“Prayer changes everything”–it’s a motto we find plastered everywhere on posters and mugs and coffee cups, and we’ve all heard it expressed over and over again. And the Bible has a lot to say about prayer, and how it is an absolutely vital part of a Christian’s life. In fact, it is his or her lifeline to the very throne of God.
Jesus taught us how to pray in Matthew 6:5-15 (NKJV) when he stated:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.
Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power
And the glory forever. Amen.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
It seems as if a zillion books have been written on the subject of prayer, and it is an area that we sometimes (or often) struggle with (at least I know that I do). Often, it’s not just praying that is a struggle but also receiving an answer from God regarding those prayers. Sometimes the answer comes quickly, sometimes it takes years, and sometimes it seems as if there is no answer at all no matter how long we wait (which some folks will say is an answer in itself regardless of how unsatisfying that explanation happens to be).
I’ve been a Christian since I was a young girl, and about the time I got into my late teens or early twenties, I started hearing an expression that is fairly pervasive in the Christian culture when it comes to “answered prayers.” And it goes like this: There are three basic answers God gives us to every prayer we pray–“Yes,” “No,” or “Wait” (“wait” can also be translated to mean “God has something better in mind”). And that’s pretty much it. More often then I’d like to remember the answers to some of my prayers have remained in the “Wait” category to the point that it no longer has any meaning to me anymore, or I’ve lost interest or moved beyond what I wanted years ago–like when I’ve prayed in years past about finding a husband to the point of ad nauseam. And after many of the bad or boring marriages I’ve witnessed (along with the number of married men who tried to seduce me when I was younger), I concluded that single is far better than marrying someone just to be married and, hence, more “acceptable” to society (and the Christian culture) at large. And, I have always thought there was something not quite right in that very simplistic answer regarding how God answers prayers.
The other day I ran across a chapter titled, “Does God Always Answer Prayer?” in the book, “Man: The Dwelling Place of God,” by A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), and compiled by Anita M. Bailey. The book in its entirety is available online at this link. Here is what Tozer stated about the subject:
Does God Always Answer Prayer?
CONTRARY TO POPULAR OPINION, the cultivation of a psychology of uncritical belief is not an unqualified good, and if carried too far it may be a positive evil. The whole world has been booby-trapped by the devil, and the deadliest trap of all is the religious one. Error never looks so innocent as when it is found in the sanctuary.
One field where harmless-looking but deadly traps appear in great profusion is the field of prayer. There are more sweet notions about prayer than could be contained in a large book, all of them wrong and all highly injurious to the souls of men.
I think of one such false notion that is found often in pleasant places consorting smilingly with other notions of unquestionable orthodoxy. It is that God always answers prayer.
This error appears among the saints as a kind of all-purpose philosophic therapy to prevent any disappointed Christian from suffering too great a shock when it becomes evident to him that his prayer expectations are not being fulfilled. It is explained that God always answers prayer, either by saying Yes or by saying No, or by substituting something else for the desired favor.
Now, it would be hard to invent a neater trick than this to save face for the petitioner whose requests have been rejected for non-obedience. Thus when a prayer is not answered he has but to smile brightly and explain, “God said No.” It is all so very comfortable. His wobbly faith is saved from confusion and his conscience is permitted to lie undisturbed. But I wonder if it is honest.
To receive an answer to prayer as the Bible uses the term and as Christians have understood it historically, two elements must be present: (1) A clear-cut request made to God for a specific favor; (2) A clear-cut granting of that favor by God in answer to the request. There must be no semantic twisting, no changing of labels, no altering of the map during the journey to help the embarrassed tourist to find himself.
When we go to God with a request that He modify the existing situation for us, that is, that He answer prayer, there are two conditions that we must meet: (1) We must pray in the will of God and (2) we must be on what old-fashioned Christians often call “praying ground”; that is, we must be living lives pleasing to God.
