Answered (Questions about) Prayer
- 2006 6 Nov
During the Q&A sessions at the recent "Why Did This Happen to Me?" conference at Word of Life Inn in Schroon Lake, New York, we answered common questions about prayer. We also took specific questions from the audience. Here are some of the questions followed by my comments:
1) If God is sovereign, why pray?
We pray to express our complete dependence on our Heavenly Father. We pray because God commands us to pray and also invites us to pray. We pray because God is glorified when we cry out to him. We pray because our prayers are part of God's eternal plan. Things happen when we pray that wouldn't happen if we didn't pray. When we pray, we are cooperating with God in forwarding his agenda in the world. See "If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?"
2) What is the main reason for prayer? Do we pray for God's sake or for ours?
The answer is both. We honor the Lord by our prayers in the same way a little child honors her father when she comes to him asking for his help. It's not that our prayer change God, but they do change us, and that is where the greatest change needs to take place. Unless we are changed on the inside, how will be the world ever be changed on the outside?
3) Should we pray even when we doubt God is listening?
Absolutely. Faith and doubt are not enemies. By definition faith always involves some degree of uncertainty. We walk by faith, not by sight. If you ever get to the place where all your doubts are gone, and all your questions are answered, sit back and take a deep breath. You've just arrived in heaven. Until then, the best of our prayers will be mixed with some degree of uncertainty. We say with the distraught father of Mark 9:24, "I believe. Help my unbelief." See "If I Believe, Why Do I Doubt?"
4) What does Romans 8:26-27 mean when it says that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groanings that cannot be uttered?
The key is the statement in verse 26 that we do not know what to pray for as we ought. Sometimes (many times) life situations get so fouled up that we honestly don't know where to begin. And when we are tired or sick, we are sometimes so weak that we cannot pray because we cannot focus our minds on anything. We should not feel guilty in those moments because the Holy Spirit comes alongside and prays for us when we cannot pray for ourselves or our loved ones. Remember that prayer is not a "work" we do that gains merit with God. Prayer is ongoing communication with the God of the universe. The Holy Spirit constantly intercedes for us in ways we can't imagine. This ought to encourage us when we feel so weak or so tired or so helpless that all we can say is, "Oh God. Oh Jesus." The Holy Spirit takes our faltering words and lifts them up to the Father, interceding on our behalf. See "When God Prays for You."
5) Do you believe in anointing the sick with oil?
Yes, I believe that James 5:12-16 is for today and many times have prayed with people, anointing them with oil, asking God to heal them -- in his own way, in his own time, according to his own will. These prayer times have often been powerful moments of Spirit-directed ministry. See "Praying for the Sick."
6) How do I know when to stop praying for something?
You should pray until the prayer is answered or until the circumstances change or until God lifts the burden from your heart.
7) How should I pray for a loved one who is away from the Lord?
Pray first for yourself -- that God will deliver you from anger and bitterness and unbelief. Then pray that God will open the eyes of their heart so that light from heaven will come flooding in. See "Praying for Your Prodigal."
8) Does God hear the prayers of non-Christians?
Because God knows all things, He hears every prayer of every person everywhere at all times. And God often graciously answers those prayers as part of His common grace to the whole human race. But God has bound Himself in a special way to hear and answer the prayers of His own children offered in faith in Jesus' name. See "Does God Hear Hindu Prayers?"
9) Some people say that it is wrong and a lack of faith to repeatedly pray for the same things over and over again. What do you say?
Persistence in prayer honors God because it expresses our continuing faith in Him. Repeating our requests strengthens our faith, purifies our motives, and causes us to glorify God when the answer finally comes. See "Three Levels of Prayer."
10) Is God more likely to answer our prayers if many people pray for the same thing? If the answer is no, what is the real value of having many people praying for the same requests?
I am not aware of any Scripture that promises swifter or bigger answers if ten people pray for something instead of five or one hundred pray for something instead of ten. God can answer the prayers of one desperate mother praying alone in her room just as easily as he can answer the prayers of 10,000. Numbers by themselves do not impress the Lord. However, that doesn't mean that united prayer is useless. United prayer halves our burdens and doubles our joys. And God is greatly glorified when his children come together to cry out to him in a time of great need. See "Helping Through Prayer."
11) Why does God not answer my prayers?
There is no one answer that will cover all situations. Sometimes we ask for the wrong things. Sometimes we ask from wrong motives. Sometimes our sin blocks the channel of God's blessing. And sometimes when we pray, God overrules our requests for His glory and our greater good. See "The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer."
12) How can we know if we have enough faith when we pray?
Faith can be hard to measure, and we are often unreliable judges of our own heart. Faith like a mustard seed moves mountains. It's not the amount of faith but the object of faith that matters. A little faith in the right object (Jesus Christ) accomplishes much more than great faith in the wrong object. Prayer itself is an expression of your faith. Don't worry about how much or how little faith you have. Pray as best you can, and leave the results with the Lord. See "Mountain-Moving Prayer."
13) When we pray for the sick, should we always pray for physical healing?
