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How Does Prayer Move God? - Or Does It?
  by John William Ash

For 30 years now I have been a praying Christian. I believe in prayer. I confess that I pray far less than I should. But it is disturbing to wake up one day puzzling over certain aspects of a thirty-year habit. The following few words are my own answers to a question I've been wrestling with recently: I am convinced prayer is important. The Bible writers also were convinced about prayer:

Matthew 7:7 says that we should ask, seek, and knock.
James 5:16 "The prayer of a righteous man is effective and powerful."
1 John 5:15 says that we should pray for those that are committing sin.
Matthew 21:22 "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
John 15:7 "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you."

This is only a sampling of the open-ended promises about the effectiveness of prayer.

For the last few days I have been wrestling with just one aspect of prayer, and even to this moment, I have not been able to find a good answer: Here is the question:

To what extent is God "empowered" to act when we pray for someone else? Does my praying for that person do any good? What if I don't pray? Does God refuse to act until someone "prays" for that person? Does my "long distance" prayer for some person really move the arm of Omnipotence?

Since I haven't found the precise answer in black and white, you might wonder whether I am frustrated or upset. Yes and no.I'd like the answer spelled out clearly. But as I pored over the EGW Index references to prayer, I discovered (or, in some cases, rediscovered) some things about prayer. In a sense I have a round-about answer to the question. Here are some of the ideas I came up with:



I didn't count all the references but this one conclusion is supremely evident: The major purpose for prayer is to establish a personal relationship with God. It is communication with God as with a friend. It provides power to overcome temptation and sin. Prayer is the breath of the spiritual life. Again, prayer is primarily for personal benefit.

Based simply on the numbers, I would have to conclude that all the apparently open-ended references to prayer in the Bible are primarily referring to requesting God to act for personal affairs, whether they be internal or external (i.e. , getting along with other people, coping with situations, handling obstacles in one's path)


There is a sense that our prayers are to change us not God. "Prayer is not to work any change in God; it is to bring us into harmony with God." MYP 248 "Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him. " SC 93

These references may again be referring mainly to personal/relational prayer. But how about this for a challenging thought? "It is part of God's plan to grant us in answer to the prayer of faith, that which he would not bestow did we not ask. " GC 525

I don't believe that this quotation indicates any reluctance on God's part. It simply says that there are situations where he waits for us to ask.

Does prayer change God's mind? I doubt it. God would be awfully small for that to happen. Maybe He is waiting for something else from us.


Here and there I did find references to what I call "long distance" praying---praying that ranscends personal/relational benefit. In many of those references I read about the following crucial axiom:

"Let there be most earnest prayer; and then let us work in harmony with our prayers. " 5T 714

"Nehemiah did not regard his duty as done when he had mourned and wept and prayed before the Lord. He did not only pray. He worked, mingling petition and endeavor. " 2SM 346

What ever the nature of our "long distance" prayers, we are to cooperate with God and work for the fulfilling of those prayers. In other words, we are not to sit back and "wait for God to get it done. "


Now here is another intriguing principle to incorporate into our "long distance" praying: Let others know that you are praying for them.

"While you try to help them by your prayers, let them know that you do it." T 185 (cf. MH 492,493)

Ellen White practiced this principle when she said, "Students, night and day the prayers of your parents are rising to God in your behalf; day by day their loving interest follows you. " CT 233,234

It would be most effective if the parents THEMSELVES reminded their children of their continuous prayers on their behalf.


Apparently God so respects the dignity of our personal freedom of choice that HE WILL NEVER FORCE HIS WAY INTO OUR LIVES or in any way CONTROL US. If we consciously choose to rebel, he will sadly leave us to the consequences. That seems to be the whole point of I John 5:16. The text says, "If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. "

Ellen White never commented on or used this text but most commentators feel that the "sin that leads to death" is the same as the unpardonable sin of Matt. 12:31,32. These texts would refer to people who consciously reject God. As a doctor cannot heal a stubbornly resistant patient, God cannot heal anyone who won't come to Him for treatment for his sin-sick problem.

Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that God still uses circumstances to help his recalcitrant children to come to their senses. Furthermore. . . .


If God left people to the consequences of sin and their own personal rebellions, they would have long since destroyed themselves. But God is so gracious and concerned that He actually preserves people in hopes that they will yet choose to cease their rebellion. Note this interesting reference:

"When they went into the army, your prayers followed them. They were wonderfully preserved from harm. They called it luck; but a mother's prayers from an anxious burdened soul, as she felt the peril of her children and the danger of their being cut off in their youth without hope in God, had much to do with their preservation. " 2T 275

By the time God decided to destroy the earth with a flood, it was so wicked that it should have (and could have) been destroyed immediately. But God always gives rebels a reasonable opportunity to reconsider their course. The antediluvians got a 120 year extension on life. God preserves rebels. . . for a reason.


"By sincere, earnest prayer parents should make a hedge around their children. They should pray with full faith that God will abide with them, and that holy angels will guard them and their children from Satan's cruel power. " ML 31 "The payers of Christian mothers are not disregarded by the Father of all. . . . He will not turn away from petitions, and leave you and yours to the buffetings of Satan in the great day of final conflict. It is for you to work with simplicity and faithfulness, and God will establish the work of your hands. " ML 21

Does praying for children make a difference? Apparently it does. In most cases, these and other similar statements imply that the mother is to pray as she earnestly works for her children. She works with God to answer her own prayers. But it is clear that God does especially work for children in response to a mother's prayers.


Unfortunately we often feel that we know how God should answer our prayers. The wiser course of action would be to consider the following conditions to answered prayer:

"All his gifts are promised on condition of obedience. God has a heaven full of blessings for those who will cooperate with Him. All who obey Him may with confidence claim the fulfillment of His promises. " COL 144,145

"He makes it plain that our asking must be according to God's will; we must ask for the things that He has promised, and whatever we receive must be used in doing His will. The conditions met, the romise is unequivocal. " Ed 258 "Our prayers are not to be a selfish asking, merely for our own benefit. We are to ask that we may give. . . ." COL 143


Interestingly Ellen White did not immediately have insight on how to pray for the sick. She was often in demand because people thought that a person like her, with obvious inside connections with God should be most effective in intercessory prayer. Eventually she worked her way through the following principles:

1. The most effective method of praying for the sick is when it is done in their presence.

2. "We no longer mark out a way nor seek to bring the Lord to our wishes. If the life of the sick can glorify Him, we pray that they may live, nevertheless, not as we will but as He will. . . . " 9T 149


Whatever the request, God's timing and ours may be different. "The earnest prayer of contrite souls will be lodged by the throne; and God will answer these prayers in His own time if we cling to His arm by faith" 6T 153

My conclusions:

Praying non-personal/relational prayers for situations or people can be effective. I am encouraged to continue my 30 year prayer habit. God apparently does something more than if we didn't pray at all.

But I cannot see God, who so carefully respects human dignity and freedom of choice, stepping in to our lives to "make us" shape up. Surely He provides the circumstances and heavenly influences, but, we human beings make the decisions on whether we obey him or our own rebel plans.

In this case, lets look again at Isaiah 42:16: "I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them."

Now, some people use this text as workman uses a long steel bar to pry reluctant boulders. They put their finger on this text and challenge God to "change" their rebel children, relatives, or friends. They say, "You promised it, now deliver!"

Since, as we have said, God so respects our freedom of choice that He will never force us to do anything we don't want to, I would prefer to see this promise rather as a window on the way God operates all the time---He is always trying by many and various ways to "lead the blind by ways they have not known. "

Here is the question again:

To what extent is God "empowered" to act when we pray for someone else? Does my praying for that person do any good? What if I don't pray? Does God refuse to act until someone "prays" for that person? Does my "long distance" prayer for some person really move the arm of omnipotence?

So, what do you think?


But, I notice that I still pray for others,

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