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The Way Prayer Works | Theology Matters

  • May 2013 Issue
Practical Theology

Prayer is part of the daily routine of most Christians. Many of us begin and end the day with prayer. We pray over our meals. In the life of the church every public event, no matter how common, serves as an occasion for prayer. Despite this frequent practice of prayer, many wonder how prayer works.

Frequently, our goal in prayer is to obtain answers. We pray hoping that God will grant our requests. Yet the primary aim of prayer is not to persuade God to do our will. We cannot use prayer to put pressure on God or twist His arm. The only prayer that God will answer is one that already conforms to His will (1 John 5:14–15). The real function of prayer is to express our need.

When we pray, we do not provide God with information that He does not already have. Jesus has assured us that our Father in heaven knows what we need before we ask Him (Matt. 6:8). He knows what we will say before we say it (Ps. 139:4; cf. Isa. 65:24). We cannot impress Him with our language or shock Him with our bluntness. If this is true, then why do we even need to pray? We need to pray because God works through prayer. There are answers that come only when God’s people pray. James implied as much when he warned: “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).

But C. S. Lewis has observed that prayer does not “work” in the mechanical sense of the word. “The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset,” Lewis warns, noting that request is only one dimension of prayer. “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.”

So why bother to pray, since we cannot make prayer “work” for us? The power of prayer does not lie in the certainty that we will get the things we request. Often we don’t. We pray because we need to pray. We pray, albeit poorly, because we can’t help but pray. Most of all, we pray because God has invited us to pray, and through prayer He enters into fellowship with us. Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon God. It is a moment-by-moment confession that in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).


To learn more about the mystery of prayer, read the essay “The Efficacy of Prayer” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays by C. S. Lewis (Harper).

BY Dr. John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler, who retired as professor emeritus from Moody Bible Institute, formerly served in the division of applied theology and church ministry. John and his wife Jane enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan. A prolific writer, John’s books include Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good (Moody Publishers), The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody), and True Discipleship (Moody). John is a contributing editor and columnist for Today in the Word.

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