Does Prayer Change the Outcome?
by Larry Wilson
Let us begin with a reality check. Have you ever been in a desperate situation where you really needed special help from God and no help arrived? Have you ever had a "death valley" experience and from your perspective, it seemed God totally ignored your cry for help? Have you ever been angry and frustrated with Godís silence? Have you earnestly prayed for something and received nothing? Have you waited in anticipation for Godís response, only to hear silence and no answer at all? Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Have you concluded that God must not like you very much because He has not answered your prayers? Have you wondered why God allows horrible things to happen to good people?
These are good, tough questions and they deserve definitive answers. Through the years I have been asked these types of questions often and my answers, I must confess, were more intellectual than experiential. However, this has recently changed. During the past two years, my wife and I have discussed these types of questions from the experiential side of life. Shirley underwent surgery two years ago and since then has suffered a great deal from a disorder that produces terrible depression and anxiety. The doctors are not sure what caused the disorder or why it continues, but it does. Although I am in good health, I still share in her suffering each day. Shirley enjoyed perfect health for 50 years and then suddenly, everything changed. We can assure you that experiencing such a "screeching halt" will bring to your mind many perspectives about God that you never knew existed! I have found that extended pain and suffering can influence your relationship with God in one of two ways. Either the experience puts distance between you and God, making you bitter and resentful, or it produces a whole new dimension in understanding Godís ways. Suffering has a way of "cutting to the chase" and one of the first questions always asked is, "Why did this have to happen?"
Note: Before we go any further into this study, let me say the following: I am reminded that Jobís three friends did not correctly understand God nor the subject of suffering and it made God unhappy. (Job 42:7) Likewise, I could be wrong about some of my forthcoming conclusions. (Being in the midst of an ongoing struggle often clouds your perspective.) Even so, I offer my findings on this topic to my readers with the hope that my personal experience and insight may prompt a broader and more scriptural perspective regarding Godís ways. Admittedly, this is not a simple subject and I am not sure that everyone will agree with my conclusions. Nevertheless, it is my hope that you can find some nugget of truth that will be enlightening, encouraging and helpful.
The Bible is very clear, God hears every sincere prayer (Psalm 34:15), but the truth is He does not answer all of them according to our personal wishes. (Isaiah 55:8,9) God is not dead or deaf. God is not absent. God is always present and He responds to our petitions within limits set by several factors of which you might not be aware. The topic of prayer is a very important subject (and at times, a frustrating experience), and since the conclusions presented in this study may be different from what you expect, let us begin this study with a review of four basic concepts related to prayers of petition.
1. God is Omnipresent and Omniscient
God is Omnipresent and Omniscient. He is everywhere at the same time (Psalm 139:7,8) and He sees and knows everything Ė including every thought we think! ". . . This is what the Lord says. . . . I know what is going through your mind." (Ezekiel 11:5) He even knows the number of hairs on our heads! (Matthew 10:30) For some of us that number changes every day (yes, for some of us our hair turns gray, while for others, we simply turn them loose). God sees everything. Regarding Noahís day the Bible says, "The Lord saw how great manís wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." (Genesis 6:5, emphasis mine) Centuries later, just before God sent the Jews into Babylonian captivity, He told the prophet Jeremiah why He was sending the sword against His people. He said, "My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes." (Jeremiah 16:17 ) Another important point that needs to be made here is that God sees beyond the present Ė He can see things that do not exist! Notice this verse written by David: ". . . your eyes saw my unformed body." (Psalm 139:16, emphasis mine) Further, God knew Jeremiah even before he was born. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) So, based on Scripture, we must conclude that God sees and knows everything, whether in the past, present or future. Therefore, God knows us, God sees us and God hears us.
