Does prayer make any difference? Does it really change anything? Someone once asked me that question, only in a slightly different manner: “Does prayer change God’s mind?” My answer brought storms of protest. I said simply, “No.” Now, if the person had asked me, “Does prayer change things?” I would have answered, “Of course!”
The Bible says there are certain things God has decreed from all eternity. Those things will inevitably come to pass. If you were to pray individually or if you and I were to join forces in prayer or if all the Christians of the world were to pray collectively, it “would not change what God, in His hidden counsel, has determined to do. If we decided to pray for Jesus not to return, He still would return. You might ask, though, “Doesn’t the Bible say that if two or three agree on anything, they’ll get it?” Yes, it does, but that passage is talking about church discipline, not prayer requests. So we must take all the biblical teaching on prayer into account and not isolate one passage from the rest. We must approach the matter in light of the whole of Scripture, resisting an atomistic reading. Again, you might ask, “Doesn’t the Bible say from time to time that God repents?” Yes, the Old Testament certainly says so. The book of Jonah tells us that God “repented of ” the judgment He had planned for the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:10, KJV). In using the concept of repentance here, the Bible is describing God, who is Spirit, in what theologians call “anthropomorphic” language. Obviously the Bible does not mean that God repented in the way we would repent; otherwise, we could rightly assume that God had sinned and therefore would need a savior Himself. What it clearly means is that God removed the threat of judgment from the people. The Hebrew word nacham, translated “repent” in the King James Version, means “comforted” or “eased” in this case. God was comforted and felt at ease that the people “had turned from their sin, and therefore He revoked the sentence of judgment He had imposed.
When God hangs His sword of judgment over people’s heads, and they repent and He then withholds His judgment, has He really changed His mind? The mind of God does not change for God does not change. Things change, and they change according to His sovereign will, which He exercises through secondary means and secondary activities. The prayer of His people is one of the means He uses to bring things to pass in this world. So if you ask me whether prayer changes things, I answer with an unhesitating “Yes!”
It is impossible to know how much of human history reflects God’s immediate intervention and how much reveals God working through human agents. Calvin’s favorite example of this was the book of Job. The Sabeans and the Chaldeans had taken Job’s donkeys and camels. Why? Because Satan had stirred their hearts to do so. But why? Because Satan had received permission from God to test Job’s faithfulness in any way he so desired, short of taking Job’s life. Why had God agreed to such a thing? For three reasons: (1) to silence the slander of Satan; (2) to vindicate Himself; and (3) to vindicate Job from the slander of Satan. All of these reasons are perfectly righteous justifications for God’s actions.
By contrast, Satan’s purpose in stirring up these two groups was to cause Job to blaspheme God—an altogether wicked motive. But we notice that Satan did not do something supernatural to accomplish his ends. He chose human agents—the Sabeans and Chaldeans, who were evil by nature—to steal Job’s animals. The Sabeans and Chaldeans were known for their thievery and murderous way of life. Their will was involved, but there was no coercion; God’s purpose was accomplished through their wicked actions.
The Sabeans and Chaldeans were free to choose, but for them, as for us, freedom always means freedom within limits. We must not, however, confuse human freedom and human autonomy. There will always be a conflict between divine sovereignty and human autonomy. There is never a conflict between divine sovereignty and human freedom. The Bible says that man is free, but he is not an autonomous law unto himself.
Suppose the Sabeans and Chaldeans had prayed, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” I’m absolutely certain that Job’s animals still would have been stolen, but not necessarily by the Sabeans and Chaldeans. God might have chosen to”answer their prayer, but He would have used some other agent to steal Job’s animals. There is freedom within limits, and within those limits, our prayers can change things. The Scriptures tell us that Elijah, through prayer, kept the rain from falling. He was not dissuaded from praying by his understanding of divine sovereignty.