It is futile to beg God to act contrary to His revealed purposes. To pray with confidence the petitioner must be certain that his request falls within the broad will of God for His people.
The second condition is also vitally important. God has not placed Himself under obligation to honor the requests of worldly, carnal or disobedient Christians. He hears and answers the prayers only of those who walk in His way. “Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight . . . . If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (I John 3:21, 22; John 15:7).
God wants us to pray and He wants to answer our prayers, but He makes our use of prayer as a privilege to commingle with His use of prayer as a discipline. To receive answers to prayer we must meet God’s terms. If we neglect His commandments our petitions will not be honored. He will alter situations only at the request of obedient and humble souls.
The God-always-answers-prayer sophistry leaves the praying man without discipline. By the exercise of this bit of smooth casuistry he ignores the necessity to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world, and actually takes God’s flat refusal to answer his prayer as the very answer itself. Of course such a man will not grow in holiness; he will never learn how to wrestle and wait; he will never know correction; he will not hear the voice of God calling him forward; he will never arrive at the place where he is morally and spiritually fit to have his prayers answered. His wrong philosophy has ruined him.
That is why I turn aside to expose the bit of bad theology upon which his bad philosophy is founded. The man who accepts it never knows where he stands; he never knows whether or not he has true faith, for if his request is not granted he avoids the implication by the simple dodge of declaring that God switched the whole thing around and gave him something else. He will not allow himself to shoot at a target, so he cannot tell how good or how bad a marksman he is.
Of certain persons James says plainly: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” From that brief sentence we may learn that God refuses some requests because they who make them are not morally worthy to receive the answer. But this means nothing to the one who has been seduced into the belief that God always answers prayer. When such a man asks and receives not he passes his hand over the hat and comes up with the answer in some other form. One thing he clings to with great tenacity: God never turns anyone away, but invariably grants every request.
The truth is that God always answers the prayer that accords with His will as revealed in the Scriptures, provided the one who prays is obedient and trustful. Further than this we dare not go.
As Tozer stated above, “The God-always-answers-prayer sophistry leaves the praying man without discipline. By the exercise of this bit of smooth casuistry he ignores the necessity to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world, and actually takes God’s flat refusal to answer his prayer as the very answer itself. Of course such a man will not grow in holiness; he will never learn how to wrestle and wait; he will never know correction; he will not hear the voice of God calling him forward; he will never arrive at the place where he is morally and spiritually fit to have his prayers answered. His wrong philosophy has ruined him.”
We live in a “how to be a Christian in one easy step” culture today where we put all the emphasis on God to do everything for us and that we aren’t expected to, or worst yet, don’t have to do anything in return (as in obedience to God and Jesus Christ) once we have said a little Jesus prayer to accept Jesus as our Savior. Tozer didn’t mince any words about that kind of philosophy either in what he stated above. And it’s a deadly philosophy that ruins people spiritually at every turn.
I ran across a devotion yesterday titled “Don’t Substitute Praying for Obeying,” in the devotional book, “Tozer on Christian Leadership,” that states the following:
Don’t Substitute Praying for Obeying
So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” —1 Samuel 15:22
Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late–and how little revival has resulted?
Considering the volume of prayer that is ascending these days, rivers of revival should be flowing in blessing throughout the land. That no such results are in evidence should not discourage us; rather it should stir us to find out why our prayers are not answered….
I believe our problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying; and it simply will not work….
Prayer is never an acceptable substitute for obedience. The sovereign Lord accepts no offering from His creatures that is not accompanied by obedience. To pray for revival while ignoring or actually flouting the plain precept laid down in the Scriptures is to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble. Of God and Men, 55-57.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; show me any wicked way that needs to be corrected in my own life before revival can come. I’m praying for revival; help me to also be obeying. Amen.” (Devotion for September 23.)
