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Jan 7, 2022

Welcome to Upstream. I’m Shane Morris, and I want to reflect further on this week’s conversation. 

In our discussion of his new book, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles, philosopher J. P. Moreland and I explored a number of subjects that mystify and fascinate Christians. Foremost among them, whether miracles still take place today, and if so, how we can experience them. But in the process, we touched on a question I have long pondered, and which anyone interested in miraculous answers to prayers will inevitably confront: the question of petitionary prayer, itself.  

When the subject of prayer comes up in evangelical circles, it’s common to hear throwaway lines like these: “We don’t pray in order to change God. We pray in order to change ourselves.” But while prayer certainly does sanctify us and shape our wills emotions, I think this view fails to do justice to the many biblical examples of (and commands to practice) petitionary prayer.  

For example, Abraham interceded with God on behalf of Sodom (Gen 18:22-33). Moses pled mercy for disobedient Israel (Ex 23:10-12). Elijah prayed and God shut up the heavens and then later sent rain (1 Kings 18:41). Jesus encouraged us to “ask and it will be given to you…” (Matt 7:7), promised that “if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (Matt 18:19), and committed still further that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22-25).  

Could all of these biblical examples and promises be nothing more than condescensions to our finitude—a type of accommodated language for readers not yet prepared to accept that our petitions never influence God or change His intentions for this world? “Is not the blessing of prayer simply the influence it exercises upon ourselves?” asks Dutch Reformed theologian Andrew Murray, echoing that popular but deeply unsatisfying evangelical truism.  

I want to suggest that the answer is “no.” Christians have reason to believe that “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16). Prayer changes the world, bringing about providential blessings, miracles, and even salvation. It does this as one of God’s chief means for realizing His will in time, involving us in His own Trinitarian life and work, and teaching us to relate to our Father as Jesus did in His human nature.  

Pascal said that “God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” Prayer is among those “second causes” which the Westminster Confession assures us the eternal decree of God does not abolish but rather establishes.    

This accords with how most people naturally read Scripture. It makes little sense for Luke to tell us, for example, that the church was praying fervently for Peter’s release from prison if the prayers of the saints had nothing to do with the miracle that followed! (Acts 12:1-19) There are probably hundreds of such examples in the Bible of what Christians ordinarily call “answered prayer.” But how can God “answer” prayer? How can we speak of prayer causing God to do anything, since He is already infinitely wise, infinitely good, and knows everything?  

The first part of the solution is to realize that our prayers don’t surprise God. “Before a word is on my tongue,” wrote the Psalmist, “you, LORD, know it completely.” (Psalm 139:4) God knows what we are going to ask Him before we ask it. And at least since Augustine, Christians have explained this perfect knowledge by suggesting that God exists outside of time. 

In Mere Christianity, Lewis explains what theologians mean by “outside of time”: God’s life is not a succession of moments, like ours. All moments, past, present, and future are part of His unbounded “now.” God thus has all eternity in which to listen to “the split-second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.”   

But the doctrine of God leads us much “further up and further in.” For the Creator, Sustainer, and First Cause of the universe can’t merely comprehend an event, whether past, present, or future. Everything that occurs necessarily does so by His permission or decree. When we speak of God’s activity in the world, even amazing and life-changing activity, we are very often speaking of Westminster’s “second causes.”  

Prayer is one of those second causes—and therefore a means through which God accomplishes His will in time. Lewis realized this, and compared prayer with the thousands of other ways our creaturely activities fulfill the designs of the Almighty. God could miraculously heal our bodies without food or cell division, feed us without agriculture, support us without income, teach us without professors, and convert us without missionaries. He seldom chooses to do so. God, wrote Lewis in his essay, “On the Efficacy of Prayer, “seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures.”  

Lewis even ventures to suggest that God’s condescension to ordain, hear, and respond to our prayers may be part of His ongoing act of creation.  Nevertheless, it is an act in which we participate as second causes. Human prayers, writes Fred Sanders in “The Deep Things of God,” “become a real factor in God’s rule of this earth.”  

This realization should move us not only to pray, but to pray with God’s redemptive purposes and promises in mind. “We see nothing is set before us as an object of expectation from the Lord,” writes Calvin, “which we are not enjoined to ask of Him in prayer, so true it is that prayer digs up those treasures which the Gospel of our Lord discovers to the eye of faith.”   

Nevertheless, petitionary prayer can look like a puppet act if God merely uses us to ask Him for things He has already decided to give. Andrew Murray writes that one of the greatest challenges to petitionary prayer is God’s own perfection, independence, and sovereignty: “Is He not the Infinite Being, who owes what He is to Himself alone, who determines Himself, and whose wise and holy will has determined all that is to be? How can prayer influence Him, or He be moved by prayer to do what otherwise would not be done?”  

