Prayer: What Does It Do?

Note: This is part of a series of articles we're using at the church I pastor to explore prayer. I'm posting them here in case they would be helpful for others.

I think, when we peel back the layers, one of the biggest questions Christians ask about prayer is simply this: “Does it do anything? Does it actually do anything in the world?”

Part of this question comes from the experience of prayer, and especially what we might call unanswered prayers. Many of us have prayed for things that did not come to pass. Maybe hundreds of such things. These can be big requests, like when we persevere for years in prayer for the salvation or healing of people we have loved while seeing no visible fruit. Or they can be small ones—I have prayed over lost keys to be found only to find myself, hours later, having to call a locksmith.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss this discouragement by reminding people that God shouldn’t answer every prayer. Sometimes he says “no,” because his plans are better than ours. Sometimes he says “wait,” teaching us patience and working things out in His good timing. Certainly, if God answered every one of my prayers, I’d carry a lot of guilt for the several frustrating individuals I’ve known who were unexpectedly struck by lightning, so some “no’s” are blessings.

And yet, this answer is too dismissive. It fails to acknowledge the real weight we feel praying against real evils in the world and wondering what on earth God is up to by not changing them. More than that, the answer simply shifts our struggle with prayer’s efficacy to a deeper issue with the nature of God.

“For I the Lord do not change,” Scripture tells us (Malachi 3:6) “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” (Numbers 23:19) God is unchanging, working His good and wise purposes in the world. This reality of His character is part of why He might say “no” or “wait.” Yet it also raises the deeper question: if God is going to do what He wishes in the world, what is the point of our prayers? Isn’t He just going to do as He pleases?

The question of what prayer does requires an answer in three parts, each held in tension with the others. Let’s discuss them in their turn.

First, prayer does not change God, if by that we are thinking in terms of God’s eternal plan and will for the world. Job, in the book that bears his name, faces the loss of his family and entire way of life and expresses a desire to plead his case before God to change his mind: “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (Job 13:3) While God hears Job and draws near to him, He also makes clear the universe just doesn’t work that way. His ways are beyond ours.

Just consider for a moment: we worship a God who is both infinitely wiser and infinitely better than we are. That is what makes Him worthy of our praise. Yet if that is true, we should recognize it would not be good if we could alter His decisions about the universe. If, before a surgery, my surgeon lets me convince him of a better way to make his incisions, that should make me nervous about going under the knife. He shouldn’t need me to tell him what he is doing. How much more is that true with God! The Christian calling to faith is a call to trust our Father’s goodness and greatness; the prayer of faith must therefore trust that He knows best.

Yet that doesn’t mean prayer does nothing. We must first hold that in tension with the reality that prayer does change us. It alters our hearts and way of existing in the world, realigning our priorities with God’s and offering the comfort of knowing Him and being known. We will be exploring this reality more next week, but for now, just recognize that it is part of the answer to our dilemma. Even if God does not move in the ways we wish He would, that doesn’t make prayer useless. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane prays to the Father to deliver Him from His upcoming suffering not because He believes the Father will change His eternal plans but simply because there is great comfort to be found in pouring out our hearts before God.

So prayer does change us, but there is one more truth to add, and it is the crucial part we sometimes don’t do a good job of recognizing: prayer can also change the world.

While prayer doesn’t alter the internal plans of God, they can in a real sense affect His work in the world. Not that he wasn’t going to do some good and we persuaded him, but that He ordains our prayers as the means through which His good working takes place. He can use prayers for hope, for healing, for deliverance, for justice and for salvation to make those realities manifest in the world. They would not have been accomplished apart from our prayers for them. Which is to say that there is real power in our prayers to do remarkable things. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:13)

Think of it like this. God’s heart of care for the poor is made manifest through my actions to help them. He feeds the poor through my feeding them. Yes, He is the one who gives me the resources and capability to do it, but I am the means through which God accomplishes that purpose in the world. Part of the Christian calling is to be an avenue through which God’s mercy pours.

God’s heart for all things can likewise be made manifest through my prayers for them. He saves souls and overcomes illnesses and ends wars through our prayers for such workings. Not prayers apart from actions—I am of course called to participate in other ways as well—but God works through my prayers far beyond what my own actions could accomplish. In prayer, we get to be avenues through which God’s mercy pours far wider than what we could otherwise dream.

So we should pray with humility, recognizing that God is greater than us and allowing our prayers to shape us. But we should also pray with expectancy, knowing that through them God can do far more than we might ask or imagine.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you struggle to believe your prayers do anything? What are some times you feel like you have seen God answer prayer? What are some prayers you’ve offered that you feel are unanswered?
  • How do you feel about the reality that we cannot change the heart of God? Is that a comfort or a frustration to you? What does it look like to trust God, knowing that He will not change in the ways we might want Him to?
  • What are some ways you think prayer can change us? Have you experienced this in your life? (Note to leaders: we will explore this theme more next week.)
  • What are some examples where prayer can change the world? What are some things we can pray for where God could move in ways we could not hope to affect change ourselves?

Practice: As a group, generate a list of ten or fifteen specific places in our world or your lives your group members long to see God move. Try to divide the list somewhat evenly between prayers for our church and other ministries, prayers for neighbors and needs in our city, and prayers for personal relationships and struggles. Then pair up and work through the list, taking turns praying for one of the items. If you want, encourage group members to take the list home and pray for them each day this week.