Many of us are praying a lot these days, and with good reason: if we know that our God is in control of the whole universe and wants us to present our requests to Him (Phil. 4:6), then it only makes sense to ask Him about anything and everything on our minds. With so much on our collective mind in light of the current pandemic, I expect we as a church body are presenting more requests to Him than normal! And passages like James 4:2-3, 5:13-18 seem to suggest that if we can pray with pure motives (is generic unselfishness pure enough?), then our prayers are “powerful and effective” enough to accomplish almost anything – even healing sickness, a promise that takes on a particularly poignant meaning currently.
But then we turn to 2 Corinthians 12:7—10 to find Paul’s repeated, fervent prayers being met with, in essence, a “no.” Or we read James 5:7—11, where the steadfastness and patience in suffering of Job and the prophets is lauded, presumably though they would have prayed for that suffering to be removed (yes, this is in the very same chapter as the verse telling us that our prayers are powerful and effective!). Or Mark 14:32-39 where Jesus Himself prays that the “cup” of His coming crucifixion be removed – but we know that it wasn’t, and certainly Jesus did not pray with the impure motives alluded to in the James 4:2-3 passage!
And it’s not just Biblical examples. Let’s be frank: we pray for things that don’t happen. I have prayed for COVID-19 to disappear and for everyone’s life to get back to “normal.” As of now, that has not happened. I know we could add numerous other examples of prayers we have offered that have gone supposedly “unanswered.” What gives? How then can prayer be “powerful and effective” if we don’t know what will be answered the way we want? Is prayer not all that we were promised? Should we tacitly agree with the world which sees prayer as a worthless waste of time and instead just try to solve our own problems?
I think the answer is implicit right there in that final question. What’s the alternative to prayer? “Fixing” things ourselves – self-reliance (or at least the illusion of it). So, then, what does that imply about prayer in the first place? Evidently it must be reliance on the other party involved in our prayers; it is “God-reliance.” Interestingly, this characterization of prayer says nothing of the requests which make up (some of) the content of our prayers. In probably most cases, it seems that the root of prayer is about something different than its content.
Those who have been praying for years can probably look back and see that that is about right. Do I remember the specific prayers I prayed 20 years ago? Most of them were about fleeting things that were unimportant to me just a few months later, mostly things which I can’t even remember now. But what I do remember is how God used His answers to my prayers, both “yes” and “no,” to reveal aspects of His will to me: to be sanctified, to grow in love for Him and for others, etc. As I look back, prayer’s function was rarely about the specific occasion that brought me before my Lord and was much more centrally about the intimacy with my Lord that I would come to know as I spoke with Him. The requests seem to be closer to excuses to get my wandering heart to come to Him than they were core problems that needed God’s supernatural sledgehammer to solve. Prayer was and is about my heart’s condition before God.
I imagine that many of us already know these truths intellectually. But have you found yourself reverting back to the fleshly ways of seeing prayer as simply a means to get what you want? Do you return to God in prayer like He’s a genie, just waiting to do your bidding if you “crack the code” about “the right way” to ask? Sadly, I admit that I find myself doing this often even though I know better. How often my factual knowledge about prayer gets tossed out the window when a sufficiently painful situation comes along! Indeed, I want to do right, but evil lies close at hand (Romans 7:21).
Perhaps you have found yourself slipping into that mindset as well. If so, let us together remember God’s good intentions for prayer and not doubt His sovereignty when His answers to our prayers initially disappoint us. Let us be stirred up to follow the imperatives of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8; let’s “always pray and not lose heart.” Join me on my knees before our good Father, the One with our best interests in mind. We may not see how today’s answer leads to tomorrow’s fulfillment of those best interests, but we can be certain that He is accomplishing that fulfillment.
So, is prayer effective? Absolutely, though its effectiveness might be in reference to something different than we originally had in mind – indeed, something much better.
Chad R. Mangum, Ph.D.
Lecturer of Mathematics, Clemson University