To Christians that question is absurd because our Savior prayed all the time. But a non-believer will want a straightforward answer. After all, in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus preached, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Secularists will inquire why followers of Christ don’t get everything they ask for and, since we don’t, why pray? “Because Jesus told us to” won’t satisfy them so we must address the heart of the matter. The most truthful response we can offer is that, due to our finite perspective and severely limited scope of understanding, we simply don’t know enough for God to give us a no-limit credit card. Plus common sense tells us everybody can’t get everything. If we trust in our Heavenly Father as we should then we’ll accept that whatever comes from our prayer requests is the best for all involved. The important thing is that we continue to do all we can to improve the situation we’re petitioning God to help us with. And if a friend/family member is struggling with a destructive hurt, habit or hang-up that’s ruining his/her life we must encourage them to lean heavily on God. But absolutely nothing will be as effective as praying for them. Our “fix”, no matter how wonderful we think it is, may be the worst thing for them. We must remember God loves them more than we ever will and His “fix”, when He determines they’re ready for it, is not only tailor-made to their particular needs but permanent. And, because God’s timing is always perfect, His “fix” may not happen when we think it ought to.
Note when Jesus knew Peter would deny knowing Him He did nothing to prevent His close associate from turning his back on Him. Certainly our Lord could’ve “fixed” him on the spot but He didn’t because evidently Peter needed to go through that humbling experience to grow spiritually. Jesus trusted that if His Father let His disciple’s most shameful act take place it’d be for a greater good to result. Thus our Savior told Peter in advance, “I have requested, concerning you, that your faith might not die. And when you have straightened up, uphold your brothers” (Luke 22:32). No doubt Jesus would’ve preferred Peter not behave like a coward but He left His friend free to fail or succeed on his own volition. Jesus didn’t belittle him or lecture him. And we know from the Scriptures He didn’t use His supernatural powers to alter Peter’s character flaw. No, the Son of God prayed for him to be strong enough to move beyond his weakest moment and use it to bolster the other apostles’ faith. Face it, few stories are as impactful and memorable as Peter’s infamous courtyard denials because there’s not a believer that can’t relate to what he did in his hour of panic nor not take comfort in knowing Jesus forgave him.
I’ve confessed it before and I’ll confess it again that prayer is the most anemic part of my spiritual journey with God. I’ve forced myself to make praying a regular habit but it’s still too formulaic for my liking. Therefore over the years I’ve endeavored to improve my “talks with God.” One book that helps me greatly is Dr. Larry Crabb’s excellent The Papa Prayer but, since time spent on one’s knees before the Creator is such an intimate encounter, there’s no one-size-fits-all method we should all adhere to. I must plug away at it faithfully and trust that God knows where my heart’s at. Now, Jesus did give us the Lord’s Prayer and there’s none better to memorize but it’s my opinion He intended it to be merely an example of what we should pray for on a daily basis, not a droning string of words recited out of a misdirected sense of obligation. Having said that, I also don’t think God expects us to be “prayer experts.” Crabb and the late great Brennan Manning were chatting after a conference years ago. Larry asked Brennan where he was headed next. Brennan told him he was leaving to attend another weeklong prayer retreat. Crabb asked him if the retreats were helpful. Brennan responded with, “I’ve never thought about what I get out of it. I just figure God likes it when I show up.” Perhaps that’s the wisest attitude any of us can cop concerning prayer.
I reckon it’s vital we establish for ourselves exactly what prayer is. If we follow Jesus’ lead it’s basically asking God for things. The entire Bible is filled with prayerful requests front to back. However, many Christians deem it downright presumptive to dare ask God for what they want. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with feeling that way, there’s no law against asking the Father in heaven for blessings, either. Now, if our prayers are completely selfish we’re missing the boat altogether but to not include our own preferences in our prayers is somewhat nearsighted. In other words, to pray for world peace is admirable but it’s also okay to ask Him to provide some divine assistance with an overdue bill because God cares about us individually, too. He may or may not say “yes” but there’s still as yet no commandment against asking. Dallas Willard wrote, “…I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, ‘Talking to God about what we’re doing together.’ That immediately focuses the activity where we are but at the same time drives the egotism out of it. …Prayer is a matter of explicitly sharing with God my concerns about what He too is concerned about in my life. …This is our walk together.” Crabb said, “For a long time now, without even realizing it, you’ve seen God as an ally in your purposes. You’ve lost sight of the fact that He sees you as an ally in His.”
Again, it’s worth emphasizing prayer isn’t demanding things from God but respectfully, as a child would a loving parent, requesting Him to be involved in our life and to please see to our fundamental needs. Surely we can trust Him to know what is a genuine need and what isn’t. The Apostle Paul explained it better than I ever will when he wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). That profound statement tells us everything we need to know concerning what our attitude should be when entering into a one-on-one conversation with our Maker. We’re to worship Him with respectful reverence, we’re to express our gratitude for what He’s done for us so far and we’re to share with Him what we’d like to see happen. If these elements are included in our prayers it’s safe to say we’re on the right road. Crabb added, “When we mature enough to want from God what He’s ready to give us, incredible things happen – sometimes around us, always in us. He may use His power to change our circumstances to our liking. He will use His power to change our hearts to His liking.” J.I. Packer preached, “Sometimes we ask for the wrong thing! It’s God’s prerogative to give good things, things that we have need of, and if in our unwisdom we ask for things that do not come under these headings God, like any good parent, reserves the right to say, ‘No, not that; it wouldn’t be good for you – but have this instead.’ Good parents never simply ignore what their children are saying, nor simply disregard their feelings of need, and neither does God; but often He gives us what we should have asked for, rather than what we actually requested.”
