From the Bible’s perspective of history, I see a picture of God as a personal Being Who alertly listens to prayers and then responds. Jesus filled in that portrait, and the disciples took up praying right where Jesus left off, making specific and personal requests for God to act.
The most famous prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gave spontaneously in answer to his disciples’ request for help. Introducing this model prayer, Jesus acknowledged that God already knows our needs in advance: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before you ask Him. After this manner therefore pray ye…,” Matthew 6: 7-9.
Some see God’s omniscience as a disincentive to prayer: Why pray if God already knows? In contrast, Jesus treated God’s knowledge not as a deterrent, but as a positive motivation to pray. We do not have to work to gain God’s attention through long words and ostentatious displays. We don’t have to convince God of our sincerity or our needs. We already have the Father’s ear, as it were. God knows everything about us and still listens. We can get right to the point.
Prayer holds together the shattered fragments of the Creation. It makes history possible. Indeed, the great events of the Old Testament — Abraham’s family, Joseph’s rebound in Egypt, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the victories of Joshua and King David, deliverance from Assyria and Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple, the coming of Messiah — took place only after God’s people had cried out in prayer.
Throughout, the Bible depicts God as being deeply affected by people, both positively and negatively. God “delights in those who fear Him and who put their hope in His unfailing love.” Yet, as the prophets tell, at times God also feels wearied by disobedience, and eventually God’s patience reaches an end point: “I have long time holden my peace; I have been still, and refrained myself: now will I cry like a travailing woman; I will destroy and devour at once,” Isaiah 42:14, KJV.
The New Testament presses home that our prayers make a difference to God and to the world:
-Ask and it will be given to you.
-And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
-The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are attentive to their prayer.
-You do not have because you do not ask God.
Underscoring these lavish promises, the Bible tells of prophets and apostles praying for physical healings, and even the resuscitation of dead bodies; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth praying against their infertility; Daniel praying in a den of lions even as his three friends had prayed in the midst of fire. When God sent the prophet Isaiah, the most God-connected person of his day, to inform King Hezekiah of his imminent death, Hezekiah prayed for more time. Before Isaiah had left the palace grounds, God changed His mind, granting Hezekiah 15 more years of life.
In a sort of negative proof of the power of prayer, three times God commanded Jeremiah to stop praying; God wanted no alteration in His plans to punish a rebellious nation. Prayer had, after all, softened God’s resolve before.
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” the prophet Jonah proclaimed to a heathen city. But, when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened. Four times the Old Testament reports that God “relented” or “changed His mind” in response to a request, and each shift forestalled a promised punishment.
Finally, I pose the question: Does praying “fire-escape” prayers affect God? Does prayer in our crises matter? The answer is yes. By using prayer rather than other, more direct means, God chooses the most freedom-enhancing style of acting in the world. God waits to be asked. Does God’s will advance more slowly because of that choice? Yes, it does in the same way parents slow their pace when the baby is learning to walk. Their goal is to equip someone else, not themselves. (Adapted from Philip Yancey in his book on prayer.)
| August 2017