2. God is Love
The Bible declares that God is love. "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:8) What does John mean by the statement, "God is love"? "For I know the plans I have for you,í declares the Lord, Ďplans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.í" (Jeremiah 29:11) Obviously, God is concerned about His creatures. He is not self-seeking or self-absorbed. He seeks our respect and affection. He does not demand obedience from His creatures because He is the "Omnipotent King" of the Universe. Yes, He does require obedience from His creatures, but this is because righteousness is the key to eternal happiness. God does not demand that we love Him because He is God Ė if He did, this would be a contradiction in terms. Truthfully, does love come because it is demanded? Surely not! However, God does desire our love and He has demonstrated that He would rather cease to exist than have the human race miss the opportunity for eternal life. For Jesus, the cross stood at the intersection of life and death: Life for all who would believe in Him, but eternal death for Himself. What a test of love He willingly faced for you and me! Jesus was willing to accept the consequences of the second death to make sure we would have the option of salvation! By giving us Jesusí life, the Father has given us everything He could give. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) When He resurrected Jesus, the Father also gave us everything He could give! We now have a High Priest seated at the right hand of the Father who is like us! (Hebrews 8) If we believe Godís Word, how can we conclude anything other than God is not against us, but on our side! He loves us! "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31) If we believe that God is righteous; that He is love and on our side, then we must rule out the suggestion that God is arbitrary or capricious in His dealings with human beings. The Bible says He is, ". . . a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he." (Deuteronomy 32:4)
3. God is Omnipotent
God is Omnipotent: "See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand." (Deuteronomy 32:39) As Sovereign God, everything is under Godís dominion and He is responsible for the order of life. But let me make this point clear, omnipotence does not make God directly responsible for everything that happens on Earth. Godís children have the power of choice. In other words, the actions of His children produce their own unique responsibilities and consequences. God has imposed this rule upon mankind: ". . . a man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6:7) This rule limits Godís responsibility. This point should not be hard to understand. If someone chooses to rob a bank, is God responsible? No. If someone builds a bomb and kills a hundred innocent people, is God responsible? No. If someone donates a million dollars to a charity, is God responsible? No. However, is God implicated in each of these examples? Yes! Because it was God who gave man life and also the power of choice. But in each example cited, the responsibility and consequence for each action belongs to the person who carried out their choices. Since we have the power of choice, then we must also bear the responsibility for our choices. For this very reason, every person must give an account to His Maker for his or her actions. (2 Corinthians 5:10, Ecclesiastes 12:14, Revelation 20:12) If God were responsible for everything that happens (as some people claim), then humankind would not be responsible for anything!
We must keep Godís sovereign dominion and manís power of choice separate and distinct when discussing Godís omnipotence. Yes, God is ultimately responsible for the order of life, but God is not responsible for everything that happens in life. As demonstrated in the examples above, people are responsible for much of what happens! Random events do occur. For example, somebody wins the lottery occasionally. This winning is a random event. Think about it. If you put 2,000 tickets in a fish bowl and draw one of the tickets out of the bowl, the person holding the winning ticket wins because the process of blindly selecting one ticket out of 2,000 is a random event. The winner had one chance in 2,000 to win. Tragic accidents are also random events. Rarely do two cars collide on purpose Ė the accident is a random event. Let me illustrate this point with a little story someone told me. Back at the turn of the century in the state of Michigan, there was a time when there were only two horseless carriages in the entire state, and can you believe it Ė they accidently collided. If this actually happened, then this was a random event. Sometimes we attempt to make lifeís events out to be more than they really are. Applying "destiny" and "providence" to every event that happens is too inclusive for me. From my limited perspective about life (and according to some, I am still wet behind the ears), I would say that most of lifeís events are either man-made or random. I do not think it is wise or justifiable to impose "divine ordination" upon everything that happens. Of course, I do leave room for Godís intervention in lifeís events because He does get involved and change the outcome from time to time. (I know my conclusions will cause some people heartburn, but let me present my rationale in more detail after the fourth basic concept is presented.) The truth is, however, that God has given each of us the power of choice and the privilege of carrying out our choices. Such actions produce man-made events and man-made events sometimes collide Ė terribly collide. The point I am trying to emphasize is that God should not be blamed for everything that happens! In the pit of despair, many people fail to distinguish between Godís Omnipotence and our power of choice. If these two separate and distinct elements are not properly balanced, then prayers of petition can often become prayers with unrealistic expectations!
