I was reasonably sure it was a sinus infection. I get them so often that I’m able to recognize the symptoms. Everything from my neck up felt like it was being hit repeatedly with a hammer. My drab doctor’s office looks like it’s sponsored by the color gray. The fluorescent lights burned my already aching eyes. It was packed with people. I groaned inwardly, knowing the large crowd meant I’d be waiting a long time to see the doctor. I searched in vain for a seat where I wouldn’t have to sit next to another human. Finally, I squeezed into a chair between a man with a necklace apparently salvaged from an 80s hip-hop video and a woman holding a squirming toddler. I closed my eyes and prayed for silence. My prayer was interrupted, “Hey, are you a pastor”? It was the necklace guy. How does he know I’m a pastor? I thought to myself. The toddler screamed.
He didn’t look sick and didn’t seem to notice how miserable I was either. I gritted my teeth and exchanged pleasantries. He was waiting for his mother. “Are you one of those pastors who doesn’t believe miracles are for today?” he asked, giving me a hard look. “Quite the opposite,” I responded. He nodded as if I had just answered the million-dollar Jeopardy question correctly. “My mom has cancer,” he blurted out. And just like that, his tough exterior crumbled. “Would you like us to pray for your mother?” I asked. “Maybe,” he said. That answer surprised me. “First, let me ask you this,” he twisted in his seat to look me in the eyes. “Why do we need to pray if God already knows the answer?” he asked.
Does Prayer Change God’s Mind?
Mr. Necklace turned out to be quite the philosopher. I realized right away that he wouldn’t accept canned or trite answers. Somehow, I stumbled through that unexpectedly deep conversation despite my throbbing head and persistent dizziness. And yes. We did eventually pray for his mother. Answering why prayer matters if God already knows requires more than a quick explanation. Essentially the heart of that question is asking if prayer changes God’s mind. And the answer is no; it does not. For example, if every Christian prayed for the Second Coming of Jesus not to happen, it would still occur. However, and this might sound like semantics, prayer does change things. The mind of God does not change, for God does not change. Yet, God has chosen to exercise His sovereign will through secondary means and secondary activities. God, knowing the future, has already factored our prayers and our lack of prayers into the equation. Our prayers change things because God has ordained them to do so. He has intricately woven His actions into the fabric of our relationship with Him. The prayers of a righteous man avail much because God has ordained them to do so (James 5:16). Therefore, prayer does not change God’s mind, but it does change our circumstances.
Didn’t God Repent?
Naturally, you might be thinking, what about the Scriptures that say God “repented of” His actions (Exodus 32:14)? Let’s look at that. First, the Hebrew word nacham, which is often translated as “repent” or “to have regret,” can also mean “sorrow” or “to bring comfort.”[i] Genesis 6:6 is the first instance of God’s apparent “repentance.” The King James Version reads: “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” To suggest that God made a mistake and needed to repent of that mistake implies that God is not perfect, His ways are not perfect, and His decisions are fallible. However, because we know that God’s ways are perfect, it makes sense to conclude that secondary and even tertiary meanings of nacham should apply. For example, here in Genesis 6:6, if we use the secondary definition of nacham, this verse is understood to mean that the wickedness of man brought great sorrow to God’s heart, especially considering what He must do to restore them.
The Gethsemane Principle
Now that we have established that prayer changes things, let’s examine a common misconception about prayer. Several Scriptures, at first glance and when not adequately contextualized, seem to indicate that if we pray with faith, we will get whatever we want from God (Psalm 37:4, Matthew 7:7-11, Matthew 21:22, John 14:13, James 5:15-18, 1 John 3:22). Each text deserves its own consideration. Yet, for brevity, I’ve chosen a representative text that is often confusing. In Mark 11:24, Jesus said to His disciples, “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” His statement is, of course, conditioned by His will (1 John 5:14-16). In Matthew 21:22, we have the broad general rule for prayer. The rule is liberal, gracious, and awesome in potential, but it is qualified by just and reasonable limitations explained elsewhere in the Scriptures (James 4:2-3; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Luke 22:42).[ii]
Jesus was absolutely the only truly righteous person to walk the earth. And yet, he prayed very specifically in the Garden of Gethsemane that He would not have to suffer and die (Matthew 26:36-46). His request was denied, not because Jesus was sinful or lacked faith, but because it did not align with God’s will. Therefore, in His perfection, He gave us a template to follow when praying. He prayed, “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matthew 26:39).” The Gospel writers did not see this as a divergence from Jesus’ earlier promises that praying by faith produces answered prayer. Instead, they understood that all prayer requests must ultimately be surrendered to God’s will. I think John summed it up best: And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hears us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him (1 John 5:14-15).
