I know the traditional cliché that prayer is for our sake, not God’s. It changes us, not God, or God’s plans. Even C .S. Lewis said that! I have the greatest admiration for Lewis, but on this account I think he is dead wrong.
Prayer does certainly change us, but that’s not why we’re told to engage in it. We’re commanded to engage in prayer because it is a God-ordained means of impacting him and changing the world. Jesus didn’t say if we have faith and pray our attitude toward mountains would change. He said the mountain would move! Prayer changes what happens in world.
Did you know that there are more “if…then” clauses associated with prayer in the Bible than any other single human activity? For example, the Lord says, “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.” He then goes on to add, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place” (2 Chron. 7:14-15). The Lord is in effect saying, “I want to heal and forgive you, but I’m waiting on you to humble yourselves and pray.”
The purpose of prayer in this passage wasn’t to change the Israelites, but to impact God and heal their land. If they would pray, they would experience this. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t. In other words, prayer really makes a difference. Things really hang upon prayer. It’s not just a pro forma activity for our personal benefit.
In fact, there are dozens of passages in the Bible that explicitly state that God changed his plans in response to prayer. (e.g. Num. 11:1–2; 14:12–20; 16:20–35; Deut. 9:13–14, 18–20, 25; 2 Sam. 24:17–25; 1 Kings 21:27–29; 2 Chron. 12:5–8; Jer. 26:19). For example, in Exodus 32 God announced his plan to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses, since the Israelites had proven themselves to be “a stiff-necked people” (Ex. 32:9-10). But Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites and changed God’s mind (Ex. 32:14). David later recounted the event when he wrote that Yahweh “said he would destroy them – had not Moses… stood in the breach before him to keep him from destroying them (Ps. 106:23).
Notice, Moses’ prayer wasn’t for the purpose of changing Moses. It affected God’s plan and was done for the sake of Israel. Had Moses not prayed, Israel would have been destroyed and God would have started over with Moses. Prayer really makes a difference.
If you’re having trouble believing that prayer could be this important, consider a counter-example. In Ezekiel 22 God first reviewed some of the sins for which he had judged the Israelites, including extortion, robbery, oppressing the poor and needy, and mistreating the foreigner by denying them justice (vs. 29). Then, amazingly, the Lord says,
I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezek. 22:30-31).
Obviously God didn’t want to judge his people, despite their unjust practices, neglect of the poor and mistreatment of foreigners. So he looked for an intercessor – someone like Moses in Exodus 32 – to stand in the gap and prevent it. But on this occasion he couldn’t find anyone. The clear implication is that if only someone had been willing to pray, like Moses had at an earlier time, the nation would have been spared.
The undeniable biblical truth is that prayer doesn’t only change us. It affects God and changes things. So does the lack of prayer. Things really hang in the balance on whether God’s people will pray or not.
Prayer is the most important activity humans can engage in. In fact, the biblical narrative is significantly woven around God moving in response to prayer. From Cain’s plea for leniency (Gen. 4:13–15) to the Israelites cry for freedom (Exod. 2:23–25; 3:7–10; Acts 7:34); from Moses’ cry for help at the Red Sea and against the Amalakites (Exod. 14:15–16; 17:8–14) to Hezekiah’s prayer for an extension of life (2 Kings 20:1–7); and from Abraham’s prayer for a son (Gen. 15:2ff) to the leper’s prayer to Jesus for healing (Matt. 8:2–3), the biblical narrative is woven together by examples of God moving in extraordinary ways in response to the prayers of his people.
John Wesley was only slightly overstating the matter when he taught that “God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.” At the very least, the extent to which Gods’ will is done “on earth as it is in heaven” depends more on prayer than on any other human activity. As the Lord’s brother put it, prayer is powerful and effective (James 5:16) – not just in changing us, but in saving nations and in bringing about the Kingdom.