Recently, I was asked a couple of questions.
(1) What is the point of praying if God doesn't ever change His mind?
(2) Why would scripture encourage the prayers of the righteous on behalf of others if it doesn't affect them?
To answer these questions, we first need to try to wrap our minds around the person of God Himself. In modern Christendom, our sad tendency is to focus on mankind, on ourselves, on "relevance" and pragmatism and expediency: "What do I get out of a relationship with God?" Although there are many glorious benefits to knowing and loving God, if your motivation is driven by selfish pragmatism, you are likely to miss out on them.
We need to spend time, like Mary the sister of Martha, sitting at the Lord's feet and gazing at His face, growing in wonder and love as we bask in His presence. This doesn't fall neatly into our modern ideology of "application," where a person studies a passage of the Bible, then assembles a list of five principles to apply to life by going forth and doing specific "action items" in response to the fabled and revered "call to action." The Lord does call us to action, but the first action He desires from us is that we know and love Him intimately (John 6:29). Cultivating this relationship is never a waste of time. I like to draw near to God by reading scripture and also by contemplating His attributes.
Where prayer is concerned, for me the most pertinent attributes of God are His goodness, His faithfulness and His sovereignty. God is absolutely good and His plans are perfect and loving, always designed to magnify His glory and bless us in the process. Because He is perfectly good, we can have complete confidence as we trust Him. We can trust His every decision and judgment. He will never make a mistake. He will never get anything wrong. He is completely faithful to all of His promises, steadfast, always keeping His word. (We do need to make sure that we know what His promises are; we cannot expect Him to fulfill promises He never made.)
God is also sovereign, which means He has the power and ability to answer our prayers. However, His sovereignty is a sticking point for many people. The sovereignty of God is His ultimate authority and control over all things. The book of Daniel calls it His eternal dominion. God makes the plans. God calls the shots. God carries out His purposes. Passages that explain the sovereignty of God include Psalm 115:3, Isaiah 46:9-11 and Daniel 4:34-35 (this is not an exhaustive list).
The sovereignty of God encompasses His omniscience and His eternal nature. God knows everything, and He exists outside of time, which is something we cannot grasp, but ultimately, if we can understand anything, we must realize that God knows all things simultaneously, whether (from our perspective) they happened long ago, are happening now, or have not happened yet. This means that He is never surprised, never takes a guess, and never has to wait to gather the facts before He makes a decision. When we sometimes call Him the Author of life, we indicate an understanding that He has designed and is orchestrating all the events of history: past, present and future. Someday in heaven, it will take us all of eternity to study and appreciate all the ways He has intricately interwoven all the events of the lives of all the people who have ever lived to create a masterpiece that displays His unfathomable creative genius.
Many people do not like the idea of the sovereignty of God, because it leads us to some difficult questions: Why should we pray, if God already has a plan that He is going to carry out? How is it fair that God has chosen to grant salvation to some people, and not to others (Romans 9:14-18), and if He's already decided whom to save, why should we bother sharing the gospel with anyone? If God is sovereign, why is there persecution and suffering, and why do little children undergo sexual abuse?
These are difficult questions, and it can be troubling to ponder them. The "short answer" -- which will not be particularly comforting in its short form -- is that we are called to humility and faith, trusting, even when we do not understand (Psalm 131), that our good God, who demonstrated His love for us by dying for us while we were yet sinners, will work out all things for our good to the praise of His glory.
We struggle to be humble in the face of the sovereignty of God because we default to assumptions about God based on how we understand ourselves. We apply human standards to Him, and we think that He is much more similar to us than He is. We even find ourselves falling into the hubris of critiquing and evaluating His actions based on our human perspectives of what is good or fair. However, when we consider scriptures such as Psalm 50:21, Isaiah 29:15-16, Isaiah 55:8-9 and Jeremiah 23:23-24, we see that we are acting inappropriately when we do this, forgetting our position before our Maker. This is a particular pitfall in our current times, because the teaching in the churches so often focuses on what God has done for us, as "precious individuals." We really start to believe that it is all about us, and forget that it is all about God. We barely look at God, except in terms of how we figure He can benefit us. Of course, He does benefit us, but this is a corollary blessing, and when we make the corollary blessing our goal, we actually fall into a trap of idolatry, in worshipping the gift rather than the Giver.
