Some thoughts and questions about prayer:
Prayer is of course simply a Christian basic. We pray. We believe in prayer. We know that prayer can change things. We expect God to hear our prayers. So in a sense it is a no-brainer. But…. I still suspect that many Christians have a lot of questions about prayer. I certainly do.
Of course at the end of the day we need to just do it: we need to pray. Whether all of our questions are answered about prayer is a secondary matter. The essential thing is to pray. But nonetheless, there can be a lot of practical things we do wonder about when it comes to praying, and praying effectively. Let me deal with some of them here.
Two recent social media comments can first be addressed. One friend said this when I discussed my wife and her prayer needs: “I’ve always wondered why this is necessary. E g, if God hears your wife’s prayer, He could just answer that? Why does He need my prayer too? Or hundreds the same? Serious, honest question folks.”
And then another person came along who actually seemed to take umbrage at the fact that I was sharing about our struggle with my wife’s cancer and seeking prayer for it. He said he had struggles and never told anyone about them. Hmm, his remarks were rather odd, to say the least.
My reply to the first fellow was this: “Thanks ****. Yes that might be worth writing an article or two about! Just a quick thought: When Paul asked groups of believers to pray for him (eg., those at Ephesus – Eph. 6:19), he presumably felt it was important to make that request, and that it would have some good outcomes. Prayer, like so many other things, can be rather mysterious. But as in so much of the Christian life, it is not so much our great prayer life that does great things, but our prayer and trust in a great God that does so much good.”
As to the other person’s remarks, I am not aware of too many believers who somehow think it is wrong to share prayer needs, or to ask for others to pray for various things. So in part my reply to him would echo what I said to the other person: we are told to pray for one another in Scripture, and the early apostles were happy to ask for prayer as well.
That prayer is nonetheless a bit of a mystery, as I mentioned above, is true of so much of the Christian life. And that for the simple reason that two massive biblical truths which seem to conflict with each other are both fully and forcefully affirmed in Scripture.
The first is that human beings are significant figures who are responsible for the choices that they make, and their choices do have a very real impact. The second is that God is indeed sovereign and in control, and he has his plans and purposes which will not be curtailed nor defeated.
As I just read again in Job 42:1-2: “Then Job answered the Lord and said: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted’.” So we have both biblical truths constantly being affirmed. And in the Christian life, it is crucial that we do so as well.
On the one hand we have passages speaking about how God sanctifies us and perfects us and makes us more like his Son. But we also have numerous commands instructing us to sanctify ourselves, to put to death the old man, to crucify our desires, to say no to self, to put on the armour of God, etc.
My short take on all this is as follows: We must fully do all we are supposed to do and we should let God fully do all that he is supposed to do. See a more general take on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/24/human-choices-divine-purposes/
And a more particular piece here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/
It is the same with the matter of prayer. There is a human side to prayer and a divine side. How much does my prayer and great faith change things? How much is it a great God who changes things, taking into account our prayers? Again, we should worry about doing what we are supposed to do, and let God do what he is supposed to do.
So many related matters arise here and they have all been discussed for centuries. We have further questions, such as: is persistence in prayer the main thing? That is, is the amount of prayer we engage in the key factor, or is it the quality of prayer? Or both?
For example, I have a list of folks I pray for every single day – mainly for their salvation. These are not real long prayers, but they are my daily prayers. Maybe I should be spending hours a day praying for them instead of minutes. We all know of stories of great praying saints – those who spend 2, 4, 6 or more hours a day in prayer.
But large chunks of time may not always be possible for many of us. So if we cannot spend huge amounts of time in prayer, what about being dogged in our requests and petitions? The parable of the persistent widow comes to mind here (Luke 18:1-8):
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Does God answer our prayers only if we hound him enough? It seems the main point here is that we must be persistent in prayer, and not that we are trying to bend God’s arm to get him to listen to us and act on our behalf.
And another aspect of prayer is found in the words of Christ in Matthew 6:5-8:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
It seems that the main thing Jesus was condemning here was their desire to be seen and heard and praised by others – their ostentation. And it does not seem he was condemning all public prayer and demanding that it all be done in private. Plenty of public prayers are recorded in the New Testament for example.
Then one can ask about extemporaneous prayer versus thought-through and written-out prayers. The Puritans for example were quite well known for the latter. In short, it seems there can be a place for each. There is not an either-or being demanded of us in Scripture.
So many other matters arise. For example, what about the matter of unanswered prayer? Or at least what appears to be unanswered prayer. Does God answer all of our prayers? Does he have to? And how does he answer them? Indeed, are there times when it is actually wrong to pray? So many questions.
Anyway, these are just some of my musings, reflections and questions about the matter of prayer. I make no claim to being an authority on prayer – either in theory or in practice. But we do want to serve God as best we can, and that should include praying as best we can – that is, praying as God would have us to pray.
And as I have stressed throughout this piece, the main thing is to be engaged in prayer – not to necessarily understand everything there is to know about prayer. As Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “pray without ceasing”.