“God is not a wishing well” is what I hear a lot when growing up in church and in my family. Therefore it came as no surprise when my prayers were not always answered. At times, it may seem like my prayers were answered at random, no better than chance. If we were to evaluate the effectiveness of prayers by answered prayers, would you consider a microwave that heats up your food only 50% of the time randomly as working? Over time, this naturally led me to ask “So what’s the point of prayer?”. If I pray, things may not turn out the way that I hope for. If I don’t pray, things may still turn out fine because God loves and watches over us not by our own merit.
God’s love for us has not changed and does not change. Jeremiah 31:3
God’s love for us is not dependent on us first loving Him. 1 John 4:10
God has chosen to love and watch over us even while we were sinning against Him. Romans 5:8
This is coupled with the fact that we were taught in the Bible that “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Matthew 6:8. He knows my needs better than I do. So who am I to be telling Him what I need? How do I even begin to pray to a God who knows what we need better than what we can express? Am I simply better off just accepting life as it comes and believing that Christ is “with me always even till the end of age”?
Well, it depends on what you believe prayers do. If you think that prayers work by changing God’s mind, hence by notifying God of our needs, we are able to somehow remind God to reconsider, then praying is a futile effort. I really do not think we are able to change God’s will.
God’s ways are perfect. Psalm 18:30
God does not change. Malachi 3:6
Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8
God does not change His mind. Numbers 23:19
If we are unable to change God’s will, then the natural conclusion seems to be that prayer changes us. I believed that while John the Baptist was in prison and suffering, he must have prayed countless times for God’s deliverance from the suffering, so much so that he began to question whether he placed his faith in the wrong Messiah. Though John the Baptist’s prayer was not answered in the sense that he was never rescued from his imprisonment, ultimately he changed.
Similarly, I can imagine Paul crying out to God, saying “Why?” as he experienced shipwreck due to natural disasters. It is one thing to experience hardship from human persecutors but it is absolutely heart wrenching to experience hardship from natural disasters that seemed to originate from God. And while Paul’s life was not “quiet and peaceable” as what he had prayed for (1 Timothy 2), he gradually came to realise that his own suffering came as a source of encouragement and faith for many of the early followers (Philippians 1). And when he came to that realisation, he gladly accepted it. Both John and Paul’s prayers may have been seen as unsuccessful in changing their situational outcomes, but through the constant prayers and struggles with God, they came to align their wills with God’s.
So do our prayers actually change things? If not, why did Jesus say “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
Consider the following example. A father told his two children that if they asked nicely, they could have ice cream for dessert. One of them asked nicely and got the dessert, and one of them refused and did not get the dessert. Neither of them changed their father’s mind because they asked. The father’s plan had always been to use this experience to mould and teach his children about good behaviour. And yet the act of asking nicely had the impact of whether one received an ice cream. Sure, we can trust in our Father and simply wait for Him to bestow the “ice cream” because we know He loves us. But in doing so, we missed out on the opportunity to understand and grow into the person He wished for us. Hence when we pray in faith, believing that we will receive, we are ultimately not altering the Divine plan but participating in it.
While this example is very simple and may not fully reflect the human condition and life, I do believe that God has an ultimate plan to restore us.
Therefore, I do not pray to bend God to my will. But I do pray to struggle to understand God’s.