Most of my prayers go unanswered. What am I to make of that? Is the problem me? My prayers? God?
Put simply, does prayer work?
Jesus seemed to believe that God acts in response to our prayers.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-12)
Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:12-14)
The implication of these and other passages on prayer is that we can influence God and that as a result our prayers can change the world. As I try to get my head around this I have come to three conclusions.
In a free but fractured world most prayers will go unanswered
Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The reason we pray this is because things are not on earth as in heaven. God has given notice that a day will come when he will make all things new; when hearts, minds and wills will be turned toward God; when natural disaster, disease and death will be no more. Until that time we live in a world where human beings do wrong, act foolishly and the creation is marked by natural disaster, disease and death. Until Christ returns this will continue to be the case.
In Romans 1:18-32 Paul talks about humanity being “given over” to the consequences of our wrongdoing. The idea appears to be that God allows us to experience the full consequence of sin. And when you add the cumulative impacts of billions of human beings throughout human history, that’s one pretty messed up world. Turn to Romans 8 and Paul speaks of the frustration of creation as it is unable to fulfil its God-given purpose of being a perfectly good environment for humanity and the animals.
So often my prayers ask God to negate these things, but am I asking for something God cannot really deliver on? Scripture suggests that there are occasions God intervenes to prevent a disaster, protect a person from evil, or change a situation, but presumably these will be relatively few. Were God to answer my every prayer in this area would it not mean I would be living in the new heavens and earth? Because of this should I expect prayers to go unanswered more than answered?
In the kingdom of God all prayers will be answered
This points me to the kingdom of God in its fullness as the time when every prayer will be answered. Jesus calls us to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. Our prayers are a recognition that things are not as they should be and a cry that they be put right. When the kingdom comes in fullness then every cry for justice, for safety, for freedom, for healing, for peace will be answered in full. Because of this I have hope that one day God will fulfil, in a manner beyond my imagination, every prayer offered throughout history.
Prayer is a means of changing me
When I pray I focus my attention on God, reflect on God’s purposes for my life and world. Over time this changes me, helping me to grow more like Christ. So whatever else prayer may or may not change, it changes me. And as I live out my faith I become an agent of change.
I wonder if this is related to our calling to image God. As representatives of God we have been entrusted with responsibility to rule the earth. So maybe a large part of prayer is us bringing our hearts and minds into alignment with God so that we can be agents of good rather than evil? Maybe in this oblique way prayer really does change the world.