Why We Do What We Do: Prayer (Part 1)


Actual prayers from kids:

  1. Dear God,
please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now. 
  2. Dear God,
Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.
  3. Dear Mr. God, 
I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart I had to have 3 stitches and a shot. 
  4. God,
I read the bible. What does beget mean? Nobody will tell me.
Love Alison

Two actual prayer requests I prayed as an adult:

  • DEAR GOD, please heal my father of this cancer.
  • DEAR GOD, let all of my sister’s triplets live (the doctors had told my sister twice to prepare to lose the smallest one after the umbilical cord has virtually stopped sending nourishment.)

The first one God did not answer in the way I had asked. The second one he did.From my vantage point, my father died when – for the sake of his family and for the kingdom of God - he should have lived, and my sister’s baby lived when – according to the doctors - she should have died.And I prayed for them both. Fervently. How can this be?

There are two ends to a spectrum of belief about prayer within Christian circles.

The first end focuses solely on the sovereignty of God. In this view, my prayers really have no impact on God or the world around me. If a verse talks about effective prayer, it can always be interpreted to say that prayer changes me and my outlook on life, but certainly it doesn’t change God and may not even change circumstances around me.

  • David prayed for the life of his son. The son died anyway because of David's sin with Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 12:13-23.(In fact, a lot of the Psalms David wrote express frustration that God is not answering his prayers.)
  • Elijah prayed that he might die. Not only did God not grant his requestimmediately, but in the end Elijah didn't die but was caught up into heaven by a whirlwind. 1 Kings 19:4; 2 Kings 2:11.
  • John The Baptist’s disciples prayed he would be freed from prison, and he was beheaded.
  • Jesus asked that “this cup” could pass from Him. It didn’t.
  • Paul asks three times that a “thorn in the flesh” be removed from him, and God said no.
  • The early church certainly prayed of Stephen and James, who were both martyred. In fact, all but one of the disciples were martyred, and an awful lot of early Christians were slaughtered quite horribly.

In this view, we pray to refine our character or align our priorities. My prayers for my dad and my niece were futile exercises when it came to their futures. God already had a plan. Those prayers were meant for my edification and sanctification. Prayer is for the pray-er. Prayer changes us as we pray.

If the first end focuses on God’s sovereignty and power, the opposite end focuses on our agency and my power. In this view, God has put a tremendous amount of power in our hands.

  • God answered Abraham's prayer by sending His angels to remove righteous Lot and his family before the judgment fell.
  • God miraculously answered many of Moses' prayers including the parting the Red Sea (Exodus 14:13-22) and giving the Israelites good water in the wilderness (Exodus 15:25).
  • God miraculously answered Elijah's prayer on Mt. Carmel when he rained fire from heaven in the showdown between God and the false god Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40 especially 37-38).
  • Daniel prayed to be shown the king's undisclosed dream and God answered him (Daniel 2:17-18). Daniel was thrown to the lions because he continually prayed to God and God spared him (Daniel 6:4-24).
  • The early church in Jerusalem prayed for Peter after his arrest by Herod and God miraculously answered their prayer by sending an angel to free Peter from prison (Acts 12:5-10)
  • All the miracles recorded in Acts.

On this end, prayer is for the prayed for.If we have enough faith, if we say the right words, God has to do what we ask. In this view, if we pray effectively and fervently, God must show up. In fact, God is waiting to move until we do that. If we don’t, everything bad that happens is our fault.  The right quantity and quality of prayer is what matters…. And by this thinking, my dad would have lived if I he or I could have prayed better, harder, longer, more intensely.  God really wanted to heal dad, but He couldn’t because I or someone else held him back.

There is a tension between these two ends. “On the one hand, “You have not because you ask not”; on the other hand, God gives us what we ask for according to his will.We pray knowing God allows our prayers to have power; on the other hand, our prayers have a divine safety valve on them: specifically, God’s will.

In Star Trek, “The City On The Edge Of Forever,” the world’s fate hinges on whether a social worker dies. She has to die; if she doesn’t, she goes on to lead a peace movement that keeps America out of WW2 and the Nazis win. And because they win, the world moves toward brutality and totalitarianism. Bones goes back and saves her life; Spock and Kirk have to go back and make sure she dies. Sometimes, what we want - would looks obviously good to us - is not the for the best. Even our best wisdom simply can't understand life with the wisdom God has.