It is important to understand that God is very different from us, even if we are incapable of actually understanding all the implications of that fact. Here is a very important point that my son David and I discuss sometimes: The sovereignty of God and the omniscience of God look completely different from His perspective than they do from ours. Even though God has already designed and planned every event throughout all of history, we still have to get up every day and decide which socks to wear and what to spread on our toast. God already knows it all, but we still have to go through the process of living and doing and making decisions. Yes, we are still responsible to make decisions, regardless of the fact that God knows (and even designed) what those decisions would be, in advance. (Incidentally, I find this amazingly comforting when I must make a difficult decision--to remind myself that God already knows what I am going to decide and how it will all work out. I find it really helpful, and I have been grateful for this truth a number of times in my life.)
I have seen people who learned of the sovereignty of God and interpreted it to mean that they had no active responsibility to do anything--that God would do it all. They assumed that God's sovereignty meant that they could just sit back and indulge the flesh, because God was responsible to make them want to do otherwise, if He so chose. This is a tragedy, and it tempts me to beat myself up for times I have taught passionately about the sovereignty of God. Yet, the Bible shows me that the sovereignty of God is a true thing, and thus I must trust Him--even when people misinterpret the meaning of this truth--to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. He even knows and has planned for all of these seeming tragedies, and He specializes in creating beauty from ashes, restoring, healing and redeeming.
In terms of salvation, the sovereignty of God gives us exactly zero excuses for neglecting to go out and declare the good news of the gospel of Christ. We are commanded to share the gospel! His sovereignty means that He has already designed the circumstances where we will share, and He has already been at work plowing up the hearts He has chosen to be affected by our testimonies (Ephesians 2:10, Acts 8:26-40). Remember, we are walking blind to the future, while God sees and knows and is in control of all things. This is actually the essence of faith: we cannot see what is going to happen, but God already has it all worked out.
The same is true for the connection between the sovereignty of God and prayer. He has a plan all laid out. Therefore, as we journey through our lives, not knowing the future, we pray because we do not know what is going to happen, but He does. Faithfully believing, we come to Him in supplication for help.
What is the point of praying if God doesn't change His mind? The point is that prayer is God's way of leading us into a faith walk with Him, teaching us to trust Him. He draws us into prayer so we can experience Him. When we pray for something, God focuses our spiritual eyes so that we can see His activity in the world around us. He shows us His work.
On the day of 9/11, I was homeschooling my daughter Laura. She had a doctor's appointment for a physical that morning. In the strangeness of all that was happening, we numbly got ready for the appointment and went. As we drove down highway 481, I think we may have been the only car on the road. I remember the odd silence, and the eeriness of the empty sky above, all air traffic having been halted. I turned on the car radio. The two towers had been hit, but authorities were still trying to track the third rogue flight. The Spirit of God moved mightily in my heart, and I found myself fervently praying for the people on that last flight, Flight 93. I prayed for God to be with them, to help them, and to put His people on that plane to work His salvation. The prayer just welled up out of me, and I felt the Spirit. In spite of the panic and fear, I felt an inexplicable comfort and surety that God was hearing my prayers; He was there. Later, when I learned the story of Todd Beamer, right down to the detail of the open Bible, unburned, on the ground at the crash site in Pennsylvania, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that God had heard and answered my prayer. It moved me to tears. I believe that many God-followers were praying hard that day, and I certainly do not attribute the outcome specifically to my prayer. Yet, it gives me a tremendous sense of having had the privilege of being a part of the working out of God's plan, because He moved me to pray on that drive down 481 to a pediatrician's office.
Conversely, if we neglect to pray, we usually fail to see the hand of God working. We just don't notice. He's constantly at work, whether we pray or not, and actually, this is a great comfort to me. God can and will complete His will, with or without my prayers. I am called to be faithful to pray, but what a great comfort to know that if I forget to pray for a particular item one day, or if I pray in the wrong way, or if I am at the end of myself, God is still sovereign and perfectly capable of working out His will. He will not fail. He is totally trustworthy. In fact, when I have come to the point where I just can't find the words to pray on a particular day, Jesus himself is at the right hand of God interceding for me, and the Holy Spirit is groaning for me. It isn't about my prayers. It's about God! He's the one who is always watching over us, never slumbering or sleeping. He's the one with the power and authority to bring His perfect will to pass.
