by Gary Woods
“Prayer changes things” is a statement most Christians are familiar with, but “prayer changes me”? Now, that’s a very different angle! In this helpful article, Gary Woods expands our thinking about God’s wider purposes in prayer.
Have you ever wondered why Christians pray, when God already knows everything before they ask? Consider this. We tend to think in terms of “Prayer changes things”, but God in His word reveals another angle; “Prayer changes me”. If prayer is seen as nothing more than asking and receiving a “yes” or a “no”, it can swiftly become depressing and disheartening. But rather than always focusing on what we get as a result of prayer, perhaps we should ask ourselves “What is God seeking to do in me through prayer?” Let me suggest four things that God does “in us” as we pray.
God Changes Me
Back in the times of ‘the Kings of Judah’, the prophet Habakkuk found life perplexing in a rapidly changing world. He probably lived during the reign of Jehoiakim who at first paid tribute to Pharaoh and then became servant to Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 23:35, 24:1). As he viewed the dreadful conditions in Israel and the sinful state of God’s people, Habakkuk’s cry to God revealed the sorrow of his heart; “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and Thou wilt not hear?” (Hab 1:2). In his despair, he concluded that God did not hear his prayers. Nothing was happening! Yet Habakkuk finishes his book full of praise: “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (3:18). What happened to change his heart’s feelings, especially given that his circumstances did not change for the better, but rather grew worse?
As Habakkuk wrestled in prayer, God turned his eyes to look at the Chaldean invaders and to see them as God’s instrument for the chastisement of the men of Judah and Jerusalem (1:6). He saw a vision of God’s person, “O Lord my God, mine Holy One” (1:12); of God’s character, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil” (1:13); and of God’s promises to His people, “we shall not die” (1:12). He received a word of encouragement from God; “The just shall live by his faith” (2:4). As God revealed to Habakkuk His sovereign purposes in finally judging the Chaldeans and blessing His people Israel, a change took place in the prophet’s heart. He took his eyes off his circumstances and became occupied with the wonder of God! The vision didn’t change his circumstances, but it changed him – from a burdened crying prophet to a singing praising prophet. This is real prayer – prayer that changes me, even when circumstances remain the same!
God Corrects Me
Asaph begins Psalm 73 with something he knows to be true, “Truly God is good to Israel” (Psa 73:1). But Asaph also expresses a disturbing problem. Looking around he becomes “…envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”(v3). Wicked men prosper, free from the troubles of the righteous, and are filled with pride. They have “…more than heart could wish” (v7). Alarmed at their violence, corruption and boasting, Asaph is afraid to speak to anyone of his perplexity, lest he should stumble them…until! What a transformation takes place in this Psalm. Until what? “Until I went into the sanctuary of God…” (v17). The wicked haven’t changed – but Asaph has! From the new vantage point of a prayer-filled sanctuary He begins to see them as God sees them. He sees their end. His description is graphic; slippery places, destruction, desolation, consumed with terrors. What a shame that he ever envied them! “So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before Thee” (v22). Now he begins to think of his blessings. He is continually with God and God has him by the right hand. God is guiding him with His counsel and will afterwards receive him to glory. He has none in heaven but God and none on earth to be desired but God. Asaph is chastened, corrected and cheered – all through prayer and his experience in the sanctuary. Emerging from the secret place of communion may we prove this in our own lives – prayer corrects our perspective…prayer corrects me!
God Challenges Me
“Solomon loved the Lord” is the beautiful language of 1 Kings 3:3. But love, faith and devotion to God are always tested. God ever wants what is real and demands denial of self and complete dependence upon Him. The challenge to Solomon from God at Gibeon was, “Ask what I shall give thee” (1 Kings 3:6). No restrictions. No fine print. Just ask and I will give thee! Solomon requested “an understanding heart to judge Thy people that I may be able to discern between good and bad” (1 Kings 3:9). What a wise petition! Nothing of self, and nothing for self. Solomon’s reply pleased the Lord, and God not only gave him his request but gave him more – riches, wealth and honour . James in his New Testament epistle reminds us that in prayer we need to “ask in faith” (1:6). He also reminds us that we need to be careful of our motive in prayer. “Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (Jas 4:4). This is all part of the challenge of prayer. What are we asking for, how are we asking and why are we asking? Is my prayer life “all about me”? Prayer is a great privilege but it supremely tests my motives too. Prayer challenges me! Solomon passed the test. His prayer pleased the Lord. Does mine?
God Comforts Me
The Christian in the 21st Century faces many challenges: personal illness, family bereavement, children with disability and older family members with dementia. We suffer in a groaning world along with the rest of humanity. Much of what happens is out of our control and seems sometimes entirely “out of control”. Teetotallers may be afflicted with liver disease. Non-smokers may develop lung cancer. Those who follow a healthy lifestyle are not immune from heart disease or diabetes. How can we cope with these uncertainties and difficulties?
The natural response is to pray for the removal of our trials. Paul the apostle once prayed for the removal of a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). Whatever this particular trial was, one thing is sure – Paul found it difficult to deal with. Perhaps most of all he felt it hindered his service for God. But it was needful and allowed by God to keep Paul humble, because of the special visions and revelations he had received. He “besought the Lord” three times that it might be removed and He received an answer to his prayer, but not the one he expected. The Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). In other words, though the thorn remained in place, Paul was comforted to know that sufficient grace and strength would be forthcoming as and when he needed them. The lesson? God often comforts us not by removing our circumstances or even changing them, but administering sufficient grace and manifesting His strength in our times of weakness. In the agonies of beseeching prayer, while God may not change our circumstances, He will supply the comfort, grace and strength to endure them. “His strength” is perfected in “our weakness”. The Lord, through prayer, comforts me.
If you have not received a clear yes or no answer to your prayer, may the Lord enable you to see the wider perspective in your sanctuary experiences, as God seeks to change, correct, challenge and comfort you.