A reader asks, “Does prayer matter?”


Hi, I recently read the article about how God does not have a plan for your life. I really enjoyed it and agree with what you present in that article. I don’t believe that God plans out everything in our whole lives. So I’m curious to figure out then, how much does God intervene in our lives? Such as when we pray. Do our prayers sway God, and if so, does it take away from free will? If you have already written about this, sorry for the bother, would you send me a link to it? Thank you.

Dear R,

Thanks for your note. Your questions are good ones, and they are questions that theologians and pastors and scholars have studied for centuries. Lots of books have been written about these questions, with people concluding everything from “God has pre-ordained everything that will ever happen, including the way you spilled Diet Coke on yourself at lunch” to “God wound up the earth like a giant clock and now it’s ticking away without his attention.”

It’s so debated because, as it does with many things, the Bible seems to give us two different answers. On the one hand, there are scriptures like the ones below which support the idea that God foreordains everything and chooses our path for us. (This just barely glances on the related topic of predestination, whether God “pre-decided” who would be saved and who wouldn’t, and no I am not going to tackle that here.)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps. (Jeremiah 10:23)

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden….Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:18, 21)

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven… (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

On the other hand, there are verses like these:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Revelation 3:20)

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Romans 14:12)

And to answer your question, yes, the Bible indicates that our prayers do matter and can even change God’s mind.(Click here for an excellent article by Philip Yancey that talks about several of these ideas. Instead of writing stuff, I could easily spend my whole career pointing people to Yancey and telling them, “What he said.”)

So what are we to make of this? Well, I am neither a theologian nor a pastor nor a scholar. But what seems clear to me is that God both sovereignly plans the course of his creation and also allows us the dignity of free will. To say otherwise is to say either that God is not all-powerful and all-knowing, or that God causes evil, abuse, pain, and death. (Note the difference between causing and allowing.)  Neither seems consistent with the character of God, so the best conclusion seems to be that God has purposes and plans for his people at a high level (for instance, that they would love him, obey him, and share his love with others), that he reserves the right to direct anything in our lives if it serves his purposes, and that he also allows us to make choices even if they aren’t decisions of love and obedience. And because, as the rather tired worship song says, he is a good, good father, he is able to bring good out of even the bad stuff that we do to each other.

enhanced-buzz-15673-1396867072-8Jesus was both God and a man. There is one God but there is also a trinity. When we are weak we are strong. God is in charge and God gives us choices. Christianity is full of paradoxes, and although many believers prefer black and white statements about their faith, I actually find comfort in a God who is bigger and more mysterious than my small brain can always figure out. God also created sugar and the proboscis monkey, so he seems to have a sense of humor about the whole deal, too. Keep praying to that God, know that he’s hearing you, and believe that sometimes it will even change things. Either way, it will change you.
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