Scripture clearly says that prayer is important. But have you ever wondered how effective it really is? When we see results, we can think our prayers have made the difference. But when a request seems to go unanswered, we can doubt.
Both of those assumptions use the wrong measurement, though. The Bible clearly says that the power to create, fix and heal comes from God alone. But our prayers do matter to Him, and can even move Him, when they are aligned with His heart.
“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this…” (Psalm 37:4-5).
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).
When we are tuned to God, our prayers can have the effect of displaying more of God’s character and desires. And that can have a big impact within and around us.
What the Bible Says About Prayer
Part of aligning our prayers more closely with God’s will is learning the kind that pleases Him. Lessons and examples of this are woven throughout Scripture.
How We Are to Pray
In the Gospels, Jesus gives us a model for prayer. It opens with a humble acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty.
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’“ (Matthew 6:9-10).
God promises to honor the prayers of those who submit to His rule in their lives.
“...if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven...” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
The New Testament authors wrote about righteousness and faith being essential elements of the prayer that delights God. They also urge us to trust in the Lord’s ability and faithfulness to answer prayer.
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7).
Why We Are to Pray
A lot of what Scripture says about prayer has to do with our motivation for lifting up a request. Jesus said it plainly in John 15.
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
In this short verse, Jesus teaches us an important principle. By staying close to Him, we’ll become less self-centered. The things we’ll pray about start to reflect God’s vision for His people and the world. And these are prayers that God wants to answer.
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What We Are to Pray For
As we start to learn more of God’s heart, the items on our prayer list might shift in focus. This is just a small sampling of what others have asked for by faith.
1. That the Lord would be glorified
“I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue” (Psalm 66:17).
2. That personal needs would be met
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
3. That God would forgive our sins
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
4. That others would be blessed
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Does Prayer Change God's Mind?
“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19).
One of God’s qualities is an unchanging nature, and our prayers don’t affect that. But in some Bible passages, it can appear that way. We need to understand that above all else, God wants people to repent and return to Him. In His mercy, He is moved when He hears someone sincerely asking for that chance.
For instance, God spoke a prophecy of destruction over Jerusalem through Isaiah. But He also included the opportunity for the nation to avoid their seeming fate. If they repented and returned to Him, God was willing to accept them and hold back His frightening plan.
Other examples of this include His plan for Nineveh, as described in the book of Jonah. In Genesis, Abraham “bargains” with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God agrees to save the city if a remnant of godly people can be found (Genesis 18:20).
Prayer did play a part in all these events. The King in Nineveh commanded the people, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence” (Jonah 3:8). Their prayers reached up to God, and He spared the city.
What Is the Purpose of Prayer?
For many years, I thought that prayer was all about asking God for stuff or situations - a very shallow and self-centered way of looking at it. As I began to grow a bit, I saw that God provided prayer as a way for us to communicate with Him, and lifted up more of my concerns and fears.
Over time, I’ve come to experience even deeper purposes for prayer. Now, while I still ask Him to take care of me, I want to know who else God wants to care for. I want to share more of His passions and to see where He is working.
Scripture tells us that prayer activates movement in the spiritual realm as well.
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
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If God Is Sovereign, Why Bother Praying?
God certainly doesn’t need us to pray in order to accomplish His plans. He already has all the strength and might He needs. And yet He calls us to do it, as Paul wrote, “at all times.” That’s because God knows what prayer does in us and for us.
Our Heavenly Father designed people to be in relationship, with Him and each other. He provided prayer as a tool for connecting. It is a way to show our love to God, and a way to encourage others.
Prayer reminds us of who God is, and what He can do. It often leads to times of worship, and our praise is a delight to Him. Prayer makes us humble and aware of our neediness, and keeps our eyes fixed on God. And when we see Him answer a request, it is a cause for celebration.
How Should We Respond When God's Answer Is "No"?
It’s been said that God never leaves a prayer unanswered. But His Word doesn’t give any guarantees that we will get everything we want. And sometimes, His response, or lack of it, does feel like “no.”
Scripture mentions a couple of potential reasons why that might happen, such as God’s timing (2 Peter 3:9), our doubt (Matthew 21:21-22) or disobedience (John 9:31). A “no” from God might also be because He has a better “yes” for us, usually something we wouldn’t think to ask for (Isaiah 55:8-9), in a time or way we don’t expect.
Whatever the reason might be, we must continue to seek God. We can start by honestly pouring out our feelings and thoughts to Him. Then, we can decide what to do with our item - either persevering in lifting it up or letting it go to the Lord. When we reach for Him, even in our upset, He will give us His peace as we wait.
It’s tempting to look for visible results to decide if our prayers are effective. But Scripture reveals that prayer has a rich purpose that goes beyond getting. Oswald Chambers put it beautifully in his devotional My Utmost for His Highest:
“Prayer is not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s inner nature.”
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Heather Adams is an author, speaker, and singer living in Connecticut. Heather’s passion is to equip and encourage believers to seek more of God’s truth and to experience more of His joy each day. Her book, Bow Down: The Heart of a True Worshipper is a practical, 30-day devotional about worship based on the writings of King David. Heather's blog, Worship Walk Ministries, offers weekly Scripture passages and insights to ponder. A native New Englander, Heather is settling into her home in the South, trying out local foods and watching for the alligators that live nearby! You can connect with her on her website: heatheradamsworshipwalk.com