Rev. Overway is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Doon, Iowa.
Prayer changes things. Perhaps you’ve seen this phrase inscribed on some plaque in a Christian bookstore or in someone’s dining room. Perhaps you’ve seen it on a greeting card or on a piece of stationery. Though it’s a fairly popular expression, we note that it is an ambiguous one. It can be understood as setting out either a correct idea or an incorrect one.
There is a certain sense in which it is correct. From a certain point of view, prayer does change things. But many understand it and intend it the wrong way. They intend that the phrase be taken without explanation or qualification, simply: “prayer changes things.” And understood this way, the statement is decidedly unbiblical and unre-formed, i.e., wrong.
This short, well-known expression brings into focus the important issue of prayer as it relates to the sovereignty of God. How can this phrase be taken correctly? How can it be true both that prayer changes things and that God Himself sovereignly rules over all things and thus changes things? What qualifying truths must one have in mind in order to make this phrase square with the doctrine of God’s perfect sovereignty over all things?
Before we answer these questions, though, we ought to see how this expression captures the prevailing but erroneous view of prayer in the modern church world. Many understand prayer in such a way that they would take this phrase to mean: Prayer determines things. A person’s life and the circumstances and events of his life are determined by his prayers. This is the prevailing understanding in Christendom today.
According to this idea, prayer is viewed as the work of man whereby one can persuade God to do something the person desires. It is usually admitted that God controls things in a general way. He at least has the power to give good things to those who ask them of Him. But, it is argued, since man has a free will, God cannot simply impose things on him. So we need to pray for these good things so that He is able to give us the things we desire. Then really it is the praying person that determines the outcome of things. Often it is added that one must pray fervently, frequently, and in faith. And if these prerequisites are not met, then the prayer will be ineffective. Then if the praying person does not receive what he asked for, it is explained to him that he failed in one or more of these requirements and he is encouraged to try again.
For example, a man is unemployed and would like a job. God has the power to give this man a particular job, but since the man has the freedom to make his own choices, God cannot force this particular job on him. The man prays to God for a job. Now God is free to give him what he wants. So He manipulates certain events so that the man is soon able to land the new job. Prayer changes things. Prayer determines things.
Or a woman is sick. She prays half-heartedly that she may recover from her illness. But this vapid prayer is not enough to move God to intervene in her life and heal her. She is counseled by her pastor to pray with more vigor and to believe that if she does so God will restore her to health. She begins to pray with an emotional fervor, almost constantly, all the while believing in the “power of prayer.” God sees this energy expended, is pleased, and because of this is moved to reward her with perfect health again. Prayer changes things. Prayer determines things. Or so it is explained.
But the basic problem with this conception of prayer is that it conflicts with the biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God. That God is sovereign means that God is free. He freely does whatever He wills. “Our God is in the heavens, he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 15:3). This means that no one by prayer (or any other means, for that matter) is able to persuade or influence God to do anything. Our prayers do not determine things. If they did, God would no longer be free. Man would be able to influence God’s will, change His mind, force His hand.
Prayer does not determine things. God determines things. In fact, He has done so already from eternity, sovereignly decreeing all things that ever should be. In Ephesians 1:11, God is revealed as the One “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Things take place according to God’s will, not man’s will. Things are determined not by man’s prayers but by God’s sovereignly free eternal counsel. “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10).
Nevertheless, though prayer does not determine things, from a certain point of view it can be said that prayer changes things. Did we not already see that God is sovereign over all things? Our prayers are included in this. God has eternally decreed our prayers also. And it pleases Him to unfold His unchangeable counsel in time, i.e., change things, through our prayers.
What we mean can be demonstrated by example again. The man without a job is without a job because God determined from eternity that he would be and because God freely executed His counsel in the man’s life, in His providence removing the man’s job. God has also decreed that this man would soon have a new job. But God has decreed that the man would pray to Him for a job and that only in answer to this prayer would he receive his new employment. In His counsel God has tied together, as it were, the prayer and the new job. The job cannot be had without the prayer.
So God unfolds His counsel in time with respect to the prayer as well. The sovereign God blesses the unemployed believer with the prayer. He works in his heart by the Holy Spirit, moving him to desire to pray, stimulating his faith so that he believes that God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him, calling to his mind the promises of the Word and the Scripture’s instruction regarding prayer, humbling him to place his will in subjection to his Lord’s, and mysteriously even directing the very words that are uttered before the throne of grace. All this is the outworking of God’s counsel as He, step by step, unfolds all that must take place in order to bring about the moment that this man receives notice that he is once again gainfully employed.
According to God’s counsel, the prayer was required in order that the circumstances in the man’s life be changed. The prayer was a gift of God to this believer and was used by God to bring about a change in the man’s life. Prayer changes things, though God determines things.
It is also true, however, that not every request we make in prayer changes things in the way that we requested them to be changed. The apostle Paul requested three times that his thorn be removed, but nothing changed, the thorn remained. Or was there a change after all? Nothing about the thorn changed, but the apostle himself was changed. He went from one imploring the Lord that his thorn might depart from him to one glorying in that he had such an infirmity, even taking pleasure in all his infirmities in general (I Cor. 12:8-10). What a change God worked in him by those three prayers! Truly, prayer changes things.
This is also the teaching of our Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 116: “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him and are thankful for them.” God will work changes in our life (the catechism mentions giving us His grace and Holy Spirit) in answer to prayer.
And this is the understanding of prayer that the Lord wants us to have too. He wants us to pray, truly believing that He will use our prayers to effect real change. This is the reason for the abundance of passages in Scripture that speak this way. For example, to list only a few: “ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7); “ask, and ye shall receive” (John 16:24); “what things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them” (Mark 11:24). In other words, when we desire a legitimate change in our life, and we pray properly for that change, i.e., asking in faith and submitting to God’s will, God will work that change. Not a change, is this, from the point of view of God’s counsel, but nevertheless a change from our point of view, a change in our circumstances as we live here below. This is God’s sure promise expressed in the above passages.
Another outstanding passage setting out the efficacy of prayer is James 5:13-18. In James 5:16, the Scripture says to us “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth (literally, worketh) much.” Here the Lord clearly speaks in this manner in order to encourage us to pray, to believe, if you will, that prayer changes things. Prayer changes things because our sovereign God has decreed it and controls it so to be. But God Himself says that our prayers avail much. What a comfort! What an encouragement to pray!
Let us be busy, then, in prayer. Not in order to convince God to do something or because we believe our prayers can determine things in our life. But because we believe in the sovereignty of God. Because we believe that God is sovereign over all things, including our prayers and the changes He will work through these prayers