As with so many other dilemmas in Christian theology, the answer here lies in the Trinity. The New Testament portrays prayer in a starkly Trinitarian light. As Sanders points out, the Father knows what we need before we ask (Matt 6:8), Christ pleads our case before His Father (Heb. 4:15-16), and the Holy Spirit translates our prayers into groanings too deep for words (Rom 8:26).  We pray “along the grain” of the Trinity, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it.  

Far from a puppet master who has crafted creatures to speak His own words back to Him, the three-Personal God welcomes human supplicants into courts already ringing with the words of Father to Son and Son to Father, and with the Holy Spirit in answer from both.  

“When we pray,” writes Sanders, “we are joining that conversation. We have been invited to call on God as Father, invited by a Spirit of sonship that cries out, ‘Abba, Father,’ as the eternal Son does.”  We do this, he is careful to note, “in an appropriately lower, creaturely way.” But even our creaturely prayers mimic those of the Son in His humanity, who prayed almost without ceasing. And just as the Father was pleased to give the Son what he asked (as in John 17), so He is pleased to give us what we ask in the Son. Indeed, Murray ventures to say that “the prayer of man, coming through the Son, can have effect upon God.”  

Nevertheless, in his talk, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without a Solution,” Lewis admits that some of the Bible’s bolder endorsements of asking God for things in prayer are tough to square with our experience. After all, our prayers aren’t always answered in the way we hope. Sometimes it is our most desperate prayers that seem most likely to fall on deaf ears. What bothers us most, Lewis suggests, is not God’s refusal to give us what we ask for, but that He told us to ask for anything and evidently did not mean anything. There is “the faintest suspicion of excess in the advertisement…”  

But Lewis responds with a surprising observation: Even when we believe our prayers have been answered, we cannot strictly prove a causal link between our prayer, and the answer. In “The Screwtape Letters,” he calls this the “heads I win, tails you lose” dilemma. If our prayers are not answered, we think it proves that petitionary prayer doesn’t work. If they are answered, we see the secondary causes that led to the outcome, and assume it would have happened anyway.   

He concludes that prayer must not be the sort of practice we could ever subject to scientific scrutiny. Nor can we conclude, if our prayers go “unanswered,” that there was some moral deficiency in us. Christ Himself met with rejection: “The holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup would pass from Him. It did not.”  Indeed, Jesus foresaw and accepted the possibility that his Father’s will might differ from His own. (Matt. 26:39) 

Lewis doesn’t think this makes petitionary prayer uniquely mysterious. In fact, this is how all interpersonal relationships involving requests work. He cites the example of an employer who gives an asked-for raise, but might have done so without the request, in order to retain a valued employee. Was the request the cause of the raise? The answer becomes murkier the more intimate the relationship: 

“…we ask a woman to marry us. Sometimes we get what we ask for and sometimes not. But when we do, it is not nearly so easy as one might suppose to prove with scientific certainty a causal connection between the asking and the getting. […] are you sure she had not decided to [marry you] already? Your proposal, you know, might have been the result, not the cause, of her decision.”  

In prayer, we partake in the most intimate relationship of all—that of creature to Creator. But Scripture invites us to go still further—to deepen this intimacy in ways we would scarcely dare to without permission. According to Jesus’ own instructions, we are to imitate His prayers and His relationship with the Father. “Christians,” writes Sanders, “are people who talk to God like they are Jesus Christ.”   

When we follow the Son’s example by addressing God as Father, we not only borrow the vocabulary of a Divine Person—in many ways, we take up His cross. 

This seems to have unsettled Lewis. He concludes “The Efficacy of Prayer” by noting that miraculous answers to petitionary prayer seem to grow rarer as Christians mature, and so-called “unanswered prayers” seem to grow more common. No doubt with trembling pen he asks, “Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best?”  

His answer, without flourish, is the fully human Jesus Christ, to whose answered prayers we owe our sonship, and to whose faithfulness in the face of unanswered prayer we owe our salvation. If our fate is to share in our creaturely way in the suffering of Christ, we were told to expect this, and to rejoice. (1 Pet. 4:13) 

The evangelical cliché that “prayer changes you, not God” expresses part of the truth. Prayer certainly changes us, reshaping our affections, teaching us to trust our Father, and conforming us to the image of Jesus. But a half-truth, taught as the whole truth, is a lie. Prayer is powerful and effective. It is a means by which God governs creation, both miraculously and providentially. It draws us into the triune life of God, Himself, allowing us to petition Him with the very same confidence as His only begotten Son. And perhaps most profoundly, it places us in the sandals of Christ, bringing pleas to the Father which we don’t know how He will fulfill. We shouldn’t attempt to relieve this tension by quantifying or measuring the effectiveness of our prayers, for their power lies precisely in the fact that they are requests of children to their Father. And like a good Father, He loves us, and no matter how He answers, He never misses a word.