Can our prayers change the course of history? If the answer is no, then asking God to do anything seems fairly pointless. But if the answer is yes, then prayer makes an incredibly significant difference.
Here’s at least three reasons to believe that our prayers can change the course of history…
FIRSTLY, NOT EVERYTHING HAS BEEN DECIDED BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF TIME
When it comes to understanding God’s unfolding plan in history, it seems that there are three categories of events…
CATEGORY #1 – GOD DECIDES THAT SOME THINGS WILL HAPPEN NO MATTER WHAT
The Bible seems to indicate that some events are going to happen no matter what. That God in His sovereignty has chosen to act, and no amount of prayer or free-will will stop these events from occurring.
Some examples include…
> The creation of the world.
> God choosing Abraham to be the father of the Jewish people.
> God choosing Mary to be the mother of Jesus.
> The birth, death, resurrection & ascension of Jesus.
> Sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
> Paul becoming the Apostle to the Gentiles & eventually getting to Rome.
> The second coming of Jesus.
CATEGORY #2 – GOD DECLARES THAT HE WANTS SOME THINGS TO HAPPEN, BUT THEY MAY NOT HAPPEN
The Bible seems to indicate that God has a desire for certain things to happen, but whether they happen or not is determined by several factors: our decisions, other’s decisions, Satanic opposition, and how much we are willing to seek God in prayer.
Some examples include…
> God wanted Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, but they disobeyed Him and ate anyway.
> God wanted the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, but because they were afraid & disobeyed, they wandered the desert for 40 years.
> God wanted Moses to lead the people into the Promised Land, but because of Moses sin, God handed the leadership to Joshua before they went in.
> God didn’t want Israel to have a king, but because the people really wanted one, He ended up giving them one anyway.
> God wanted to forgive His people & heal their land, but it would only happen if they would humble themselves & pray & seek His face & turn from their wicked ways (2 Chronicles 7:14).
> God wanted His people to remain in the Promised Land, but it would only happen if they remained faithful. If they were unfaithful, God would scatter them among the nations.
> Jesus wanted to perform miracles in His home town, but because of the people’s lack of faith He was not able to do so.
CATEGORY #3 – GOD HASN’T DECLARED ANY SPECIFIC WILL REGARDING HOW HE WANTS SOME THINGS HAPPEN
Although this is not as clear, and perhaps not as important, it would seem that God doesn’t mind how some things happen. Or at the very least, He hasn’t declared His specific will regarding certain situations.
Some examples include…
> God never declared what Adam had to name the animals. Adam was free to choose a name for each one.
> God never declared that Adam and Eve had to eat from a particular tree in the garden at a particular time of day. They were free to eat of any tree (except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil).
> God never declared to Noah what materials he was to use to build the Ark. He was given the dimensions, and the plan, but not specifics.
> God never declared to Nehemiah how he was to rebuild the wall. God simply placed a desire in Nehemiah’s heart for God’s people to return to Israel.
Now if not everything has been decided before the beginning of time, and much of what happens in the future is still yet to be determined, it stands to reason then that our prayers can make an enormous difference, for they are the means by which we ask God to work.
SECONDLY, EVEN IF GOD HAS DECIDED THAT SOME THINGS WILL HAPPEN NO MATTER WHAT, OUR PRAYERS CAN STILL AFFECT THE HOW & WHEN THEY HAPPEN
Although our prayers won’t affect whether or not these sovereign events will come about, they can sometimes affect how and when they come about. Consider the following examples…
A) THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE
In Matthew 24:16-21, we read of a prophecy that Jesus gave regarding the destruction of the temple: “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again”.
Clearly this event was going to occur no matter what (it eventually happened in 70 AD). However even though this was a sovereign event, Jesus commanded His followers: “Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath”. Now the fact that Jesus didn’t want it to take place in winter or on the Sabbath is not especially remarkable. The New Bible Commentary states: “In winter the roads would be impassable, and on the Sabbath gates would be shut and provisions unobtainable”. What is remarkable however is that somehow the prayers of God’s people had an influence over whether or not the event would take place in winter or summer.
