Can Prayer Really Change Things?
PAGES 3, 4
A reflection on prayer by John Cooper, professor of theological philosophy at Calvin Theological Seminary. Can prayer change things? Does talking to God have any effect whatsoever on what happens? If we are sick, does asking God to heal us make a difference in whether we get better? If a friend has rejected the Lord, is there any point in pleading for his salvation? These are not just theological questions. Our trust in God is at stake. On one hand, the Bible assures us that the Lord answers prayer. On the other, it teaches that God is the sovereign Lord who knows and rules all things according to his perfect will.
So we ask again: Can prayer really change God's will? Does it really affect what happens in our lives and in the world? Or does it only affect us spiritually as we express our gratitude and dependence on God? Thoughtful Christians wrestle with this issue. Sometimes we conclude that prayer strengthens our souls but doesn't change the world. What's going to happen will happen whether we pray or not. Que sera sera.
Does prayer change things?
At first glance this is either a silly question or theological quicksand that could swallow our faith. Of course prayer is effective. The Bible says so repeatedly and gives plenty of examples. "The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.... The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective" (James 5:15-16). Jesus himself says, "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it" (John 14:14). He assures us that our Father in heaven will give good gifts to those who ask him (Matt. 7:11). In Exodus 32 it seems the prayer of Moses even got God to change his mind (v. 14): God threatened to wipe out the Israelites, and Moses asked him not to. The Bible indisputably teaches that prayer can make a difference. So why do we still wonder?
Only if prayer is good enough.
One reason might be the conditions and qualities of prayer that Scripture lists. Apparently God doesn't answer just any prayer. It has to be the right kind of prayer—prayer in Jesus' name, or prayer according to God's will, or the prayer of a righteous person, or prayer that is offered in true faith. If faith can move mountains and my prayers don't even move the air, then perhaps I don't really have faith. If the prayers of the righteous are effective and mine aren't, then maybe I'm not righteous. Maybe I'm totally out of tune with God's will. We fear that our prayers don't matter because they aren't good enough.
But Scripture assures us that God hears our prayers according to his grace and not our merit. Romans 8:26-27 is wonderfully comforting: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us... in accordance with God's will." God's love in Jesus Christ is so wonderful that it not only takes away our sins, it also infuses our feeble and fallible prayers with quality and content that please God. Our prayers are perfectly acceptable to the Father through Christ and the Spirit. It does take the right kind of prayers to get through to God, and by his grace we regularly pray them. So self-doubt should not make us wonder whether prayer can change things.
But God's will is sovereign.
A more profound reason to wonder whether our prayers make a difference is the biblical emphasis on God's greatness and the power of his will. Reverence for God's sovereignty in creation and redemption is a deep and pervasive characteristic of the (Reformed) Christian faith. God's will ultimately ordains everything, including our eternal destiny. Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 teach that God has predestined and providentially governs "all things," from before the foundation of the world to their final destiny in Jesus Christ. Theologians call this God's eternal counsel. How can prayer possibly change what God has willed "from before the foundations of the earth" (Eph. 1)?
What's more, Scripture emphasizes prayer according to God's will. Paul repeatedly asked that his "thorn in the flesh" be removed, but God did not remove it (2 Cor. 12:7). Jesus himself, the night before he was crucified, prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). Apparently God does not answer our prayers if they are not according to his will. But even if they conform to his will, do they make any difference? If God's will is fixed, how can anything change his mind or alter his plans? And if nothing can alter God's plan, then prayer can't alter God's plan. So we might conclude: "No. Prayer does not change things. Talking to God has no effect on how things turn out."
See the bigger picture.
Is this where Reformed theology brings us? Does it force us to deny one teaching of Scripture (that prayer is effective) to affirm another (that God is sovereign)? Does our doctrine undercut assurance that the Lord hears and answers us? Can we trust that prayer is real communication and not just a pointless ritual? Or must we disbelieve that God would change things because we ask him to?
No human theology can capture, harmonize, and fully explain everything that Scripture teaches. But sound and tenable theology strives to get as close as humanly possible. The best of Reformed theology does provide a way to affirm both God's sovereign will and the genuine communication and effectiveness of his children's prayers. But in joyful reverence we acknowledge we can't explain how: "God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform."
God's plan for history includes everything that happens from the beginning to the end of the world. He knows and providentially sustains the sequences, connections, causes, and consequences of all things and all events. God wills them in the sense that these are the things that happen in the world he has chosen in Christ to create, redeem, and fulfill. So "not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my heavenly Father," as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches. (God does not will all things in the sense of approving of sin and evil, however; rather, he permits them.) Our prayers and the things about which we pray are part of this history.
But does God really hear and answer prayer? Do we really connect with him? God's providence does not make him a distant impartial observer. In fact, just the opposite is true. God is eternal and omnipresent—"present everywhere." Every creature and every event at all times and places are fully present to God. He is "nearer than hands and feet" throughout our lives, including when we pray. God does not listen merely as an empathetic human would—first learning our needs and then deciding how to help. His knowledge, love, understanding, and response are real long before we whisper our prayers, real while we pray, and real long after we've forgotten them.
But does prayer make a difference—affect outcomes? Of course. If God knows and wills all things, then he knows and wills the prayers of his people and the circumstances in which we pray them. In God's plan, our prayers can be crucial links in the chain of events. If I get sick, pray for healing, and then get better—this sequence is part of God's plan. Why can't it be his plan to heal me because I pray? God can decide that my prayer is the reason he heals me just as God can will that medical treatment is the cause he uses. God could have healed me if I didn't pray or not healed me if I did. But it is God's eternal will that I become sick, that I pray, and that I am healed because I prayed. My prayer did not heal me; God did—a real answer to prayer. God's will and effective prayer are not contradictory. They go together. Our prayers really do matter!
But do they change anything? Can we change God's mind? Not in one sense, but yes in another. God's eternal counsel—his providential plan for history—is not altered. If God's plan does not include my healing, then he will not heal me. If Christ's return is scheduled for 2020, no amount of prayer will make it sooner. But from our human point of view, things can take unexpected turns because we pray. If my doctor says my illness is terminal, I might not expect healing. But God might heal me miraculously because of prayer. God told Moses that he intended to destroy the Israelites, Moses interceded, and the Lord did not punish them. The interaction was real. Moses' plea is the reason God relented. But the Lord always knew and willed that this would happen. God is not a human we can talk into improving his strategy.
Our prayers and deeds can make a difference! We can even pray for the salvation of someone who does not love the Lord. God might answer by giving that person a new heart—spiritual rebirth. He might even use our words and deeds as means of change! Salvation is due to God's sovereign grace alone, not our prayers, words, or deeds. But surely God wills to use them to build his church and bring his kingdom. Predestination does not render our prayers and actions pointless. If God wills the end, he also wills the means.
Our prayers and our deeds do make a difference! May the Lord teach us to pray effectively, according to his will.