Does prayer change things? This is one of the perennial questions about the biblical teaching on prayer.
Many have (rightly) noted that, in one sense, prayer cannot possibly change things. That is, if God is sovereign (and he is), and if he has ordained everything that will happen, down to the minutest detail (and he has), then the things he has ordained will happen quite apart from the prayers of his people.
The other side of the coin suggests that God exists to do our bidding. Perhaps it is not stated quite as crassly as that, but the idea is that we can claim whatever we want by prayer—assuming we have sufficient faith.
Neither of these positions takes into full account the biblical teaching on prayer, and both may result in defective thinking and living.
Those who emphasise God’s sovereignty to the degree that prayer cannot possibly change things may well conclude that prayer is ultimately powerless. It may be good to “talk about things” with God, and prayer may make us feel better about things, but since it’s not going to change things anyway, there is little point to a deep and consistent prayer life.
On the other hand, those who view prayer as a way to get what they want may well find themselves doubting their own faith or even God’s goodness when God does not acquiesce to their whims. They may be berated by misguided (professing) believers for not having sufficient faith to see their prayers answered. Ultimately, they may find themselves disillusioned by God’s “failure” to answer their prayers.
Both of these understandings of prayer can be “justified” by a misinterpretation of biblical texts, or by not taking into account the full scriptural teaching on prayer.
In the Christian circles in which I move, the greater temptation is perhaps to the first position: overemphasising God’s absolute sovereignty to the exclusion of texts that speak of God answering prayer—even relenting of certain stated intentions. So how do we explain God relenting of certain intentions if he has determined everything that will happen anyway? For example, how do we resolve the tension between God ordaining the number of days we have to live (Psalm 139:16) with the possibility of dying before our time (Ecclesiastes 7:17)?
The fact is, we tend to overcomplicate things. The Bible certainly does teach God’s absolute sovereignty over the minutest of details. But it also teaches that God is pleased to accomplish his decreed ends through means—one of those means being prayer. Illustrations of this abound in Scripture.
Take, for example, the four-chapter historical narrative placed in the middle of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah 36–39 record historical events that occurred during the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah. These chapters stand in stark contrast to the prophetic nature of most of the rest of the book. One of the things that these chapters emphasise is prayer.
Chapter 36 records the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib, king of Assyria. The invasion took place in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, when Sennacherib sent emissaries to Jerusalem with loud threats of utter destruction. Eliakim, Shebna and Joah informed Hezekiah of the threats that had been made.
Hezekiah, according to chapter 37, turned to Isaiah for help. He went into the temple and sent representatives to Isaiah to inform him of Sennacherib’s threats. Isaiah promised deliverance by the word of the Lord, and notice how Hezekiah responded: He “prayed to the LORD” (37:15). He had God’s promise, but he prayed nonetheless. And the result of his prayer was this: “Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him’” (vv. 21–22). The text goes on to prophesy Sennacherib’s fall, which is then detailed in vv. 36–38.
Observe, then, closely: God promised, Hezekiah prayed, and God delivered. But God delivered, quite clearly “because you have prayed to me.” God was pleased to use Hezekiah’s prayer as the means to achieving his clearly revealed end.
So entrenched into the fabric of Scripture is this principle that James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). And as Oswald Chambers points out, not asking is not always the same as not praying. Sometimes we pray without asking. “We complain before God, and sometimes we are apologetic or indifferent to Him, but we actually ask Him for very few things.”
God is absolutely sovereign. Nothing happens apart from his sovereign decree. But we, living on earth, do not always know what God has purposed, and so we pray in faith, trusting that, as he did with Hezekiah, he will delight to achieve his purposed end by the means of our prayers. We pray for healing. We pray for wisdom in decision making. We pray for our physical needs to be met. We pray for the furtherance of the gospel. And we do this all in faith, knowing that God achieves his ends through ordained means.
Perhaps no one has said it more eloquently than C. S. Lewis, who in an essay titled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” wrote,
Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will. “God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including prayers, of His creatures.1