Warnings to the Unrighteous
The Old and New Testaments issue somber warnings to unrighteous people who pray. For example, proverbs 28:9 says, “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.” That’s severe language! An abomination is something morally detestable in God’s sight.[iii] The psalmist acknowledged, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me (Psalm 66:18).” That is, if I know sin is there, and I do nothing about it, the Lord will not hear my prayers.[iv] The prophet Isaiah chastised the people on God’s behalf, saying, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear (Isaiah 59:2).” John’s Gospel declares, “God heareth not sinners (John 9:31).” Peter alerted, “The face of the Lord is against them that do evil (1 Peter 3:12).” And James cautioned that our motives matter when we are praying (James 4:3). These verses serve as a sobering reminder that approaching God with an unrepentant heart invites His wrath.
Why Pray If God Already Knows?
We’re still left with the question, “Why pray if God already knows?” Not only does He know what will happen, but He knows if, when, and what we will pray. And yet, prayer is not suggested to us. Rather, it is demanded of us. I will cover several reasons prayer is required of us, but first, let it be acknowledged that if God commands us to pray, that alone is reason enough to pray. There are a great many things God requires of us that, on the surface, seem unreasonable or unnecessary, yet obedience is necessary if we want to be in good standing with the Lord. It is excellent to have understanding, but ultimately, we are not called to understand. We are called to obey.
Prayer Connects Us to the Community of God
During Jesus’ most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, He gave an example of how everyone should pray:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil… (Matthew 6:9-13).
Did you catch it? Jesus didn’t say to pray, “my Father which art in heaven.” Instead, He said, “our Father.” And don’t pray, “give me this day.” Instead, pray, “give us this day.” Read the full prayer. Not once does Jesus use singular pronouns except when addressing the Father. Why? Because even in prayer, we must remember that we are part of a community more significant than ourselves. Prayer connects us to the community of God spiritually and emotionally.
Prayer Delights God
Proverbs 15:8 says, “The prayer of the upright is his delight.” Asking the question, “Why pray if God already knows?” reveals a profound misunderstanding of the nature of prayer. We were created to have a relationship with the Lord. Communicating with the Lord is an essential part of that relationship. In fact, requesting things from God is just a tiny portion of our daily prayers. As incredible as it may seem, God enjoys it when we pray. When you love someone, you long to be near them and discuss everything with them. The same is true when you love God.
Prayer Reveals Remarkable Secrets
Jeremiah 33:3 in the New Living Translation says, “Ask me, and I will tell you remarkable secrets you do not know about things to come.” Ironically, one of the significant advantages of praying to God, who knows everything about the past, present, and future, is that He can and does reveal remarkable secrets to His children. Tremendous revelations and illuminations are received in prayer. For example, during prayer, the Apostle Peter received the vision showing that Gentiles could be saved under God’s new covenant (Acts 10:9-16). Not every revelation is significant to the entire world, but it will be profoundly important for your life.
I’ve been sitting here contemplating personal testimonies of how God revealed secrets to me in prayer, and there are too many to list here. However, narrowing it down to one testimony has been very difficult. But here it goes. Many years ago, I traveled through the Midwest in the dead of a severe winter storm. The interstate was icy, and traffic was heavy. I was in a hurry and impatient to get to my destination. Then, my gas light dinged and glowed the familiar red. So, I pulled over at the nearest gas station. I went through the usual pit stop routine: gas, snack, restroom. And I jumped back into the car, ready to rush back onto the interstate. Suddenly, I felt the urge to pray. I did so, expecting to have a nice prayer meeting while driving (as I often do). But the Lord spoke and said to park the car and wait. I didn’t like that at all. “I’m on a tight schedule,” I argued. “Wait,” He said. After what seemed like a thousand hours, I finally felt the release to drive. I immediately saw the devastating results of a deadly multi-car pileup on the interstate. I undoubtedly would have been part of that collision if the Lord had not stopped me.
Prayer Produces Faith
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell the story of a father bringing his demon-possessed son to Jesus for healing. Evidently, the father encountered the disciples first, and they attempted to cast the demon out themselves, but they could not do it. Eventually, he got his son to Jesus and described how the disciples could not cast out the demon. Then, speaking of the disciples, Jesus said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you (Mark 9:19)?” Then, the father says, “Jesus, help us if you can (Mark 9:22).” Jesus responded sharply, “What do you mean, ‘if I can’?”. Next, Jesus addressed the father’s faith, saying, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth (Mark 9:23).” And in one of the most dramatic and intensely relatable moments in Scripture, the desperate father cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:24).” The comingling of belief and unbelief, that harrowed father expressed, is something we’ve all experienced. Part of us believes, but another part of us doubts or fears or worries, etc. All we can do is cry out to Jesus to help us have the faith we need. And, thankfully, He gives it to us.
