Does Prayer Really Do Anything?
A sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:11 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/12/03
Does prayer really do anything? Does prayer get results? If you ask me to pray for you – and I don’t do it – are you worse off?
Many people have one of two unbiblical views of prayer:
First, the Star Wars view: Prayer is a force to be channeled. In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker takes the divine power that is available, “the force,” and channels it to good purposes. Darth Vadar takes that same force and channels it to evil purposes. Both of them twist the available divine power to suit their own ends.
While few Christians would say that we can accomplish evil purposes through tapping into the power of prayer, many still think of prayer as our setting an agenda, our deciding on a plan, our laying out a program and then tapping into God’s power to accomplish it. This is still the Star Wars view of prayer.
The second view is, in part, a reaction to the first. These folks say, “Prayer doesn’t change God! God has already determined what He is going to do, and prayer will not change that. God is in control. He is sovereign. Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us. So there’s no need to pray for anything other than a change in myself.”
The second sounds like it is honoring God. This view recognizes God as sovereign, almighty, and wise. That being the case, who are we to channel His power for our uses?
But both of these views are unbiblical. Both are wrong.
What is prayer? Is prayer effective?
The correct answers to these questions can only come from the Bible. We can speculate all day based on our experiences. We can talk about how we prayed in the past and there were results, or there weren’t. But there is no authority in those experiences. We can’t experiment with God: “I’ll try praying this time and see if anything changes. If it does, I’ll know prayer works; if it doesn’t, I’ll know not to bother with it in the future.” God is not like two chemicals, such as gunpowder and oxygen, which whenever mixed with sufficient heat will explode.
No. The way to get knowledge about prayer – the way to get any true knowledge about God – is through His Word, the Bible. What does the Bible say?
Let me insert a brief footnote here. This is the task of any true preacher: to open up the Word of God to God’s people. He must bring out the truths written in God’s Word. He may use his experiences or the experiences of others to illustrate his points, but there is no authority in those illustrations. Indeed, there is no authority in the preacher Himself. The authority is in God’s Word. The preacher’s hope is to get his listeners to listen to God’s Word, to search it and see if what he says is true.
Our biblical focus today is on one verse, 2 Corinthians 1:11, though we will draw on other Scriptures also. Let’s read from verse 8:
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. In Him we have set our firm hope, that he will deliver us, as you join in working for us by prayer, so that the blessing that comes to us from the prayers of many persons might result in thanksgiving to God by many as they see our deliverance. (ESV through 10a; 10b and 11, own translation)
Our outline this morning can be stated in a sentence:
The Sovereign God . . .
Works Through Prayer . . .
For His Glory.
Verse 10 is a strong statement of confidence in God’s sovereign control over every evil power. Paul is under attack. Indeed, he thought he was going to die. Men attacked him, and the spiritual forces of darkness attacked him. Yet Paul hopes in God. And his is a solid, biblical hope, not simply a wish that things will be better. “He will deliver us. In Him we have set our firm hope, that he will deliver us.” Paul is saying:
“No matter who opposes us, no matter how powerful those forces may be, no matter how evil their intent, no matter how hopeless the occasion might look, we know that God is in control. He can overcome any opposition. There is no power in heaven or on earth that can stand against Him. He is the one who knows the end from the beginning.”
There are many places we could go in the Scriptures to delve deeper into this point. But let’s pick a passage from Isaiah 46 that our children are memorizing:
9 I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. 10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. Isaiah 46:9b-10
“I will do all that I please.” This statement defines God’s power. As the one being in the universe with all power, only God can say, “I will do all that I please.” God is thus not a force that we can twist for our own devices. Our life on earth is not like Star Wars, a battle between good and evil men who are both trying to tap into the impersonal force for their own ends. Instead, God never does anything except what He pleases.
So if we pray for something that doesn’t please God, will He do it? Surely not. Thus, this passage in Isaiah, this concept of God’s complete sovereignty, seems to imply that the second view of prayer is correct. God does whatever pleases Him; God knows the end from the beginning already; so the only thing left to pray for is a change in our inner state.
But that’s wrong. For the rest of our passage won’t let us accept that statement.
Look at 1:10b-11a again:
In Him we have set our firm hope, that he will deliver us, as you join in working for us by prayer, so that the blessing that comes to us from the prayers of many persons . . .
Paul says explicitly that God will deliver him “as you join in working for us by prayer.” He says that this blessing comes about “from the prayers of many persons.” Although I’m using my translation, this conclusion does not depend on the translation. The New American Standard says, “the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many;” NIV, “the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many;” New King James, “the gift granted to us through many.”
What is Paul saying? He is saying that prayer works! Prayer is effective! Prayer gets results!
Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 1:11 is not an isolated verse. Any view of prayer that doesn’t expect prayer to produce blessings, “gracious favors” – any view that doesn’t expect prayer to produce results is unbiblical. Thus, the second view of prayer is wrong.
