I recently overheard a conversation that arrested my attention.
It wasn’t directed towards me, and I didn’t have an opportunity to weigh in, but a single statement stuck out to me. One person mentioned having a full, difficult day planned and hadn’t been feeling well that morning. She then made the statement, “But I prayed that I would feel better, and it actually worked this time!”
For me, that sentence hung in the air long after the conversation moved on. It was like a railroad car, barreling down the tracks of my mind at full speed, filled with freight—loaded with presuppositions about God, and weighted with experience. For the next few minutes, I spent a little time attempting to mentally unpack all that baggage.
I heard her acknowledge that prayer offered a solution to her problem. I don’t know her heart, or whether or not she had ever expressed faith in Christ for salvation, but some influence from somewhere prompted her to reach out to God in prayer. I noted how astonished she was that prayer actually made a difference in her circumstances. The tone of her voice when she spoke and the emphasis she placed on the words “actually worked,” signaled her surprise at the positive results. I detected her allusion to experience, that perhaps her prayers had not always been so successful. Including the words “actually” and “this time” might have betrayed an experience with prayer that failed to produce “success.”
Maybe I’m overthinking about what might’ve been a casual, throw-away kind of sentence—or maybe I’m hearing and observing her experience along with that of so many others who ask the how’s and why’s of prayer.
For example, after several recent national tragedies, some of which were related to terrorism or gun violence, many leaders and politicians publically offered prayers and condolences to those who had been struck by misfortune and calamity—only to be met with a resounding, troubling cry among celebrities and social media influencers to forego prayers and actually do something about it…
There’s that word again.
And then notice our conversations when someone we know is battling a health crisis, or facing a financial struggle, or risks losing their home or marriage—and we ask if there’s anything we can do, besides pray?
Is prayer not enough?
When the religious Council imprisoned Peter and John and warned them to never preach again in the name of Jesus, they joined their companions and lifted their voices to God. The power of the Holy Spirit shook the place where they were praying. (Acts 4:31)
When Peter was imprisoned by Herod and was facing execution like James, the believers gathered in Mary’s home and prayed, and the chains that held Peter in prison fell off, and he was led by an angel back to their home. (Acts 12:7, 12)
Is it because of our own experiences that we discount prayer as being truly effective? Have we subconsciously negated the truth of Scripture simply because we haven’t experienced it for ourselves?
There is a prevailing presupposition among unbelievers that prayers are just words offered to the sky, little more than plaintive pleas to an impersonal universe, unable to offer any real solutions to the problems we face. Unfortunately, that presupposition is highly contagious, and it has infected some believers, also. We are stunned when faced with the prospect that God might’ve actually answered our prayers.
Scripture, however, portrays a much different picture of prayer. From the pages of the Pentateuch, through the Psalms and the Prophets, past even the Gospels and the Epistles, there’s a prevailing theme of God responding to the prayers of His people and intervening in their circumstances. God responds to the prayers of His people.
It’s fascinating to read the story of Manasseh, the 12-year-old who became king of Jerusalem. You can read it here (2 Chronicles 33:1-13). The historian of 2 Chronicles detailed a long list of all the ways Manasseh was a wicked and idolatrous king; a king who turned the religious life of the entire nation of Israel away from the God of their fathers. Not only did he rebuild the idols and their altars that had been torn down by his father Hezekiah, but he also rebuilt a carved idol in the house of Yahweh—a deeply blasphemous offense to the God of Heaven. He did much to blaspheme God, invoking the witchcraft of mediums and spiritists, even to the point of offering his sons in child-sacrifice. On several occasions, the reader was left stunned at how far Manasseh took the people of Israel away from God, provoking Him to anger and prompting Him to pronounce judgment.
It took the army of Assyria capturing him and leading him away to Babylon in bronze chains to bring Manasseh to his senses. In an intriguing, obscure little verse, the writer recounted that Manasseh humbled himself before the God of his fathers and prayed to Him—and God was moved by His entreaty and heard his supplication. The story went that Manasseh was then brought back to his kingdom—and promptly began dismantling all the idols and altars and resetting the course of Israel back to obedience to God.
Does it strike you as odd that God would relent concerning His judgment against Manasseh? Do Manasseh’s heinous blasphemy and idolatry make it harder to believe that God would hear his prayers and intervene?
Do our questions about God’s response betray our thoughts about Who God Is? We affirm that He’s the Almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe, but do we believe that He responds to the humble repentance and prayers of people?
If so, would we be surprised that He answered the prayers of a disobedient, rank idolater? Would we be surprised that He would care enough to heal someone’s upset stomach, or a cancer patient, or anyone else in-between?
Perhaps our view of God is our biggest hindrance to our prayers. Perhaps our questions about whether or not God truly answers prayer say more about what we believe about Him than what we know of Him from Scripture. Scripture is filled with examples of people who experienced God’s miracle-working power. The Gospel narrative is brimming with stories of how Jesus healed all different kinds of people—the widowed and orphaned, the marginalized, and the powerful. We say we’re people of the Book; how does our prayer-life reflect our belief about the God of that Book?
It’d be easy to nuance away the power and promises of God’s Word to us, especially as it relates to prayer, but the early church of Acts was steadfast in prayer, and turned to God at every instance, and saw miracles in response. If we turned to God at every opportunity, would we see those same miracles?