Note: This article is from Dr. Sandlin’s book, Prayer Changes Things.
If you’ve ever visited Christian bookstores, you likely have seen bracelets or plaques or bumper stickers with the statement, “Prayer Changes Things.” For years I thought that statement was trite. After all, lots of these bookstore statements are trite: “God is my co-pilot,” “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” “Honk if you love Jesus.” But over the years, the more I pondered “Prayer changes things” the more I’ve come to believe that it is true, and not only true, but precisely and powerfully true in a sense we Christians do not often consider. The reason is that we misunderstand prayer.
Prayer is More than Communion
We are called to commune with God. We worship Him. We think about Him, we ponder who He is and what He has done in the world. We stand in awe of the sovereign, triune God.
But this is not the same thing as prayer. Almost all prayer in the Bible is petitionary. By that I mean: in prayer, we ask God to do things in the earth. More importantly, we ask God to change things. Prayer actually is asking God to change the status quo. Things are a certain way — our hearts are cold, or a relative has cancer, or we lack money for our bills, or our children are drifting from the Lord, or we need direction for a decision, whatever — and we ask God to change the way things are. In other words, we’re not satisfied with the status quo. That is a legitimate godly dissatisfaction, and we must not shrink from this truth. Ungodly dissatisfaction is when God does good things for us (sometimes even good things we perceive as not good), and we don’t accept what He’s done. But godly dissatisfaction is when things are out of kilter, displeasing or harming us or impeding the gospel or the kingdom of God, and we ask God to change them. There’s nothing illegitimate about that kind of dissatisfaction. We need more of it, in fact.
Some people seem to have the idea that if we ask God for things, if we petition God, that’s somehow self-centered or unspiritual. Only if we’re worshiping God or telling Him how great He is are we truly glorifying Him. This is a very mistaken, and possibly even a spiritually fatal, idea.
In addressing the Lord’s Prayer, the commentator Matthew Henry notes that the devout Jews of Jesus’ time would often pray by telling God how great He is. This is a necessary, fundamental, and entirely appropriate way of approaching Him. But Henry writes that when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He told them to utter petitions. In other words, He told them to ask His Father for things. When we ask God for things, we are not somehow less spiritual than when we tell God how great He is. Answered prayer is greatly more God-honoring than unanswered prayer.
Answered Prayer Glorifies God
Why is this? For one thing, when we pray, and when God answers prayer, He increases our faith, and He shows the world His great might and power. Let’s take one petition in the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. When God answers that prayer, when people turn to Jesus Christ for salvation, when they start living godly lives, when artists and businessmen and politicians start doing God’s will, God glorifies Himself. Unbelievers look around and say, “This God must be some kind of God to do all of this when His followers ask Him. Nobody I ask has ever been able to do something so massive!” In other words, God gets the glory when we pray and when He answers our prayers. And know this: God loves to get the glory (2 Cor. 10:17). He deserves to get the glory.
Prayer changes things. When we pray, we’re asking God to change things. And when He answers our prayer, He does change things. This brings us to a most telling fact that we don’t often consider: if we are perfectly willing always to accept the way things are as God’s unchangeable will, we will never be great people of prayer. Great prayer warriors are people who want things to change. They don’t accept the status quo, the present circumstances. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes circumstances. Prayer changes people. And prayer changes God.
I want to demonstrate these assertions most graphically in a passage from the life of Elijah the prophet, 1 Kings 17:17–24. I could’ve selected literally hundreds of passages in the Bible, but this one is especially powerful. It relates a striking account about the widow with whom Elijah lodged and for whom God provided during the great, God-unleashed drought as judgment during the reign of apostate King Ahab:
Now it happened after these things that the son of the woman who owned the house became sick. And his sickness was so serious that there was no breath left in him. So she said to Elijah, “What have I to do with you, O man of God? Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?” And he said to her, “Give me your son.” So he took him out of her arms and carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his own bed. Then he cried out to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, have You also brought tragedy on the widow with whom I lodge, by killing her son?” And he stretched himself out on the child three times, and cried out to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, I pray, let this child’s soul come back to him.” Then the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives!” Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.”
Prayer Changes Circumstances
Note, first, that prayer changes circumstances. God had sent a great drought on Israel because Elijah had prayed for it. Ahab was the king, and he and his wife Jezebel were apostates and idolaters. Elijah was God’s prophet, and he’d read God’s law, which threatens that if God’s people apostatize, He will shut up the heavens so that they will not send rain (Deut. 28:23–24). In other words, Elijah prayed, and he declared God’s actions according to God’s revealed will.
Think about this fact. Elijah didn’t need to ponder what the will of God was. He knew what the will of God was. If God’s people turn away from Him, God promised to punish them in a very specific way. Elijah prayed that God would do just that. Elijah prayed that God would act according to His word. That’s always a safe prayer to pray, praying the biblically revealed will of God.
As result of the drought, there was little food and water. God led Elijah to the home of the widow and her son, and God miraculously provided for her so that she could provide for Elijah. After awhile, this faithful woman’s son got sick and died, and you can imagine how grieved she was and, in fact, how resentful she was of Elijah, whom God had sent to invade her home (see v. 18). Elijah too was deeply shaken. Why would God unleash this tragedy?
Now, I draw your attention to a most remarkable fact. In observing this child’s death, and in seeing the mother’s grief, Elijah did not pray a “predestinarian prayer.” He didn’t pray, “Lord, you’ve allowed this precious child to die, and obviously that’s your will, so we accept your will.” Nor did he encourage the mother simply to accept her son’s death as God’s will. Elijah apparently did not believe that it would be pious, that it would be God-honoring, to allow the child to remain dead. Elijah refused the accept the status quo as the will of God.
Elijah knew that prayer changes things. To elaborate on an assertion above: if you constantly accept the status quo as God’s predestined will (His eternal decrees), you cannot be a mighty man of prayer. Too often we are so worried about violating the secret decrees of God that we turn our backs on the revealed word of God.
Are We Better Parents than God?
God is a powerful, prayer-hearing God, and He longs as a heavenly Father to do good things for His people. The Bible teaches this very plainly (Matt. 7:11). Yes, sometimes God allows “bad things to happen to good people” (Job), but that’s not the way He operates most of the time. He is a loving, heavenly Father to His children, and just as you want to do good things for your children, so He wants to do good things for His children. Unless you believe that you are a better parent than God is?
So let’s be very careful about using God’s secret councils as an excuse not to petition God. They are called God’s secret councils for a reason. We can’t know them. Let’s pray according to what we do know, and not according to what we do not know. And we do know that God is a loving, kind, Father who wishes to delight His children. Prayer changes circumstances, and it changed this widow’s circumstances.
Prayer Changes People
Second, prayer changes people. This child was dead. Elijah prayed, and God raised him from the dead. This is not an example of a modern “healing ministry.” You might know about a large charismatic church in Redding, California that specializes in alleged public resurrections. There’s a huge amount of weirdness and goofiness and theological error surrounding this ministry, but one thing I want to point out is that when Elijah raised this child from the dead, there was no public fanfare. There wasn’t any fanfare at all — the prayer wasn’t answered in public. In other words, this wasn’t an example of an “answered prayer party.” These “healing ministries” that bring in hundreds or thousands of spectators and bring glory to man and bring money into the coffers are a prostitution of the biblical teaching about prayer. When God used Elijah to raise this boy, three people knew. Only three people and God needed to know.
Prayer changes people. God gives us volition and choice, and He doesn’t turn us into robots or machines. We are created in God’s image, and that image includes volition. But God can work in our and in other people’s lives in such a way as to change us. This means that we can pray that God changes people. And we should.
This is why Paul tells Timothy (1 Tim. 2:2) to teach his flock that they should pray for their political leaders, so that the people of God can live a quiet and peaceful life. In other words, we should pray that God changes the hearts of political leaders so that they leave the church and God’s people alone to do God’s work.
God is intentionally vulnerable to prayer
There are several times in the Bible (see, for example, Jer. 14:11) where God tells His prophets not to pray for His people. In other words, they had turned their back on God so much, and He didn’t want His prophets trying to persuade Him not to send judgment. This means that God recognizes that prayer to Him for people can be very effective. God knows that His own heart is vulnerable to the persevering prayer of His saints. God wants to answer prayer. God wants to be persuaded to avert His wrath.
Prayer changes people. I don’t mean by that that if we pray, the act of prayer will change us. Of course, that’s true. When we pour out our hearts to God, we get much closer to Him, by the very nature of prayer itself. Our minds and hearts are riveted to spiritual things. We gradually lose our worldliness. God changes people who pray.
I mean something else. I mean that we should pray for God to change people, and He will change them. Just as God raised this child in answer to Elijah’s prayer, so He can and will raise sinners to eternal life because of our prayer. The question for us is: do we pray for God to save sinners? And if not, why not?
If we answer, “Well, we don’t know if they are one of the elect,” we give the wrong answer. All of God’s chosen will be in the fold in the final day, but He uses prayer to get them there. God doesn’t only elect men; He elects means. And one of those means is prayer.
