Welcome to part II of the series of the question: “How does prayer work?” In my previous post, I talked about why prayer can be so difficult when we’re talking to someone who is invisible, and I recommend reading that first. I also touched on the idea of dimensions and why we typically don’t acknowledge that the spiritual world even exists. I used the book Flatland as an example and highly suggested that everyone read it. If you haven’t yet, why not? Go do that.
Why Don’t my Prayers get Answered?
This seems to be the question most people are interested in, and for good reason. I’ve asked it many times myself—both consciously and unconsciously—because the Bible seems to be pretty clear that God will answer my prayers. I’ve never been satisfied with the religious cliche that says: “Sometimes God says yes, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says wait.” That’s actually just a terrible and elusive response that isn’t even backed by scripture. Other times people answer the question with: “Well, God knows best, you just have to trust.” Ok, I get what you’re saying, but that still avoids the question. In fact, most answers really just avoid the question because it’s easier to just say that God will do whatever He wants, so deal with it. To really understand why you don’t always see your prayers answered, you really have to understand how prayer works.
The Request Prayer
This is by far the most common type of prayer, and usually looks something like this:
- We have a need
- We see the Bible says God will meet our needs (Phil. 4:19 and other verses)
- We ask God to meet our need
- Our need is not met
- We go searching on the internet asking why God doesn’t answer prayer
Sound familiar? We say we have faith but the reality most of us are just trying a method hoping maybe it will work. And when it doesn’t happen like we want, we’re upset and disappointed. So what’s going on here?
God Responds to Faith, not Need
One of the most common reasons many people don’t believe in God is the existence of evil in the world. If God is all-powerful and all good, why does He allow suffering and evil? There are billions of people that are dying or have died because of unmet needs. Every day people are starving, suffering from illness and disease, murdered, raped, abused, and neglected. Why? How can God claim to be good while allowing all of these things to happen?
The question makes sense, but it’s the wrong question.
Instead, God is asking us why we are allowing this to happen! As Christians, we don’t realize that we are the ones responsible for the Earth. Since the beginning of creation, God has put us in charge. When Adam and Eve sinned authority was handed over to Satan, but when Christ died that authority was taken back. Which is why in the gospels Jesus commanded his disciples to heal the sick.
“Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.” Matthew 10:1
There are many such scriptures about Jesus giving disciples authority to heal, but we often miss this one.
“Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” Matthew 28:20 (NLT)
So Jesus commanded his disciples to heal, then told them to have everyone else obey those commands. This is just an example of the authority given to humans through the Holy Spirit, and while an in-depth discussion on this topic is beyond the scope of this post, the point is that there is a level of authority given to Christians. If this is not understood, it can be easy to blame God for everything that we may actually to some degree be responsible for.
The Blame Game
A problem with this teaching is that many Christians use it as a method to blame other Christians (or themselves) for “not believing enough.” This is very dangerous and unhealthy, and is the cause of much confusion, hurt, offense, and cynicism in the church as a whole. This is why it is vitally important to understand the spiritual world and dynamics of prayer. I’ll say right now that some things are totally in God’s control and that He can use any seemingly bad situation to bring about good. The hard part is knowing when to surrender to God’s will, and when to stand our ground and fight. But regardless of the situation, let’s just agree right now that shaming someone for their level of faith is never ok, ok?
One other interesting thing I’ve noticed growing up in the church is that most people don’t actually believe God wants to answer their prayers, hence the previous slot machine reference. But to get around this, people will ask other Christians to join them in prayer to convince God to do something. The thought is something like: “I know God won’t answer my prayer if it’s just me praying, but if I can get enough people to beg him, maybe he’ll give up and give me what I want.” This mentality is kind of like putting extra coins in the slot machine to increase your odds of getting winning numbers. I’m not saying agreeing in prayer is a bad thing, but if the mentality is that by having enough people you can twist God’s arm into submission, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Angels are talked about quite frequently in both the old and new testament, and yet while most people—Christian or not—say they believe in angels, very few actually live as though this were true. Which is valid because how would we actually live differently if we were 100% convinced angels existed? To be honest, I don’t really know. In fact, I’m still working on living my life like I’m 100% convinced God exists!
The point I’m getting at is that angels exist, they affect the world around us, and they are directly involved in our prayers. Let’s look at an example in the Bible that talks about angels’ involvement with prayer.
Probably the most popular scripture on the direct effect prayer has on angels is Daniel 10:12-13.
“Then [the angel] said to me, ‘Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia,” (ESV)
Daniel fasted and prayed for 3 weeks, and an angel was sent with an answer on the first day. But what’s the deal with the angel being restrained and needing reinforcements? Why didn’t God just come himself for that matter? Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know when or why God does things himself as opposed to it being done by angels, but Psalm 103:20 says: “Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word” (ESV)! So it looks like angels do God’s word and that our prayers—and in this case, Daniel’s prayers—had/have an effect on whether or not angels are successful on their missions.
