The Power of Prayer (pt. 1)
We are moved by the litany of faith that the author of Hebrews records in chapter 11 of that book. There we have the “Roll Call of Faith,” which catalogues the heroic acts of biblical men and women of faith. Their acts are partially summarized in verses 33 and 34:
Who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
The Scriptures do not provide a similar catalogue of the heroes of prayer, but such a list could easily be compiled. Using the same format as does the writer of Hebrews, let us examine a partial list of the accomplishments of prayer:
- By prayer, Esau’s heart was changed toward Jacob, so that they met in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner (Genesis 32).
- By the prayer of Moses, God brought the plagues upon Egypt and then removed them again (Exodus 7-11).
- By prayer, Joshua made the sun stand still (Joshua 10).
- By prayer, when Samson was ready to perish with thirst, God brought water out of a hollow place for his sustenance (Judges 15).
- By prayer, the strength of Samson was restored. And he pulled down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines, so that those whom he killed as he died were more than all he had killed in his life prior to that (Judges 16).
- By prayer, Elijah held back the rains for three and a half years. And then by prayer, caused it to rain again (1 Kings 17-18).
- By the prayer of Hezekiah, God sent an angel and killed in one night 185,000 men in Sennacherib’s army (2 Kings 19).
- By the prayer of Asa, God confounded the army of Zerah (2 Chronicles 14).
And time would fail me to tell of Abraham, who prayed for and received a son at the age of one hundred years; and Moses, who received help at the Red Sea; and the Israelites, who were delivered from Egypt after much prayer; and David, who escaped the treachery of Saul by prayer; and Solomon, who received great wisdom as the result of prayer; and Daniel, who was able to interpret dreams after prayer. People were delivered from peril, healed from diseases, saw loved ones cured, and witnessed innumerable miracles as the result of fervent prayer. James, if anything, was understating the case when he wrote that the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. The power of prayer is neither automatic nor magical. Conditions are attached to the promises of the Bible regarding prayer. At times Jesus uses a kind of “shorthand,” delivering brief aphorisms about prayer to encourage his people in its practice. We are reminded of statements like “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7); “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19); and “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). Shorthand summaries like these have provoked bizarre theories of prayer where people have violently isolated these passages from everything else Jesus and the Bible say about prayer. Distortions also abound when we approach these aphorisms simplistically. Consider the earlier statement about any two people agreeing. It would not be difficult to find two Christians who agree that ridding the world of cancer or wars would be a good idea. Their prayer in this matter would not automatically accomplish their desire. The Word of God indicates that wars, poverty, and disease will be present at the time of Christ’s return. To expect their absolute elimination before the appointed time is to grasp prematurely the future promises of God. What life will be like in heaven would be delightful to us now, but all our prayers cannot force God to give us this future situation in this present world. We still must suffer the ravages of sin, disease, and death. We entreat God to comfort us, to deliver us, to heal us—but we cannot demand these things in an absolute way. The idea that God “always wills healing” has been a destructive distortion in the Christian community. The pastoral problems emanating from this are enormous. I was once approached by a young man stricken with cerebral palsy. His Christian faith was vibrant, his attitude was contagious with pleasant optimism, his productivity exceptional. He had graduated from college with a superior record. His question to me was poignant: “Dr. Sproul, do you think I am demon possessed?” The question was accompanied by tears. The man’s life had been hurled into chaos. Aghast at this question, I replied, “Why would you even ask such a question?” The young man proceeded to relate a series of events triggered by an encounter with some Christian friends who had “claimed” the promise of Scripture and “agreed” that the young man be healed of cerebral palsy. They had laid hands on him, praying “the prayer of faith” and claiming a healing for him. When it was apparent that he had not been healed, they first chastised him for his lack of faith. Next they claimed he was guilty of some heinous secret sin that was blocking the healing. Finally they concluded that he was demon possessed and left him with a tortured soul. His “friends” never considered that the error might be their own. They had given the impression of being zealous, Spirit-filled Christians. Their actions revealed at best immaturity; at worst, arrogance and presumption. Prayer is not magic. God is not a celestial bellhop ready at our beck and call to satisfy our every whim. In some cases our prayers must involve travail of the soul and agony of heart such as Jesus himself experienced in the Garden. Sometimes the immature Christian suffers bitter disappointment not because God failed to keep his promises, but because well-meaning Christians made promises “for” God that God himself never authorized. *****
This is part fourteen of R.C. Sproul’s small book Does Prayer Change Things?. Over the past week we have been posting the complete text of this short but profound and practical book right here at the Ligonier Ministries blog.