What is the purpose of prayer?
Jim Thomas seemed sure that prayer didn’t work.
Jim was a high school senior. Every day he prayed, and he prayed for two long years. He prayed specifically for something. He prayed with great faith. But nothing happened. So Jim came to the fatal conclusion—prayer just doesn’t work. And he stopped praying. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t make him pray again.
What would you have said to Jim?
The hardest questions about God have usually been about prayer:
If God already knows, then why tell Him what we want or need?
If He’s already good, then why do we need to pray to persuade Him to do something?
If, in the Great Controversy, He has already decided that He has to allow a certain amount of evil, why should we try to argue Him into changing that “line”?
Why aren’t more miracles and answers to prayer happening? Is it because we aren’t praying enough? With enough faith? Or don’t have enough people praying?
I had wrestled with these questions for years, but they crystalized for me during my first summer after college. I was a new, young pastor in Portland, Oregon, helping with a series of evangelistic meetings. The meetings did not start off well. Almost nobody came. Every night we had to take out more chairs so the place wouldn’t look so empty. Every morning we would pour out our souls to God, begging Him to send people. And I got stuck there. Surely God already wanted everybody to come before we prayed. Surely He was already trying to get everybody to come. Surely He wasn’t going to make people come against their will. So what exactly was the purpose of our prayer?
So, for the past 30 years I have been wrestling with an answer to all of my own questions, and the thousands of questions asked by my church members while standing around hospital beds in intensive care units, around caskets at wakes, and after every disaster. Here are some of the conclusions I have hammered out.
1. Prayer serves primarily to build our relationship with God. Prayer is not like putting quarters into the heavenly juke box, or asking God as the heavenly “genie” to do magic for us. God is all about relationships (“I have called you friends,” John 15:15, NIV). Prayer is for praise, worship, communication, listening, and “being” with God. I turn off all the media in the car and just pray, or hang out cocooned in the shower, being with God.
2. God is a constant. Whatever our theology of prayer, it cannot undo all our other beliefs about God. God is infinitely, perfectly good. Prayer cannot persuade Him to be better than He already is. He knows the best, and wishes the best for us. And, within the limits of the Great Controversy, He is already doing all He can for the good. He came to give life, life more abundantly. He is not a thief, stealing or taking away life (John 10:10). God is the king who extended the scepter to Esther. He is the waiting father of the prodigal son. The One who told the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you…. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). His love, grace, and forgiveness are constants (Romans 8:38-39; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).
One of my earliest decisions was that God didn’t go into a higher gear because of prayer. John 5:17ff. says that God and the Son are constantly working. They never rest, really. No one can ever come back at God and accuse Him of holding back divine resources. God has already thrown everything He has into the battle!
3. Prayer serves to change us, not God. If God is the constant, then we must be the variable. If prayer can’t make God better or wiser or more aware or work harder, and if prayer “works” and changes things, then prayer has to change us. We are the variable. So prayer makes us more willing, more aware, and more involved. And those of you from my own faith tradition will recognize these famous lines: “Prayer is not to work any change in God; it is to bring us into harmony with God.”1 “Not that it is necessary in order to make known to God what we are, but in order to enable us to receive Him. Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.”2
4. Prayer dials us in to God’s wisdom and power. Jesus said that He sends the sun and rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:43ff.). But the sun would be worthless if you didn’t go out and enjoy it! God’s grace is a constant—prayer opens up our heart and soul to receive it. Praying for people opens us up to become channels of grace and power to others. We hear God’s whispers, His suggestions to call someone, to go spend time with someone, or to send some money to a mission project.
Let me tell a story about a Doug Coe, who teaches people to pray. He told Bob, a brand-new Christian, and new to prayer, to pray for something every day for six months, and if nothing happened, he would pay him $500. Bob tried it, decided to pray for a country, and Kenya popped into his mind. After several months he sat next to a woman at a dinner, asked her what she did; she ran an orphanage in Kenya. Right then he knew the $500 was gone! He ended up flying over there, helping them, then got involved collecting supplies from drug and medical supply companies for them. He met with the president of the country and other officials, and had a huge impact on Kenya! That’s how prayer works!
5. Prayer draws our will into agreement with His will. God’s will is perfect; we are still growing. Therefore God is the constant and we are the variable. Prayer is how we allow God to work in our hearts to realign our thoughts and choices with His will. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). God recalibrates our desires, and then we can pray for whatever we want, knowing we are praying for what He wants to give us (Philippians 2:12-13).
6. We can never use prayer to redefine the great controversy between good and evil. Revelation 7:1-4 makes it clear that God has defined a line where He limits evil, but in the last days He will begin to move that line, to allow the whole universe to see the consequences of evil. We would not want to use prayer to try to make God re-think that line, as if we know better where it should be. “The Lord our God is righteous in everything He does” (Daniel 9:14).
7. God works through people to answer intercessory prayer. This is the most challenging aspect of understanding prayer. If prayer doesn’t change God, then what good is it? Is it just a psychological ploy, auto-suggestion, positive thinking? No, no, no! Prayer makes a difference, and it is not just playing mental tricks in our head! Prayer involves God, and changes the dynamics of the universe. It just doesn’t persuade God to be better than He already is!
The Great Controversy taking place in our world involves two “armies”—God and the heavenly forces, and Satan and his allies down here. If we assume that because God is good and a constant and is already working to the maximum within the limits of this cosmic conflict, then prayer doesn’t change that portion of the equation. It can’t.
But it can change the human, earthly part of the equation! When we pray, we open our hearts and wallets and time and energy to His will. Now God has huge new resources that were unavailable to Him before! As 1.5 billion Christians get involved, and get excited and passionate about building the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven,” the world changes! Forces of evil are pushed back. We partner with God to “move mountains.” Generous offerings are given, people refuse to accept the status quo, they go on mission trips, they form task forces to energize their church, they find answers for the problems of the poor or needy in their area. They fight for social justice. And the world changes.
Does prayer change God? Yes! It doesn’t change God’s character or His heart. But it gives Him huge new arenas to work His wonders. The world is a better place, and people see the effects of God’s actions. And the “Stone” of Daniel 2:44, 45 begins to grow, and the Kingdom of God becomes mighty and powerful locally and all over the world. That’s what prayer can do!
I have three analogies that have helped me to understand prayer better: (1) The Ripple Model: You drop a rock into a pond. It makes the biggest ripple at “ground zero,” and the ripples spread out until they hit shore. In the same way, when we pray, we open our hearts to God, and He makes the biggest impact at “ground zero,” in my life. But because I am in solidarity with my family, when I change, there is likely to be some impact on them. Because I pastor a large church, I may preach better, and impact the members, and they spread out all over the world, and maybe make a difference there. But if I just pray by myself for the president of a specific country, the impact may be quite slight! (2) The same theory works with billiard balls: You hit a cue ball, it hits one ball, and the balls, in solidarity, scatter all over the table. That’s what happens when God can change one person’s life through prayer! (3) The World-Wide Web: The web is made of thousands of servers. The more servers there are, the faster messages can spread all over the world, almost instantly. When big servers go down, messages move more slowly or can’t get through at all. Every Christian is a node, a server. The more Christians are praying, the greater the network God has to match up donors and recipients, miracles with people praying for help.
There’s the famous story that Tony Campolo tells. He was to speak at a Pentecostal college. Before he spoke, a group circled around him, laid their hands on his head, and prayed. One young theology major prayed for a long time about a family he had met that morning. The husband was leaving his family. He described the trailer where he had spoken with them, the address, everything. Campolo wanted him to get to the point! After his sermon, Campolo was heading home, picked up a hitchhiker, asked his name. “Charlie Stolsis,” was the answer The very name mentioned that morning in prayer! Campolo drove off the freeway. Stolsis asked him where he was going. “To take you home.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“God told me! You left your wife this morning, didn’t you?”
“How did you know that?!”
“God told me!”
Campolo drove him right to his home, went inside, and led them all to Christ. Stolsis is a pastor today! That’s how prayer works—one brother had a burden, knew the need, prayed, Campolo heard it, his heart was open, God matched up the need with the answer, and the miracle occurred—all through prayer—but without a theology that prayer has to change God, make God better than He already is!
So that’s how I’ve worked it out so far! I’d love to hear your responses! It’s not an easy subject, how to preserve powerful world-changing prayer, but without damaging the character of God. Let me know what you think! God bless!
Dan Smith is the senior pastor of the La Sierra Seventh-day Adventist Church on the campus of La Sierra University, in Riverside, California, U.S.A. This article is adapted from his book, Lord, I Have a Question: Everything You Ever Wanted to Ask God but Were Afraid to Say Out Loud (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2004). His email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1941), p. 143.
- White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), p. 93.