After the boy had been delivered and the disciples had a private moment with Jesus, they asked the question that was surely burning in their minds, “Why couldn’t we cast out that demon (Mark 9:28)?”. Matthew’s Gospel gives a slightly more detailed description than Mark’s:
And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit, this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:20-21).
Many people tend to oversimplify this passage, saying something like, “If you’d add fasting to your prayers, the victory will come.” As if fasting itself is the crucial issue at hand. But the real problem Jesus addressed in that story is the lack of faith in the disciples and the father. Faith, not fasting, moves mountains. Faith, not fasting, can cast out stubborn demons. However, some demonic realms are so intense that we can only ensure we have the necessary faith through prayer and fasting. Usually, moments of intense spiritual warfare where extraordinary faith is needed come without warning. Therefore, regular prayer and fasting produce faith. Prayer produces faith, but Jesus indicated that prayer and fasting generate greater faith. Interestingly, the sequence of Jesus’ remarks implies that it takes less faith to move a mountain (the size of a mustard seed) than it does to cast out certain demons.
Prayer Prepares Us
The Apostle Paul was in prison when he wrote, “Never stop praying, be ready for anything by praying and being thankful (Colossians 4:2).”[v] Prayer prepares us for anything for all the reasons already covered: It connects us to the community of God, delights God, reveals secrets, and produces faith in our hearts. Prayer keeps us humble because it acknowledges God as the ultimate source of truth and authority. Therefore, we draw closer to God relationally in prayer. God already knows us, but prayer allows us to know Him better. That intimate relationship prepares us for any eventuality that life might bring.
Prayer Strengthens Against Temptation
Prayer strengthens us specifically against the hazards of temptation. Jesus encouraged the disciples, “Pray for strength against temptation. Your spirit wants to do what is right, but your body is weak (Matthew 26:41).”[vi] Many times, we keep this command in reverse; we wait until we’re tempted to pray, and while it’s certainly good to pray when we’re tempted, it’s far better to pray for strength before we’re in the throes of temptation. Because not only would we undergo less temptation, but it would also be far less potent when it does attack.
Prayer Reveals God’s Will
The Bible is brimming with examples of people seeking direction, desperately wanting to know God’s will. David begged God for guidance on whether he should pursue his captured family (1 Samuel 30:8). After Joshua died, the leaderless Israelites anxiously asked God which tribe should lead them into battle against the Canaanites (Judges 1:1). Facing the monumental question of who should replace Judas as an Apostle, they prayed for an answer (Acts 1:24-25). Of course, we all have big and small dilemmas where the solution isn’t simple, and we need to know God’s will. Jesus said, “Seek and ye shall find (Matthew 7:7).” Rarely does God show His plan to us without us first seeking it. Instead, the Lord draws us into a deeper relationship with Him by insisting that we spend time in prayer, searching for direction, solutions, and answers.
Prayer Proves God
Prayer is a public testimony of our faith in God. Praying, especially before the watching world, becomes our broadcasted witness. And when our prayers are answered, it proves God. For example, while Paul and Silas languished in prison after being beaten nearly to death, they prayed and sang praises to God (Acts 16:25). Luke is careful to include the detail, “And all the prisoners heard them (Acts 16:25).” When the earthquake shook the prison doors open God received the glory. That’s why Elijah insisted the prophets of Baal should pray to their lifeless gods, and then he would pray to the one true God (1 Kings 18:24). Then, when the fire fell, it proved God before the skeptics.
My younger brother, Jonathan, suffered from a blood cancer called leukemia as a child. God did several notable miracles for Jon during that painful season. However, you’ll inevitably hear the story of a particularly dark moment in Jon’s sickness if you’re around our dad very much. Jon hadn’t eaten in days, and he was frail, and his immune system was compromised. The doctors were concerned that Jon wouldn’t recover if he couldn’t eat. Nevertheless, our parents felt in prayer to take Jon to a special church service in a nearby town. Our father’s stepdad surprised everyone by agreeing to attend the service. Grandpa Lee wasn’t religious, but he carried his fragile, starving little grandson up to the altar for prayer. Moments after they prayed, Jon whispered into Grandpa Lee’s ear, “I’m hungry.” Later, in the minivan, on the way to Wendy’s, Jon started singing softly, “Look what the Lord has done. He healed my body. He touched my mind. He saved me just in time.” Of course, that song became a French family mantra from that day forward. Grandpa Lee was so moved by that visible answer to desperate prayers that he began seeking the Holy Ghost and eventually received it. Our prayers prove the power of God to a watching world. They may not always respond as they should, but they are not without a witness.
