David Instone-Brewer takes a look at how prayer works
Christians agree that prayer works. But who or what does it work on? Since God sees everything, prayer can’t be to tell God things he doesn’t know about, so does it mean prayer is trying to change God’s mind about what he should do? Or is it to try to change the minds of others, for example by making them fall in love with Jesus? The idea that we can somehow persuade God to change his mind or that God can interfere with people’s free will is hugely problematic. Some people conclude instead that when we pray, it changes our mind. We may, for example, suddenly realise how we could help in a situation or accept it as God's will.
I’d better admit it: I often do pray as though I want God to think again – as if I know better than he does. But didn’t Moses do this in Exodus 32:11-13 when he asked for God’s mercy on the Israelites after they’d built the golden calf? Psalm 106:23 says that Moses “stood in the breach” – ie his prayer plugged the gap in the defences for the nation. But did that prayer change God’s mind? In Ezekiel 22:30 God said that he longed for someone to stand in the breach again for Israel – “but I found no one”. In that situation at least, the prayers are working to further God’s will, not to change it, because God is longing for someone to bring about that change by praying!
The Bible does indicate how prayer works, but the hints are so small that we’d ignore them if the more obvious options weren’t so problematic. It suggests that prayer actually changes things directly, with God’s permission or help. That is, our prayers are part of the work needed in order to accomplish God’s will. They aren’t to persuade God that he needs to do something; they are somehow being used by God to get that thing done. We’ll come to the evidence later, but first it is interesting to see how many problems this solves.
It explains the apparent contradiction in Jesus’ teaching on prayer when on the one hand he tells us to keep praying, but on the other urges us not to pray with constant repetitions. He says we shouldn’t just keep on at God “for your Father knows what you need before you ask” (Matthew 6:7-8), and yet he says we should “always pray and not give up” like a persistent widow nagging a lazy judge (Luke 18:1-5). So God knows what we need but wants us to persistently pray for things that are already his will. This persistence makes sense if our ongoing prayers are actually helping to bring God’s will into effect. This also fits in with the emphasis on praying “your will be done” (eg Matthew 6:10; 26:39) and praying “in my name” (John 14:13- 14). Somehow, we are getting God’s will done by praying it.
God uses us
So how does God answer prayer? We might imagine that he does everything by direct action – by snapping his fingers like a genie or thinking things into existence, as in the Genesis account of creation. Afterwards, however, we are more likely to see God taking time (either days or eons) to transform matter into land, plants and people. The Bible also describes lots of things being done for God by people or by angels. Even if you regard angels as personifications of natural forces, the point is that God uses them, rather than acting directly.
Daniel gives us an intriguing insight into what actually happens when we pray. He decided to pray seriously about the future of Israel which was in exile in Babylon. His fasting and prayers continued for three weeks before an angel arrived with an answer, including an explanation for the delay: “Since the first day…your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia” (Daniel 10:12–13).
Prayer aligns the world with the will of God
These “princes” appear to be angels because one of them is Michael, the angel over Israel (see 12:1). So Daniel’s prayer being answered was delayed by the interference of an enemy angel.
A spiritual battle
It seems then that prayer can be a battle against spiritual evil. There is no way of telling how metaphorical this account is, but we can see that Daniel’s prayer was meeting resistance. The implication is that if he hadn’t persisted, the answer would not have come. So Daniel became an essential part of that battle by continuing to pray. In that kind of situation, persistence in prayer makes sense because it is actively affecting the situation – even when we can’t yet see it.
How prayer works behind the scenes is no doubt a complex matter and it won’t always work in the same way. For instance, it may sometimes cause an angel to do something or it may prevent some spiritual evil. Our prayers may power a slow progress or trigger a quick release, so some prayers take very little time to be answered and others take longer for a variety of reasons.
We should be aware that sometimes the ‘delay’ means we are praying for the wrong thing, as Paul realised with regard to his “thorn” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). But we don’t have to worry about these complexities because prayer is a simple request directed to God and he figures out how to use it. We shouldn’t be tempted to try bending the forces of nature or communicating with angels (Colossians 2:18). Even Daniel, who was very aware of angels, still directed his prayer to God himself (Daniel 10:12).
Because we pray directly to God himself, prayer really does change things. It isn’t just about aligning our minds with the will of God; it aligns the world with the will of God. God isn’t inviting us to give him a wish-list; he is inviting us to be his agents in bringing about his will. When we pray “Your will be done on earth”, we aren’t muttering a pious hope: we are actually helping to achieve it.
Suddenly, I’m left with the realisation that I might achieve much more for God if I change the busy schedule that stops me praying. As John Wesley said, “Prayer is where the action is.”
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge