of Luke, we find that “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). What’s interesting is that the parable is not about being more disciplined. It’s not about personal transformation. It’s not even about intimacy with God. Although these are all good things, Jesus tells a parable about a woman who eventually gets what she asks for (c.f. Luke 18:1-8).
The Bible records story after story of God’s people crying out to God in prayer, not just as a means of personal transformation, but in the hope that God would hear them and respond.
2. MANY CHRISTIAN LEADERS WHO ARE KNOWN FOR THEIR DEEP UNDERSTANDING OF PRAYER HAVE COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT PRAYER AFFECTS THINGS
E.M. Bounds, who has authored nine books on the topic of prayer, once said: “We have much fine writing and learned talk about…how prayer serves its full measure of results, not by affecting God, but by affecting us, by becoming a training school for those who pray. How well all this may look, and how reasonable so ever it may seem, there is nothing of it in the Bible. The clear and repeated language of the Bible is that prayer is to be answered by God… That as a Father he gives to us when we ask… The best praying, therefore, is praying that gets an answer”.
Andrew Murray, a Calvinist who worked as a pastor and wrote over 240 books, several of which are on the topic of prayer, believed that there was more to prayer than just ‘personal transformation’: “God does indeed allow Himself to be decided by prayer to do what He otherwise would not have done.” He went onto say that “we need this simple, confident faith that God will give us what we ask for… God’s word provides everything needed to stir and strengthen such faith in us… Scripture shows us how God is waiting, delighting to bestow these blessings in answered prayer. In a thousand promises and testimonies, it urges us to believe that prayer will be heard and that what we cannot possibly do for ourselves can be done by prayer”.
Charles Spurgeon, a Calvinist who became known as the Prince of Preachers, said: “Does He tell me to pray, and yet does prayer have no more of a result than if I whistled to the wind or sang to a grove of trees? If there is no answer to prayer, prayer is a monstrous absurdity, and God is the author of it, which it is blasphemy to assert. Only a fool will continue to pray when you have once proved to him that prayer has no effect with God and never receives an answer. If it is indeed true that its effects end with the man who prays, prayer is a work for idiots and madmen, not for sane people!” On another occasion he said: “Prayer moves the arm that moves the world.”
And lastly, Martin Luther, the leader of the protestant reformation, once said: “Because he is God, he also claims the honor of giving far more abundantly and liberally than anyone can comprehend—like an eternal, inexhaustible fountain, which, the more it gushes forth and overflows, the more it continues to give. He desires nothing more from us than that we ask many and great things of him. And, on the contrary, he is angered if we do not ask and demand with confidence”. On another occasion he stated: “God is ready to give more quickly, and to give more than you ask; yea, he offers his treasures if we only take them. It is truly a great shame and a severe chastisement for us Christians that God should still upbraid us for our slothfulness in prayer, and that we fail to let such a rich and excellent promise incite us to pray.”
3. MANY CHRISTIAN LEADERS WHO BELIEVE STRONGLY IN THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD HAVE COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT PRAYER AFFECTS THINGS
John Piper, one of the leading Calvinists in the world today, said: “It’s simply staggering that… the Sovereign Ruler of the universe would ordain that prayers cause things. They do. Prayers cause things to happen that would not happen if you didn’t pray…If you do not avail yourself of the privilege of bringing to pass events in the universe that would not take place if you didn’t pray, you are acting like a colossal fool”.
Timothy Keller, co-founder of the Gospel Coalition, and one of the most influential Christian leaders in the early 21st Century, said: “Through our petitions, God effects the circumstances of history (James 5: 16b– 18 ). He will work justice in the world through our prayers (Luke 18: 7– 8). There are many things that he says he will not give or effect until we ask (James 4: 2b). When we do ask, he will give us above and beyond what we have asked for (Eph 3: 20). He will begrudge us no good thing that we ask for (James 1: 6). All of this means we should pray assertively and confidently. We should be like Hezekiah, who took the threatening letter from the Assyrian king and “spread it out before the Lord” (Is 37: 14), offering a mighty prayer for protection. We have a God who runs the universe and is also our heavenly Father. Therefore, Jesus says we should pray with “shameless audacity” (Luke 11: 8). The Greek word here is remarkable— it ordinarily means “rudeness or impertinence.” Even though we are, the author of Hebrews says, to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb 12: 28), we nonetheless are to assertively spread our concerns before God”.
John Calvin, the father of Calvinism, said: “It was a notable event for God to put heaven, in some sense, under the control of Elijah’s prayers, to be obedient to his requests. By his prayers, Elijah kept heaven shut for two years and a half. Then he opened it, and made it suddenly pour with a great rain, from which we may see the miraculous power of prayer”.
BUT THAT’S NOT MY EXPERIENCE…
As much as all this might sound good in theory, many of us would argue that it’s not our experience. We’ve tried asking God to do something on our behalf, and we’ve been left feeling disappointed. We’ve prayed and pleaded and perhaps even fasted, but God didn’t come through the way we hoped He would. So how are we to make sense of this?
Sometimes within the church community, certain Christians get criticized for placing too much emphasis on experience. The concern is that they develop certain beliefs or practices that have little to no grounding in Scripture. Whether or not all this is true is probably best looked at on a case by case basis, but just as there is a danger in basing our theology on our experience, there is an equal danger of basing our theology on our lack of experience.
So often we come to conclusions about how God answers prayer based upon our experience of how God has (or hasn’t) answered our prayers. But if we are to get a clear understanding of what God says about prayer, we need to be prepared to place our experience (or lack of experience) on the shelf, and be willing to submit to what the Bible actually says. And the repeated language of the Bible is that God does indeed move in response to our prayers. God wants to do more than just simply change us. He wants to change the world around us.
“No one can believe how powerful prayer is and what it can effect, except those who have learned it by experience. Whenever I have prayed earnestly, I have been heard and have obtained more than I prayed for. God sometimes delays, but He always comes.” – Martin Luther