Does prayer change us? Yes! Does prayer change God? No! But God chooses to work through the prayers of His people to accomplish His good purposes. Prayer is an instrument He chooses to use. And it is, indeed, truly effective.
This is hard for us to see, because no one else is like God! We have no other experiences that prepare us for interacting with Him. So we easily fall into the trap of thinking, “We need not pray for the salvation of our neighbors, for strength and wisdom for our pastor, for perseverance for persecuted Christians. It’s nice to think about them, but whatever God is going to do for them, He will do apart from my prayers.”
Think about this argument. The problem with the argument is that it proves too much. If we really believe this argument – that God is sovereign and so we need not do activity X, since He’s already decided what He’s going to do – then we need do nothing at all. We need not witness, we need not preach – but even more: We need not get washed. We could argue, “If God wants my body odor to go away, He can take it away without the means of a shower. Furthermore, if He doesn’t want my body odor to go away, even a shower won’t take it away. So why shower?”
Note that this argument is just as logical as the argument about not needing to pray.
My friends, God is sovereign. But He ordains means as well as ends. And He ordains that He normally works through the means of soap to take the stink off of my body. And He normally works through prayer to bring about salvation, and encouragement, and the provision of strength to His people.
The Sovereign God works through prayer. “He will deliver us as you join in working for us by prayer.”
Consider 1:10b to 11 once again:
In Him we have set our firm hope, that he will deliver us, as you join in working for us by prayer, so that the blessing that comes to us from the prayers of many persons might result in thanksgiving to God by many as they see our deliverance.
What is the result of prayer? Prayer results “in thanksgiving to God by many as they see our deliverance.” Note the order of events here:
Then what? Is that the end? Prayer produced Paul’s deliverance, and that’s it?
No! The whole purpose of prayer – the whole purpose of everything that God does – is to show what God is like. The whole purpose of creation is to display God’s character. And God answers prayer to show what He is like to three groups: those who pray, those who are prayed for, and those who hear about it.
So here Paul says that prayer results in thanksgiving to God. This, rather than Paul’s deliverance, is the most important result of the prayers of the Corinthians.
Note this very carefully. Paul is not primarily asking for deliverance from peril. Isn’t that where we normally focus? On deliverance? But that’s not Paul’s focus. Paul’s focus is the glory of God.
Let’s look briefly at some other Bible verses that make the same point. We’ll consider how Paul asks for prayer for Himself, and then consider how Paul prays for others.
Paul’s Requests for Prayer for Himself
I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:19-21, emphasis added
Paul thus says that the only reason for living is to bring glory to Christ Jesus.
. . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. Ephesians 6:18-20
Remember the setting here. Paul is in prison, and requests prayers from the Ephesians. But what does he ask them to pray about? Not for his release. Not for his comfort. Not even for his protection. Instead, he asks for boldness in proclaiming the Gospel – so that Jesus Christ might be glorified.
Paul’s Prayers for Others
Consider also three of Paul’s’ prayers for others:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Colossians 1:9-12, emphasis added
Paul prays that the Colossians might take on the character of God, that they might become Christlike – and thus display what Jesus is like.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11, emphasis added
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, emphasis added
Thus, the Bible clearly supports our outline. The Sovereign God works through prayer for His glory.
So does prayer work? Not in the Star Wars sense. But prayer is effective – as a tool that God uses to bring about His good and wise purposes for His glory. As Philip Hughes writes:
[Prayer’s] function and very attitude is precisely to emphasize the utter dependence and resourcelessness of man and the absolute sovereignty of the Father of mercies. In prayer, human impotence casts itself at the feet of divine omnipotence. Thus the duty of prayer is not a modification of God’s power, but a glorification of it.
We are weak. Through prayer, we acknowledge that without His power
will accomplish nothing of eternal significance. When we pray we are saying, “We are weak, and You are strong. We can do nothing apart from You, but You can do all things. Whatever we do, we want to do to your glory – so make it obvious that this work is from You!”
This is why being “prayer-powered” is one of our core values
Prayer-powered: We value prayer as our amazing privilege of speaking with the King of the Universe, expressing and developing our intimate family relationship with Him. We value prayer as the source of power and the visible engine for all our efforts.
Furthermore, being prayer powered is one aspect of another core value, being God-centered.
God-centered: We value putting God at the center of all that we do. We put His glory and His honor first, asking in every decision, “Will this bring the greatest glory and praise to our God?”
So: Do you pray? Is prayer the visible engine of all your efforts?
What do you pray for? Is your central concern the glory of God?
DGCC: If we fail here, we fail everywhere. We must be a praying church. We have taken good steps in this direction – and we have many more steps to go. So, join us for corporate prayer – every Sunday morning for 30 minutes before the Sunday School hour. Join us for longer periods of corporate prayer regularly. Pray for this church, pray for me – oh, how I need your prayers!
The Sovereign God works through prayer for His glory. So pray!
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/12/03. The Philip Hughes quote is from Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1962), p. 23.
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