If this is true, it has crazy implications. If every time we pray angels are put on assignment, how often are they resisted by demonic forces? And how often do we give up before our prayers are answered? For myself, the answer is most of the time. But the more I realize that there is an actual spiritual dimension not separate from our physical reality, the more I want to learn about it and how it works. Which leads to the next point.
It’s Up to Us
Now, I understand there is a lot of controversy surrounding the sovereignty of God, but I think the real problem is that our attempt to define God is much like someone in Flatland or Lineland comprehending and defining a sphere. It just doesn’t work. Similarly, God can be completely sovereign while at the same time letting us be in control. While this seems contradictory, it isn’t. God can do anything, but in His sovereignty, He decided to give people authority over the Earth. This is why evil happens. God gave us His word to let us choose our fate, and a lot of people decide to totally go in the opposite direction. So like I said before, while we’re asking God why he lets bad things happen, He is asking us the same question.
Let’s look at an example here. In Matthew 17 the disciples try to heal a boy possessed by a demon but are unable to cast it out. In typical fashion, Jesus comes to save the day and heals the boy, giving us a happy story about how great Jesus is, right? Not really. Let’s stop and take a look at what Jesus actually says to the disciples here in Matthew 17:17. “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
Jesus told the disciples that it was their unbelief that kept them from healing the boy. He then goes on to tell them if they have faith like a mustard seed that nothing would be impossible. Wait, what? Your little faith isn’t enough, but if you have a little faith it is enough? That seems pretty contradictory, so what is he actually saying? He’s saying don’t give up and keep your focus on God, not circumstances. The disciples were used to seeing people healed, so obviously they had faith. But when they didn’t see an immediate result, they began to switch their attention to what wasn’t happening instead of Jesus’ promise of healing.
While it’s amazing that Jesus healed the boy, he would have preferred the disciples had done it. That’s the whole reason he came—to give us an example to follow. It was his desire to heal the boy, but the boy wasn’t healed when the disciples commanded him to be. Likewise, we often pray and don’t see the results immediately. So is it God holding out on us, or do we just not understand God’s character the way Jesus did? Are we praying because we believe what God says, or are we praying just hoping something happens? The point is that we can’t let the outcome of our prayers determine God’s will. Paul said in Ephesians 5:17 “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” When we are 100% convinced of God’s will, we won’t give up no matter what.
Why are some prayers answered while others are not?
I’ve prayed for dozens of sick or injured people and I’ve seen many of them be completely healed. But what about the ones that aren’t? In my mind, I’ve been completely convinced that I was going to see someone completely healed, but then nothing happened when I prayed. Nothing. I’d like to say that when that happens I’m unfazed and continue on with my day just fine, but the truth is there are times I’ve gotten pretty discouraged when I don’t see the results I want. But guess what? I’m not perfect. In fact, no one in the Bible was perfect except Jesus, and that is the example I’m supposed to follow. Jesus never prayed for someone and didn’t see them healed. In fact, Jesus never prayed for anything and didn’t see it happen. When I don’t see the results I want, I just stop and remember that if Jesus had been the one praying and not me, the result would have been different. Rather than beating myself up about this, I am inspired to become more like Jesus so that the next time I pray I get the answer. Conversely, Jesus tells us to be persistent (see Luke 18) so I also have to remember to not give up.
I’ve been talking about healing a lot, but this applies to all areas of life. Whether it’s a relationship, a job, or any other need, prayer works when these three categories are met:
- There’s faith involved
- There is resilience and persistence
- The prayer is not for selfish desires (See James 4:3)
Power of the word
One final note is that prayer is not magic. From the beginning, God created words to have power and bring things into existence (See John 1 and Genesis 1). I believe what we call prayer is in many ways essentially tapping into this power of words.
There have been some interesting phenomena observed concerning the power words have over physical matter. While the validity of the scientific process used in experiments is sometimes questionable, there are multiple sources outside Christianity that appear to validate this claim. Having a background in mechanical engineering, I tend to be fairly skeptical of these claims myself so I will let you do the research rather than endorsing any particular experiment myself.
The point is that words do affect you and the world around you, so it’s important to choose our words wisely. When our words are combined with power in the spiritual world, the effect is immensely greater than when using words alone.
In studying prayer and the reasons why and how it works, I realized how much there is I don’t know. I still have a lot of questions about the spiritual world, angels, other spirits, other dimensions, what faith actually is, and many more things like those. My point in this whole discussion is not to provide a one-stop shop for information, but to get people like you to question why you believe what you believe and open up discussion. I’m still on that journey myself and I would love to hear your thoughts, so please comment below!