No human being has ever had a more profound understanding of divine sovereignty than Jesus. No man ever prayed more fiercely or more effectively. Even in Gethsemane, He requested an option, a different way. When the request was denied, He bowed to the Father’s will. The very reason we pray is because of God’s sovereignty, because we believe that God has it within His power to order things according to His purpose. That is what sovereignty is all about—ordering things according to God’s purpose. So then, does prayer change God’s mind? No. Does prayer change things? Yes, of course. The promise of the Scriptures is that “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). The problem is that we are not all that righteous. What prayer most often changes is the wickedness and the hardness of our own hearts. That alone would be reason enough to pray, even if none of the other reasons were valid or true.
In a sermon titled “The Most High, a Prayer-Hearing God,” Jonathan Edwards gave two reasons why God requires prayer:
With respect to God, prayer is but a sensible acknowledgement of our dependence on him to his glory. As he hath made all things for his own glory, so he will be glorified and acknowledged by his creatures; and it is fit that he should require this of those who would be subjects of his mercy . . . is a suitable acknowledgement of our dependence on the power and mercy of God for that which we need, and but a suitable honor paid to the great Author and Fountain of all good.
With respect to ourselves, God requires prayer of us . . . Fervent prayer many ways tends to prepare the heart. Hereby is excited a sense of our need . . . whereby the mind is more prepared to prize . . . Our prayer to God may excite in us a suitable sense and consideration of our dependence on God for the mercy we ask, and a suitable exercise of faith in God’s sufficiency, so that we may be prepared to glorify his name when the mercy is received. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards , 2:116)
All that God does is for His glory first and for our benefit second. We pray because God commands us to pray, because it glorifies Him, and because it benefits us.
- If God Is Sovereign, Why Pray?
- Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?
This excerpt is taken from R.C. Sproul’s Crucial Questions booklet Does Prayer Change Things?. Download more free ebooks in the Crucial Questions series here.
Updated on October 17, 2011
God can change anything through prayer according to His will
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Php. 4:6-7)
Prayer changes things only for God’s people because “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:26-28). “Everything by prayer” does not mean everything in the universe, but rather “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3-4, 11). The “life” refers to eternal life. We pray only for the change that has connection to God’s plan of salvation.
However this does not mean that we pray only for spiritual things. Prayer will certainly change material things when that change has a spiritual value and benefit.
Prayer is not for satisfying physical and material lusts (Jas 4:3). It does not mean that we cannot pray for material needs. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses.” (Lk. 11:3-4) The main purpose of prayer, however, is to help make things “turn out for salvation” (Php 1:19).
“The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (Jas 5:16) When a righteous man prays there are more changes than he could ever imagine or comprehend. “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (Jas. 5:15) The sick person is not only healed but also saved.
Malaysian Woman received Holy Spirit and Healing through Prayer
Many years ago there was a Christian woman in Kuala Lumpur, West Malaysia who had been suffering from hemorrhaging, the sickness similar to the one who touched the border of Jesus’ garment and was healed (Lk. 8:43-48). This Malaysian woman had also spent her family’s savings on doctors and still could not be healed. A member brought her to our church and after hearing the full gospel of salvation she believed in the new birth of water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:3-8).
One evening while she was praying fervently at home she was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke with tongues. At that moment she also felt the power of God descended on her and pushed some liquid out of her body. After the prayer she got up and saw a puddle of blood on the floor where she had been kneeling. This woman was completely healed from that moment onwards. She and her husband were baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ.
After many months she met one of her former physicians at the town market. The doctor was surprised that she looked so healthy and asked what happened to her. He also wanted to know who had healed her. She said her doctor is the Lord Jesus Christ. The doctor also believed in Jesus and was baptized into Him.
Map showing India, Singapore and West Malaysia God poured down rain on Indian Village after Ministers prayed
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” (Jas. 5:17-18)
In 1969 three ministers – Pammal James (Madras, India), John Chin (Singapore) and Paul Wong (Ipoh, Malaysia) were on a flight from Singapore to Madras (now Chennai). During the flight James told us the whole state of Tamil Nadu had been suffering from drought for two and half years. He requested us to pray for rain. When we arrived in Madras we actually saw and experienced how bad the drought was. The land was parched and the river bed had cracks. People did not take baths and were saving the water for cooking and drinking only.
