Probing the Problems of Prayer

Most of us have encountered problems in our prayer lives to one degree or another. Maybe God did not answer our prayer [1]. Or we encountered a moral dilemma such as should we pray for or against enemies? Perhaps we wonder whether or not prayer is worth bothering about. After all, if everything is already going to happen according to God's will, then our prayers cannot possible change His mind, right?

Most of us have encountered problems in our prayer lives to one degree or another. Maybe God did not answer our prayer [1]. Or we encountered a moral dilemma such as should we pray for or against enemies? Perhaps we wonder whether or not prayer is worth bothering about. After all, if everything is already going to happen according to God’s will, then our prayers cannot possible change His mind, right? While space will not allow us to go into detail on matters relating to problems and prayer, in this article we will try to probe the issues biblically and reasonably.

Should we pray for enemies?

Do our enemies deserve our prayers? The answer to this problem of prayer is easy and hard. It is easy, biblically speaking, because Christ said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …” (Matthew 5:43-44, NIV). But this directive to love and pray for our enemies is a problem for us sometimes because our natural inclination is not to pray for our enemies. But by seeking to imitate Christ, we grow in our level of maturity enabling us to love and pray for our enemies.

Should we pray against enemies?

But doesn’t the Bible support praying against our enemies? There are instances in the Psalms, for instance, where prayers openly ask God to defeat enemies. Biblically, we can pray for victory over enemies, but coupled with the command to love our enemies, we should not do so spitefully or out of malice. We should pray for the defeat of enemies with the right attitude – that of wanting to see God’s Kingdom increase, not to satisfy our petty grudges. God is just, but He is also merciful. Therefore, praying for God’s justice to prevail against enemies is right. We should also keep in mind that there are instances where our enemies are not truly fellow human beings, but “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

What if prayers are in opposition?

What if two people are praying for opposite results? Does God just flip a coin and decide to answer the prayer of one person, but not another? No, God is not arbitrary. In fact, if prayers are in opposition He may decide not to answer either one. But it’s also possible He will answer the prayer of one person, but not the other. Why? This is a question we don’t always have the answer to. We usually only see a fraction of the tapestry that God is weaving throughout history and in our lives. This is not easy for us to understand, particularly when our prayer happens to be the one that has seemingly gone unanswered, but we can be assured that God’s will has not been thwarted. He simply has other plans for us and, therefore, we must trust Him to always do what is in our best interest in the long term.

Does God hear everyone’s prayer – even those who follow other religions?

Does God only hear the prayers of Christians? Or of faithful Christians? What about people of other faiths? Will God hear their prayers, too? Will He answer them?

The theological answer to the question is that yes, God, being all knowing, must hear everyone’s prayers. So He does hear the prayers of Christians and non-Christians alike. But hearing and answering are different matters. If God were to answer the prayer of someone involved in a false religious system, we can surmise that God would do so only if His answer would lead them closer to truth rather than closer to error.

Also, there may be instances where an adherent of another religion – or even a Christian – might attribute something to God answering prayer, but that may not necessarily be the case. It may be that a series of circumstances have resulted in what we believe to be an answer to prayer when in reality it was not. This, of course, is difficult if not impossible to determine and should not lead us to doubt God’s hand at work in our lives.

However, assuming the seeming answer to prayer is not against God’s clearly revealed will, and assuming that the apparent answer leads us closer to truth and closer to God, then there is no real reason to doubt God’s involvement in our lives.

Prayer and Proverbs: Absolutes or Guidelines?

Many a Christian parent has lamented the fact that their adult child has not come to Christ or has chosen a dangerous path for their life. Proverbs 22:6 reads, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” But what if you do your best as a Christian parent and your child does turn from their faith?

This seeming problem in prayer has to do with how we approach and interpret the wise sayings of Proverbs. This book offers much wisdom, but it does so in a sense of providing generally true principles and guidelines, not absolute promises. Seen from this perspective, we can glean much helpful advice from Proverbs, but this advice is not intended as a guarantee.

Especially in cases of children who turn away from the faith or perhaps never embrace it. This is a matter beyond parental influence and control. Children make their own choices. As parents we can do the best we can, but ultimately we cannot make decisions for God on behalf of our children.

If we can’t change God’s will, why bother praying?

This is a common problem of prayer. The objection seems reasonable at first glance, particularly if we have a background in a Christian tradition that stresses God’s sovereignty. If everything that happens does so within the bounds of God’s perfect will, then why bother praying? This would be a powerful objection if we knew God’s will perfectly. But we don’t. We do know, however, that God has called us to pray and that our prayers can have a positive influence on the world and the people in it.

Also, some things are predestined by God, while others are not. The ones that are not are the ones that we can indeed influence through prayer. As Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest write, “Although prayer will not change those events that God predestined to be accomplished by his own power unconditionally, many aspects of our lives are not unconditionally determined … Although prayer that asks God to act contrary to His nature or unconditional purposes is of no avail, our petitions in other matters have great and eternal significance.” [2]

Sometimes we are the problem of prayer

Although it’s difficult to accept or see, sometimes we are the problem of prayer. How? Sometimes we don’t pray, we don’t pray in faith, we pray wrongly, we pray for the wrong reasons or we pray out of habit rather than conviction.

In these instances, we are the problem, not God or His truths. Fortunately, this problem in prayer can readily be corrected if we will get ourselves back on the right track in our relationship with God. This involves making an effort in growing our spiritual maturity and should also involve the desire to gain a greater understanding of God through His word as well as through our relationships with others.

Every “problem” in prayer that we encounter should be seen as a challenge to help us better understand God and ourselves as we seek to solve the seeming problem. This is not something we can always do alone. As such, we must rely on other members of God’s body – the church – to help us along on our journey. Likewise, we must help others as best we can, too.

Robert Velarde is author of Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and primary author of The Power of Family Prayer (National Day of Prayer Task Force). He studied philosophy of religion and apologetics at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

[1] See “Why won’t God answer my prayer?” in this article series.

[2] Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume 2 (Zondervan, 1990). p. 111.


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