Whether you realize it or not, you’ve put your finger on one of the thorniest theological problems and most challenging difficulties of the practical Christian life. Does prayer really change things? Can the Sovereign Lord, who knows the end from the beginning and the beginning from the end (see Isaiah 48:3), really be persuaded to change His mind or alter His long and deeply laid plans? If not, what’s the point of making our requests known to Him (Philippians 3:6) in the first place?
Both Scripture and experience teach us that prayer can and sometimes does make a very real difference in the course of human events. If you doubt this, consider Abraham’s intercessions on behalf of Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33, Hezekiah’s prayer for the extension of his life in Isaiah 38, or the church’s pleas for Peter’s release from prison in Acts 12:1-19. If you think about it, I’m sure you can probably come up with some examples from your own life.
But Scripture and experience also make it clear that there are occasions when our petitions seem to go unanswered. David’s prayer for the life of his and Bathsheba’s child (2 Samuel 12:15-23) is a case in point. Another example is Paul’s repeated request for release from his so-called “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Even the answered prayers often have a way of begging disturbing questions. Why was Peter set free while James, the brother of John, was executed (Acts 12:2)? Why was the infant Jesus allowed to escape while scores of other innocent children were slaughtered by Herod’s henchmen (Matthew 2:16)? Why were some of the biblical heroes of faith enabled to “subdue kingdoms, work righteousness, obtain promises, and stop the mouths of lions” (Hebrews 11:33) while others were “mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, tempted, and slain with the sword” (verses 36 and 37)?
The answer, of course, is that we simply don’t know. That’s because the power of prayer is a mystery. We can’t explain it. Either we must embrace it by faith or simply leave it alone.
So why pray at all? The answer is that, in the final analysis, prayer is not about results. It’s about relationship. God wants us to interact with Him, to wrestle with Him as Jacob wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32), in order that we might know Him, trust Him, and remember Him in all our ways. He wants us to become involved and play an active role in the mystery of His plan for the universe. But He doesn’t promise to be our personal butler or wish-fulfiller.
In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with being honest about your pain and frustration. David poured out his heart to God in the Psalms. Job expressed deep anguish in the midst of incredible grief and suffering. If you’re confused and hurting, the Lord doesn’t expect you to cover it up with a plastic smile. Tell Him what you’re really thinking and feeling. He has promised never to leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), and He hears your prayers even in the dark times when He seems removed and silent.
If you need help sorting all this out, call us. one of Focus on the Family’s pastoral counselors would be happy to discuss your questions with you over the phone.
National Day of Prayer Task Force