Not necessarily. There are times when a saint of God is truly ready to go home to heaven. In those cases, we need not pray that suffering be prolonged or that this life be prolonged. But most of the time, we are justified in asking God to heal. Remember these two things: First, healing comes ultimately from the Lord, and He grants healing according to His own will. Second, healing means much more than rolling back the clock and reversing the sickness. Healing means "wholeness." It means becoming all that God wants you to be -- body, soul and spirit. In that sense, none of us will be completely healed this side of heaven. When we pray for the sick, we are asking God to bring them to a place where they are all that God wants them to be. We shouldn't focus only on the physical side of things. See "Praying for the Sick."
14) Some people say that adding "if it be your will" is a cop out and a sign that we lack faith in God. What do you say?
We don't have to always say those words in a literal sense, but that should always express the deepest desire of the our hearts when we pray. Jesus hinted at the problem when he gave us the Lord's Prayer. Included in that model prayer were these words, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The basic difficulty may be easily seen if we lay it out in a series of logical statements:
- God has a will concerning my life.
- God's will encompasses His desires for my life.
- But I also have a will that encompasses my desires for my life.
- Those two wills will often (not always) be in conflict.
- When there is conflict, either God's will or my will must prevail.
- When I pray "Your will be done," I am asking that God's will prevail over my will.
That's the basic difficulty we face when we pray. When we ask that God's will be done, we are implicitly asking that our wills be overturned, if necessary. And that's how we should pray because He's God and we're not.
15) How does unconfessed sin impact my prayer life? What about an unforgiving spirit?
Psalm 66:17 says, "If I had been aware of malice in my heart, the Lord would not have listened." See also Ephesians 4:29-32. It's not that we have to be sinless in order to pray, but we must not knowingly harbor bitterness or anger in our hearts and think that our prayers will not be impacted. Our sin can block the channel of God's blessing. When Jesus told us to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12), He was teaching us there is a vital connection between the horizontal and vertical aspects of life. See "Forgiveness and the Lord's Prayer."
The following are some of the questions asked by the conference attenders:
1) Will God save those He willed to have a hardened heart?
Romans 9:17-18 speaks of Pharaoh, whose heart the Lord hardened. But ten times in Exodus we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Nowhere in the Bible does God ever harden anyone who did not first harden himself against the Lord. It is not as if Pharaoh was on the brink of turning to God when God "hardened" his heart. No, not at all. The ten plagues, which were a sign of God's judgment, should have awakened Pharaoh to his own sinful rebellion, but instead he continually hardened his own heart against the Lord. To say God "hardened" his heart means that God did not intervene but allowed him to go his own way in continued rebellion.
2) I have been so richly blessed throughout my life... came from godly Christian parents, have enjoyed great health, have a wonderful wife, great children, a good home, for all of which I continually give thanks to God. Why haven't I experienced afflictions of any serious nature thus far?
If your life has been blessed with few troubles or afflictions, do not feel guilty. Instead give thanks to the Lord for his kindness to you. Troubles are not evenly distributed among the human race. We all know some Christians who seem to live for years in the Valley of Trouble. Others seem to have a much easier path. Both are from the Lord. So give thanks, take nothing for granted, enjoy the life God has given you, and understand that things could change with just one phone call.
3) Is it okay to look for the silver lining in every life circumstance -- it it theologically sound? I think I've found the silver lining in every cloud of my life.
I think it's healthy to look for the silver lining as long as you remember that you may not be able to find it very easily. The "silver lining" simply means that God is at work in every situation in your life for your good and His glory. Joseph could not see the "silver lining" in his brother's treachery until many years later when he realized that God had sent him to Egypt, given him favor, protected him in prison, and caused him to rise to become the Prime Minister of Egypt, all so that at just the right moment he could save his own family (Genesis 45:5-8). Sometimes the silver lining of life will be immediately seen, sometimes we must wait to it to appear, but if we believe in God's goodness, we know his purposes will be made plain eventually.
4) How do you deal with the sin of anger when it is so real an emotion?
Anger is not always sinful. There are times when we ought to be angry. When we read about that man who shot those Amish schoolchildren, we ought to either be angry or heartbroken, or both. If we can sit by and be unmoved by the suffering of the world, then there is something wrong with us. It is not wrong to be angry at the wanton destruction of unborn human life through abortion. And if that anger leads us to get involved in helping unwed mothers choose life, then our anger has led to a righteous action. When Jesus saw the sorrow of Mary over the death of Lazarus, He was deeply moved and troubled in His spirit. That is why "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). The phrase "deeply troubled" speaks of sorrow and anger mixed together as Jesus confronted the awesome reality of death. Anger becomes sinful when we do not deal with it, when we let it fester within, when we make excuses for it, or when we allow it to control us.
5) What part does the faith of the person being prayed for play in the prayer for healing versus the faith of the person doing the praying?
We know that faith releases God's power. Sometimes when Jesus healed, He responded to the faith of the person calling out to Him. Other times He responded to the faith of those who brought the sick person to Him.
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Dr. Ray Pritchard is the president of Keep Believing Ministries and author of And When You Pray. He has ministered extensively overseas and is a frequent conference speaker and guest on Christian radio and television talk shows. He has authored over 27 books, including Credo, The Healing Power of Forgiveness, An Anchor for the Soul, and Why Did This Happen to Me?