What Actually Happens When We Pray?
My mom has a computer. When we were there last week for a family gathering, my brother and I and some of her grandchildren went on her computer and used it for a number of different things. We had no problem doing these things because we are comfortable with computers and know quite a bit about them. My mother, on the other hand, has learned to play one game on the computer and that is all she uses it for. She doesn’t understand it, doesn’t like it and so does not use it.
Could it be that the same thing is true with prayer? The better we understand what happens when we pray and the more we know about prayer, the more we will pray and the more effectively we will pray. This morning, I want to think with you about what actually happens when we pray. My hope is to encourage all of us to pray more and more effectively because we understand what happens when we pray.
There are, of course, many different kinds of prayer. Some we understand better than others. We understand what happens when we pray a prayer of confession. When we have done something wrong, we know what it means to tell God we have sinned and to receive His forgiveness.
We know what it means to pray prayers of thanksgiving when we recognize what God has done and thank Him for it.
We know what it means to worship. When we think about God, who He is, the world He has created and acknowledge His grace in our life, it is natural to respond with praise.
Perhaps a little less understood, is the prayer of conversation. Have you ever begun your day by saying, "Good morning, Lord?" That is an example of a prayer of conversation, where we simply talk to God and take time to listen to Him.
The prayers that I find the most difficult to understand are prayers of intercession and asking. I have often wondered, "what happens when we pray asking - whether for others or ourselves?" Does God change His mind? If He knows what I need, why does He still want us to pray?
If we understand what happens when we pray, it will help us to be more bold and more accurate in our prayers. It isn’t just one thing that happens.
I. We Bend Our Will To God's Will
Abraham was busy with his sheep, minding his own business and enjoying his family. God came to Him and told him to leave his home and family. He also promised, "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."(Gen. 12:2,3)
Abraham obeyed God and left for another land. Many years went by and still Abraham had no children. He remembered God's promise that "I will make you into a great nation." and he wondered how that was going to happen. God appeared to Him again and Abraham prayed and asked God to clarify how this was going to happen. We read in Genesis 15:2, "But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?""
God answered and told him that one of his own children would be his heir.
Again years went by and Abraham still had no children. Sarah suggested that he take her maid Hagar and have a child with her and that would probably be the promised offspring. Abraham did this and Ishmael was born.
When Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him again and this time told him that his chosen descendent would not be Ishmael, but a child born to Sarah. At this point, such a promise seemed too much to believe, but Abraham believed God and when he was 100 years old, the promise made to him 25 years before in the land of Haran was finally fulfilled.
B. Principle of Prayer
This story reveals to us one of the things that happens when we pray and that is that we gradually come to understand and accept God's will. In the story of Abraham, it took 25 years for Abraham to pray and reflect and live and pray again until he understood what God had known all along.
Sometimes, it is not a matter of understanding, but of accepting God's will. We see such a prayer when Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew what God's will for Him was, but it was not easy for Him to follow that will and it took him a time of intense prayer to come to the place of acceptance.
Both of these cases, illustrate one thing that happens when we pray and that is that something takes place in us. Our understanding grows and our will is changed. God does not necessarily act, but we move. What we asked for originally may not happen, but we grow to understand that what does happen is God's best for us. In this struggle in prayer, we may pray, get an impression, act on the understanding we have, pray some more, talk to someone, act on our changed understanding, pray some more, and finally, understand and accept what God is doing. This kind of prayer can also happen in a decision. We pray, God reveals a course of action, we don't like it and perhaps question if it is from God. We pray some more, we think and talk, we pray some more and finally accept what God's will is for us.
C. Modern Story
I originally went to seminary because I wanted to become equipped to do God's work. I didn't know what kind of work, but of course, we prayed about it and sought the Lord's will. After the first year, Carla and I went on a mission assignment. That experience taught us that missions was probably not going to be our area of ministry. After the second year, we worked in a church for the summer. That seemed more down our alley, but when I graduated, I thought that pastoral work might be OK, but I really wanted to teach. It took about 10 years before I realized that God had called me to be a pastor. During those years, I prayed many times for God to reveal his will in my life and through prayer, struggle, conversation and God's leading, I have come to understand and accept God's will in my life.
