Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

96. IS ALL PRAYER EQUALLY EFFECTIVE?

God always responds.  Prayer always makes a difference.  But the difference is not always dramatic and obvious because prayer does not cancel or suspend the particular network of constraints which are bringing some outcome into being.  Prayer is the means through which the specific action of God works in and through that network, bringing some succession of events to what will always be a different outcome from what it would otherwise have been.  But are all prayers equally effective?

Prayer was utilized by Jesus, the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers and beyond as a powerful weapon to achieve limited and localized repair, reconstruction, restoration and repossession of God’s creation and thereby thwart the prince of darkness and the forces of evil.  For example, physical healing was commonplace in the early Christian community.  But many Christians, in the 21st century, have become so sophisticated and jaded that they doubt the power of prayer.  They view individual prayer as a nearly useless anachronism in our time. 

What about corporate prayer by the body of Christ?  Curiously, most churches have little commitment to united corporate prayer and even less inclination toward confession of individual sin while praying.  Prayer has become a tired ritual which is performed with no real expectation.  A prayer may be offered during worship service to accommodate tradition.  Then, if nothing happens, the Health, Wealth and Prosperity advocates ask, “Whose un-confessed sin caused God to ignore this prayer?”  The Calvinists ask, “Was this prayer ignored by God because it was inconsistent with His unchangeable blueprint established before the world was formed?”  In any case, no one really expects a response from God.  Most churches preach and teach the importance of praying together as a united body of Christ but these same churches don’t really believe it and seldom do it!  In fact, it is difficult to identify a church whose foundation is corporate prayer.  But what if all the church ritual prayer, musical entertainment and baby food Sunday School lessons were replaced by congregational corporate prayer from men and women yearning to be led by the Holy Spirit down a path of confession, remorse, repentance, faith, obedience, humility, forgiveness, sincerity, purity, persistence, restoration, truth and worship?  What if the Sunday sermon, crafted for entertainment, was replaced by one intended to make us better able to give a reason for the hope that is in us?  Who knows what would happen.

What about uniting in prayer as a Christian nation?  This is probably the least likely approach to succeed in the USA because, unfortunately, America is no longer a Christian nation.  By way of illustration:

 

  • If abortion for convenience is murder, then the USA is one of the most murderous nations in the history of the world.

 

  • If homosexuality is a sin, then many of the primary protestant denominations in the USA have embraced sin.

 

  • If USA drug addiction is responsible for the tens of thousands of drug related deaths in Mexico and Central America, then USA citizens have blood on their hands.

 

God has been purged from education, entertainment, government and society at large.  The USA is currently very close to becoming a Godless nation.

 

Oswald Chambers had some thoughts on the effectiveness of prayer:

 

“We talk about prayer as if God heard us irrespective of the fact of our relationship to Him.  Never say it is not God’s will to give you what you ask, don’t sit down and faint, but find the reason, turn up the index.  Are you rightly related to your wife, to your husband, to your children, to your fellow students – are you a good child there?  “O Lord, I have been irritable and cross, but I do want spiritual blessing.”  You cannot have it, you will have to do without until you come into the attitude of a good child.

Have I been asking God to give me money for something I want when there is something I have not paid for?  Have I been asking God for liberty while I am withholding it from someone who belongs to me?  I have not forgiven someone his trespasses; I have not been kind to him; I have not been living as God’s child among my relatives and friends (Mat 7:12).

I am a child of God only by regeneration, and as a child of God I am good only as I walk in the light.  Prayer with most of us is turned into pious platitude, it is a matter of emotion, mystical communion with God.  Spiritually we are all good at producing fogs.  If we turn up the index, we will see very clearly what is wrong – that friendship, that debt, that temper of mind.  It is no use praying unless we are living as children of God.  Then, Jesus says – Everyone that asks receives.”

 

Some soldiers, in the army of Jesus Christ, can use weapons of war more effectively than others.  The use of prayer for maximum effectiveness is somewhat clouded in mystery.  But the effective prayer warrior is generally characterized by all or at least some of the following attributes:

 

  • Confessor of Sin (Ps 32:3-5; 1 John 1:8-10)
  • Remorseful (Ps 66:18; Luke 18:13)
  • Repentant (Acts 20:21; Isa 59:1-2)
  • Faithful (Mat 17:20; 21:21)
  • Obedient (I John 3:22)
  • Humble (Dan 9:3)
  • Forgiving (Mark 11:25)
  • Sincere (Acts 12:5; Heb 5:7)
  • Spirit Filled (Rom 8:26)
  • Persistent (Luke 11:5-13, 18:1-8; I Thes 5:17)
  • Desiring United Corporate Prayer (Mat 18:19)
  • Confident (Jam 1:5-7)
  • Abiding in Christ (John 15:7)
  • Fervently committed to communion with God (Acts 12:5)
  • Thankful (Phil 4:6-7)
  • Peaceful (Phil 4:6-7)
  • Truthful (Psalm 145:18)
  • Unselfish (Jam 4:3)
  • Knowing God’s will (1 John 5:14-15)
  • Seeking wisdom (Jam 1:5)
  • Rejecting idols (Ezek 14:3)

