What do you say when a friend tells you of some struggle in their life like a troubling medical diagnosis, a bad car wreck, or a recent death in the family? Have you ever said “I’ll be thinking of you” or something similar? Most people take that as a sincere statement of sympathy. But what good does just thinking of somebody do? Maybe there’s the intent of follow-up action after that prerequisite thought, which is certainly good, but does just thinking of someone help them in any way? Not really. What about statements like “Could I pray with you now?” Skeptics would place that last statement in the same category as the first one, but I’d like to suggest why that isn’t the case.
First off, what is prayer? The atheist who says that God doesn’t exist would say that it is nothing more than us talking to ourselves. I’ve discussed the rational justification for God’s existence at length previously (here, here, and here among others…), but today, let’s take God’s existence as a given for the sake of argument. In that case, prayer is our personal communication with the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all there is. And that is precisely where the difference lies. Christians aren’t simply thinking well of another when they pray for them, or expressing their hope for a good outcome. We are asking the God who made all things in the first place to intervene in the course of human events. The power to change events rests not in our own limited powers of thought, but in the nature of the one and only omnipotent God. However, prayers are not magic spells or incantations that move God to act in a certain way; Christians don’t believe their prayers have any power in themselves. Our hope is in the One we pray to, not the prayer itself. Prayer also isn’t our way of letting God know what we want – He knew before we were even born! [Matt 6:8] Why bother praying then? I see four reasons:
- Prayer affirms our reliance on God as we seek His will and His sustenance. None of us would even exist without God, but that’s so easy to forget sometimes. We live in a very self-centered culture, but prayer reminds us that the story is God’s, and it’s better to be a footnote in His story than the star of our own!
- It develops our character as we then conform our will to His. As Norm Geisler puts it, “Prayer is not a means by which we change God; it is a means by which God changes us.” In prayer we learn submission to God’s perfect will, as Jesus modeled for us in Gethsemane when he prayed, “Yet not my will, but Yours be done.”[Luke 22:42] We learn patience and trust as we learn to wait on God rather than blindly rush into our own short-sighted plans. And trust is at the very core of biblical faith.
- Prayer draws us in to closer fellowship with God just as any conversation draws you closer to the other person you’re conversing with.
- Prayer allows us to participate, in some small way, in God’s work. God is sovereign, and knows all things, and yet He condescends to accomplish His goals in the world through the prayers of His people. [James 5:17]
So while positive thoughts may or may not make us feel better, prayer in accordance with God’s will can actually accomplish real change. But that brings up some legitimate questions, doesn’t it? I see three main questions: 1) what about unanswered prayers? 2) what about competing prayers, such as between opposing sides in a civil war, or between Christians and Muslims? and 3) how do we know our answered prayers aren’t just coincidence? Let’s take a look at that first question this week.
What about when God doesn’t seem to answer? What are we to make of it when we petition God to intervene and … nothing changes? Or it changes, but not the way we wanted? While I’ve never considered myself a country music fan, Garth Brooks was on to something when he sang that he thanked God for unanswered prayers and that “just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care / Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Unfortunately, our limited perspective often keeps us from seeing what the best course of events would be until it’s too late. For us, only hindsight is 20/20, and even then, not always. Yet God’s omniscience means that He has better clarity regarding the future than we do even of the most straightforward events in the past. For even when we look at past events where we can clearly see causes and their effects, the butterfly effect still prevents us from ever really knowing how a different chain of events would’ve changed life as we know it. But what about those tragic events like the death of a child, or intense suffering of a dear friend? These are often the unanswered prayers that hurt us the deepest, and cause some to give up on God. Things like “Why wouldn’t God heal my sick mother?” have led many a person to resentment and rejection of God. This is because we are intensely emotionally invested in that outcome, and with our finite perspective, we see no reason at the time for a good God to not grant that desire. But as noted earlier, we really can’t predict the future good that may derive from a painful situation now. For example, countless lives have been saved over the years because someone was driven into medical practice or disease research because of the impactful death of a loved one. But even if there is no future public good derived from one’s unanswered prayer, the spiritual character development and closer fellowship with God mentioned above are immeasurably valuable. We were created by God for His glory [Isaiah 43:7], and whatever helps us to glorify God in our earthly lives, and prepares us for our eternal life, is of great value from an eternal perspective.
Do I understand the interaction of our free will to ask for something, and God’s sovereignty to accomplish whatever He chooses, and His omniscience regarding how the situation will turn out before it even developed? No, but I don’t have to either. I do know that He is trustworthy, and like a good soldier, I can be content with some need-to-know scenarios being “above my pay grade”. If I’ve been willing to trust some all-too-human commanders in my time to overrule what I think they should do, based on my limited perspective from one small corner of the map, then why would I question the One who sees the end from the beginning with perfect clarity, who does not make mistakes, and who has a grander plan than anything I could ever conceive? In the end, it’s really not that we have unanswered prayers, but that the answer wasn’t what we were looking for. Tune in next week for part 2, and share your thoughts in a comment in the meantime. Thanks!
 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011), p. 449.
 Find the lyrics here. Interestingly, that song is a true story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unanswered_Prayers, accessed 2016/09/25.