An atheist might argue, “But what good’s praying if God already knows what’s gonna happen? Aren’t you believers quick to proclaim how unchangeable He is?” The answer to that is this: Who and what God is will never change. That doesn’t mean He can’t change His mind. Therefore our prayers do make a difference. Think about it. Would a loving God instruct us to pray (and to pray Himself while He was here on Earth) if it was nothing more than an exercise in futility? No way. The Bible reinforces the fact that God not only listens to but can be swayed by our fervent pleas. One example is found in Exodus. God miraculously delivers the Israelites from Egyptian slavery but then, while Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments up on Sinai, they start acting like spoiled college hooligans on spring break, indulging in everything sinful they can concoct including fashioning and then bowing down to a golden cow. God’s not amused and tells Moses He’s going to wipe them out and start a brand new tribe through Moses’ seed. Moses, not wanting to see his hard work go to waste, reasons with God. “What will the Egyptians say?” he asks, “That you went to the trouble of parting the Red Sea only to terminate all your ‘chosen people’ in the desert? That’ll damage your reputation considerably, Lord.” He then reminded God of the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He said, “While these rebellious ingrates of yours do deserve a heavy dose of capital punishment it’d probably be a blunder to go back on your word entirely. It’d set a bad precedent, don’t you think?” It worked. “Then the LORD relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people” (Exodus 32:14).
Illustration #2 involves Judah’s good king Hezekiah, a man who’d already witnessed his prayers being answered by God when he was confronted with the massive army of the ruthless king of Assyria, Sennacherib. 185,000 enemy troops bit the dust in one night and the freaked-out Sennacherib hightailed it. Later Hezekiah contracted a terminal illness. Isaiah came to deliver a message. Seems God had revealed to the prophet that, sadly, the king was a goner. Rather than give up the ghost Hezekiah turned to the wall and started praying like nobody’s business. Weeping, he reminded God he’d been a faithful servant who’d always tried to do the righteous thing. Evidently God thought the situation over and stopped Isaiah before he could grab a cab outside the castle, telling him to return to the king with this message: “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Look, I will heal you. …I will add fifteen years to your life and rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 20:5-6). God changed His eternal mind because letting the king live another decade and a half didn’t run contrary to His perfect will. God’s able to do things like that because He’s God and, therefore, no restrictions apply. The fact He can do as He sees fit doesn’t diminish His omniscience one bit. Willard wrote, “He’d be a lesser God if He could not change His intentions when He thinks it appropriate. And if He chooses to deal with humanity in such a way that He’ll occasionally think it appropriate, that’s just fine.”
Prayer has been proven a genuine game-changer and it baffles scientists no end. In the 50s a university research program consisting of several “prayer therapy groups” was conducted. Prayers offered in the name of Jesus produced notable improvements in the patients they prayed for. The official findings warranted further experimentation. Since then there’ve been more than 130 serious studies on the effects of prayer with their astoundingly consistent results having been published in an array of medical and professional journals. One in particular dealt with 393 coronary care patients who weren’t even made aware people were praying for them. The remarkable results couldn’t be downplayed. Of the patient groups that received prayers fewer died, fewer required side effect-laden drugs and not one patient had to go on life support! And distance had no bearing on the positive effects of prayer, either. Prayer was even found to be beneficial for the health of plants and bacteria cultures! Their findings made global headline news. So obviously there’s something to this “prayer stuff” but we never hear about those irrefutable studies these days because it doesn’t fit into the secular world’s narrative that insists praying’s nothing more than wishful thinking. That’s disgraceful. (As Philip Yancey said: “If we’re upset about the condition of this planet, I can only imagine how God feels.”)
But those of us who’ve increased their knowledge of God (due to the transforming work of the indwelling Holy Spirit) understand prayer is proof positive that we, as individuals, count. We matter. And that through the power of prayer we’ll continue to mature in character toward becoming people “…created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Prayer does produce tangible results but more often than not we have to be patient with God because what we ask for inevitably involves changes that must take place in the hearts and/or circumstances of individuals both known and unknown to us. And we must be persistent in praying, as well. Jesus’ parable about the judge and the widow found in Luke 18 shows that the squeaky wheel does get the divine grease. Frederick Buechner wrote, “…Keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if He does not bring you the answer you want, He will bring you Himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that’s what we’re really praying for.”
The Bible indicates that, being the good, good Father He is, God can be persuaded by the heartfelt pleas of His beloved children. As Willard opined, “It’s not inherently ‘greater’ to be inflexible. That’s an unfortunate human idea of greatness, derived from behavior patterns all too common in a fallen world. It turns God into a cosmic stuffed shirt.” To think that any alterations God instigates in the affairs of human beings on this tiny planet has any effect whatsoever on the unfolding of His master plan throughout the vastness of His created universe is sheer nonsense. Jesus told us to ask. So let us ask away. What God will bless us with just might floor us. James S. Stewart wrote, “By teaching and life Jesus showed that to know a God who is thus vitally interested in all His children’s concerns is to have the secret of a peace, a poise, and a steadiness that nothing in life can disturb.”