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What Difference Does Prayer Make?

You’re not alone in asking, and the Bible points us to good answers to this question

Prayer can sometimes feel like a waste of effort. If battling distractions during prayer isn’t bad enough, or coming away from prayer feeling dry or exhausted rather than refreshed, there are also the nagging doubts.

What am I doing this for, anyway? Does my prayer really make a difference in the world around me, or is it just changing me? And if it does make a difference, why on Earth (or perhaps why in heaven) does it? After all, God knows everything, so I’m not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.

What’s more, he’s got a perfect, divine plan, and nothing I propose is going to improve on it. Why not say simply, “Thy will be done,” and be done with it?

If you’re feeling this way, you should know that you’re not alone and that the Bible actually points us to good answers to these questions. Jesus promises that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matt. 21:22). And St. James tells us that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:6).

For proof, James points to Elijah, who said to King Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Despite being “a man of like nature with ourselves,” Elijah “prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit” (James 5:17-18).

These, and countless other passages in the Old and New Testaments, point us to a twofold conclusion.

First, we know that prayer works because God promises that it does Second, we’ve seen it work in big ways and small, both throughout history and (hopefully) our own lives. So it seems like prayer shouldn’t change things, and yet the Bible is clear that it does.

What’s happening here? I suspect the real problem is that we’ve got the wrong idea of both prayer and God’s plan.

Rethinking prayer

The first thing that needs correcting is how we relate to God in prayer. Jesus warns us not to pray “as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). This isn’t an argument against lengthy prayers. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a much lengthier prayer than Jesus’ own: on the night before he called the twelve apostles, for instance, Jesus “went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12).

Instead, Jesus is warning us against a certain way of approaching prayer: thinking of it as a kind of magic where if you just say the right words (or for the right length of time), then you’ll get your wish.

To put it simply, God isn’t our genie. He’s our Father. That’s what Jesus teaches us about prayer. It’s not an insignificant detail that when Jesus tells us to “pray then like this,” he gives us a prayer that begins “Our Father . . .” (Matt. 6:9). Even those of us who have prayed the Lord’s Prayer throughout our entire lives may have never really pondered the significance of that opening address.

In prayer, we do not just come before “a judge who is God of all” (Heb. 12:23), like a terrified defendant before a mighty court. Instead, we come as beloved children to a merciful father, a father who chases after us even when we have wandered off (Luke 15:20; Matt. 18:12). And God responds to our prayers as any loving father would respond to the requests of his children:

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:11-13).

Understand prayer in this fatherly way, and many of the common objections dissipate. For instance, it’s true that God already knows what we want and need. In fact, before giving us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus actually makes sure to point out that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). After all, a God who didn’t know our needs ahead of time wouldn’t be a God powerful enough to answer our prayers.

So it’s good that God knows what we need before we ask. But it’s still good for us to ask. Here too, I think every parent knows the drill. You may know that your son wants something, but you still want him to learn to ask for it, rather than simply assuming you’ll do it for him or (worse) trying to just take it on his own.

But notice that Jesus doesn’t just say that the Father knows what we want; he knows what we need. If we ask for a fish, God’s not going to give us a serpent. The problem is, we’re often asking for serpents in our prayers and wondering why he doesn’t give them to us. St. James puts it bluntly: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).

If my baby daughter asks for more of a healthy food, I’m likely to give it to her. But if she wants junk food (or, often as not, some random inedible object she’s found on the ground), her asking won’t get her what she wants. But notice, her not getting what she thinks she wants isn’t evidence of an unloving father but of a father who loves her and is seeking her authentic good.

That may be cold comfort to her when she’s convinced that what will make her happy is eating a Christmas ornament. And it’s likewise cold comfort to us adults when we think that a sports car or a raise is what will make us truly happy. Slowly but surely, though, even the experience of being rebuffed in prayer helps us to grow in both perseverance (as we ask, like the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8) and trust (as we come to realize that God’s plans for us consistently turn out better than our plans for ourselves). So many of our frustrations in prayer seem to be of precisely this kind: that God responds as a loving Father and not as an ATM. Or as C.S. Lewis puts it:

We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, “liked to see young people enjoying themselves” and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all” (The Problem of Pain, pp. 35-36).

