Monday, September 24, 2012

The Mystery of Prayer

I jotted this post idea down a few weeks ago.  Now that our pastor is covering the topic on Sunday mornings, I think it's a good time to look at it.  

The questions I originally wanted to explore were:  How does prayer work?  Does God change his mind?  If God is omniscient, how can we have a better idea of what God should do than He does?  

Charlie stated this past Sunday (and I haven't heard the previous sermon yet) that he holds these things in tension, and believes that the bible supports both of them.  I think I can state them as 1) the truth that God has a sovereign, predetermined plan or will for how things will work out, and 2) that prayer actually accomplishes an outcome that wouldn't have occurred without prayer.  Is prayer simply the vehicle through which God accomplishes His predetermined plan, or is that a cop out?  

I would say, and I think this echoes Charlies thoughts, that prayer is primarily for us.  We align ourselves with God through prayer.  We agree with Him.  We access an understanding of spiritual realities.  I think a major benefit of prayer is the bonding of relationships through prayer.  Unfortunately, many of us see prayer as mainly a time to request things from God.  

But what about affecting, or effecting, outcomes?

When I pray for something, even if it's for an issue that I believe God would obviously be in favor of, such as physical wellness, or salvation for a friend, I always add the 'tag line' or 'disclaimer' of 'if it's Your will'.  I feel as though I'm acknowledging God may have a different plan, a better plan, than the one I think is best.  I may, in fact, be praying for something that God doesn't want.  

Is there a category of things that God is fine with either way, but if we pray, we can sway Him in one direction or the other?  What about Jesus' instruction about the persistent neighbor and persistent widow who get what they want through insistent, repeated requests?  Yet, Paul prayed 3 times for 'thorn' removal, and decided that was enough.


  1. I think I share many of your opinions and your questions as described above. I do think that prayer is more for us than for God, but I also know that we are commanded to pray, so it becomes then an act of obedience.

    We know that God is really big on us loving each other. Is praying for one another a vehicle that God has designed to help us love others more? That could be one facet.

    What about prayer walking? Is that from scripture or is that a man-made construct? I know that some people love to prayer walk, but personally I don't get it.

    1. I believe the greatest command (love God with everything you've got) is best accomplished through the second greatest command (love others as yourself). Also, 1 John says obedience is love to God. I also think that, through prayer, we bond with others via concern about their welfare, thinking about them. I think it's a major facet accomplishing a major command.

      Prayer me, it's just connecting something physical to something spiritual. Like looking at a picture of your child while praying for them. It doesn't confer any special power to the prayer, but maybe helps you focus on what you're praying about. I think I've even heard Dwight say that people have asked him what's he's doing while prayer walking, so it became an avenue for witnessing.

  2. I like what Bruce Ware says on this topic. He states, "God has designed not only that prayer come to be, but that prayer sometimes be a necessary means for accomplishing the ends he has ordained. In other words, God purposely designed how things would work so that some of what he accomplishes can only be accomplished by prayer. All of the commands and admonitions in Scripture to pray certainly indicate that this is the case. Consider, for example, James 5:14-15. Surely this implies that the prayer is part of the God-ordained means by which God's healing of the sick would occur. If prayer were not linked with the outcome, then why admonish the sick to call for the elders to pray? But notice another important point: since God is sovereign, he could just heal this sick person as he wills, fully apart from whether anyone prays or not. God's power to heal is not subject or hindered by lack of prayer, in the absolute sense. Yet here it is clear that God has chosen that the fulfillment of his work is tied to prayer. Some of God's work, then, is designed by God to be fulfilled only as people pray."

  3. Yes, I can see where God's healing of the sick - apart from human interaction - would not necessarily be seen as God's work, but rather as the body healing itself, or simply a transitory illness. But when prayer is offered, and then answered, we are more likely to praise God for His working in that situation than to attribute the healing to natural causes.

    And additionally, the James passage shows God at work through His church. How many of us have the faith to believe we can pray over a church member and their illness will be healed? Maybe more than I think. But I suspect the reason it doesn't happen more often is due to a lack of faith.


    "To change one’s mind,” in the New Testament means to repent. When the Bible speaks of my repenting or your repenting, it means that we are called to change our minds or our dispositions with respect to sin—that we are to turn away from evil. Repent is loaded with these kinds of connotations, and when we talk about God’s repenting, it somehow suggests that God has to turn away from doing something wicked. But that’s not what is always meant when the Bible uses this word.

    Using a word like repentance with respect to God raises some problems for us. When the Bible describes God for us, it uses human terms, because the only language God has by which to speak to us about himself is our human language. The theological term for this is anthropomorphic language, which is the use of human forms and structures to describe God. When the Bible talks about God’s feet or the right arm of the Lord, we immediately see that as just a human way of speaking about God. But when we use more abstract terms like repent, then we get all befuddled about it.

    There’s one sense in which it seems God is changing his mind, and there’s another sense in which the Bible says God never changes his mind because God is omniscient. He knows all things from the beginning, and he is immutable. He is unchanging. There’s no shadow of turning within him. He knows what Moses is going to say to him before Moses even opens his mouth to plead for these people. Then after Moses has actually said it, does God suddenly changes his mind? He doesn’t have any more information than he had a moment before. Nothing has changed as far as God’s knowledge or his appraisal of the situation.

    What in Moses’ words and actions would possibly have provoked God to change his mind? I think that what we have here is the mystery of providence whereby God ordains not only the ends of things that come to pass but also the means. God sets forth principles in the Bible where he gives threats of judgment to motivate his people to repentance. Sometimes he spells out specifically, “But if you repent, I will not carry out the threat.” He doesn’t always add that qualifier, but it’s there. I think this is one of those instances. It was tacitly understood that God threatens judgment upon these people, but if somebody pleads for them in a priestly way, he will give grace rather than justice. I think that’s at the heart of that mystery.

    Is God confused, stumbling through all the different options—Should I do this? Should I not do that? And does he decide upon one course of action and then think, Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all, and change his mind? Obviously God is omniscient; God is all wise. God is eternal in his perspective and in his full knowledge of everything. So we don’t change God’s mind. But prayer changes things. It changes us. And there are times in which God waits for us to ask for things because his plan is that we work with him in the glorious process of bringing his will to pass here on earth.