Fred just wasn’t sure he believed in God anymore. He was certain he didn’t believe in prayer. For six months he had prayed that God heal his wife, Beth. She had been diagnosed with cancer in March; by August she had died. He had prayed several times every day. His children had prayed. His parents had prayed. The church prayed. Not a day went by that their family didn’t get an e-mail, letter, card, Facebook post that said someone else was praying for Beth. But she still died. Now Fred was empty, broken, lost. Prayer had been a comfort for many of those months, now he wondered what was the point. “Does prayer even work?” Fred wondered.
Can you understand Fred’s question? Have you been there?
Surprisingly enough, prayer has even been studied “scientifically” (I put that in quotes because I doubt prayer can be truly studied scientifically). In April 2006, the American Heart Journal reported on a study claiming intercessory prayer provided no benefit for those who had undergone coronary bypass surgery.
Here is what they did. They established three groups. One group was told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer and they did receive intercessory prayer. One group was told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer and they did not receive intercessory prayer. One group was told they would receive intercessory prayer and they did receive intercessory prayer.
The results? Complications occurred in 52% of those who received prayer and only 51% of those who did not. Further, complications occurred in 52% of those who were told they may or may not receive prayer but a whopping 59% in those who were assured they would receive intercessory prayer. Major events and 30-day mortality were the same in all three groups. Yikes. Atheists and skeptics are touting this study as a demonstration that prayer just doesn’t work.
Are they right?
Well, I could start spinning this study. I could point out that James 5:16 says the prayer of the righteous is effective. It doesn’t just say any prayer is effective. This study doesn’t take into account who is doing the praying and their relationship with God. In fact, that is impossible for any person to measure. Only God knows. I could also point out that the Bible verses these kinds of studies are trying to test claim prayers offered in faith and in Jesus’ name will be granted (e.g. Matthew 21:22; John 14:13-14). There is no way for this study to be able to assess the level of faith their pray-ers had for each individual patient or whether it was Jesus’ authorized will that the person should be healed without complications. I could also point out that this study doesn’t have the right control groups. Where is the group that was assured it would receive intercessory prayer, but then no prayer was offered? Where is the group that was told it would not receive intercessory prayer, but people offered prayers anyway? Where is the group that was told it would not receive intercessory prayer and then it didn’t? There weren’t enough control groups to make this study legit. I could also point out how much I doubt the scientific accuracy of this study because they couldn’t actually have a control group. How on earth could they be certain that 597 people had bypass surgery and nobody in the world would pray for them (597 was the number of people who supposedly did not receive intercessory prayer)? Are we really to believe that no one anywhere prayed for those people just because no one hired by the study did? I could also point out that with all of the factors already mentioned, this study really didn’t prove or disprove the efficacy of prayer but did prove that prayer is not just a placebo crutch for folks. It is not simply a psychological benefit for people. If it were, then the folks who knew they were getting prayer would have done better.
I could point those things out, but I won’t, because none of them address the real issue. The real issue with this study and with our common question about whether or not prayer works is that we don’t understand what it is that prayer is striving to do. We often think prayer is the means by which we bend God to our will. We often think the purpose of prayer is to let God know what we want so that He’ll do it. Certainly, I can point to Biblical examples of people making requests and God granting them. But that is not the purpose of prayer.
The purpose of prayer is not to bend God to our will. Rather, it is to bend us to God’s. Prayer is not for God’s benefit; it is for ours. After all, God doesn’t need our prayers to know what we need or want (Matthew 6:8). The purpose of prayer is not to inform God. It is to change us.
Notice Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. After the one praying offers praise to God, what is the first thing prayed for? “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). What is the foundation of prayer? Not that I get what I want, but that I do what God wants. All of my requests for me and others are to be predicated on that foundation.
Consider the example of Jesus’ prayer in the garden before His betrayal: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). The Father told Jesus, “No,” to His initial request. He had to drink the cup. But notice Jesus’ prayer was that He wanted the Father’s will even more than His own. Prayer is intended to get us to that point.
Then there is the example of Paul’s prayer regarding his thorn in the flesh in II Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul prayed three times that God remove the thorn in the flesh, but God denied His request. Did Paul think prayer didn’t work? No, he recognized that God gave him what he needed even when he asked for what would have hurt him spiritually. Sometimes, what we are praying for is really not in our best interest. Only God truly knows what is in our best interest. Therefore, we should not view denial as saying prayer doesn’t work, but rather that God knows what is best for me even when I don’t and what is best for me is not always what is easy. In this study, there is no way to tell how the complications or lack thereof impacted people on a spiritual level helping them become more like Jesus and depend more on God.