D. How Should We Pray?
So understanding that in prayer something changes in us, what does that teach us about how we should pray?
It teaches us that we should pray diligently. We should not give up praying after we have offered up one quick prayer. Hebrews 5:7 tells us something about Jesus' prayer habits. There we read, "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission."
Even Jesus needed to keep on praying and be diligent in prayer. As we persevere in prayer and pray diligently, we need to realize that the first impression we receive may not be the complete one. We may need to keep on praying repeatedly until peace comes and God's way is clear.
Because prayer changes us, we also need to learn to listen to God. We need to learn to see all the ways in which God speaks to us. Some do not accept anything as God's will unless it comes in an audible voice from God, but God hasn't very often spoken like that and when he did, those who were there found it hard to listen. God may speak that way, but much more often, God's direction comes from His Word, from the direction given by others around us and from the doors He opens and closes. If we want to grow in our ability to understand the will of God, we need to learn to listen to the different ways God is speaking.
3.Grow In A Love Relationship
One of the things we learn from those who are known for following God - like David, Paul and others - is that they were people who had a growing love relationship with God. One writer said, "It is the strongly personal relation with God in which those mediators stood that underlies these intercessory prayers." As we develop a growing love relationship with God this process becomes easier. So while we wrestle and struggle, we need to also confess and worship and approach God regularly and then in the context of a relationship with God, we will learn to pray in such a way that we will come to understand and accept the will of God in our lives.
II. We Involve Ourselves In Spiritual Warfare
A. Biblical Story
Daniel was a spiritually sensitive man. In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, he took time for mourning, fasting and prayer. The concerns of his prayer were the place of God’s people in the work and plans of God. He was concerned about the kingdom of God on earth and spent a period of three weeks in prayer to present these concerns before God.
In Daniel 10:12, 13, the angel said to Daniel, "Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia."
B. Principle of Prayer
A second thing that happens when we pray is that we are engaged in a spiritual battle. I admit that this is a topic that contains a lot of controversy. The Bible does not tell us very much about it. There are some who deny the concept of spiritual warfare, but this story and some Scriptures that I will share with you shortly tell us that there is a spiritual battle going on and that our prayers figure into that battle. There are some who reduce all prayer to spiritual warfare and over-emphasize this type of prayer. But the way in which prayer is presented in Scripture in many different ways, the few times this concept is mentioned in Scripture and the fact that there is little or no specific instruction on the prayer of spiritual warfare suggests that there is more to prayer than this and we need to be careful not to go where Scripture doesn't teach us on this topic.
What is clear, is that there is a battle. The words of the angel in Daniel 10 and the specific words of Ephesians 6:12 let us know that there is a spiritual battle going on. This verse says "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
2.Our prayers are a part of the warfare.
What is also clear is that our prayers have a part in that battle. I do not think it is incidental that the period of struggle and the period of Daniel's praying is both three weeks. Daniel's prayer was part of the victory.
In Ephesians 6:13-20 in response to the recognition of the spiritual battle, we are told to put on the armor so that we will be able to stand. Then in 6:18, we read, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." The appearance of this call to prayer in response to the recognition of a spiritual battle makes it clear that our prayers are part of gaining victory in the battle.
We also read in II Corinthians 10:3-4, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds." God is the sovereign Lord, but for some reason, our prayers do have a part in the victory in the spiritual battle.
C. Modern Story
In the book Intercessory Prayer, the author tells the story of a woman by the name of Sue Doty. She had a strong conviction to do a prayer walk in her city. As she walked and prayed, she approached a theatre that was an X-rated movie house, video shop and bookstore. There she prayed specifically against the evil of pornography. Later in the week, she heard that the city had ordered the theatre to close down. The day after she had been there to pray, the city conducted a surprise inspection and the theatre was cited for several violations and closed. What was amazing was that the building had been inspected only a short time earlier. Although the building was opened for a little while again, it failed to meet code and was closed for one year and later put up for sale. Prayer was involved in a spiritual battle against evil.