So here we find that even when an event is definitely going to happen no matter what, the timing of that event can be affected by prayer.
B) AHAB GOING TO BATTLE AGAINST SYRIA
In his book You Were Born for This, Bruce Wilkinson describes how in 1 Kings 22 God came to lead Ahab to battle against Syria…
What’s happening on earth, in this Bible chapter, is a turning point in the history of Israel. A ruthless and corrupt king named Ahab is trying to make a decision. Should he go into battle against Syria or not? His advisors-all of whom worship idols, not God—have told him to march north to battle because victory is guaranteed. But Ahab wavers. He wants confirmation from an outside source. On the recommendation of a friend, a prophet of God is brought in. His name is Micaiah. Ahab soon learns that God has granted this little-known man snorkel vision: while living on earth, he can see directly into Heaven. He actually watches and listens as God responds in real time to Ahab’s question. Let’s watch with him:
I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of Heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. And the LORD said, “Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?” So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, and said, “I will persuade him.” The LORD said to him, “In what way?”
Do you see what’s happening in Heaven? It could almost be called a business meeting. God wants to rescue Israel from its evil king, but He’s open to ideas on how to accomplish it. When the spirit (or angel) proposes to mislead the king through his advisors, God not only approves but promises him success.
Now again, God had already decided that Ahab would battle against Syria. This was something He was going to do no matter what. What’s interesting however is that He was open to suggestions as to how this would happen. In this particular case He was taking suggestions from His angels. And if God was willing to take suggestions from His angels, surely He is just as open to taking suggestions from His children.
Both these examples tell us that even when God has decided before the beginning of time that something will happen, the timing and details of the event can be affected by our prayers.
THIRDLY, SIGNIFICANT CHRISTIAN LEADERS ARGUE THAT OUR PRAYERS CAN CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY
Blaise Pascal, one of the most significant thinkers to have ever lived, said: “God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality”. In other words, he believed that our prayers can shape the course of history.
Richard Foster, author of the Celebration of Discipline, said: “We are working with God to determine the future. Certain things will happen in history if we pray rightly.”
Jim Cymbala, author of Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, went so far as to say: “If we call upon the Lord, he has promised in his Word to answer, to bring the unsaved to himself, to pour out his Spirit among us. If we don’t call upon the Lord, he has promised nothing—nothing at all. It’s as simple as that. No matter what I preach or what we claim to believe in our heads, the future will depend upon our times of prayer.”
E. M. Bounds, one the most influential voices on the topic of prayer, said: “God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil.”
But perhaps the strongest argument comes from C. S. Lewis in his essay Work and Prayer…
In every action, just as in every prayer, you are trying to bring about a certain result; and this result must be good or bad. Why, then, do we not argue as the opponents of prayer argue, and say that if the intended result is good, God will bring it to pass without your interference, and that if it is bad, He will prevent it happening whatever you do? Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty… however much soap you use. Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything?
We know that we can act and that our actions produce results. Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole history with His own hand. Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all. It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise. It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all, but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method… He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers. If it is foolish and impudent to ask for victory in war (on the ground that God might be expected to know best), it would be equally foolish and impudent to put on a [raincoat] – does not God know best whether you ought to be wet or dry?
SO HOW THEN SHOULD WE PRAY?
Mark 5 tells the story of how Jarius, one of the Synagogue Leaders, came to Jesus begging for Him to heal his daughter. Jesus agreed to do so, but before they could make it to Jarius’ house, some people came to report that Jarius’ daughter had died. They then asked: “Why bother the teacher anymore?” (Mark 5:35).
Although this was completely insensitive, they were right. There was no point. Her fate had been sealed. What possible good could it do to continue to ask Jesus to come?
But amazingly, Jesus saw things very differently. He turned to Jarius and said: “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mark 5:36).
Often we can go through life feeling like our fate has already been sealed. We can mistakenly believe that everything has been decided before the beginning of time, and that our actions and prayers make no difference whatsoever. But the good news is that God sees things very differently. The repeated message of the Bible is that prayer does make a difference. The course of history is not set. We have every reason to pray believing that our prayers can shape the future.