Prayer Causes Angelic Intervention
When God kept the lions from devouring Daniel, it convinced a pagan king to believe in Daniel’s God. “My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths (Daniel 6:22),” Daniel announced to the king.[vii] Again, in Daniel 10, an angel appears to Daniel in a vision as a result of his prayers. The angel said, “From the very first day you decided to get wisdom and to be humble in front of God, he has been listening to your prayers. I came to you because you have been praying (Daniel 10:12)”.[viii] We have incomplete knowledge of how angels operate. As a result, there’s little we truly understand about the spiritual warfare happening beyond our limited scope of human vision. Still, we can be assured that prayer causes angelic intervention on a grand scale. We do not pray to angels, but when we call on the Lord as their commander, He dispatches them on our behalf.
Prayer Ushers Us into the Spirit
The Apostle Paul declared, “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful (1 Corinthians 14:14).” Praying in tongues is a supernatural depth of prayer where the Spirit of God assists us as we pray. Praying in the Spirit ushers us into heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). Your spirit intercedes in and through the Holy Ghost beyond your earthly ability to pray. Your own spirit prays supernaturally, without understanding, rather than your intellect. You might not know how or even what to pray, but when you are in the Spirit, there is a deep working of the Holy Ghost, empowerment, and a supernatural power between you and God in prayer. The Spirit isn’t controlling your speech but empowers your spirit to pray in the Spirit.
Again, Paul expounded on praying in the Spirit, “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church (1 Corinthians 14:4).” The New Living Translation accurately renders “…edifieth himself” as “…is strengthened personally.” Praying in tongues is personal, directed to God. Otherwise, it’s a Divine message to the church requiring interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:2). The “unknown tongue” in 1 Corinthians 14:4 is personal prayer. As with all tongues speech, such prayer is viewed as being “in the Spirit.” A personal strengthening (edification) comes exclusively from praying in the Spirit.
To be clear, it’s good to pray with understanding, which means to pray in your native language using your intellect to form meaningful words and sentences. However, a person’s intellect can only take them to a certain point in prayer. Our memories are flawed, our perceptions are skewed, and our comprehension is one-dimensional. We don’t even know exactly which demons have a stronghold in our region. We don’t know which specific powers need to be cast down. But the Spirit knows. We don’t know when an eighteen-wheeler is bearing down on our loved ones in real-time, but the Spirit knows. So, when we pray in the Spirit, the Spirit fills the gaps our weaknesses can’t close. For a deeper look at praying the Spirit, read Praying in Tongues with Dr. Talmadge French, or listen to the podcast Praying in Tongues with Dr. Talmadge French.
[i] Baker, Warren and Eugene Carpenter. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. Accordance electronic edition, version 1.2. Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003.
5162. נָחַם nāḥam: A verb meaning to be sorry, to pity, to comfort, to avenge. The verb often means to be sorry or to regret: the Lord was sorry that He had made people (Gen. 6:6); He led Israel in a direction to avoid war when they left Egypt, lest they became so sorry and grieved that they would turn back (Ex. 13:17). The Lord had compassion on His people (i.e., He became sorry for them because of the oppression their enemies placed on them [Judg. 2:18]). While the Lord could be grieved, He did not grieve or become sorry so that He changed His mind as a human does (1 Sam. 15:29). The word also means to comfort or console oneself. Isaac was comforted after Sarah, his mother, died (Gen. 24:67).
The verb always means to console or comfort. Jacob refused to be comforted when he believed that Joseph had been killed (Gen. 37:35). To console is synonymous with showing kindness to someone, as when David consoled Hanun, king of the Ammonites, over the death of his father (2 Sam. 10:2). God refused to be consoled over the destruction of His people (Isa. 22:4; 40:1); yet He comforts those who need it (Ps. 119:82; Isa. 12:1). The passive form of the word means to be comforted: the afflicted city of Zion would be comforted by the Lord (Isa. 54:11; 66:13). In the reflexive stem, it can mean to get revenge for oneself (Gen. 27:42; Ezek. 5:13); to let oneself be sorry or have compassion (Num. 23:19; Deut. 32:36); and to let oneself be comforted (Gen. 37:35; Ps. 119:52).
[ii] Phillips, John. Exploring the Gospel of Matthew. John Phillips Commentary Series. Accordance electronic edition, version 1.6. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999.
[iii] Strong, James. Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic edition, version 3.3. Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 1999.
[iv] (Psalm 66:18 Amplified Bible)
[v] (Colossians 4:2 Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version (ERV))
[vi] (Matthew 26:41 Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version (ERV))
[vii] (Daniel 6:22 New King James Version)
[viii] (Daniel 10:12 Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version (ERV))