What is the power of prayer, anyway?
A recent sermon study guide (click to watch) referred to unchangeable things, and asked which was most important to us personally: God’s character, the human condition, the mission of the church, the power of prayer….
Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “If God lets me down this time, it’ll be the first time.” Perhaps you’ve agreed with them, or even said it yourself. But maybe that remark makes you feel like shaking your head. I met a man whose adult son has been beset by physical and mental health problems for decades; he doesn’t have much tolerance for this sort of happy talk. He believes that God is there, but sunny Sunday School phrases aren’t part of his vocabulary.
Another friend isn’t sure about the power of prayer. By his own account, he has nothing to complain about; he considers himself very fortunate. But how much does prayer have to do with his happy circumstances? Not much that he knows of. You can pray or not, and good things can happen or not; he doesn’t see much correlation.
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t completely disagree. Sometimes it seems like God acts in response to prayer, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yes, I know, sometimes God’s answer is “No” or “Wait” or even “Wrong question.” And as Lewis says, God isn’t obligated to do what we tell him; “He’s the King I tell you!” (from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
What can we say about the power of prayer? It’s not reliable — we can pray for something, and it won’t necessarily happen. A few comments, in no particular order.
First, does this mean that somehow we weren’t doing it right? Was there some specific prayer that we missed? Did we not have enough faith? Ah, no. Consider the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12; surely he had enough faith! And how about Moses in Deuteronomy 3:23-27? And Daniel heard about how an answer could be delayed (Daniel 10:12-13). It is completely inappropriate to say, “you weren’t healed (or whatever) because you didn’t have enough faith.” How much faith did Eutychus have when he was already dead? Or Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5 for that matter?
It’s tempting to say, “well, that wasn’t God’s will,” but I’m not willing to say that to anyone. Daniel’s answer was delayed, as we saw above. And some things certainly are God’s will — for example that everyone be saved (2 Peter 3:9). I have to believe that a prayer for salvation is always heard.
But for a particular person to be protected from physical harm, for an election to go a certain way… I don’t think we can know God’s mind on those things.
Finally, does this make anyone think that maybe God doesn’t care, or that maybe he just isn’t really out there? As my friend said the other night, Jesus Christ certainly came to earth; he predicted his death and resurrection—which actually did happen. And that proves that God cares, that he loves us, that he’s powerful to act on our behalf. Why he does sometimes (miracles do still happen!) and not others… well, we can’t really know all that.
But because Jesus Christ has died, and is risen indeed, we can be certain of his love and his power.