 

Prayer itself frequently includes:

 

  • Praise: worshiping and communing with God (Heb 13:15)
  • Repentance: confessing and turning away from sin (1 John 1:8-10)
  • Thanksgiving: honoring God for our blessings (Phil 4:6,7)
  • Mercy: requesting God will deliver us from evil and grant our petitions (Phil 4:6,7)

 

However, my prayer petitions may not be granted even if I have the attributes of a prayer warrior and my prayers are appropriate.  For example, I may be certain my faith is larger than a mustard seed but I cannot move mountains (Mat 17:20 cf 21:21, 22) nor can I always place my hands on the sick and see them healed (Acts 28:8).  The Holy Spirit may want to grant my petitions in such matters but He is thwarted by forces of darkness exercising free will, using powerful weapons and utilizing a complex network of constraints (Dan 10:12-13, 20-21); but also, the Holy Spirit is thwarted by my own inadequate personal attributes as a prayer warrior.

Consider, for illustration, this simplistic hypothetical “constraint on effectiveness” for the weapon of prayer.  What if the degree to which my prayer will be answered is expressed by a number between zero and one which is equal to the probability that I am characterized, on any given day, by all twenty one independent prayer warrior attributes listed above?  If the probability that I am characterized by each individual attribute is 0.8, then the probability that I am [a confessor of sin and remorseful and repentant and faithful and obedient and humble … and rejecting idols] is 0.821 = 0.009.  Or instead, what if the probability is virtually zero that I am characterized by one particular attribute?  The outcome would be the same: marginally effective prayer.

Consider another vantage.  Satan is accusing us 24/7 probably with the frequency of cosmic gamma burst radiation (Rev 12:10).  Jesus Christ is interceding on our behalf (Heb 7:25) for each accusation.  But unlike the characters in a Perry Mason episode, the cold facts about our shortcomings are known at the outset by both the prosecution and the defense.  This spiritual courtroom is about establishing, not the existence, but the consequences of undeniable sins.  Our guilt before God is removed by the great gift of salvation by which we are redeemed, forgiven, justified, adopted, regenerated, guided along the path of sanctification, reconciled with fellow believers, united in the church of Jesus Christ and looking forward to glorification.  But our sorry behavior, even after we have been saved, still has consequences in this life.  Satan not only wants the unsaved to join him in eternal damnation, he would also like to minimize God’s response to the prayers of the saved.  Could our sinful nature and behavior along with our inadequate prayer warrior attributes, by the Rules of Engagement, continually lower the effectiveness of our prayers?  We could ask God for the wisdom (Jam 1:5) to comprehend precisely how the Rules of Engagement are constraining the effectiveness of our prayers.  Unfortunately, the shear ferocity and frequency of Satan’s unrelenting attack and the complexity of creation make it unlikely that we could fully understand and satisfy these rules.  But remember, Jesus Christ is not just a lackadaisical defense attorney going through the motions.  He is an advocate who wants us to win!  He wants us to overcome the shackles of constraint on the power of our prayer.  Perhaps we could ask our advocate, Jesus Christ, to break the shackles of constraint on the potential power of our prayer: (a) by showing us how, with God’s grace, we can overcome the various Constraints on Effectiveness binding our prayers and (b) by acting as our advocate in the spiritual court room to re-negotiate the Rules of Engagement in our favor.

Our spiritual opponents in this Great War are powerful beyond comprehension; they would destroy us in an instant were it not for God’s restraint.  Even God’s angels appear to be reluctant to enter the fray (Dan 10:21).  Why didn’t God give us “superhero” personal power against these adversaries to make an even fight?  Perhaps because the struggle is ultimately about ideas rather than brute power.  Satan wants to convince all the angels in Heaven that God’s plan of salvation for mankind is flawed.  He wants to expose God’s entire enterprise of creation and redemption as the product of radically flawed wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.  The accusation, once raised, could not be removed, not even by destroying the accuser.  The divine purpose hung in the balance. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was a fatal blow to him who holds the power of death (Heb 2:14) and sealed the ultimate outcome of the war.  But Jesus wants his army to stand beside him as He reclaims and restores His creation.