We preached in a soccer field in Pammal Settlement outside Madras. The night after the open-air service it rained only in that area. On the second evening many people who had seen the miracle of the rain and they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. We baptized 69 people in a depression in the river where rainwater had collected the previous night. Praise and thank our Lord Jesus Christ in 1969 two new churches – Pammal Settlement and Ambathur were established in the State of Tamil Nadu, India through this wonderful miracle.
God can still perform miracles like what we read in the Holy Bible when we pray to Him in faith. Prayer does change weather conditions.
God changes path of Hurricane Rita after Houston Christians prayed
Following less than a month after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans another Category 5 hurricane named “Rita” formed in the Gulf of Mexico and had a projected path towards Houston.
On Tuesday September 20, 2005 “Forecasters said Rita could be the most intense hurricane on record ever to hit Texas, and easily one of the most powerful ever to plow into the US mainland”.
That same day through email a special prayer request was sent out to all our Church members in Houston and also through the ARK Forum for Christians all over the world to pray for three things. (1) Weakening of the hurricane, (2) Changing the course of the hurricane to an area with no population, (3) No deaths and very little damage.
On Wednesday September 21, 2005 Hurricane Rita had developed into a Category 5 storm and was heading towards Houston/Galveston. Mayor Bill White had issued warning to Houston residents and advised them to evacuate. Millions of Houstonians jammed all the roads from the North to the west.
Map shows Category 5 Hurricane Rita heading towards Houston Most of our Church members stayed in Northwest Houston
Many Church members tried to leave Houston but got stuck in the traffic jam, so they assembled in the Lee family home in the Northwest of the city.
On Friday afternoon September 23, 2005 we saw and heard the Television News that Hurricane Rita had weakened to a Category 3 storm and had changed its path. Our family went to our son’s home in Northwest Houston. In the evening we held a Bible Study. On Saturday we also held a Sabbath service. Praise and thank God there was not even a raindrop in our area.
God is merciful to the faithful Christians in Houston and answered our Prayers. Praise and thank our Lord Jesus Christ
God had answered our prayers. (1) Hurricane Rita had weakened (2) The course had been changed and Hurricane Rita made landfall on Sabine Pass, an uninhabited area near the border between Texas and Louisiana. (3) There were no deaths and little or no damage.
Prayer truly changes things. Glory and honor to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, HalleluYah!
One of the most wonderful mysteries in the universe is that prayer changes things. God has so arranged his world that we have the ability to make significant choices, some good and some bad, which affect the course of history. One means God has given us to do this is prayer—asking him to act. Because he is all-wise and all-powerful, knowing “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), he’s able to weave our requests into his eternally good purposes.
At this point our thinking can seriously go astray in one of two directions.
The first is to say, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and if everything is preordained, then he’s going to do whatever he wills anyway and thus our prayers can’t have any significant effect. Sure, they may help us psychologically, such that talking to God helps us get things off our chest that may help us feel better, but prayers don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. So why bother?”
Here there’s an overemphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty.
The second route, though different from the first, ends up in the same place by denying the usefulness of prayer. Here’s the objection: “If human beings are free to make up their own minds, then God can’t be absolutely sovereign; he must take risks such that human decisions can thwart his purposes, so there are severe limits to what we can ask for without undermining human freedom. If, for example, you have been praying for your sister to become a Christian, and God has done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won’t surrender to him, why bother asking God to save her? It’s out of order to pressure God to do more than he can do. So just give up on prayer.”
Here the emphasis rests on a certain understanding of human freedom (“libertarian”).