It’s a frustrating but fortunate reality that God isn’t our senile grandfather but our attentive Father. The letter to the Hebrews quotes Proverbs to the effect that “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6, Prov. 3:12). It is precisely because we are sons and daughters of the Father that he pushes us—just as parents are (rightly) more demanding of their own children than they are of the neighbors’ or of their grandkids.

Approaching God as a Father should help us understand why he wants us to talk to him, why we can trust him, and why we shouldn’t despair if we feel like he’s chastising us or not giving us what we want when we want it. But this same rethinking also needs to happen in the other half of the equation: how we understand the “divine plan.”

Rethinking the divine plan

There are two more misunderstandings of prayer that I want to address:

  1. God is just going to give us what’s best, whether or not we pray for it.
  2. God has a divine plan, and my prayers risk screwing it up somehow, since my ideas aren’t as good as his own.

The first view is a tendency toward a kind of Christian fatalism: God’s plan is an implacable fate, and nothing that I say or do can change it. In the second view, I can change things for the worse, and so prayer—or at least, praying for anything specific—is spiritually dangerous.

Misunderstood this way, God has fish and eggs ready for us, unless we accidentally ask for serpents or scorpions. As different as these errors may seem, they’re really two sides of the same coin: namely, misunderstanding what the Christian vision of the divine plan looks like.

As with our rethinking of prayer, what’s needed is a rethinking of the idea of the “divine plan.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Augustine: “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us” (1847; Augustine, Sermon 169). In other words, God is our Father, meaning that “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).

Maybe the closest analogue is to imagine that you own a family business that you’re hoping to pass along to your kids. One of your goals is to form them not only to be responsible adults but to understand and care about the family business. You want to bring them into the decision-making process so that they can see things “from the inside,” as it were.

This is precisely how God deals with us. God chooses Abraham, and one of the first things that he does is to invite him into the divine equivalent of the decision-making process. Before destroying the city of Sodom, God said, “shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him?” (Gen. 18:17).

What’s he doing? He’s telling Abraham what he’s planning on doing, precisely so that Abraham will learn to barter with him and to intercede for those who need it the most. Abraham successfully petitions God to agree that if there are even ten righteous people in Sodom, he won’t destroy the city (Gen. 18:22-33).

This isn’t Abraham overpowering God or God opting for a suboptimal plan. God is achieving something great in creating in Abraham a powerful spiritual intercessor. Even though there aren’t ten righteous people within the city, and it is destroyed, “God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (Gen. 19:29).

The salvation of Lot isn’t just for Lot’s sake: it’s also the consequence of Abraham’s prayers. But notice that none of this would have happened if Abraham had simply said, “God’s plan is God’s plan, nothing I can do about it!” or even “God, you know more than me, have it your way.”

The God who knows more than we do is the same God who places on our hearts the desire to pray, to barter with him, even to argue with him. God changes the name of Abraham’s grandson Jacob to Israel, a name that means literally “he fought God” (see Gen. 32:28). When we talk about the Church as the New Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, that includes this idea: God invites us to wrestle with him in prayer, and he even rewards it.

This is exactly what we should expect if he is raising sons and heirs instead of simply passive observers of his divine plan. We can see this powerful intercession throughout the Old and New Testaments, but there’s one parable that I think captures it beautifully.

At the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother complains about the father’s generous celebration of the younger son’s return, saying, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (Luke 15:29). There’s something slightly ridiculous about the elder son standing in the field and haggling over wages instead of rejoicing at home with the rest of his family. The father gently points this out: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, emphasis added).

This is perhaps the most important single sentence in the entire Bible for understanding prayer. We constantly want to pray as petitioners, or workers, or bystanders: treating God as a force of nature (and a force that cannot be reckoned with!), or else as a senile grandfather, an ATM, or a genie: someone or something merely to be feared or manipulated.

But God is constantly trying to teach us that he’s our Father and that we’re his children—his “sons and heirs.” And if so, all that is God’s is ours. The radical promise of the “Our Father” is that it means that the whole universe is our family business, not just God’s. The divine plan isn’t just something over there somewhere, but something here that we’re invited into in a radical way.

God wants us to try to make sense of his plans, to ask questions, even to make suggestions or raise objections. It’s a sign that we’re interested in what he’s doing and that we care about the family business—which, in this case, is the business of the whole universe. After all, as St. Paul reminds us, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor. 6:2).

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