Read: 1 Kings 17:17–24
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 copilot,” “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” “Honk if you love Jesus” (I once saw a bumper sticker-response: “If you love Jesus, tithe; anybody can honk”). 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 do not often consider. The culprit 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 is 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 really is asking God to change the status quo. Things are a certain way — our hearts are cold, or someone has cancer, or we don’t have enough money for the 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 way things are. And, by the way, there’s a godly dissatisfaction. Ungodly dissatisfaction is when God does good things for us, and we don’t accept what he’s done. But godly dissatisfaction is when things are out of kilter, and we ask God to change them. There’s nothing ungodly about that kind of dissatisfaction.
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 wonderful and entirely appropriate way of approaching him. But Henry writes that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told him to pray petitions. In other words, he told them to ask his Father for things. When we ask for things we are not somehow less spiritual than when we tell God how great he is.
Answered prayer glorifies God
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. Both believers and unbelievers look around and say, “This God must be some kind of God to do all 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. 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 changes things. This brings us to a most telling fact that we don’t often consider: if we are perfectly willing to accept the way things are, we will never be people of prayer. Great prayer warriors are people who want things to change. Prayer changes circumstances. Prayer changes people. And prayer changes God.
I want to show you this most graphically in this passage from the life of Elijah. I could’ve selected hundreds of passages in the Bible (yes, literally hundreds), but this one I read recently, and it’s especially powerful.
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. And Elijah was God’s prophet, and he’d read God’s law which says that if God’s people apostatize, he will shut up the heavens so that they will not send rain (Dt. 28:23–24). In other words, Elijah prayed, and he declared God’s actions according to God’s revealed will.
Think about this. 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, he promised to punish them. 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.
Well, as result of the drought, there was little food and water. God led Elijah to the home of a widow and her son, and God miraculously provided for her so that she could provide for Elijah. After awhile, this precious 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, as you might imagine, was deeply shaken. Why would God allow this tragedy?
Now, I draw your attention to a most striking 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 is your will, so we accept your will.” And then he didn’t encourage the mother simply to accept her son’s death as God’s will. No. Elijah apparently did not believe that it would be pious, that it would be God-honoring, to allow the child to remain dead.
No, Elijah didn’t accept the status quo. Elijah knew that prayer changes things. This leads us to what some Protestant quarters, but, I believe, no one who reads the Bible without prejudice on this issue, would deem a controversial view: if you constantly accept the status quo as God’s decretive will, you cannot be a mighty man or woman 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. 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 (Mt. 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? I don’t think so.
So let’s be very careful about using God’s secret councils as an excuse not to pray. 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.” Some of you 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 wasn’t a bunch of public fanfare. There wasn’t any fanfare at all. In other words, this wasn’t an example of an “answered prayer party.” These “healing ministries” that bring in hundreds of thousands of spectators and bring glory to man and bring money into the coffers are a prostitution of the biblical teaching a prayer. When God used Elijah to raise this boy, three people knew. Only three people needed to know. And they did.
Prayer changes people. God gives us volition and choice, and he doesn’t turn us into robots or machines, 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.
Job was a godly man of prayer (1:1–6). Every day he would pray that God would forgive his adult children if they had sinned.
And then 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 have turned their back on God so much, that he didn’t want his prophets trying to persuade him not to send judgment. This means that God recognizes that prayer for people can be very effective — God has made himself so vulnerable to prayer that he sometimes told his saints not to pray. Please ponder the implications of this fact.
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. Our minds and hearts are riveted to spiritual things. We gradually lose our worldliness. God changes the people who pray.
But I meant something else. I meant 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. Are God doesn’t only elect the men; he elects the means. And one of those big 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 have the mark of baptism on them. That’s the mark of discipleship. That means they’ve been given to the Lord. Well, 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 just 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 (Jn. 11:4).
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; Dt. 32:36; Jer. 42:10). This isn’t a contradiction, and it’s not hard to understand.
God’s character doesn’t change. He’s always loving, just, holy, kind, 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 the God looked on the earth in Noah’s time, and he was sorry 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 book of Jonah we read that God says that within a few weeks, he’ll completely destroy Nineveh. 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 judge 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 pour out their souls to him.
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 his prayer.
This verse implies something very important. God was set on the path to take the widow’s son in death. That was his implied purpose. But Elijah’s great emotional plea turned God around. God changed what he had planned to do. Elijah prayed, and his prayer changed God.
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.
In other words, 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. This isn’t the God of the ancient pagan Greek philosophers. The Greeks believed that emotion and changeableness were inferior qualities. Therefore, the highest deity they could think of was a god who had no emotions and who never changed his mind. The problem is that this isn’t a person. A person has emotions and changes his mind. Emotion is not sin. Changing your mind is not sin. You’re not somehow inferior because you have emotions or change your mind. And since God is the greatest possible person, he has emotions, and he changes his mind.
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 certainly will change his declared purposes 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 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, and we should pray more often, and we should pray more fervently, and 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.