Does Prayer Actually Do Anything?

Preston Sprinkle —  May 10, 2012 — 12 Comments

As I’ve said in previous posts, I believe God is sovereign. Not just vaguely in control, but possesses the freedom to do whatever he wants. “Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases,” declares the psalmist (115:3). God has the freedom to kill, make alive, harden hearts, condemn, regenerate, and send floods of water to (nearly) erase the earth’s population. God does all things to bring glory and honor to himself, as the prophet Ezekiel redundantly stated over 70 times.

So God’s in control. He ordains, he saves, he condemns, and he extends mercy to “whomever he wills” (Rom 9). So does prayer actually do anything? When humans pray, does it actually move God to act?

Yes.

Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but I prefer the term “tension.” The Bible says that God has absolute freedom; the Bible also says that prayer moves God. And how it all works out, we don’t know. Consider the following texts:

“Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, 22 this is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him…” (Isa 37:21-22).

“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the LORD…and after that God was moved by prayer for the land.” (2 Sam 21:1 14)

“ David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. Thus the LORD was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel.” (2 Sam 24:25)

“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” (James 5:16-18)

Hezekiah and Jerusalem were saved from the Assyrians “because” the king prayed; God was “moved” by David’s prayers; and James argues quite explicitly that prayer doesn’t just do something, it “can accomplish much.” The very language that God chose to tell us about prayer is unambiguous. Prayer does not just teach us to depend on God (though it does do that), and prayer does not just acknowledge that God is in control (though he is). The Bible says explicitly and consistently that prayer is dynamic, it is powerful, and it can actually move the God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Does this sound totally outrageous? Or is it a no-brainer? I’d love to hear any pushback you might have. A lot of folks seem to either cling to God’s sovereignty or endorse the real power of prayer. It seems to me that the Bible firmly endorses both without explaining how it all works out behind the scenes.

Now, a confession. I believe this with my head, but not with my heart. I’ve got a plethora (cf., The Three Amigos) of other passages I can throw out to show that prayer moves God, and yet my prayer life does not reflect my intellectual endorsement of these texts.

Ugh! I’m 36 years old, I’ve been a Christian for 17 years, I have a Ph.D. in Bible, and yet my prayer life reflects spiritual infancy.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Malek

    I just read this and had to share:

    Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.
    (Isaiah 38:2-5)

    What was that about does prayer actually do anything?

  • Eric Patrick

    Hi Preston, this just comes into my heart and thinks that God explains enough so we can be saved and follow Him, but all the behind the scenes activity that God does makes the the whole truth a big mystery. Which makes me come to the conclusion that, we have to have faith that what God says is true and live by it even though we don’t know how it all works. I don’t what else to think, feel or say about these wonders of God.

  • Josh R

    Another great article, Dr. Sprinkle. Over the last few months I have been introduced to your work as a scholar and blogger and I have greatly enjoyed all that I have read so far and look forward to more goods things from you in the future.

    It seems that most often the doctrines we see in scripture that create a “tension” for us are those same doctrines that we hold on to as beautiful and set Christianity apart from other religions (the trinity, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, God’s sovereignty and prayer, etc.) I think that prayer is a beautiful way in which we are allowed to participate in what God is sovereignly doing much like the spread of the gospel. God is doing the action but using people as the means. I think Malone said it well when he discussed God using our prayers to accomplish things. What more beautiful display of sovereignty is there than a God who accomplishes his purposes through free (in the compatbilistic understanding) agents? God could just do what he wants with his “own two hands” so to say, but at best that shows that he is very powerful. To say, however, that he accomplishes his purposes through the use of free agents, that shows he is absolutely sovereign.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Tons of good thoughts here, Josh. I really like what you said at the beginning: “It seems that most often the doctrines we see in scripture that create a “tension” for us are those same doctrines that we hold on to as beautiful and set Christianity apart from other religions (the trinity, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, God’s sovereignty and prayer, etc.)”

      And also: “To say, however, that he accomplishes his purposes through the use of free agents, that shows he is absolutely sovereign.”

      That last line is super important. God works through real human agents to enact his sovereign decree. Plenty of stuff to unpack in this idea, and it seems to be consistently taught in Scripture, even (or especially) when humans are screwing things up (Gen 50:20; Judges 14:4).

      Thanks for dropping in.

      Preston

  • Brad Brock

    Love this article – thanks for writing it. Some people do not use a dictionary when studying God, and mistake coercion for sovereignty. No one can thwart God but that doesn’t imply that He always forces everything. He can and sometimes does. But we can quench the Spirit and choose to avoid prayer, or, accomplish things through prayer using the faith that God has given us.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Oh my word, the mighty Brad Brock!! Thanks for dropping in. So honored to have you read my blog! Great thoughts too. Thanks for sharing.

      Preston

  • Malone Dunlavy

    Preston,
    Great article, thanks for taking the time to write it. This topic (prayer, its power/effectiveness) has come up several times for me and I continue to come to somewhat of a similar answer…
    Forgive me if I get too “focused” on little logistical quandaries, but I think it is fairly obvious what Scripture says that prayer does and it seems to me that the only real objections to those attributes of prayer is how it works out with God’s sovereignty, his will, etc. If God is sovereign then nothing can change what he has in store, and prayer is worthless; or God is not sovereign and not a god-like as we thought since he is swayed by prayer. I think this is probably a false dichotomy. It was proposed to me by one of my favorite professors of all time that prayer is not just words we merely toss out into the universe, to God, but rather that prayer is the tool, or a tool, that God actually uses to accomplish a task.
    For example, if my mom is dying of cancer (hopefully she is in remission, we find out soon), God could either save her from death or allow her to die. If he saves her, it would seem to me he could probably do that in a million different ways (chemo, miraculous disappearance, etc.). One of these ways, though it is not readily accepted by most as a means, could be prayer. As I pray, since God has told me to pray about everything, all the time, God could actually be using my prayer as the means of removing cancer.
    I think prayer as a means that God uses to accomplish his will seems to solve the problems we have with prayer interrupting sovereignty… What do you think?

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Bro, I think that sounds very good. I especially like your phrase: “s I pray, since God has told me to pray about everything, all the time, God could actually be using my prayer as the means of removing cancer.” I think Scripture would affirm this.

      Thanks for dropping in, Malone. And thanks again for driving my van from Salt Lake to Simi 3 years ago!

      Preston

    • Malek

      Hey Malone – wanted to offer some online compassion about your mom. My mom has cancer also (breast) but – praise God! – chemo has almost completely shrunk the tumor and she will have surgery in a couple weeks. Please be praying for my mom and know that I will pray for yours!

  • Malek

    I think it’s just me but I really don’t find this topic to be that complicated – yes, “Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases” and it just so happens that what pleases him is to allow himself to be influenced by the prayers of his children. It’s not that he is *obligated* to act in response to prayer, it’s that he *chooses* to. He delights in being moved by prayer. Now, I guess you could say, was he *really* moved or was he going to do action x anyway but to me that’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg rabbit trail. The bottom line is yes, God is sovereign and yes, God is moved by prayer. He sovereignty allows himself to be. It is his delight. Praise be to our God and Father!

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Malek,

      Excellent way of putting it! I totally agree.

      Preston

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      I just read this again, Malek, and I really like your phrase: “it just so happens that what pleases him is to allow himself to be influenced by the prayers of his children.” Great way of putting it!

      You coming out to EBC next Fall or what?

      Preston