4. God has not Removed the Curse of Sin Yet
Now, let us consider the fourth and final concept presented in this study on prayers of petition which are the curse of sin. The curse of sin is a mandate or "law" that became effective the day Adam and Eve sinned. This mandate is so powerful that nothing can escape it. This mandate enables death to overcome life (Romans 7:23) and remains in effect until the Second Coming of Jesus. Then, and only then, will the enemy of man be destroyed Ė the mandate of death! (1 Corinthians 15:26,54)
The curse of sin is more pervasive and powerful than most of us realize. In the beginning, the curse of sin changed everything Ė even the human race. Adam lived to be 930 years old and today, we think it is marvelous for an individual to reach the age of 100. Look around. The curse of sin brings death to nature, just as it does to humankind. The curse of sin causes the fragrant blossoms of the flowers to shrivel, die and fall to the ground, just as surely as it separates us from our loved ones. The curse of sin makes life subject to death, and consequently, health becomes subject to disease, genes mutate and even innocent children are born with deformities. (John 9:3) Thorns and pain became the "natural order" on Earth after sin began. Degeneracy is not only dominant; today it is inevitable. As we age, we degenerate. It is natural now for human flesh to become weak and feeble. Few people have considered the slippery slope of degeneracy because they have never considered what life was like before sin. Nevertheless, the Earth and all forms of life living on it, is headed down that slope. Even in the highest office of my countryís government, I have been embarrassed by the base degeneracy that has been revealed. Nations rise and fall because of the curse of sin. More deadly than an oncoming locomotive is each manís destiny with the law of sin. Each of us will die because each of us has sinned and are under the curse of sin. God understands how we live under the curse of sin and He deals with us accordingly. We need to know about the curse of sin because its existence impacts Godís behavior when He answers our prayers.
The point I am leading up to is that God does not propose to change the order of sin until it is time to do so. (Acts 3:21) This means that God rarely interrupts the curse of sin because someone requests it in prayer. People die every day because the curse of sin demands it. People are sick and struggle with the disease process because the curse of sin produces it. Millions of people are suffering and hurting, people are starving and have no shelter from the elements, people are lonely, abandoned and abused, people are falsely accused and tortured and yet, Almighty God does not stop it! Why? Because we live under the curse of sin. Why did God let the curse of sin continue on and on after Adam and Eve sinned? As I understand it, God, in His unsearchable wisdom allowed sin to flourish for a time, to provide a "real time" laboratory. In this way, God could demonstrate to all of His creatures the deadly nature of sin and the depth and breadth of Godís love for His children. In other words, the drama of sin must reach its ugly climax before God brings the curtain down to a conclusion, so that His children will never want to sin again. This is why the curse of sin continues even to this day. The drama is not over yet.
As I said earlier, God rarely intercepts the order of events under the curse of sin. Yes, Jesus did raise Lazarus and others from the dead. Yes, Jesus did heal some lepers. Yes, Jesus did enable the lame to walk and the blind to see. But remember, He did not raise all of the dead, nor did He heal all of the lepers and the blind. He performed enough miracles to demonstrate convincingly that Godís power was in Him. His miracles accomplished two purposes. First, down through the ages, millions of Godís people would benefit and receive a blessing from examining His claims and believing that He is the Son of God. Second, His miracles renewed the joy of life itself within those who were broken in health and spirit by the curse of sin. As each miracle became reality, each recipient became living proof that the man, Jesus, had the power to break the inescapable grip of sin. Yes, those people healed by Jesus were blessed beyond joyful expression, but the corporate setting of His miracles has produced far more joy for a dying world during the past 2,000 years. It is the Fatherís desire that all of humankind should look at the life of Jesus and exclaim, "This Man is the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39)
Have you considered the point that most, if not all of those individuals that Jesus healed still died later? (I say most because some people believe that Lazarus might have been taken to Heaven at Christís ascension? This is speculation since the Bible does not specifically tell us this occurred.) The point here is that the curse of sin prevailed and eventually killed those people whom Jesus healed. You see, the miracles of Jesus really had a larger purpose than "fixing" health problems for the people who lived in Galilee in those days. The miracles Jesus performed helped to confirm who He was, the Son of God. Those miracles give us confidence to believe His Word, and just as surely as He can heal the body, He can heal every sin-sick soul.
