What Is Prayer and How Does It Work?
Prayer is the greatest obstacle to vibrant Christianity and the cause of more people walking away from faith in frustration. You have been taught wrong. Read on.
As I read the Bible, digging for teaching on prayer, I found that almost everything the Bible says about what God does for us has to do with salvation. Almost everything. So I looked harder: Other than salvation (forgiveness, redemption, justification, etc.), how does God help me through life? Here’s what I found:
1. Comfort in time of mourning (Matthew 5.4; 2 Corinthians 1.4; 7.6); rest (Matthew 10.28), and peace (John 16.33; 14.27; Romans 5.1; 15.13; Philippians 4.7, 9)
2. May answer some requests in prayer (Matthew 7.11; James 5.15-16)
3. Gives me words to say at martyrdom or oppression (Matthew 10.19)
4. Teaches me about Himself:
a. Gives knowledge of himself (Romans 1.19-20; 1 Corinthians 4.1; 2 Corinthians 4.6; Ephesians 1.17)
b. Gives knowledge of his kingdom (Matthew 13.11)
c. Makes his righteousness known (Romans 3.21)
d. Gives knowledge of his will (Colossians 1.15) and equips us to do it (Hebrews 13.21)
e. Gives knowledge of salvation (Hebrews 2.4)
5. Gives me the Holy Spirit
a. teach me about God (John 14.26) (see 4a above)
b. helps me in my weakness (Romans 8.26)
c. intercedes for me in prayer (Romans 8.26-27) (see #2 above)
d. gives me spiritual gifts to use in ministry for Him (Romans 12.6ff; 1 Corinthians 12.4ff; Ephesians 4.11)
e. seals me for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4.30)
6. God is always at work to mold us and make us into his image, which is possible through any circumstance. (Romans 8.28; 2 Corinthians 2.14; 3.18; Ephesians 1.4; Hebrews 13.21) He is renewing us day by day (2 Corinthians 4.16) and making us righteous (2 Corinthians 9.10)
7. Gives me faith in differing amounts (Romans 12.3)
8. Plays some role in installing and deposing governing authorities (Romans 13.1-5).
9. Gives me strength, endurance and encouragement (Romans 15.5; 1 Corinthians 1.8; 2 Corinthians 1.21; 4.7, 11, 16; 12.9; Colossians 1.11; 1 Peter 4.11; 5.10)
10. Gives a spirit of unity (Romans 15.5) among Christians
11. Gives us joy (Romans 15.13; 2 Corinthians 8.2)
12. Enriches me in every way: in speech and knowledge and good works (1 Corinthians 1.5; 2.13; 2 Corinthians 9.8, 10-11) (See #4 above)
13. Provides a way of escape from temptation (1 Corinthians 10.13)
14. Gives me grace (2 Corinthians 9.14; 12.9; Ephesians 4.7; James 4.6)
15. Blesses me in the heavenly realms with spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1.3)
16. Disciplines us for our good (Hebrews 12.10)
17. Generously gives us wisdom (James 1.5)
18. He comes near to us when we come near to him (James 4.8)
19. Cooperates with doctors and medicinal treatments to bring healing to the sick (James 5.15)
It’s fascinating that we see almost nothing here about God changing our circumstances. Almost everything in the New Testament (at least 98-99%) of what God does for us internal, spiritual things. Almost none of it, if any, pertains to our external lives, our circumstances, our money, our possessions, our health, our relationships, or anything else. In contrast, probably 98% of our prayers are about our circumstances of health, money, possession, relationships, and jobs. Hm. Working inside us for our spiritual welfare is God’s normal pattern of working. No wonder people get so frustrated with their prayer lives and God not answering their requests for a change of circumstances. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our circumstances, but his interest, by his own revelation, is in our souls.
I have to try to keep this brief here, but I have a lot to say.
A reading of the Old Testament shows us the stories of the times when God did intervene, but frankly, when you add them all up, by and large, they hardly amount to a hill of beans in most people’s lives. How many sterile women have there been in this world, and we have the story of four of them who had babies. Four out of all of history? We have a story of a time when a prophet called a bear out of the woods to devour his oppressors —one incident in all of history. The sun retreated in its path, once in history. There was a famine in the land, and God fed Elijah by ravens. What about the other hundreds of thousands of people in the land at the time? God did not intervene in their circumstances, and many of them died, as we learned from the story of the widow of Zarephath. The evidence is overwhelming.
