Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer during His earthly ministry. He prayed for Himself (see John 17:1–5). He prayed for His disciples (see John 17:6–26). With His dying breath, He prayed for His enemies (see Luke 23:34).
The apostle Paul was a prayer warrior as well. In almost every one of his New Testament epistles, he talks about praying for the recipients of his letters. In 2 Timothy 1:3 he writes, “Without ceasing I remember you in my prayers night and day.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, he instructs the Thessalonian believers to “pray without ceasing.”
From a certain perspective, then, the conclusion seems obvious. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have invested such time and energy in a pursuit that ultimately made no difference. So prayer must change things, somehow.
On the other hand, anyone who’s ever lost a loved one or struggled for years—despite continuous, fervent prayers—may question whether prayer changes anything at all. Perhaps the best way to reconcile these opposing positions is to say that prayer can change things in one of three ways.
In Matthew 17:20, Jesus says, “For assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Occasionally, God gives us stark evidence of prayer’s extraordinary power. His demonstrations rarely, if ever, involve a displaced mountain. Instead, they involve everything from a sudden cancer remission to an unexpected job offer to a reconciliation that seemed impossible.
These answered prayers tend to have a polarizing effect. On the one hand, the people whose prayers are answered have something for which they can praise God for the rest of their lives. They have evidence on which to build their faith. Other people, whose prayers seemingly weren’t answered, may wonder why God refuses to work in such a dramatic way in their lives.
As time passes, even the people who did experience a dramatic answer to prayer may wonder why God doesn’t answer other requests in a similar manner. That may explain why such sudden, dramatic answers to prayer are relatively rare.
Prayer can change things in gradual, sometimes imperceptible, ways. The apostle Paul, as we mentioned earlier, prayed for the believers in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Thessalonica, and elsewhere. Based on certain passages in his letters, we can conclude that his prayers were answered. Yet the changes he prayed for in people’s lives didn’t happen overnight. They occurred as part of their spiritual growth.
Likewise, when you pray to become more like Christ, God doesn’t immediately imbue you with a dozen Christlike qualities. When you pray for patience, courage, or discipline, He doesn’t immediately gift you with the patience of Job, the courage of David, or the discipline of Daniel. Instead, He gives you opportunities to grow in a particular area. He allows you to face circumstances that call for patience, courage, or wisdom, and He guides you through them.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of praying for just enough from God to become independent of Him. We ask Him to answer our prayers fully and immediately so that we won’t have to turn to Him again. But that’s not what He wants for us.
Look at the way He answered the Israelites’ prayers for food in the wilderness in Exodus 16. He didn’t fill their tents with a year’s supply of manna. Instead, He sent a day’s worth for them to collect and enjoy. God’s desire is for His people to turn to Him daily for our provisions. So He often answers our prayers in ways that bring us back to Him day after day.
This is the aspect of prayer that largely goes unexplored in our search for answered requests. When we pray, our ultimate aim is to align our will with God’s. The problem is, we often go about it by trying to bend His will to fit ours. When that doesn’t happen, we question the efficiency of prayer or accuse God of not caring for us.
However, if we stay faithful to Him and continue to pray, in time He will bend our will to fit His. He will work in and through us to change our hearts. He will open our eyes to His work. He will give us the wisdom to recognize the perfection of His plan. He will loosen our grip on our own expectations.
Look at Matthew 26:36–39 for context. After Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for God to remove the cup of suffering from Him, He was ready to face what lay ahead. Yet God had not removed the cup of suffering from Him. The physical and spiritual agony of the crucifixion still awaited Him. Jesus’ prayer had not changed His circumstances, but it had changed His spirit.
The reason is that Jesus’ other request had been granted. After He prayed for the cup of suffering to be removed, He added these words: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” His second, and primary, request was that God’s will would be accomplished through Him. And that’s exactly what was going to happen through His crucifixion.
That’s all the assurance Jesus needed for His spirit to be revived. His prayer created a change because His will was aligned with God’s.