Taken at face value, both objections appear to have some force, but only because they employ a strange “logic” that goes beyond Scripture. It’s always foolish and dangerous to play up one aspect of what the Bible teaches at the expense of something else it equally affirms. The God of the Bible is presented as the one who rules over all; he’s all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful. He isn’t surprised by anything we may think or do. On the other hand, Scripture also presents human beings as responsible moral agents who make significant choices, doing what we desire to do (“freedom of inclination”). God has chosen to relate to us personally without compromising the fact that he is God.
That said, Scripture describes the sovereign God as “repenting” or “relenting” in response to human prayer. Take Exodus 32, for instance. At this point in salvation history, the people of Israel have broken the Ten Commandments by building and worshiping a golden calf. Incensed, God vows to wipe them out. “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people,” he says to Moses. “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (vv. 9-10). But Moses steps into the breach and reminds God of his promises, arguing his reputation will be brought into disrepute for saying one thing—“I will save the people”—and doing another—destroying them, appearing to renege on his promises to Abraham. Moses appeals to God as the sovereign king to show mercy (vv. 11-13). And that’s exactly what happens: “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (v. 14).
The theoretical problem raised by a belief in the efficacy of prayer to a sovereign God is acknowledged by C. S. Lewis, who helpfully places it within the wider context of God using certain means to achieve desired ends:
Can we believe that God 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.
Our problem in trying to see how prayer “works” is that we often have a wrong view of God in relation to his world. Often we think of God like Bruce Almighty, sitting in a celestial office and feverishly dealing with all the requests that arrive: “Mrs. Green prays her husband’s cancer be cured,” “Mr. Young prays his wife might conquer alcoholism,” and so on—with a million more worthy requests. It’s seems to be in line with God’s will that Mr. Green be healthy and Mrs. Young be sober. But what if both get worse? Does this mean that God doesn’t answer prayer?
The tangled web of humans living in a fallen world makes things more complex. At times, the good ends God desires arise from certain evils. So at one level, cancer is an evil, part of the curse on a rebellious world. God sometimes does answer prayers for healing (and in one sense all healing is divine in that God is working providentially). But we also must recognize that since we’re mortal, all people die sometime. What’s more, other prayers may be offered and answered that can only be answered if there’s not healing—like gaining patience through suffering or an increased focus on the world to come. Maybe Mr. Green’s son has turned his back on God, and through his father’s illness he’ll return. So in order to “answer” one prayer, the return of the son, God doesn’t “answer” the other, complete healing. God alone knows what is best.
As Jesus Did
Therefore, we’re called to pray as Jesus did. As a result of our prayers, some things will happen that wouldn’t otherwise. And we’re responsible for whether we pray or not. Because God is a personal God, he invites us to share in his work through prayer. As Bruce Ware puts it, “God has devised prayer as a means of enlisting us as participants in the work he has ordained, as part of the outworking of his sovereign rulership over all. . . . The relationship between divine sovereignty and petitionary prayer can be stated by this word: participation.”
God has the power and wisdom to use our prayers as he sees fit and to do what we could never imagine. If he weren’t all-powerful, there’d be little point in praying. If he weren’t all wise, it’d be dangerous to pray; after all, who’d want to ask an all-powerful but foolish person to do anything? But God is both perfectly wise and infinitely powerful, which is why you and I can pray with confidence.
Editors’ note: This article has been adapted from Melvin Tinker’s book Intended for Good: The Providence of God (InterVarsity).
If you’re going to say a prayer, it’s probably because you want something to change. When you pray for a blessing, you want to feel blessed afterward. When you pray for protection, you want to feel safe afterward. When you pray for deliverance, you want your problems to go away as soon as possible.
But if change doesn’t happen—or if change doesn’t happen like you think it should—you might conclude that praying doesn’t really work.
That’s probably why God has filled the Bible with stories of answered prayers. People implored God to intercede in their messy lives, which of course, He did. As you read these incredible stories of answered prayers, notice two important aspects:
-The attitude and motives of the person who prayed
-The power with which God answered
These stories could change the way you pray and change how your prayers get answered.
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