People so often get angry at God because he doesn’t intervene or help them. Is it justified? No—He never taught them that He would intervene, or ever promised intervention. People misunderstand what God is up to in the world and what His normal course of action in it is. What God is up to in the world is creating a holy people for Himself, and by his own revelation he does that primarily through work inside the soul. Does this lead us to despair, or to feel like the victims of circumstance? Absolutely not. Circumstance from cause and effect is a reality, but we’re not fatalistic victims. The Bible never teaches that we are victims of fate.
God, for the most part, and under normal conditions, is remarkably uninvolved in the circumstances—the events—of our lives. For the most part, and sometimes completely, he does not do anything to change the circumstances of our lives. Many people probably go their whole lives with God doing hardly anything for them regarding their circumstances. Some people get to see him do one or two things that are undeniable in their lives. But we must understand the hard truth that it is against the character and nature of God to interfere in our circumstances, and he hardly ever does it.
The Bible is a record of the times when God has intervened, and most of those are because he absolutely had to to bring about his plan of salvation. So the Bible is full of examples of God intervening in spectacular ways, but a closer reading shows that he normally does no such thing. We also must realize that when in the Old Testament we see a record of God’s intervention it’s almost always with kings and prophets and almost never with common people. Their lives go on as they normally would have, full of whatever successes and failures, pleasures and suffering that the course of events would normally bring them. God doesn’t stop anything; he doesn’t change anything. Even in the lives of the prophets and priests, his interventions are minimal. There are maybe four times in the life of Abraham when we see such interventions; maybe seven in the life of David. What is shocking is that these interventions are recorded for us as an abnormally large number. There are a lot of interventions in the life of Moses, but that was a very special time, just as the time of Jesus, and the book of Acts. Those are not normal eras in any sense of the word, and they are not to be taken as normative.
What does this say about life? That God created life to run by cause and effect, and it does. Life takes its course. Do we have a problem with that? Many do, but we need to learn not to. Life happens, and that’s that. It’s God’s design. If you want the circumstances of your life changed, it most likely isn’t going to happen. What does this say about God? It makes clear that God’s interest is in spiritual things, not circumstantial ones. His actions are within the heart and soul far more than within circumstances. He will intervene in circumstances when it suits His purposes, and the Scripture is full of what, in reality, are the isolated examples of that. People’s lives also contain limited examples of God’s direct intervention – but those are very limited. Does it mean that God doesn’t care? On the contrary, He cares greatly about our souls, and he works within any circumstance to make us into His. But change the circumstances? Hardly ever.
Jesus’ Teaching on Prayer
The era of Jesus cannot be taken as standard—“the Christian life as it normally is.” Christians find great comfort in the promises of Jesus, not realizing that are from a time when the “Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4.17). The three-year ministry of Jesus was the Kingdom of God as intended and played out in real life, and when Jesus left, the things he taught about became ideals largely unattainable until the kingdom of God finds its fulfillment again. What he taught about “seek first God’s kingdom and you’ll never go hungry or naked” (Matthew 6) and “ask whatever you want in prayer and you’ll get it” are among hundreds of such teachings that just don’t work that way without Him around. The thousands of healings and sometimes daily miracles characteristic of his ministry are obviously not characteristics of history since his ascension. All of his teachings represent an ideal of how things work in the kingdom when the King is here, but since we’re in an era between manifestations of the kingdom, it doesn’t work that way for us and we shouldn’t expect it to. We have to understand all of Jesus’ teachings in that context.
Mt. 6.5-8: God knows both our heart and our needs
Mt. 6.9-13: The Lord’s Prayer. It’s about how we should pray: as an act of worship that grows from roots of a relationship with the Father. Prayer is a recognition of all that matters is God’s will and God’s kingdom, and we wish for him to act according to his good pleasure. We are invited to make requests, ask forgiveness, and to pray for God’s protection in spiritual matters.
Mt. 7.7-12: The verses pertain to internal, spiritual things.
Mt. 17.20: Nothing God asks you to do, including events and circumstances, will be impossible for you if you trust him.
Mt. 26.39: Jesus’ prayer for a change of circumstances was not answered with a yes.
Lk. 6.28: Prayer for those who mistreat you. Whether this is for circumstances or heart change isn’t specified, but I bet it’s for heart change.
Lk. 11.5-13: The parable pertains to internal, spiritual things
Lk. 12.1-12: These people will not have their circumstances changed, but their hearts and souls must be filled with faith and strength.
