Does prayer change things?

by Mike Ratliff

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. James 5:16-18 (NASB) 

I participate in many online and offline theological discussions. Some them have to do with today’s topic and for those whose faith is focused on the here and now rather than the eternal it is perplexing. However, just so we can address this issue, let us ponder it in the correct fashion. In light of the fact that God is sovereign over all and has ordained whatsoever comes to pass according to the good pleasure of His will (Ephesians 1:11), why should we pray? If God already knows what is going to happen and, indeed, if He has already determined what will happen, what is the point of praying at all?

The simplest answer is that God ordains both the ends and the means. That is, our Creator has determined what will happen as well as the means that will make happen what He has determined will happen. For example, He has not only ordained that the gospel will go forth to all nations, but He has ordained that the gospel will go forth through the means of the Great Commission as the church makes disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). In the case of prayer, we know that God has ordained that He will make certain things happen in response to our intercession. We see an illustration of this in today’s passage. Because God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, we know that He ordained the drought that plagued Israel in the days of Ahab, as well as the end of the drought (1 Kings 17:1–7; 18:41–46). But from the same narrative, as well as James 5:16–18, we also know that the drought and its end occurred as a result of Elijah’s prayers. Why did the drought start and end? Because God ordained that it would, and because Elijah prayed for such things. Both God’s sovereign determination and the prayers of Elijah brought about the result because God ordained the drought and its end as well as that it would be accomplished through the prayers of Elijah.

None of this should be taken to mean that our prayers actually change God’s mind. Elijah did not give the Lord new information or act in a way that God did not anticipate. The Father knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8), and He does not alter His eternal, sovereign plan simply on our say-so. Yet, although prayer does not actually change God’s mind, prayer does change things. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). We do not know God’s eternal, sovereign plan in all its details, but we do know that He works through prayer and answers prayer. We know that as we pray according to His will, He says yes to our requests. Through our prayers, God accomplishes His purposes.

We do not know God’s plan down to every last detail, but we do know that He has a plan and that He works through our prayers to bring His plan to pass. We know that He wants us to pray and to believe that He will answer yes to our prayers when they accord with His will. Let us not be afraid to pray, but let us pray earnestly, believing that He will accomplish His purposes through our intercession.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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