Finally, the very passages that these folks are trying to test, such as Matthew 21:22 and John 14:13-14 demonstrate this nature of prayer. The concept of a prayer with faith is not stated in a biblical vacuum. According to Romans 10:17 faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Thus, we can only pray a prayer in the ultimate faith that God will grant us our request if our prayer is based on God’s word. In John 14:13-14, a prayer offered in Jesus’ name is one that has been empowered by Jesus. Again, we can only know that based on His word. What does this mean? This means many prayers are offered with the faith that God can do something. In fact, all of our prayers can be offered with that faith (Ephesians 3:20-21). However, not all of them can be offered with the faith that God will absolutely do what we’ve asked. We do know that prayers offered in faith about wisdom will be granted (James 1:5-6). We know that penitent prayers seeking forgiveness will be granted (Luke 18:13-14). To be completely honest, we have to admit that no prayers for health or safety have God’s biblical stamp of certainty on them. Can we let God know what we want in those areas? Sure. Will He sometimes grant our requests? Clearly. Consider Paul’s statements about Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25-27. There is no biblical promise that this man would be healed. However, since Paul says his healing was a mercy to him, we can be assured he prayed for it. However, there is no promise that God will heal everyone we ever pray for or that if we pray for someone they will have no complications in their healing.
So, the long and short of this is prayer is working, not when we convince God to do something on our behalf, but when it draws us closer to God and His will. Here is the key, prayer truly offered as God directs in His word, will always draw us closer to God and His will. However, I’m pretty certain it will be impossible to measure that scientifically.
When Samuel addressed Israel as Saul was being made king, he demonstrated that the reason the people asked for a king was sinful. God gave a sign by sending a thunderstorm during a time of year in which it never rained. The people cried out, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil to ask for ourselves a king” (I Samuel 12:19).
Samuel responded that even though they had done evil in the past, if they would follow the Lord from this point on, God would care for them and their new king. However, the statement that most catches my eye is I Samuel 12:23. “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you…”
He didn’t say, “Far be it from me that I should sin against you by ceasing to pray for you…” He said he would have been sinning against the Lord. Perhaps it would have been a sin for Samuel because of his special place as judge and priest. However, I just can’t help but think about what this statement says about us today. Even if it is about Samuel’s role as priest, I remember that we are priests of God according to I Peter 2:9.
If Samuel’s role as priest meant that he was to pray for the people, what about ours? If it was a sin against God for Samuel not to pray for his brethren, what about us? Before we spend time castigating others because they have done wrong, even in the Lord’s body. We need to spend time in serious prayer. We are sinning against God when we don’t.
In Ephesians 6:18, Paul asked that the Ephesians pray for him and his work. Are we praying for the workers in God’s kingdom that we know about? If not, we are sinning against the Lord.
I Timothy 2:1 says, “First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” God has asked us to pray for our brethren, but also to pray for all men. He has especially asked us to pray for those who are in government. Are we doing it? If not, we are sinning against the Lord.
We are to be a praying army for the Lord. We are to intercede for all who are around us. Do not sin against the Lord by not praying for others. Spend time on your knees today on behalf of your family, friends, brethren, co-workers, neighbors, government, and any others you can think of.
On May 17, we are having a very special evangelistic push. Over the next 21 days, we want to multiply our inviting efforts and invite our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, acquaintances, and anyone else we can think of to attend that one assembly. I have no doubt, if we work it, this effort will work. However, as we have repeatedly pointed out from Acts 11:21, if we want any success, the hand of the Lord must be with us. There is only one way to get the hand of the Lord to be with us. We have to ask.
I want to issue the 21-Day Prayer Challenge. For the next 21 days, let’s individually commit to praying for this evangelistic effort 3 times every day. This kind of prayer effort will really show us who deserves the praise when this effort is a success.
As you fulfill this 21-Day Prayer Challenge, consider praying for some of the following issues surrounding this evangelistic effort.
Pray for yourself: Pray that you will have opportunity and courage to invite others.
Pray for everyone else in the congregation: Again, pray that they will have opportunity and courage to invite others.
