If God is sovereign and has our lives planned out and nothing happens to us that is beyond His control, need we ask God for anything? Do we really “change” anything by praying? And how long should a Christian pray for something important?
These and other questions about prayer require clear answers from God’s Word if we hope to pursue a meaningful, effective prayer life. Let’s examine four of the most frequently asked questions more closely.
Why should we ask God for anything?
Requests, of course, are one of four reasons for praying. Other reasons are praise, confession of sin, and thanksgiving. The Bible repeatedly encourages believers to bring their requests to God
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). “Pray continually” (1 Thes. 5:17). “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (James 1:5). “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray” (James 5:13). “Pray for each other … The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
“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 Jn. 5:14-15). “Pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20).
These verses make it clear that God wants us to bring our requests to Him. However, why is this necessary if God is in control of everything? Will not things happen anyway even if we do not pray? Since God knows our needs – “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8) – why bother to tell Him?
This may be answered in three ways. First, we should voice our requests to God because He wants our submission. Prayer is not so much for the purpose of getting our will done in heaven as it is getting His will done on earth. Prayer is not a battle in which we fight with God to persuade Him to do what we want. Prayer is not pressuring, nagging, pleading, or cajoling God to give us our way.
As Richard Halverson wrote, “By prayer man consents to the rule of God in his life. By prayer man seeks God’s will and yields to it.” Chuck Swindoll explains it this way: “Faith does not mean we give God deadlines … Faith says, ‘I plug into heaven, and wait for His timing.’”
By praying we acknowledge our receptivity to God’s will, our willingness to receive His answers. When we face problems, our normal reaction should be to pray. This is as God intends it. He wants us to keep on our knees.
A second reason for taking our requests to God is that He wants our communication. “Prayer is a communication between persons,” wrote Gordon Lewis. When you talk with someone, you express your opinions, wishes, desires. You ask questions, you share information, you perhaps sometimes complain. By talking you know each other better. Similarly, in talking with God, we express our longings, wishes, complaints, concerns. When someone asked George Mueller how much time he spent in prayer, he responded, “Hours every day.” He then explained, “But I live in the spirit of prayer. I pray as I walk and when I lie down and when I arise.” Prayer then is communication with God, a Person, not just going through a ritual or routine.
A third reason God wants us to voice our requests is because of His foreordination. He has planned or ordained that He will do certain things in response to prayer. This is similar to His plan with regard to missions. He sends people to serve Him on mission fields, but He asks us to pray that workers will be sent into the spiritual harvests of the world (Matt. 9:38). Some people reason that if God has chosen a person to be saved, no one need witness to him, for he will be saved anyway. Though they are saved by God’s grace, it is generally through the witnessing of God’s believers. This is part of God’s plan.
Praying is similar. God has chosen to do certain things and He has also chosen to do them in response to prayer. For example, God delivered Lot and his family in response to Abraham’s prayers (Gen. 18). God spared the nation Israel in response to Moses’ praying (Num. 14:11-12, 19-20). And God spared the Israelites when they were under attack by the Philistines, in response to Samuel’s prayerful intercession (1 Sam. 7:5-9).
Requests in our praying, then, are part of God’s plan for us. By taking our needs to Him we indicate our submission to His will, we enjoy communication with Him, and we take part in one of the means He has planned to accomplish His purposes.
Does prayer change things?
The answer is “yes” in one sense, and “no” in another sense. From our finite vantage point it appears as if our prayers change circumstances. On the other hand, we should not think of prayer as manipulation of God. If anything has changed, we are the ones who are changed as we are submissive to His will and as we communicate with Him.
Why are some requests not answered?
One may ponder, “Okay, I am in touch with God – I am submissive, I communicate with Him, and I sense my part in praying so that He may accomplish His will. However, sometimes my praying seems to make no difference. 1 Jn. 3:22 suggests that if I ask, the request will be fulfilled, but sometimes the answers do not come.”
Does this mean God is not true to His Word? Why is He seemingly silent, refusing to answer our prayers? Perhaps you have prayed for years for your unsaved husband, and he is still not saved. Perhaps you are praying for health, and you still must undergo medical treatments to sustain your health. You pray for some other need in your life or family and matters may not seem to improve.
Why does God do this?
Rather than being bitter with God we should examine the biblical conditions for answered prayer. They are four: (a) Praying is to be in Jesus’ name (Jn. 14:13; 16:23). This means that we should pray as if Jesus were praying. Our prayers should conform to His requests and concerns. (b) Trust or belief (Matt. 21:22). We should have confidence in His ability to meet our needs. (c) Abiding in/obeying Him (Jn. 15:7; 1 Jn. 3:22). This means we should confess sin, be right before God, and obey God if our prayers are to be answered. Unconfessed sin blocks the way to answered prayer (Psa. 66:18; Prov. 28:9; Isa. 59:2). (d) Right motives (James 4:2-3). We must pray not only for the right things but also from the right motives. Our concerns ought not be selfish. Our ultimate motive should be to bring glory to the Father.
Several years ago Ralph Keiper, a well-known Bible teacher, wrote about learning to pray with reference to God’s glory. Mr. Keiper is nearly blind and for years he prayed that God would remove that problem. But the Lord did not grant his request. One day he sensed that the Holy Spirit was reminding him that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. It was as if the Holy Spirit had asked him, “If you had the choice, what would you do, glorify God or have perfect vision?” He paused for a long time because, of course, he wanted his sight restored but in the struggle of his heart he had to recognize that only one proper answer could be given to the question.
At last he responded to the Lord, “My vision, or lack of it, is not worthy to be compared to the glory of God!” Then he sensed God saying to him, “If you really wish to glorify God, why worry about the method which God chooses for doing it?” He wrote, “Suddenly a peace came to my soul which has been mine for the past 25 years. The goal of prayer is not the fulfilling of our requests; it is the glorification of God.”
Prayer, then, is not a means of our getting what we want from God; we should think of it as a means of God getting from us what He wants, namely, glory to Himself.
How persistent should we be in praying?
The Bible affirms that we should continue to pray for whatever we know in God’s Word is His will. We should pray for daily provision of food (Matt. 6:11). Other matters for which we should continue to pray, without giving up, are these: strength to resist temptation (Matt. 6:13), sanctification (1 Thes. 4:3), needs of other Christians (Eph. 6:18), leaders (1 Tim. 2:2), our enemies (Lk. 6:28), and missionaries (Lk. 10:2).
God is willing to give (Matt. 7:11). He is not like the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8 who had to be persuaded to give. And yet God wants us to persist in prayer, recognizing that He has His timing for answering. For example, His delay in answering the request of the Syro-Phoenician woman suggests that He was testing her faith (Mk. 7:24-30).
Other times we need not persist in prayer for something when God indicates the answer is not forthcoming. Paul, for example, prayed three times that his “thorn in the flesh” would be removed; but when he sensed that God would not remove it, he stopped praying (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
Sometimes we must accept the Lord’s no answer or not-now answer and simply go on. We should thank Him for that answer and not be anxious (Phil. 4:6).
A group of amateur climbers were scaling part of the Matterhorn mountain near Zermatt, Switzerland. As they came to a narrow, hazardous passage, about to make a turn, a gust of wind swept down on them. The experienced guide, knowing the danger this posed for the group, quickly shouted, “Get down on your knees! You are safe only on your knees!”
How true this is in the Christian life as well. We are safe only as we are continually in fellowship with our Lord in prayer. As Paul wrote, “Pray continually” (1 Thes. 5:17).
Roy B. Zuck, Kindred Spirit, edited
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