I like how Tim Keller puts it: God gives us what we would have prayed for if we knew what He knows.


So when we look at what all of the Scriptural record of acts of prayer and teachings on prayer, we see the following variety:

  • Sometimes, God waits to move until we pray. Sometimes, God moves before we even think to pray.
  • Sometimes, God requires fasting and confident, faith-filled prayer. Sometimes He accepts doubt-haunted requests.Sometimes He just does things.
  • Sometimes, He doesn’t answer like we expect Him too. Sometimes He does.
  • Sometimes, God allows prayer to impact the things for which we pray. Sometimes, prayer just aligns us with the will of God.Sometimes it does both.

I don’t believe we are meant to be able to reduce prayer to an understandable formula. If we could, we would be Christian magicians, manipulating reality as we forced God to jump at our whims. We might not even be meant to fully understand prayer.  Prayers, as portrayed in the Bible, happen somewhere between God’s sovereignty and our agency. In that huge area between, God moves in mysterious ways.

But in spite of the mysteriousness, there are important things the Bible teaches that we do know.

Prayer is an act of faith.  When we pray - not knowing how God will answer, but praying anyway because we know He is the only One who can answer – that is an act of faith.  If we knew He had to answer like we wanted—that’s not faith, that’s manipulation.

Prayer is an act of obedience.  When we pray, we are showing our submission to a God who asked us to pray.As a parent, my boys show respect for me when they do what I ask, but they show their greatest respect for me when they do things I ask even if they don’t understand.  We demonstrate our faith in and our respect of God when we do what He asks, even if the reasons are a mystery to us.

Prayer is an act of humility.  Every time I pray, I am acknowledging that there is a God, and I am not Him. Every time I praise him, I elevate him far above me. Every time I petition him, I am approaching him as someone who cannot handle life on his own.  Every time I pray for others, I am addressing the Messiah Complex in me that thinks I can fix other people.

A few final thoughts based on prayer being an act of faith, obedience, and humility.

  1. Our faith in God’s power to answer prayer is not negated by acknowledging His sovereignty.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, theGod we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not,we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."  (Daniel 3:16-18)

You don’t have to feel apologetic for not knowing what God will do in response to your prayer. God’s plans are not undone when we say, ‘God can move, but even if he does not...” It is a prayer that shows both a faith in His power and a submission to His will. [1]


2. Our obedience to God’s command to pray is not negated when our emotions have a hard time catching up.

“And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”…. “‘I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.”" Matthew 11:11-15(NIV)

God is honored when we boldly approach Him without any doubts or fears or questions. He might be even more honored when we approach him full of those things.  Don’t be afraid to speak to God when you are at your lowest or at you worst. Sometimes we take ourselves out of the race when we think, “God won’t want to hear from me in this condition.”  Oh, but He does.


3. Our humility in acknowledging our need for God is not necessarily negated by doubt.

Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this? "From childhood," he answered. "It [ an evil spirit] has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."" 'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes. Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"  (Mark 9)“I entrust myself to you; help my disbelief and disobedience.”

You don’t have to be a faith superstar to pray. God is not scared away by “if you can” prayers. “If you can heal my marriage… If you can bring my child back to you…if you can find me a job…if you can heal me.” God is not handcuffed when we pray with doubtful passion.God hears the prayers of the timid, the prayers of those who have burned before, the prayers of those who aren’t really sure how things are going to work out.


Ultimately, prayer is a connection between us and God.  We pray, we talk with God, because that is the way God has chosen to allow us to connect with Him. Everyone can show faith, obedience, and humility through their prayer. One final thought connecting us to last week’s discussion of the Bible and next week’s continuation on this focus:

“We speak only to the degree we are spoken to[ in the same way children learn to speak by being spoken to].  It is therefore essential to the practice of prayer to recognize… the “overwhelming previousness of God’s speech to our prayers...” It means that our prayers should arise out of immersion in the Scripture. We should “plunge ourselves into the sea” of God’s language, the Bible.  We should listen, study, think, reflect, and ponder the Scriptures until there is an answering response in our hearts and minds…. that response to God’s speech is then truly prayer and should be given to God. If the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps just as slowly as a child learns to speak.”  ― Timothy J. KellerPrayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God


[1]“Prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable "success" in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something more like magic -- a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.”  C.S. Lewis