Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?; Philip Yancey


  • I write about prayer as a pilgrim, not an expert.
  • Prayer helps correct myopia, calling to mind a perspective I daily forget.  I keep reversing roles, thinking of ways in which God should serve me, rather than vice versa.
  • It occurs to me, thinking about prayer, that most of the time I get the direction wrong.  I start downstream with my own concerns and bring them to God.  I inform God, as if God did not already know.  I plead with God, as if hoping to change God’s mind and overcome divine reluctance.  Instead, I should start upstream where the flow begins.
  • Prayer allows me to admit my failures, weaknesses, and limitations to One who responds to human vulnerability with infinite mercy.
  • Sometimes I wonder if the words I use are the least important part of prayer.
  • In truth, what I think and feel as I pray, rather than the words I speak, may be the real prayer, for God “hears” that too.
  • “This is perhaps the hardest truth of any to grasp.  Do we wake up every morning amazed that we are loved by God?… Do we allow our day to be shaped by God’s desire to relate to us?”  David Ford
  • The most important purpose of prayer may be to let our true selves be loved by God.
  • Prayer as transaction rather than relationship can decline into a practice more duty than joy, an occasional and awkward exercise with little connection to life…
  • Meetings with God may include ecstasy and joy, or withdrawal and silence; always they include mystery.
  • I am left with the unsettling truth that God, not I, has ultimate control over the relationship.
  • Prayer is a subversive act performed in a world that constantly calls faith into question.
  • How often do I come to God not with consumer requests but simply a desire to spend time with God, to discern what God wants from me and not vice versa?
  • Though my needs may drive me to prayer, there I come face-to-face with my greatest need: an encounter with God’s own self.
  • The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God.  I need God more than anything I might get from God.
  • Jesus counted on prayer as a source of strength that equipped Him to carry out a partnership with God the Father on earth.
  • Prayer, according to one ancient definition is “keeping company with God.”
  • “To pray is to make the most of our moments of perception.  You pause on the thing that has happened, you turn it over and over like a person examining a gift, you set it in the context of past and future, you mentally draw out its possibilities, you give the moment time to reveal what is embedded in it.”  – Alan Ecclestone
  • God formed an alliance based on the world as it is, full of flaws, whereas prayer calls God to account for the world as it should be.
  • Surely Jesus must have know the potential as well as the limitations of prayer.  I have said that the simplest answer to the question “Why pray?” is “Because Jesus did.”
    1. Like most of us, Jesus turned to prayer in times of trouble.
    2. The other typical form of request, prayer for trivial things, apparently had little place in Jesus’ practice.  Common, every day things, yes… but these requests are hardly trivial.
    3. If He made few requests on His own behalf, Jesus often lifted up prayers for others.
    4. When alone, Jesus relied on prayer as a kind of spiritual recharging.
    5. Jesus’ prayers intensified around key events… and especially as He prepared for His departure.
  • When doubts creep in and I wonder whether prayer is a sanctified form of talking to myself, I remind myself that the Son of God, who had spoken worlds into being and sustains all that exists, felt a compelling need to pray.  He prayed as if it made a difference…
  • Jesus truly believed that prayer could change things.
  • We know how God feels because Jesus gave us a face, one sometimes streaked with tears.
  • In His tender mercy jesus gave us a visible sign of how the Father must hear our prayers even now.
  • He (Jesus) turned to prayer both as a refuge.. and as a reminder of His true home, a place that had no room for evil, pain and death.
  • Jesus clung to prayer as to a lifeline for it gave Him both the guidance and the energy to know and do the Father’s will.
  • …I have no better answer than the example of Jesus, who knew above any of us the wisdom of the Father and yet who felt a strong need to flood the heavens with requests.
  • …Jesus knows the heartbreak of unanswered prayers.
  • “Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and unpredictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and unpredictable in the out working of the grace of God in our lives.”   Ray Anderson
  • The Bible draws a strong contrast between the freedom-crushing style of evil and the freedom-respecting style of good.
  • I learn as much from the prayers Jesus did not pray as from those he did.  These, too, underscore God’s mysterious style of working on this planet.
  • …in the gospel accounts Jesus is the least intimidated, most composed character on the scene.
  • For most of us, prayer serves as a resource to help in a time of testing or conflict.  For Jesus, it was the battle itself.
  • …Jesus commanded his followers to pray, certain that it makes a difference in a world full of opposition to God’s will.
  • In fact, the New Testament’s only glimpse of what Jesus is doing right now depicts him at the right hand of God “interceding for us.”  In three years of active ministry, Jesus changed the moral landscape of the planet.  For nearly two thousand years since, He has been using another tactic: prayer.