Faulty Concepts Produce Faulty Expectations
Now that we have examined the four basic concepts related to prayers of petition, we need to consider a few concepts that can defeat our faith in God. Here are two general lines of thought that many people follow: First, "God is love. The devil is evil. Therefore, all good things come from God and all evil things come from the devil." In this scenario, blessings of health and prosperity come from God and the curse of death and financial ruin come from the devil. The problem with this conclusion is that the wicked often prosper and saints often suffer! So, this concept is not entirely true. On the other hand, many people reason this way: "God is in control of everything that happens. Whatever will be, will be because He has decided the course of events that will happen anyway. Therefore all things, whether good or bad, come from the hand of God."
These two concepts produce a dilemma, because there is some truth in both lines of thinking. However, do not be too hasty to draw your conclusions Ė the whole picture needs to be brought into better focus. We have already stated that: God is love. God is all-knowing. God is all-powerful and yet, God does not usually interrupt the order of sin. People still die even after the most sincere prayers are offered. However, and I emphasize this point again, be assured that God can violate the order of sin and does intercept the order of sin when a particular situation merits divine intervention. Now the question is asked, when does a particular situation merit divine intervention? No one but God knows the answer to this question. This is why Jesus taught us to submit to the wisdom of God saying, ". . . your kingdom come, your Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." (Matthew 6:10) No one knows the Will of God on a given matter except as it is revealed by God.
This is the hard part: "Your will be done." Submission to what we cannot see or understand is nothing less than sheer faith. Jesus also struggled with this very issue in the Garden of Gethsemane. "Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39) Notice what Paul says of Christís prayer life. "During the days of Jesusí life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." (Hebrews 5:7-9) It is so hard for us to submit to Godís will, especially if it is different from our own and it becomes even more of a struggle when we are asking for the life or health of a loved one, or anything else that is desperately important. Shirley and I now understand experientially this intense emotional struggle. On one side, there is a state of anxiousness, that God do something and do it soon! On the other side, there is a sense of peace knowing that God is working things out for the best. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)
God Let Me Down
Iíve heard it said many times, "God really disappointed me when He did not answer my prayer." All of us can understand this sentiment because each of us have asked for things that we did not receive. However, here are four things that every petitioner should remember when praying:
1. God Hears
Remember this truth: God hears every prayer. He already knows each situation and all the individuals and circumstances surrounding it. Never forget, He is intimately concerned about us and our need. God loves His children and if the situation warrants it, He will intercept the order of sin and bring about a mighty miracle. But remember, He does not do this every day for every person, but does do it and continues to do it at specific times and places, as His infinite wisdom dictates. One important point to keep in mind. The Bible says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me." (Psalm 66:18-20, KJV) This text means that if we cherish sin (maintain rebellion against God) in our lives, God will not look favorably upon our petitions. Yes, He hears every prayer, even those of the wicked, but He ignores the pretentious petitions that come from a rebellious heart.
2. Lemons and Lemonade
If God deems it best to allow a situation to take "the curse of sin" course, He has the power to make lemonade out of a lemon. God uses the lemons of life to teach us lessons in faith, patience and dependence upon Him. If He chooses to "do nothing" in response to our petition, He promises to give us grace sufficient to deal with our trials and tribulations, so that we are not overcome with discouragement. The Bible says, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." (1 Corinthians 10:13) It is quite human to pray for "a fast remedy" rather than rest on Godís offered grace, but more often than not, God offers grace as the answer to our prayers. Why? Because grace keeps us in close communion with Him, the very element necessary for a close relationship with Him. Jesus said, ". . . It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." (Matthew 9:12) Many times in recent months, Shirley and I have sought the help of the Great Physician and we have found each time, His grace is sufficient. Many times we have prayed (and still pray) that God will completely restore her health, but His sustaining grace is all that He has offered thus far and with that, we are at peace knowing that He will sustain her and never forsake us. Even in her terrible suffering, Shirleyís faith and trust in God has never wavered.