Pray for those who receive the invitations: Pray that they will have open hearts to the invitation and that they will come, witness our assembly and hear the gospel.
Pray for those who reject the invitations: Pray that something will happen to prick their hearts sometime and give us opportunity to share the gospel with them.
Pray for those who are our guests: Pray that they will have open minds and hearts to what they see and experience with us.
Pray for me: Pray that I will preach the gospel boldly and in an effective way that can prick hearts to serve the Lord.
Pray for our follow-up: Pray that we will effectively follow up with every lost person who attends that assembly.
Pray for returns: Pray that our guests will return again on May 24.
Pray for opportunities to study: Pray that those who attend will be open to studying the Word of God further.
Pray for conversions: Pray that God will use this effort to draw others into His family.
As you pray, remember Ephesians 3:20. God can do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. That means we better ask and think big. Are you up for the 21-Day Prayer Challenge?
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24, ESV).
These verses cause modern pray-ers all kinds of problems. We pray for something and it doesn’t happen, perhaps the healing of an illness, the finding of a job, the salvation of a friend. Then either we start to beat ourselves up for lack of faith, we think prayer is broken, or we think God doesn’t care. In any event, we often simply quit praying. The real problem is we don’t actually understand the point of these verses.
We think they simply mean if we believe something strongly enough, God will do it for us. Some have erroneously taken this to the extreme of teaching the “name it and claim it,” saying we can name that we will have one million dollars and claim it to be so if we have faith.
What do these passages mean within the biblical context? Do not forget Romans 10:17. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (ESV). Faith is not simply belief within a vacuum. The biblical faith is one based on the testimony of scripture. We are not told if we simply think something is going to happen, God will do it. Rather, when we can pray with the full faith and credit of God’s promise in His word, then we can know we will have it.
Consider one of the great examples. James 5:17-18 tells of Elijah praying that the rain would stop and then praying again that it would start. This is not an example of a man simply asking for something. Rather, he prayed this in faith based on God’s word. Read God’s promise in Deuteronomy 11:16-17: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.”
Elijah did not pray this because it was something he thought up willy-nilly. Elijah prayed this based on God’s promise. Elijah could pray this in faith because he knew and believed God’s word.
When we pray with the backing of God’s Word, we can pray in faith. Of course, this brings up one of the greatest mistakes we have with prayer. Some who are reading this are upset and saying, “What’s the point of praying if it is to be about God’s will?” Sadly, too many Christians mistakenly believe prayer is the means to bend God to our will. That is not so. Prayer is the means we are broken to God’s will. Only when our will is broken in favor of His will can our prayers be effective and prayed in faith. Let’s work on that this week.
Do you want to have an amazing relationship with God? Would you like to pray as the psalmists did? Would you like to connect on a gut level with the Almighty through your prayers? Though we can learn numerous things from the psalmists, perhaps the greatest lesson is to be honest with God.
I don’t just mean tell the truth. I don’t just mean if you did it, confess it. I mean be rigorously honest about our emotions. Tell God how you really feel.
The most repeated genre of the psalms is the lament or the complaint. These psalms contain statements such as:
“Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”—Psalm 10:1.
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”—Psalm 13:1-2.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”—Psalm 22:1-2.
Many of us have felt these same feelings, but we would think we were blaspheming if we said them. The psalmists did not fear this. They were honest about how they felt and they took it to God.
Perhaps we fear angering God. That is how we deal with each other sometimes. We are so afraid someone will get upset if we tell them how we really feel we just keep it on the inside. God is not like us. We can trust Him with our feelings. We don’t have to manage His feelings. Just read the psalms and discover God wants us to bring this to Him. He doesn’t want us bottling it up inside where it will poison our faith. He wants us expressing it and getting it out so we can get back to relying on our faith in Him, just as the psalmists repeatedly did.
Of course, anger is not the only emotion in the psalms. There is fear, despair, joy, happiness, loneliness, shame, guilt, hope, etc. Many scholars search in vain for some kind of order to the psalms. They are surprised the laments are lumped together and the praises aren’t together in a pile. I think the reason is because the psalms mirror life. Today, I may be overjoyed, while tomorrow something may anger me or depress me. The psalms are a mix of all these. But their number one lesson is don’t hide what you are really feeling from God. Think of it this way, in reality, He already knows. You can’t really hide it from Him. You might as well share it with Him. Be honest with God.