Why would scripture encourage the prayers of the righteous on behalf of others if it doesn't affect them? First, we are not only encouraged to pray, we are absolutely commanded to pray (you can start with 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Second, we haven't said that prayer "doesn't affect" anything. Do you think that my prayer in the car on 9/11/2001 had no effect, if God had already decided--predestined, if you will--to do a work through the courageous acts of men aboard Flight 93? Do you think it was simply superfluous? I don't.
This question (the one I underlined above) is based on James 5:16-18, which says, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a righteous man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops."
Interestingly, the story of Elijah, referenced here, exactly supports what I am trying to communicate. If you read that story out of 1 Kings 17-18, you will realize that there is, in fact, very little reference to Elijah actually praying about any drought. Elijah was a prophet, and these chapters are mostly about Elijah bringing the word of the Lord to King Ahab, who didn't want to hear it. In fact, Elijah himself suffered significantly from the famine that God brought on the land. In fact, King Ahab hated Elijah, blamed God's actions on Elijah, tried to kill Elijah, and called Elijah, "You troubler of Israel!" All Elijah did was faithfully proclaim the word of the Lord, whereby the Lord was fulfilling His promises of long ago, recorded in Deuteronomy 28:15-24 (God always keeps his promises). None of this was Elijah's idea. It was all God's idea, God's plan to fulfill His purposes.
Elijah prayed in 1 Kings 17:21-23 and in 1 Kings 18:36-38, but these instances are not directly related to the famine and ensuing rain that the James passage references. Were it not for the book of James, we may not have ever realized that there was any connection between the famine and Elijah's prayers. We recognize Elijah's posture in 1 Kings 18:42 as prayer because James explains to us that it is. You see, God's will preceded and directed Elijah's prayers concerning the discipline of Israel through the beginning and ending of the drought. The main point, the big take-away, is that Elijah prayed for God's will to be done, and the nation of Israel saw God's will come to pass. God told Elijah to do this, and Elijah obeyed. God got His will done, and showed that He was the one doing it. Whether or not Elijah's prayers caused God's will to be done is something we may never understand this side of Heaven, especially since God instigated Elijah's prayer in the first place. How do we, with our mortal minds, deconstruct what happened here? But we know for certain that God used Elijah to pray, and thus focused the nation's attention on His own hand as He directed these circumstances. The fact that James references this particular answer to prayer, rather than the two nearby examples where Elijah simply asked for and received something he needed, is significant: Prayer helps us see God work out His will. It is not a means for influencing God to work out our will.
I've recently been fascinated by all the seemingly outrageous promises in the Bible, where Jesus tells us that God will give us what we ask for. Check out Matthew 7:7-11, Luke 11:11-13, John 14:13, John 14:14, John 15:7, John 15:16, John 16:23, John 16:24, and 1 John 5:14-15. Interestingly, many of these references are intertwined with the promise of the coming Holy Spirit and say things like, "If you ask in my name," or, "If you ask according to my will." I've written more about these things here and (especially) here. The simple truth of it is this: God wants us to abide in Him, tabernacling His very essence, His Holy Spirit. . . and when we do, when we walk with the Spirit and are led by Him, we will ask for what God wants to give us--indeed, what He already plans, in His great benevolence, to give us--and we will receive it! (This is my prayer: that the Holy Spirit Himself will lead me to pray for what He wants me to pray for--then what victory!)
James 4:3 warns us that we will not receive what we ask for if we ask with wrong motives, only to "spend what you get on your pleasures." This points back to an earlier point I made, that we must seek the Giver and not the gift if we are to see our prayers answered. Contrast this with Ephesians 6:18, which exhorts us to pray at all times in the Spirit, making supplication for all the saints. We are to live, think, and pray in accordance with the Holy Spirit who lives within us.
Prayer is a practical discipline that we can practice to help us draw near to God and be aware of what He is at work doing all around us. Even if God has already foreordained the answers to our prayers (just as He knew I would choose to wear a pink shirt today), from my perspective and in my experience, He is responding to me, actively participating in my life, sometimes teaching me faith and patience by making me wait for an answer, and sometimes surprising me with quick and delightful answers to my prayers.