In a recent Gospel Coalition blog post, Melvin Tinker writes,
God has the power and wisdom to use our prayers as he sees fit and to do what we could never imagine. If he weren’t all-powerful, there’d be little point in praying. If he weren’t all wise, it’d be dangerous to pray; after all, who’d want to ask an all-powerful but foolish person to do anything? But God is both perfectly wise and infinitely powerful, which is why you and I can pray with confidence.
God’s people are called to pray, yet we continue to wrestle with the reality of God’s sovereignty in the slosh of our day-to-day lives. How does prayer really change things? Perhaps we don’t see the evidence of such change. Or maybe we’ve seen so much evidence to the contrary that we are tempted to throw in the prayer cloth. Perhaps the focus should be on how prayer changes us. I want to suggest that there are very tangible ways in which prayer can change who we are, while affirming that God uses prayer as a divine instrument of action. I have drawn up a list of 5 ways.
1. Prayer changes your mind.
You’ve made up your mind. You’ve chosen a course. To deviate would be out of the question. Until you pray. James says, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15 ESV). Presumptuous planning pays little heed to God’s program. This is the attitude of a believer who esteems not God’s rightful place as Lord over our lives. What is needed is the attitude of a prayerful planner. When we submit our plans to the Lord’s sovereignty, we affirm our place in God’s economy by regarding our objectives as secondary. They may in fact be part of God’s program, but we must be willing to change our minds if they are not. Prayer which emphasizes God’s order rather than our own changes our mind, for the good.
2. Prayer changes your character.
R.C. Sproul states, “All that God does is for His glory first and for our benefit second. We pray because God commands us to pray, because it glorifies Him, and because it benefits us” (Does Prayer Change Things? Crucial Questions Series, Kindle Locations 131-132). Attuning our hearts to the frequency of God allows us to live in rhythm with his glorious melody. This has the effect of bringing our character in harmony with his own. D.A. Carson, in his book A Call to Spiritual Reformation, exhorts believers to pray if they wish to know God. The Lord’s Prayer demonstrates the model of prayer which emphasizes character change. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We seek God’s will above our own. In so doing, our character changes to match the one to whom we serve. Paul emphasizes this kind of emulation saying, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point” (Philippians 2:5–8 ESV). Our prayers should conform our character into the identity of Christ.
3. Prayer changes your schedule.
Simply put, prayer requires time. There is often a conflict between planning and prayer. Does your calendar reflect a dedication to prayer? The old cliché goes, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Such is true for prayer. Our lives are to be constantly bathed in the river of prayer (see 1 Thess. 5:17), but we still have to plan to get in the water. Those who seriously wish to engage God in prayer must be willing to hold their schedule loosely. This is not an attitude of ambivalence towards planning, rather, it is a conscious endeavor to match one’s calendar with the priority of prayer (see #1). Personal calendars should not be the only ones affected, but the busy family schedule must be impacted as well. Planning sports and activities must never suppress the need for family devotion and prayer time. Those dedicated to prayer (both private, familial, and corporate) must plan to come to God in prayer.
4. Prayer changes your control.
The act of prayer necessarily communicates a reliance upon God. Shallow prayers which dismiss God’s sovereignty are neither heard nor heeded (see Jer. 14:12), yet even the most simple prayer uttered in devotion to God conveys a release of control. Prayer signals an announcement of God’s control over our lives. Once again the Lord’s Prayer is instructive here. Jesus says, “Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:9-10 ESV). Those who pray in concord with this model needs must confess God’s control in their lives. We give up control the moment we pray, “Your will be done.” Jesus, in his humanity, confessed, “Not my will but yours” (see Luke 22:42). This is a control-releasing prayer which ought to be emulated.
5. Prayer changes your participation.
We have arrived back where we started: do our prayers really change things? Up to this point, we have seen how prayer changes the overall disposition of the participant. Thus the question is raised, “What exactly are we participating in?” Scripture emphatically demonstrates that we are living in God’s mystifying plan of salvation history. In this plan, he invites people into relationship and participation. He lovingly establishes parameters of that relationship, calling people to himself. The response of his people is participation–participation in worship and the Great Commission. Prayer is the fuel which drives doxological and missional participation. When we pray, we come alongside God’s eternal plans. But more than that, we affirm that God uses our prayers in the midst of his sovereign strategy. Jesus tells us to pray for harvesters in the field (Luke 10:2), to pray against temptation (Matt. 6:13; Luke 22:40) and that God will grant the requests of those who pray to Him in faith (Matt. 21:22). God’s word also connects prayer to healing (James 5:15). All these and more indicate an intimate relationship between the prayers of God’s faithful and His actions. Beyond that mystery, we need not say more. We are invited to pray, to participate in the holy actions of a sovereign God, and are encouraged that such participation will reap a harvest.
Has prayer changed you? Has it modified your mind? Has it compelled your character? Does it shape your schedule? Has it changed your control? Has it put into perspective your participation? Prayer does all these things, and more. It changes us so that we may conform more to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). It sustains the work of ministry and the spread of the Gospel (2 Cor. 1:11). It provides sustenance for the weary soul in times of distress (Luke 22:41-44; Rom. 12:12). Therefore, may we continue in prayer for God’s glory, the expanse of the Kingdom, and to increase in our devotion to the Triune God.