Yes, we look forward to the day when God turns this lemon into lemonade. We may not see it in this life, but we will see it. One day soon the heavy crushing curse of sin will be gone. The old order will vanish. The joy of God and life eternal will be ours! Until then, we must persevere Ė sustained sometimes moment by moment Ė always empowered by grace. So, if you are faced with discouragement because you think that God is not listening to you, you are mistaken. If you do not see "a fast remedy," then remember that God is offering you grace. This may sound strange, but I have learned that grace is the better offer because God becomes closer and more intimate with you than ever before. If you find God to be silent, then ask for strength to endure patiently. YOU WILL SEE the impossible done by grace! You will see God resolve your tough problem or your desperate situation. (You might see this done from Heavenís shore, but you will see the problem resolved.) Faith in God is always rewarded. (Hebrews 11:6) He will "set our feet on higher ground" at the right time. This kind of experience has no parallel. Answers to prayer confirm that our faith in God is not misplaced or make-believe. In fact, answers to prayer are positive proof that God cares! Having the courage and patience to wait upon the Lord to accomplish all that He desires requires grace. Understanding His ways requires wisdom.
3. Continue Your Petitions
God is negotiable. Sometimes He tests us to see how intense our faith and desires are. Jesus told this story, "He said: ĎIn a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ĎGrant me justice against my adversary.í "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ĎEven though I donít fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she wonít eventually wear me out with her coming!í" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the Earth?" (Luke 18:2-8) At the conclusion of this story, Jesus asked if He will find faith on the Earth when He comes. Why did He ask this question? Jesus is talking about a faith in God that will not let go. The forthcoming Great Tribulation will require a nonnegotiable faith in God. We have to choose to have faith in God. It is so important to study and pray ourselves into a condition where our faith in God is unmoveable. We must get to the place where we are completely committed and resolve that nothing will change our trust in God. We must develop a faith that hangs onto Godís mighty arm, wrestling with the Almighty until peace comes (even if it seems the petition goes unanswered) or that God intercedes and the petition is answered. Unfortunately, I believe we grow faint too easily. I believe we should keep our petitions before God until we either have the peace that passes understanding, knowing that Godís will has been done or we receive whatever we have asked for.
4. Pray for Wisdom
Sometimes, God answers our prayers by giving us wisdom to deal with the situation or He might send someone who has understanding to help with the problem. (James 1:2-6) God is not limited Ė He has 10,000 ways of resolving a problem of which we know nothing. So, it is our privilege to "ask, seek and knock." (Matthew 7:7) Go boldly to the throne and ask God for help. (Hebrews 4:16) Seek wisdom and understanding if God does not offer "a fast remedy" through a miracle. (Matthew 12:39) Knock on doors that may offer a solution and most of all, trust that God will see you through. (Hebrews 12:1-4)
Prayer is the vehicle through which we can honestly open our hearts to God. We can tell Him our concerns and also give Him praise and honor. He invites us to pray because prayer lifts us up to a higher level Ė a level where we can commune with Him. He also invites us to consider the factors that influence the exercise of His Will. Again, let me remind you that God usually stays within the limits imposed by the curse of sin. But, this does not limit Godís ability or eagerness to give us strength and grace each day. God wants us to understand His love and He provides enough evidence to show each of us that He cares for us. One of the most amazing points about the subject of prayer is this: God provides for us every day, in ways that we are not even aware. In other words, if we had to pray for everything we needed, we could do nothing else! But, God knows our needs even before we cry out and He graciously provides them. We exist today, this very day, only by the mercy of God. When matters arise that drive us to petition the Almighty, God uses such events to test our faith and to reveal Himself to us in intimate ways. God has two objectives in every trial. He wants to deepen our love for Him and He wants us to see how secure the life of faith in Him really is. As Job said, "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him. . ." (Job 13:15)
Jesus told His disciples, ". . . I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ĎGo, throw yourself into the sea,í and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." (Matthew 21:21,22) Think about it. If we have faith in God and do not doubt that He is doing everything that is best for us, every mountain in life will be removed -- perhaps not in the way we want it moved or even to the place we wish it were moved, but it will be moved! God will enable us to get over or around the mountain! So, here is my conclusion about prayer and faith: God is doing everything, under the current circumstances, that is beneficial for the growth and development of His children. If I present my needs to Him in prayer, He will gladly get involved with each of my concerns to show me just how much He loves me!
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