D. How Should We Pray?
Recognizing that our prayers are involved in the spiritual battle, how should we pray?
First of all, we need to be aware of the battle we are in. I Peter 5:8 says, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." There is more going on than what can be seen and we need to make sure that we are not ignorant of the devil and his schemes. II Corinthians 2:11 says, "in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes."
Jesus Himself gives us the best advice about the prayer of spiritual warfare. He taught us, in the Lord's prayer to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
When we pray, inviting God's kingdom to come on earth, we are engaged in the prayer of spiritual warfare. Notice that Jesus does not tell us to speak to the demons and tell them to get lost, but to speak to God and invite His will to be done on earth. This pattern is a good model for us to follow.
We can also pray for God's protection from the enemy - both for ourselves and for others. We can pray that the power of the enemy will be removed in our community. We can pray that the blindness of unbelievers will be removed.
Because we recognize that it is a battle, we should pray diligently and regularly.
As we pray, we should recognize that we pray from victory, because the power of the enemy is defeated. I John 2:14 says, "...I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one."
III. God Shows His Power For His Glory
A. Biblical Story
It was a time of severe famine and God sent Elijah to the land of Sidon to the home of a widow for a number of years. While staying with her, her son become ill and died. Elijah took him to his room, laid him on his bed and prayed, simply telling God the situation. He then stretched himself over the boy three times and asked God to restore the boys life to him. After that, the Bible tells us, the Lord heard Elijah's cry and the boy lived.
At the end of the chapter, we read, "Then the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth."
B. Principle of Prayer
A third thing that happens when we pray is that God hears our prayers and chooses, according to His purposes to act in answer to our prayers. Our struggle is that we wonder why he does not answer more often. The answer to that question is that He answers according to his purposes. The situation of the widow's son, in the story I just told, reveals the purpose in that case. It was so that the woman would come to understand that Elijah was God's man.
In John 9:1-3, we have another situation that reveals this principle. The disciples asked Jesus, "why was this man born blind? who sinned?"
Jesus answered, ""Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." He then proceeded to heal the man.
We may not always understand, but we must learn to accept that God knows what he is doing. In Acts 7, we have the story of Stephen's martyrdom and a few chapters later, the story of Peter being released from prison. Why did one apostle die and one live? In each case we read the answer. In Acts 8:4, as a result of Stephen's martyrdom, it says, "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went." In Acts 12:24, following the story of Peter's release, we read, "But the word of God continued to increase and spread."
According to His will and to His glory, God responds to the requests we make in answer to prayer.
C. How Should We Pray?
In light of the knowledge that, God answers prayer according to His sovereign will and for His glory, how should we pray?
First of all, I want to say it again, we need to pray! We need to be bold in coming to God, and asking Him for the things that we need because He has invited us. Hebrews 4:16 says, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."
We are also encouraged in Matthew 6:7,8, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
Secondly, we need to learn to trust God's sovereignty. God is not our personal big vending machine in the sky, He is the sovereign Lord of all the earth. God knows what He is doing. He has demonstrated his power, his love and his justice repeatedly and especially in salvation. Can we trust Him? If we can't, we need to go back to the first kind of prayer - the wrestling until we can accept God's will.
When God does act in a powerful way, we need to learn to give thanks to Him for what He has done. When he healed the 10 lepers, only one came back to give thanks. Often we neglect to give thanks or we forget or we call the answer a coincidence. Let us learn to give thanks.
What happens when we pray? Sometimes we are changed. Sometimes we are part of a spiritual battle. Sometimes God agrees that the time is right to act so that His name will be glorified and a miracle takes place.
The encouragement, therefore, is to be bold in praying and asking, to pray out of a growing love relationship with God, to keep on praying and to trust Him.
Luke 18:1 encourages us, "Then Jesus told his disciples ... that they should always pray and not give up."