Lk. 18.1-18: Remain faithful despite your circumstances
Lk. 18.9-14: Prayer is a conversation with God about one’s spiritual condition
Lk. 22.40: Prayer for spiritual strength
Jn. 15.7: No one believes that this text teaches us that God is our Santa Claus to bring us everything on our wish list. This astounding command and promise is not without conditions and limitations. It involves such intimate union and harmony with Christ that nothing will be asked out of accord with the mind of Christ and so of the Father.
Jn. 16.23: Jesus is not an equal from whom they might ask an occasional favor, but the Son of God in whose name they can present requests to God the Father.
Jn. 17: Is all about spiritual realities
Conclusion: According to the teachings of Jesus, prayer is an act of worship that promotes sincere communion with God and expresses our devotion to Him. We are encouraged to pray petitionary prayers, but such prayer should be primarily focused on our own spiritual condition and the spiritual conditions of others. The example and teaching of Jesus suggest that we should persistently pray for wisdom, strength, grace, the Holy Spirit, faith, justice, and unity. It’s alright to pray about circumstantial things, but what is being taught is that our prayers should primarily focus elsewhere.
Paul’s Teaching On Prayer
Rom. 1.9-10: Paul prays for a change in his circumstances. It doesn’t come about.
Rom. 8.26-27: We are to live by the Spirit, not in sin. We must depend on God, and the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, even when we don’t know what to pray for. Then why should we bother to pray at all, since our prayers are from a position of weakness, and we sometimes find ourselves without words? It’s because even in that situation our prayers can get through to the Lord because of the Spirit’s intercession. We don’t need to be strong or a Shakespeare. Just pray.
Rom. 10.1: Pray for spiritual transformation in the hearts of people.
Rom. 15:30-32: Paul prayed to be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, but that didn’t happen. He was arrested and sent to Rome where he spent years in jail.
2 Cor. 1.11: Paul had been through the most terrible of circumstances. God didn’t change any of those for him. Paul reports to us that they didn’t die, thanks to the prayers of the Corinthian people. What did the prayers accomplish? They spared Paul from death, but didn’t seem to reduce his life-threatening experiences.
2 Cor. 12.8: Paul prayed for a change of circumstances, but that didn’t happen.
Eph. 1.15-19a: Paul prays for spiritual and internal things: wisdom, revelation, enlightenment, and power.
Eph. 3.14-19: Everything Paul prays for is spiritual and internal. The power of God is at work, not in our circumstances, but “within us.”
Eph. 6.18-20: Nothing is off-limits to our prayers. Pray about everything. But when Paul asks them to pray for him, he asks that words will be fed to him when he speaks for the Lord about the mysteries of salvation. He asks also that he will be protected from fear. Both of these requests pertain to his inner self, his mind and his soul.
Phil. 1.4-6, 9-11: He prays about their internal and spiritual state.
Phil. 1.19: Paul believed in the effectiveness of prayer. The Philippians pray for a changed of circumstance for him—his deliverance, and Paul believed that their prayers would accomplish this change. It is unknown to us if this prayer was answered.
Phil 4.6: Pray about anything and everything, both generally and by making requests. We are invited to share our hearts with God, to present our anxieties, and to seek his peace. Our prayers cover every single aspect of our lives.
Phil. 4.19: Paul can’t repay the Philippians, but he prays that God will. It could be material in nature, but is not necessarily so.
Col. 1.3-4; 1 Thes. 1.2-3: Prayer is an opportunity to show our gratitude to God. And what does he mention? Faith, love, and that the gospel is growing and bearing fruit.
Col. 1.9-12: Paul prays for a world of spiritual benefits.
Col. 4.3: Is he praying for circumstances, or for people hearts? it’s hard to tell. Probably both.
1 Thes. 3.10-13: Paul prays about a circumstance which we don’t know if it came about or not. Other than that, he prays for spiritual benefits: love, strength, holiness.
2 Thes. 1.11-12: Despite all the circumstantial trouble (1.4), Paul prays that they would behave worthy of their calling, and that God would bless the acts of their faith, and in the process bring glory to Jesus.
2 Thes. 3.1, 2: Verse 1 is about spiritual matters. Verse 2 is about circumstances: protection and deliverance. It’s possible this prayer was answered (Acts 18.1-17).
1 Tim. 2.1-2, 8: Paul prays about salvation for people. but he also requests prayer for government leaders. We have to be convinced that God has the capacity to intervene in the minds and lives of all government officials. We have a responsibility for those in government. And the reason we pray for our government officials? Godliness and holiness. Again, the focus seems to be largely on internal, spiritual characteristics and values and only slightly on anything circumstantial, though prayer about circumstances is certainly encouraged.
