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What Does Prayer Do? Second Thoughts on Importunate Prayer

I recently wrote against the idea of piling up prayers to God as if we can exact what we want by dint of our exertions. God is not a vending machine who can be plied with enough prayer quarters to then deliver the goods.

God is a Person, so we must pray as to a person, as personal communication, with the expectations we have of a person: that God will listen, that God will consider, and that God will act as God thinks best—and best for us as his beloved. God will not merely do what we tell him, for God is not our servant, not even our patron. God is our Creator and Lord. God yet is our Father, however, and he loves to have his children bring their concerns to him:

to trust him with them, to have them modified as necessary in the conversation with him, and to have them answered them lovingly, wisely, and powerfully.

So far, so good. Yet the Bible also seems often to indicate that God wants us to pray in order that things will be different than they would otherwise be—and not just that we will be different than we would otherwise be. God tells us to ask in order that he will act:

II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Psalm 2:8: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”

John 16:23-24: “In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

—and (in the negative)—

James 4:2: “You do not have because you do not ask God.”

To be sure, in each of these cases and in the many other similar passages in Scripture, context matters. The oft-cited promise of II Chronicles, for instance, is not to be read off the surface of the Bible as a straightforward promise to, say, Americans who want God to make America Christian again. It is a promise to Israel within their explicit covenant with God regarding the Promised Land.

Still, it’s not like II Chronicles 7:14 contains nothing to encourage American Christians nowadays. Many Americans, they themselves will say, ought indeed to humble themselves, and pray, and seek God’s face, and turn from their wicked ways. It’s not as if Americans don’t need God to forgive their sin and heal their land.

The same, of course, goes for Canadians, and Germans, and Koreans.

Is God, however, really offering a quid pro quo: “Do the right thing and then I’ll do a good thing”?

Yes, it seems so.

God seems to have so ordered the world, and decided to govern it, such that faithful prayer—sincere, expectant, earnest, and persistent—will move him and thus move the world.

I am finding my way gingerly here, so bear with me as I creep along this dark, but fascinating and tremendously important, path. It seems that God makes room in his providence for actual agency in prayer. In sum: God has sovereignly ordained that he will do and not do at least some things in accordance to the prayers offered by his people.

To be sure, God’s ultimate purposes will be achieved and not be frustrated by our failures to pray. But among those ultimate purposes is the training of the faithful in faith, and no act of piety is more central than asking God for things—the very root of the word prayer: “to ask,” as in “I pray thee….”

Asking puts us in the right position before God: dependent and confident (= con fide, “with faith”). Asking reminds us of our need for God’s power. But asking also seems to move God to act, at least sometimes. Asking therefore is an act of faith in this other respect: asking in order to get something done that needs doing and expecting God to respond to such a request.

In short, in prayer God grants us the awful dignity of true participation. If we pray, and pray aright, then things will happen that otherwise would not. God truly will allow the world to proceed sub-optimally if we don’t pray and to proceed optimally if we do.

I confess I find this picture daunting. Would God really allow us, his fallible and fallen creatures, to have any significant influence on how his purposes unfold in the world?

Put that way, however, one sees pretty quickly that of course it is true. God already lets human begins affect the course of the world every day in a myriad of ways. God lets us hurt and bless each other in word and deed. God clearly allows bad actors to vandalize shalom (in Cornelius Plantinga’s vivid phrase) even as God assists good actors as they repair and restore it.

There is therefore no immediate reason to doubt that God would decide to give us another avenue of participation in the world. God wants us to pray for each other’s welfare, pray for the world’s salvation, and pray for the kingdom to come in full power. And those great objectives will be advanced, or not, according to our efforts in prayer—just as they advance, or don’t, according to our efforts in other modes.

Prayer isn’t magic, therefore. But Jesus’ teaching about importunate prayer features parables of personal communication, not mere incantation. All of them imply that prayer changes things. God heeds prayer characterized by authenticity and expectancy: in extension (as in the old phrase “praying through”) and, yes, in repetition (for, if we persist in prayer, we eventually run out of synonyms!).

Still, one might retort, Jesus says that God is our good Father who knows what we need before we ask. So why ask? To sum up:

(1) to reorient ourselves to Kingdom values and concerns;

(2) to recover our proper position and posture as petitioners before the Creator and children dependent on the Father; but also

(3) to participate in the economy of God’s providence.

God seems to have arranged the world such that he allows a certain range, a certain amount, of what happens in the world to depend upon our prayer.

Yes, some of what should or shouldn’t happen in the world will depend on (1) and (2). But God seems also to encourage us to pray prayers for others and other situations, or even for our own needs, that in the nature of the case must be answered regardless of our current state of holiness, for it is not we ourselves who must do what must be done. God must answer such prayers via agents other than ourselves. The state of our sanctification is literally not the issue in such cases. God’s working through others is.

We therefore confront the awesome obligation as well as the glorious privilege to pray. No wonder, then, that Paul exhorts us to pray without ceasing: to pray for everything, everywhere, every moment.

How could we not?

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