The Efficacy of Prayer
We have to guard against taking a fatalistic view of prayer. We cannot allow ourselves to dismiss prayer from our lives simply because it might not seem to have pragmatic value.
Whether or not prayer works, we must engage in it, simply because God Himself commands us to do it. Even a cursory reading of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, reveals a deep emphasis on prayer, supplication, and intercession. It is inescapable that prayer is an expected activity for the people of God. Furthermore, our Lord Himself is the supreme model for us in all things, and He clearly made prayer a huge priority in His life. We can do no less.
But it is also true that Scripture teaches us that prayer does “work” in some sense. Let me cite three examples.
We all know that the apostle Peter boldly declared that he would never betray Jesus, that he was ready to go to prison and even to death for his Lord. But rather than praising Peter for his determination, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (Matt. 26:34).
Luke’s account adds an interesting detail to this exchange. Jesus said: “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31– 32).
Jesus warned Peter that a time of “sifting” was coming in his life, that Satan was going to attack him. But Jesus was sure that Peter would turn from his sin and turn back to Jesus. How could Jesus be sure of that? Well, He had prayed for Peter, that Peter’s faith would not be shaken. Jesus was right—Peter did indeed turn back to Jesus and he did much to strengthen the brethren. Jesus’ prayer for Peter was effective.
Not only do we see the prayers of Jesus effecting change in this world, we also see the prayers of the saints working. In the early days of the church, Peter was thrown into prison, but the believers gathered for a season of intense prayer on his behalf. They poured out their hearts before God, begging God to somehow overcome the adversity of the situation and secure the release of Peter. You know what happened: While they were involved in this intense prayer, there was a knock at the door. They didn’t want to be disturbed from their prayer time, so they sent the servant to the door. When she went to the door and asked who was knocking, Peter answered and the servant recognized his voice.
Overjoyed, she left the door closed and ran to tell the others that Peter was outside. The disciples refused to believe it until they opened the door and saw Peter himself standing there. God answered the prayers of His people, delivering Peter from prison by the help of an angel, but when he appeared at the house where the believers were gathered, these people who had prayed so earnestly for his release were frightened and shocked that God had actually answered their prayer. That’s the way we are so often; when God answers our prayers, we can hardly believe it.
Moving to a didactic passage, James strongly encourages the people of God to pray:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up… . Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:13–18).
After these stirring words, which strongly emphasize the effectiveness of prayer, James goes on to speak of the prophet Elijah. He stresses that Elijah was a man just like we are—he wasn’t a super-saint or a magician. However, his prayers were extremely powerful. He prayed that God would stop the rain, and no rain at all fell for three and a half years. Then he prayed that God would send rain, and torrents fell.
Given these scriptural passages, and the many, many more that clearly show that prayer does achieve things, we are not free to say: “Well, God is in control. He’s sovereign, immutable, and omniscient, so whatever will be will be. There’s no point in praying.” Scripture universally and absolutely denies that conclusion. Instead, it affirms that prayer does effect change. God, in His sovereignty, responds to our prayers.
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