How does prayer work?

By Beth Hyduke

God redeemed Christian believers to be in continuous fellowship with Him (Ephesians 6:18). Prayer is an important part of that relationship. There is nothing wrong with quick "SOS" prayers to God in times of unexpected trouble, as long as they are not the only kind of prayer we are offering up. We all have experience with so-called friends who only call us when they want something, and as a result, it's never much of a relationship. True friends spend quality time in each other's company; the closer the friend, the more you enjoy and appreciate being with that person, and the more time you want to spend with them. In a similar fashion, I think our prayer lives honestly reflect (and usually convict us of) how little we actually love the Lord, however much we claim to love Him. When we only pray when we get in a jam, or when we don't pray at all, we reveal our sinful inner state — that a relationship with God is not our priority.

That being said, there are some very short "SOS" prayers recorded in the Bible that prove that prayers do not need to be lengthy or formal for them to be effective. King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:3) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:19, 13:14) provide two Old Testament examples of this, and Stephen's prayer in the New Testament as he was being stoned to death is another example (Acts 7:59-60). The efficacy of prayer in these three cases, and in all cases, is not in how the one praying feels or what emotions they experience, but whether God hears and answers their prayer. The Bible assures us that "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective" (James 5:16), so if we are redeemed believers we don't need to worry about our prayers going unnoticed or unanswered. Regardless of how we may feel from moment to moment, we know that God both hears and answers the prayers of His people.

One reason that people get frustrated with prayer is because they look at it as a kind of business transaction: they plug in the right formula of words and emotions and God gives them whatever they want. This is not what Christian prayer is, not what it is for, and not how it "works." God's Word tells us we may bring our needs, requests, and petitions to God and be confident and assured that He will answer our prayers (i.e. Luke 11:5-13, Luke 18:1-8). But we must remember that God, who knows everything, knows what is best for us in a way we oftentimes don't, and He may (and sometimes does) deny our requests and petitions. When this happens, it is part of trusting Him to accept if He denies our requests, it is because He has something better for us than what our limited sight can see. We come across one example of this in 2 Corinthians 12. The Apostle Paul repeatedly asked the Lord to remove his "thorn in the flesh" but God flatly refused to do so, choosing instead to use Paul's infirmity to display His strength through Paul's weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Prayer teaches us that we must surrender our will and preferences to the Father's will and wisdom, just as Jesus did on the eve of His death, when He prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup be taken from Me; nevertheless, not as I will but as You will" (Matthew 26:39; emphasis added). Turning over our requests to God in prayer is a demonstrable way of expressing our faith that the goodness of God's plans for us is better than whatever we can imagine for ourselves. When God's answer is no, sometimes it means that He is teaching us perseverance and patience and that we should endure in prayer, continuing to bring the matter before Him (as Jesus teaches in Luke 11:5-13). Even when God's answer remains permanently no, it doesn't mean that our prayer didn't work, it just means we need to realign and resubmit ourselves to His better plan and will for us. Bring your requests before God (Philippians 4:6) and then, as Martin Luther put it, "let God be God" in deciding how to answer and resolve them.

Now a quick word about hearing God in prayer. There is a lot of confusion and bizarre teachings on this topic, and as a result, there are a lot of confused, disappointed people who are praying, fully expecting to hear a voice answering back, or goosebumps, or chills, or an overwhelming gut feeling, etc. When it doesn't happen, they go away frustrated, assuming their prayers aren't working. While there is a sense in which God speaks to us, there is also a sense in which He doesn't. The Bible records instances where God spoke audibly to people, but even in the Bible it was a pretty infrequent occurrence. In the life of Jesus, for example, there are only three times when God spoke audibly to His Son. When God speaks to us, the primary means He uses is not an audible voice or strong feeling but His self-endorsed written Word. It's much more exciting (and much less work) to expect to hear the voice of God answering you back as you pray than it is to read and study Scripture and then apply it in your life. As a result, people end up neglecting the Word God has authorized as His inspired revelation to us, and instead, they seek hunches and feelings and intuitions, baptizing those as if they were the divine voice of God. It's a big mistake and can lead to all sorts of wrong conclusions about God's will because what we are actually following when we do this is not the sovereign, infallible God but our own finicky gut. Theologian RC Sproul humorously puts the question like this: "How do you know that it was God speaking to you? What's the difference between the inner voice of God and indigestion?"

These words about prayer apply to Christian believers. There are plenty of unbelievers who find themselves in trouble and throw out prayer as a sort of last-ditch effort to offset the discomfort they are experiencing. To someone in this situation, I would say that while they remain an unbeliever, they do not have the same access to God or the privilege of reconciliation and communion with God that the believer enjoys 24/7. But there is one prayer that an unbeliever can pray that God promises to always, happily answer yes, and that is the sinner's humble prayer of confession and repentance, in which he or she asks God for His forgiveness and salvation. God never turns away or ignores anyone who comes to Him in contrite and humble sincerity of heart (Psalm 51:17, John 6:37, Luke 18:9-14). When He accepts and redeems a person, He grants them full access to Himself (Ephesians 3:12), gives them a new heart capable of fellowship with Him (Ezekiel 11:19-20, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 1 John 1:3), and adopts them as His own son or daughter (Ephesians 1:4-5), inviting them to boldly approach Him and know Him by name as their loving Father (Galatians 4:4-6).

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | God-Father

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Published on 8-17-15