Why Pray?

The question is, simply put, “Why pray?” Particularly, the question is raised because of a seeming inconsistency in our theology at this point. Specifically, if God knows everything that is going to happen, what good does it do for us to pray? Even more to the heart of the matter, if God is truly sovereign and in control of the events that take place in the world, and he has already decided how he is going to act in a particular situation, why should we pray? Do we expect that our prayers will change God’s mind? This is a very good question, and it’s a question we all need to wrestle with and come to conclusions about in our own minds.

As I look at the stories told in the Bible, it seems to be a common theme that God works through means to accomplish his purposes. This is not always the case, but it seems to be regular. Rather than God just saying, “Shazzam!” and then his will coming to pass in the world, he instead seems to delight in working in and through his creatures. Take Moses as an example. We could look at all the plagues God sent down upon Egypt, and I think we will find that, in each one, Moses (and/or Aaron) was told to hold out his staff or perform some other action through which God did his mighty works. However, for an even grander example, we can look specifically at the parting of the Red Sea. In Ex. 14:15, God commands Moses to “lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it.” Then, we see that Moses does this and then “the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (Ex. 14:21). God used the means of Moses holding up his staff and stretching out his hand and the means of a strong east wind. We know that God is powerful enough that he needed neither of these elements to do what he wanted to do, but he chose to use Moses in this way. So, what does this have to do with prayer? Nothing, really, but it begins to establish the point that God uses means to accomplish his purposes in the world. Not necessarily always, but I would say most of the time.

I think what we’ll find as we look at the prayers of the Bible, the actual prayers of people recorded in the Old Testament and the New Testament, is that one of the primary means God uses to accomplish his will in the world is the prayers of his people. For example, I think this is why Luke wrote the story in Acts 12 the way he did. After Peter was thrown in prison, Acts 12:5 says, “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” Immediately, Luke then tells us about Peter’s release from the prison by an angel! Just by the way Luke has shaped the story, readers ought to conclude that God did this in response to the church’s prayers. This seems to be the case over and over again in the Gospels and Acts when we read stories about people praying to God.

Now, this of course brings up the issue of “unanswered prayer,” and I think the key to understanding “unanswered prayers” and the key to understanding how God works through our prayers or by answering our prayers is found in understanding what Jesus means when he teaches that we must pray in his name (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-26). I take this to mean what we often talk about as praying “according to God’s will,” a phrase taken from Romans 8:27 and 1 John 5:14. Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John consistently indicate if we pray “in his name” we will receive whatever we have requested. It has become traditional that we end our prayers with the phrase “in Jesus’ name,” and the intentions in this are surely excellent, but I’m not sure that this tradition hasn’t done more harm than good for our thinking about prayer. By saying these words, do we think we have guaranteed that God will answer our prayers in a certain way? Perhaps we are making a declaration (to God? to others hearing our prayer? both?) that we are striving to pray for things that God is pleased to give us. I don’t know sometimes. If praying in Jesus’ name=praying according to God’s will, then we have further teaching on what prayer is in Romans 8. Paul acknowledges that we often don’t know what we ought to pray for (Rom. 8:26), and I take this to mean that we often don’t know what the Lord’s will is for a given circumstance. Isn’t that our common experience? I know as I’m going about my day, I am often uncertain as to what specific actions God might want me to take. Even Paul the apostle shares this uncertainty with us! How comforting and sobering! But he doesn’t leave us to despair in our ignorance. Rather, Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit prays for us, and he always prays according to God’s will. This is the meaning of Rom. 8:26-27, as I understand it. We are constantly striving to know what God’s will is, and we  are constantly praying that God would work his will in our lives (at least that’s how the Model Prayer in Matt. 6 instructs us), and we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is praying for the things that we don’t know to pray for and don’t know how to pray for. This is also the meaning of the phrase “praying in the Spirit” in Eph. 6:18; this is not a special kind of prayer. Rather it’s an acknowledgment by Paul that we always pray “in the Spirit” or as we are empowered by the Spirit; we can do no other because the Holy Spirit is always interceding for us, just as he is always living in us empowering us to live godly lives. Ah, I’ve gone a bit far afield from my topic!

So, why must we pray? God has ordained that he will work in the world (and in our lives) by responding to the prayers of his people. Can he or does he work directly in the world, without some means? Probably, but I think not usually. Even our salvation comes about through means. God has chosen to use the preaching of the gospel message to bring people from being dead in sins to being alive in Christ. God unites people to Jesus by their believing/accepting response to the gospel message, either preached or written (but usually preached; see Rom. 1:16; 10:9-17; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:2ish). And we see time and time again that God acted in response to the prayers of believers in Acts.

So, does prayer change God’s mind? I don’t think so. There’s one place in the Bible where it looks like prayer may in fact change God’s mind: Exodus 32. Israel has just begun to worship the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God declares that he will destroy them for their insolent idolatry. He even says that he will make a great nation of Moses instead. Moses talks with God, seems to calm him down a bit, and “The LORD relented of the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex. 32:14). So, did God change his mind? He said he was going to destroy them, and then he doesn’t, seemingly in response to Moses’ prayer. It seems to me that there is a better way to understand this passage. It’s interesting that, as God begins to declare what he is about to do to the people, he tells Moses, “Let me alone” (Ex. 32:10). Even more significant, he says, “Let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them. “So, it seems to me, that he is (in a roundabout way) inviting Moses to step in and intercede for the people. It seems that God is saying, “If you don’t intercede, I will wipe them out.” So, perhaps God’s will is to preserve rebellious Israel through Moses’ prayer. Perhaps God also desired for Moses to relate more closely to the people, to care for them. So, I don’t think we have any evidence that prayer changes God’s mind. Rather, God has planned to act in certain ways throughout history and in our lives. He has also planned that he would act in these ways in response to the prayers of his people. God is pleased to work through his people to accomplish his purposes.

Published in: on November 2, 2009 at 12:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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