As I was thinking about the implications of what Tozer has to say regarding prayer and our expectations when it comes to God answering our prayers, I thought back on these past six years since I lost my job in Houston and how, during the first couple of years, the prayer at the forefront of all of my prayer requests was my need to find a job and an income again as soon as possible. It was a very legitimate need since I am my only means of financial support (e.g., I don’t have a husband or family I can rely on for financial support). It seemed to me to be clearly obvious that this was a very viable prayer to be praying, and I had witnessed many other Christians during this time who were also unemployed finding jobs and getting their lives back from the brink of financial disaster in answer to their own prayers. That it wasn’t happening to me was a perplexity of major proportions. Was I not as “Christian” as those other folks who had prayed and received jobs? It was a real stumbling block for me those first two years as I simply did not understand what was going on and I didn’t know if there was something I was personally doing that was holding God back from answering my very legitimate request for a very viable need in my life.
During these past six years I have come to understand that there is a whole lot more going on in this world of ours that oftentimes overshadows what we think are our immediate needs. Yes, there is definitely an “obedience” factor on our part when it comes to receiving genuine answered prayers from God, but there is also a very specific area that we tend to ignore (oftentimes not on purpose) that is a part of how Jesus taught us to pray. That part is this: “Your kingdom come; Your will be done; on earth as it is in Heaven.” We rarely see God’s kingdom as He sees it in our own everyday lives.
While the answer to my prayer for a job so that I could be financially solvent again (as in a regular paycheck and keeping a roof over my head) has gone unanswered for almost six years now, I have experienced the “care” of God in miraculous ways that I never could have experienced had He just plopped down another job in front of me back when I lost that job six years ago. These past six years, while frustrating to their very core at times, have provided me with the most enlightening and awe-inspiring evidence in my life for the existence of the God that I have always said I believed in and it has, indeed, increased my faith and my understanding exponentially.
Has it been hard? You bet it has. Have I suffered loss? Of course I have. Have I had challenges that I absolutely did not know how to maneuver around and that only God could guide me through? Yes, more times that I can even count. But He has always been there every single step of the way to keep me from stepping on landmines and veering off course in the wrong direction. And he has taken care of every need of mine even if it wasn’t in the way I wanted it to be. He has been there for me when I didn’t even have a clue anymore exactly how to pray or what to pray for. And he has been there when I just didn’t want to keep going on in this trial of mine anymore and I was desperate to try and twist his arm to get me out of it.
“Thy will be done.” If we could only understand with our finite minds exactly what that means we wouldn’t be nearly are harried or hurried or as selfish as we are in this life. If we could just get a glimpse of what is really going on behind the curtain of our own lives and see this world from God’s perspective, it would humble us in a way that would change us forever, and for the rest of our lives here on earth, too. And the only way to really see that is to experience it through the trials God allows to come our way. And if we try to wiggle out of them too soon, it can ruin us spiritually.
The truth is that we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for so much of the time because we can’t see beyond our own needs or desires. And when we don’t have a vision of God “high and lifted up” in all areas of our lives our prayers can become trite and myopic and we try to answer them on our own if we have the wherewithall to do it.
Obedience to God is not an option for Christians, but it has to be done from a heart of love, and not from just following a list of rules. It has to be something we want to do (through the power of the Holy Spirit as we can’t accomplish it on our own) and not viewed as a negative as it so often is anymore. And, it is just as Paul describes in Romans 7 & 8 (click here to read that passage).
The spiritual quality of a prayer is determined not by its intensity but by its origin. In evaluating prayer we should inquire who is doing the praying–our determined hearts or the Holy Spirit? If the prayer originates with the Holy Spirit, then the wrestling can be beautiful and wonderful; but if we are the victims of our own overheated desires, our praying can be as carnal as any other act . . . .
Only the Spirit can pray effectively. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).
Well, enough said. You get the picture . . . .
My will be done . . .
Or Thy will be done . . . .
YouTube Video: “Revelation Song” by Phillips, Craig & Dean: