Does prayer change anything? And if so, is that a good thing? There are three major objections to consider:
- First, that due to predestination, everything is set in place, and our prayers can’t change anything.
- Second, that “prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” So the only one changed by prayer is me. After all, God is perfect and changeless.
- Third, due to God’s omniscience and omnipotence (that is, that he knows everything and is all-powerful), his plan is perfect, so our prayers shouldn’t do anything. After all, we’re not going to tell God anything that he doesn’t already know, and we’re not going to have a better plan than the one he already has, right?
In considering these things, the starting point for this needs to be James 5:13-18, the clearest Scriptural proof that prayer does change things, and not only us:
Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Eli’jah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.
St. James isn’t saying “there was going to be a drought anyway, but by prayer, Elijah really came to accept the inevitable.” No, he’s saying (as 1 Kings 18-19 also says) that the drought in the time of Elijah was both begun and ended by prayer. That’s quite clear: prayer changes things, things outside of ourselves; it even changes the course of history.
Nor is James alone in teaching this. When the Disciples ask why they couldn’t drive out a particularly powerful demon, Jesus responds, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). So not only does prayer change, there are some situations that only prayer can change. St. Paul writes to Philemon, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be granted to you” (Phil. 1:21-22). St. Paul’s hope is that Philemon will pray, and this prayer will change things. St. Peter, quoting Psalm 34:15, reminds us that “the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Peter 3:12). What could this promise mean, if prayer does nothing?
The angel Gabriel reveals one of these answered prayers, presenting the conception of John the Baptist as an answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers (Luke 1:13). The Book of Job reveals another. At the end of the book, God tells Job’s irreverent friends to “take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8). Sure enough, they do so, and “the Lord accepted Job’s prayer” (Job 42:9).
But the boldest statement on prayer is from Our Lord Himself: “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). In the face of this, who among us can claim that prayer does nothing?
But this mass of Scriptural evidence raises a theological question: how does prayer change things, if God is unchanging? “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us.” That’s true, but it’s too limited: it assumes that the only options are God changing his mind, or us changing. As I explained elsewhere:
You and I, we’re part of the Divine plan. We’re not just pieces in a great big cosmic machine that God has dreamed up. We’re the sons and daughters of God, and one of the major parts of the Divine Plan is for us to grow in intimacy with God. And so He answers prayers.
He is our Father. And parents say things like, “if you ask nicely, you can have dessert.” That’s not because you, as a parent, really want to give or withhold dessert, and it’s not because you need your kids to tell you that they like dessert. It’s because in raising your child to ask politely, your children become better. So, too, God teaches us to pray because prayer makes us better people, it makes us humbler, and it makes us better sons and daughters of God.
So let’s say one of your kids asks nicely, and you give her dessert; the other refuses to, and so you don’t. In neither case did your kids change your mind: you’re standing fast by your decree that “if you ask nicely, you can have dessert.” So when the living God says that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith,” our prayers aren’t altering the Divine Plan. They’re participating in it.
Of course, this means that there is a limit of sorts to the power of our prayers. If you’re praying for something wicked, don’t expect to get it. St. James puts the matter bluntly: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). And of course, there are prayers which seem to go unanswered because God has something better than what we’re asking for.
St. Paul implicitly recognizes this when he tells Philemon to “prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be granted to you.” He’s not praying for anything wicked, but he knows that there are reasons he still might not get what he thinks he wants. He knew this experience quite personally, as Acts 16:6-10 shows:
And they went through the region of Phry’gia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come opposite My’sia, they attempted to go into Bithyn’ia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by My’sia, they went down to Tro’as. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedo’nia was standing beseeching him and saying, “Come over to Macedo’nia and help us.” And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedo’nia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Paul’s plan is to go east, to evangelize southern Asia. That’s not a bad plan, but God had a better one, sending Paul west, to evangelize throughout the Roman Empire. Why did that matter? Because Greco-Roman culture was uniquely fertile for the Gospel, and it had a wealth of philosophical categories which enabled Christians both to explain the faith more clearly, and even to understand it better. Pope Benedict XVI described the dream to St. Paul this way:
The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10)—this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
Without Greco-Roman culture, you don’t have “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), a brilliant one-sentence bridge from Greek thought into the radical newness of the Gospel. So Paul had a good plan, but God had a much better one, and the world was forever changed as a result of that crossroads. Our own crossroads are likely not on the size, scope, and scale of that one, but it’s hopefully an insight into why God seems to refuse even good, faithful prayers, and it reveals why the model prayer given to us by Christ includes the line “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done” (Matthew 6:10): because a truly faithful prayer is always to want what’s best, which is to say, to want what God wants. It just happens to be the case that what God wills is our free cooperation in his plans.