1 Tim. 4.5: Prayer is a means of consecration. But pray for others. Never stop praying for others.
1 Tim. 5.5: Paul prays that needs will be met. This is clearly circumstances of her life.
2 Tim. 1.3: Paul is praying, but about what? In the subsequent verses he brings up faith, spiritual gifts, power, love, self-discipline, courage to testify, suffering, and a holy life. If these are what was on Paul’s mind, his prayers were mostly for their inner beings and their spiritual strength, not so much about their circumstances.
Philemon 1.4: Here we see prayers of thanksgiving for the faith and love Paul sees in Philemon. He is not asking for favors in circumstances, but expressing his gratitude for the inner spiritual character traits he sees in his friend.
Philemon 1.6: Paul prays about Philemon’s spiritual maturity.
Philemon 1.22: Paul prays about his circumstances. it is unknown whether or not this prayer of request was ever answered.
Conclusion? Paul is clear: pray about EVERYTHING. Leave no stone unturned. But his example and his life show that prayer is mostly all about our inner lives: our souls, peace, strength, wisdom, joy, growth, and salvation. It is by our prayers that lives our changed: our own, and those of others. Prayer is a means of consecration, and an opportunity to express thankfulness.
How God Answers Prayer, and How Prayer Works
God does answer prayer. Prayer does work. There are thousands of stories of honest testimony of how God has answered people’s prayer about their circumstances. One woman adopted a daughter from Korea, and prayed that God would send a family to their neighborhood who also had an adopted Asian child. Within months the prayer was answered. Stories like this are far from unique.
Yet God has made it clear in his Word that almost all of what he does (we’re into the billions of stories now) is in the inner person, not in changing the circumstances. He mostly works inside of people, not outside of them. God does work in our circumstances; we just need to understand mostly how this happens.
We know how business works. We say, “this week Microsoft…” but really it’s the people at Microsoft who are making decisions, designing software, marketing the product. I know we all know that, but it helps to be reminded. It’s no different with the Ford Motor Company or McDonald’s. It’s the people who are the company.
In ways it’s the same when we talk about the government. We talk about how the FAA decided this, and how the FDA is wrestling with that, and how the Department of Homeland Security has changed policies or colors. But when we stop to think, we know it’s individual people doing the deciding and the acting.
What we need to realize is that it’s almost the same thing with God. God does almost nothing in this world except through his people, so when he is working in our circumstances, it’s almost always in the context of what people are doing. Almost all of his activity in the world, almost without exception, is through people. Because of the teamwork between God and his people, the lines between what we do and what God does are so blurred that you can almost never tell where God’s hand stops and where ours begins. And that’s even a misleading concept. It’s more like fabric that’s interwoven than “sides” or “hands”. In other words, it’s not so much like a layer cake where you can tell where one stops and the other starts. It’s more like chocolate milk, all shaken and stirred, and you can’t tell where the milk stops and the chocolate starts because they become the same substance. In short, it is absolutely impossible to quantify what happens because of prayer.
We live by faith, not by sight, and any skeptic would claim, “That’s just something you did.” That’s because God’s hand is my hand, and my hand is God’s hand, so of course that’s what it looks like to someone else, and to us, for that matter. God hardly ever broadcasts his involvement in the world. It’s hidden in our activity. We need to learn to have spiritual eyes, and even those might not be able to tell, but the Bible explains it all to us quite well, and we understand by faith that God’s work in the world is by our hands.
In the story of David and Abigail, she intercepted and stopped David, but said, “The Lord kept you from bloodshed” (1 Samuel 25.26). Even though Abigail made the decision to intervene, David says, “God sent you today to meet me.” This is how it works. We submit ourselves to God’s control, and then God acts through us. No one can tell what is God’s part and what is our part, because God and me work as a single unit of operation. God acts in the world almost exclusively through our activity. We live by faith, not by sight, and if God is going to help someone in this world, it’s because I choose to act.
In the story of Nehemiah, he bathed his intentions in prayer, but then he picked up a brick in one hand, and a sword in the other. He made a plan, and he executed his plan. We submit ourselves to God’s control, and then God acts through us, and there’s no way to tell where one stops and the other starts.
In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus stopped on his way through Jericho to establish a relationship with a cheater of a tax collector. As an act of devotion, Zacchaeus pledges to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay four times the amount of anything he cheated anyone out of. God acts in the world almost exclusively through our activity. We live by faith, not by sight, and if God is going to help someone in this world, it’s because I choose to act.