If our spouse or children or friends are walking away from the Lord, let’s pray that God unleashes His bloodhounds to find them and bring them back. They bear the mark of baptism. That’s the mark of discipleship. That means they’ve been given to the Lord. They have been given to Him, so let’s pray that He goes and gets them. This isn’t rocket science. This is godly prayer.
If our brothers and sisters are sick, we need to pray that God heals them. This isn’t merely a good idea. This is what the Bible demands (Jas. 5:13–16). Think of that fact. God didn’t say that prayer for healing is a wonderful privilege, if only we choose to exercise it. He says that if someone is sick, we need to pray that God heals them, and, in fact, they should call for the elders to anoint them and pray over them.
Yes, there are certain specific illnesses that are in God’s will (2 Tim. 4:20). But in many, many cases, God sends illnesses so that we will pray and exercise faith and be healed and bring glory to God (John 11:4). Physical healing no less than spiritual healing brings glory to God.
In other words, like Elijah, when someone is sick, even to the point of death, we shouldn’t merely accept the status quo. Why? Because prayer changes people.
Prayer Changes God
Finally, prayer changes God. This statement may not ring true in our ears. The Bible says plainly that God does not change (Mal. 3:6). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Obviously, there is some sense in which God does not change. But we know that in another sense, He does change. Again and again the Bible says that God repents, or relents, or changes His mind (Gen. 6:6; Ex. 32:14; Deut. 32:36; Jer. 42:10). This isn’t a contradiction, and it’s not hard to reconcile this apparent (but only apparent) contradiction.
God’s character doesn’t change. He’s always loving, just, holy, kind, and long suffering. God isn’t capricious. God isn’t flighty. God cannot be evil. He cannot be unrighteous. He cannot be unloving. His nature cannot change.
But His stated purposes can change, and they do change. One of the most powerful proofs of this is Genesis 6, where we read that God looked on the earth in Noah’s time, and He was grieved that He had created humanity. He was excited to have created man, and it grieved Him that man had raced into depravity. He was sad that He had even created man in the first place.
In the book of Jonah we read that God says that within a few weeks, He’ll completely destroy Nineveh for their depravity (1:2; 3:1–4). He didn’t put any qualifications on that warning. He didn’t say, “If you repent, I won’t judge you.” But they did repent, and God didn’t destroy them.
God says He’s going to do something, and then people pour out their hearts before God, and then He changes His mind. This happens again and again in the Bible, so many times, in fact, that we might want to say that it’s in God’s nature to change His mind when His people, and even sincere, humble sinners, pour out their souls to Him. God delights to make Himself open to change in the face of heartfelt prayer.
A great example is in our text. We read that twice Elijah “cried” to the Lord (vv. 20, 21). This means that he spoke emotionally, in a very loud voice. This is just the opposite of a “quiet-time” prayer. And we read in verse 22 that the Lord listened to or heard this loud, passionate prayer.
This verse implies something very important. God was set on the path to take the widow’s son in death, and He did take him. That was His implied purpose. Elijah plainly says that this was God’s purpose. But his great emotional plea turned God around. God changed what He had planned to do. Elijah prayed, and his prayer changed God.
Audacity in prayer
The Bible is quite clear that prayer changes God. If this is true, then we should be much more audacious in prayer than we are. We read in Exodus 32 about how Israel turned to idolatry and fornication when Moses was on Sinai receiving from God His law. God told Moses that He was going to destroy the entire nation and then He said something very interesting. He said to Moses, “Leave me alone” (v. 10). God knew that Moses was in the habit of “disturbing” Him in prayer. God would say, “I’m going to do this,” and Moses would say, “I beg you, God, don’t do that,” and God would change His mind.
To repeat: God’s stated purposes can be changed if we pour out our hearts in prayer. This is another way of saying that God has made Himself vulnerable and susceptible to man’s pleading.
Therefore, when something bad has happened, or when someone has committed some terrible sin, don’t just sit and wait for God’s judgment. Get on your knees and beg God to avert His judgment and to lead them to repentance. God will never break His promises to us, but God is eager to change His declared purposes of judgment (and on other matters) if we pour out our hearts before Him.
Do not think that your prayer cannot affect God. Do not think that God is not emotional about and vulnerable to His people. He gets furious at them when they turn their back on Him, and He delights in them when they love and trust Him and repent and obey. Therefore, appeal to God’s mercy and honor and even His reputation (Ex. 32:11–14) when you pray.
Prayer changes circumstances. Prayer changes people. And prayer changes God. If this is true, and it is, we should pray more, we should pray more often, we should pray more fervently, we should pray more confidently, and we should never settle for the status quo, because the whole point of prayer is for God to change the status quo.