by Bob Burridge ©2021
Prayer is one of the most basic practices the Bible prescribes for God’s people. There is so much information in the Bible about prayer that a thorough study of it would be very long. This study just takes a brief look at the importance and effectiveness of our prayers. Even these matters would keep us busy for a long time. The goal of this lesson is to encourage us to pray more and with greater confidence.
First we need to review what prayer is as God explains it in his word. Dr. Charles Hodge simplified the basic idea for us. He said, “Prayer is the converse of the soul with God.” Even a child can understand this most basic idea. When we pray we are telling things to God, and asking for his help for various needs.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes prayer in more detail in answer 98. There it says, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.”
Jesus said, in John 14:13-14, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
Does this mean that anything we pray for while mentioning his name will become reality? We know from experience that it doesn’t happen exactly that way. That’s not what Jesus was teaching there. There are two conditions mentioned in John 14:13-14 which are also part of that Shorter Catechism answer.
Let’s take the second condition first. We must pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Of course this doesn’t mean just tagging the words “in Christ’s name” to our prayers. It means that we pray as those who trust in what Jesus Christ is and has done on our behalf. We come not in our own name, but in his name as our Savior who represented us on the cross. We are acknowledging that he died in our place and has become our mediator to bring our words to God.
Prayers made by those still resting in something else for access to God actually offend God and are not welcomed. So when we pray, as the catechism says, we must come in humble confession of our sins and in thankful acknowledgement of God’s mercies by which alone we are saved.
Another condition is also assumed in John 14. Our Prayers must promote the Father’s glory in the Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the purpose of the prayers Jesus is speaking of. Those truly redeemed in Christ learn that prayer must be pleasing to God.
The Apostle John knew the teachings of Jesus well. He explained in 1 John 5:14-15, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
When we pray according to God’s will we pray for things that promote his glory and that are agreeable to what fits in with what he desires. It’s then that our prayers will be answered.
Effective prayers are offered in faith. It’s not just a hope that things will work out according to what we believe should happen. The true kind of faith is a sincere confidence in the promises and truths of God.
We can learn what God’s will is by knowing and understanding what he tells us in the Bible. If we pray according to what God promises we are praying according to his will. We should avoid praying for selfish things, or to dictate what we think would be best for God to do. He doesn’t need our suggestions or advice. In John 14 Jesus wasn’t telling the Apostles that God would give them whatever they wanted: a new chariot, popularity, long life, good health, or a higher IQ. He was teaching them how prayer should be offered by those who seek to show the work of God in their lives. Here’s the context which is set up in John 14:12, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
Our prayer is not to turn the course of things in a way God didn’t originally plan. God is totally sovereign, all powerful, and unchangeable. He does all his holy will. We who love him in Christ want what God intends to be done. All that God has determined will be done, no matter what we ask or do. Nothing can change the work and plans of a Sovereign and all powerful God.
Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
1Chronicles 29:12, “Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.”
Isaiah 14:24, “The LORD of hosts has sworn: ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand’ ”
Isaiah 14:27, “For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”
In prayer we speak to God with confidence because of what he is. We are called to ask for things of God in prayer. The verses we have already looked at make this clear. What’s more they assure us that our proper prayers will be answered. James 5:16, “… The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
We are to come to God in prayer with the conviction that he can really help us. We are to assume his infinite power and personal love for his children. This should cause a great expectation as we pray, a confidence and hope.
So then: God’s decrees for the universe can’t be changed by our prayers. Yet we are told to pray expecting that God will truly answer our prayers. How do we fit these ideas together?
The facts are clear: God foreordains everything that will come to pass. Nothing is uncertain with God. Nothing is left for us to determine. Nothing in God’s plan changes. Yet it’s also a fact that God says our prayers are effectual in what we properly ask of him.
The Bible helps us by showing again and again, that God has predetermined to use human means for fulfilling his plans. Dr. Charles Hodge gives a helpful illustration. He points out that God has obviously foreordained that we should be alive. But he has also taught us to work for and earn our food and other provisions. Someone might get real philosophical and ask, “If God has foreordained that I should live, then why bother to eat or take medicine?” Similarly God has ordained everything that comes to pass. But he also teaches that we ought to pray. It’s just as vain to ask, “If God has foreordained everything, then why bother to pray?”
Prayer is one of the means God gives so that we are a part of what he does. He uses our prayers to work his blessings and to provide his care just as he uses food, medicine, and sometimes surgery to keep us alive.
Would things grow out in nature if God didn’t send rain? No. It’s not that God couldn’t make crops grow some other way. But God has ordained to use rain as a means to accomplish the growth of vegetation.
Similarly would things happen if we didn’t pray? Sure they would if God had ordained them to happen without our prayers. But God has ordained to use the prayers of his people to call things to happen. It’s not that our prayers change God’s changeless plan. That’s irrational. It’s that our prayers are God’s means ordained to carry out his plan. Hodge adds, “Prayer has the same causal relation to the good bestowed, as any other means has to the end with which it is connected.”
Therefore we come to prayer with great reverence, and humility. We come not as demanding plan makers of how things will best work out. We aren’t here to advise God or fill him in on what’s happening and needs his care. We come to him submissively as tools in the hands of God to join in and be a part of his work being done.
The Bible offers many examples of answers to prayer. Each of those examples is a whole study in itself. We could all probably list several example in the Bible. Every era of biblical history shows that this is a continuing principle. When Israel was held captive in Egypt God used their prayers to raise up Moses. God used the prayers of Elijah to cause a great drought and then to relieve it with rain. James 5:17-18, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
Prayer was used when God miraculously released Peter from prison. Acts 12:5-7, “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands.”
Sometimes God does not answer in a way we expect. Paul prayed that some problem in his body would be taken away, but it was not removed because God intended it for a purpose greater than what Paul had at first understood. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Hodge reminds us that in situations like these, where God’s answer is not what we expect or desire, “the answer will be such as we, if duly enlightened, would ourselves desire.”
(Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)