In Acts 2, the church was alive through the filling of the Holy Spirit. Despite that they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer (42), verse 45 tells us they took care of each other by selling their own stuff and giving it away to people who were in need. God acts in the world almost exclusively through our activity. We live by faith, not by sight, and if God is going to help someone in this world, it’s because I choose to act.
You’ve heard the saying, “Nothing in this world happens except through prayer.” That’s true. But it’s also true that almost nothing happens in this world unless you do it. It’s true that we should pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you. Flora Robson said, “Ask God’s blessing on your work, but don’t ask him to do it for you.” By working together with God, we accomplish his work on earth.
God primarily works in the world through us. His characteristic way of answering prayer about our circumstances is us. Generally speaking, prayers about circumstances only get answered when we answer them. In prayer we partner with God.
We thank God for our food. Did God give it to us? Only in the sense that he created the earth to bear food, and as we cultivate the soil and distribute the produce, people are fed. It hardly matters whether God blesses us through supernatural intervention or through the natural process of cause and effect. We thank God for our food, understanding how everything works.
We thank God for the day, or for good weather. How responsible is God for a day of sunshine? We understand how it works: the world turns, the sun comes up, and some days give us good weather, and others don’t. But we know that God created all that is, and he sustains the world by his mighty power, and so we thank him for good days. And some times we thank him for the rain.
We pray for safety when we drive. We will be safe if we drive safely, along with those around us. When someone drives poorly, there will be an accident. Is God involved in our driving, and in our safety? Of course he is, but we can’t tell, except every once in a while where it seems that circumstances simply don’t explain what we experience. Then we attribute the “good” to God. Was God responsible? There’s no way to tell, but as an act of faith, and understanding how things work, we thank him.
We pray for water for the people of Africa. We know that the people Africa get water when someone digs or drills a well for them. Prayers are answered when people get involved to the point of bringing about the circumstances they are praying for.
You have heard it said, “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not too far off the mark, but it can be perceived cynically, which is far from the truth.
Before I leave this subject, I need to make one disclaimer: we all know of times when God answers prayer and it has nothing to do with anyone doing anything. God does it. It’s true, and it happens enough times for us to know that God does work in the world around us, in spite of us, and sometimes completely without us. The Bible has an abundance of such stories, so much so that we interpret them to mean that it’s the way God usually works.
Though he can and certainly does work in circumstances, sometimes without any human involvement at all, it is clear that his routine and predictable way of answering prayer and working in the world is by changing people inside and by partnering with them to change their circumstances and the circumstances of others.
We see this illustrated in the episode of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in Daniel 3. They knew God could protect them, and said so boldly to the king. But they didn’t necessarily expect that God was going to intervene in their circumstances by changing those circumstances, and they also said that boldly to the king. They walk the difficult balance of believing that God can and does answer prayer, but not just assuming that he will change their circumstances.
Instead, the Bible teaches us that what God is in the business of is changing hearts, and changing lives by changing souls. The real places of God’s activity are what the Bible teaches us: encouragement, strength, guidance, peace, etc. When we pray for ourselves, the Bible intends that we most often and most diligently pray for those: the power to grasp God’s love, understanding of the mysteries of Christ, resistance to temptation, and a spirit of love, encouragement, helpfulness, forgiveness, unity, and love. If you want to see answers to prayer, pray in the Biblical way. Jesus taught us how, Paul taught us what.
A perfect example of what I am saying can be found in Jesus is the Garden of Gethsemane. With his soul overwhelmed to the point of death, he dropped to his face in prayer. “My Father,” he prayed, “…may this cup be taken from me.” Was this prayer answered? If you are looking at his circumstances, the answer is a resounding “no,” for he faced brutal beatings, flogging, and death by crucifixion. But look at God’s involvement in his soul, as opposed to his circumstances. Between his prayer and his arrest, he is convincingly overcome by a peace that passes understanding. He transitions from sweating drops of blood to “Are you still sleeping?”, “Friend, do what you came for,” and “Put your sword back in its place.” God was not changing his circumstances, but he was working radical realities inside of him.
Luke records that “an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” What God did was not change his circumstances, but he strengthened his inner being to be able to not only cope with his circumstances, but to be victorious over them. And that’s the whole point.
Back in the Matthew account, finally, we observe a spiritual resolve to obey, which I believe is an answer to his prayer. In Matthew 26.46, Jesus says with assertive confidence, “Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” His prayer of “may this cup be taken from me” is not answered with circumstance changes, but with peace, strength, and resolve to obey. This, my friend, is how prayer works.