  • God is more merciful than we can imagine and welcomes appeals to the mercy.
  • “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, it is laying hold of his highest willingness.”   Archbishop Trench
  • A litany of protest in Psalms and in the prophets remind God that the world is askew, that many promises remain unfulfilled, that justice and mercy do not rule the earth.
  • I dare not meekly accept the state of the world, with all its injustice and unfairness.  I must call God to account for God’s own promises, God’s own character.
  • We are all children of Israel, implied Paul, all of God-wrestlers who cling to God in the dark, who chase God from room to room, who declare “I will not let you go.”  to us belong the blessing, the birthright, the kingdom.
  • Prayer is cooperation with God, a consent that opens the way for grace to work.
  • From my own experience I can identify at least three such stages:
    1. The first stage is a simple childlike request for something I desire.
    2. The second stage of prayer (and again, I do not use the word stage to imply a higher value) involves a kind of mediation, what I have called keeping company with God.
    3. The third stage of prayer, the stage of submission that jesus reached after a long night of struggle: “Not my will, but yours be done.”
  • Still, I cannot discount such childlike requests because they impressed Jesus, especially when they came from an unlikely source…
  • I can never completely align with God’s will because I do not have the capacity for fully knowing it.
  • If I seek God more than anything else, I will eventually seek more of what God wants for me, and be content with that.
  • “Be slow to pray.  Praying puts us at risk of getting involved with God’s conditions… Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests.”  Eugene Peterson
  • We have different roles to play, we and God.  As God made clear to Job, we humans lack the capacity to figure out providence and cosmic justice and answers to the “Why” questions.  It is our role, rather, to follow in Jesus steps by doing the work of the kingdom both by our deeds and by our prayers.
  • God asks me to make myself known to Him in prayer and then works my prayers into a master plan for my life – plan which I can only faintly grasp.
  • When I pray… I must remember that God’s kingdom is not an adjunct to US politics, not a mere voting bloc; nor is it an international fellowship, a genteel and moral version of the United Nations useful for such tasks as feeding orphans and drilling wells.  God’s rule encompasses all human institutions and all history.
  • I have learned that Christians who have no access to earthly power truly believe prayer gives them access to a greater power.
  • in prayer we stand before God to plead our condition as well as the conditions around us.
  • We pray in order to see the world with God’s eyes and then to join the stream of power as it breaks loose.
  • We cannot simply pray and then wait for God to do the rest.  The battle against evil requires both prayer and prayerful action.
  • …social action unsupported by prayer may well lead to exhaustion and despair.
  • To preach God without the kingdom is no better than to preach the kingdom without God.
  • We are God’s fellow workers, and as such we turn to prayer to equip us for the partnership.
  • “God has built into our systems a rhythm of life which we must not violate: output and input; work and rest; service and worship community activity, family activity and solitude.”  Ajith Fernando
  • From the beginning, God willed to share with other creatures the love and fellowship – the life – enjoyed in the godhead before creation, now and forever.
  • He (Jesus) went away for our sakes, as a form of power sharing, to invite us into direct communion with God and to give us a crucial role in the struggle against the forces of evil.
  • “He is not deaf.  He listens; more than that, He acts.  He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not.  Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action.  Even upon His existence.  That is what the word ‘answer’ means.”  Karl Barth
  • But by inviting us into the partnership of creation, God also invites us into relationship.
  • Relationship ups the urgency of any information – its the difference between watching news reports of a tragedy overseas and watching those same reports when your son or your fiancee is there.
  • I go to God with my concerns, though, as a child goes to a loving father.
  • “Creation seems to be delegation through and through.  He will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures.  I suppose this is because He is a giver.”  C.S. Lewis
  • God has infinite tolerance for our requests and demands, especially those supporting the cause of God’s own kingdom.
  • As we revolt against the world’s disorder in our actions and in our prayers, refusing to resign ourselves to evil, we demonstrate that there remains, in Jesus’ phrase, “faith on earth.”
  • God views my persistence as a sign of genuine desire for change, the one prerequisite for spiritual growth.
  • Persistent prayer changes me by helping me see the world, and my life, through God’s eyes.  As the relationship progresses, I realize that God has a clearer picture of what I need than I do.
  • In persistent prayer, my own desires and plans gradually harmonize with God’s.
  • The real value of persistent prayer is not so much that we get what we want as that we become the person we should be.
  • Persistent prayer keeps bringing God and me together.
  • How do we learn to pray?  “By praying…if you want to pray better, you must pray more.”  Mother Teresa
  • I have found that my reluctance to pray increases when I regard it as a necessary discipline and decreases when I see it as a time to keep company with God.
  • I must find my own way to pray, not someone else’s.
  • As with physical exercise, much of the benefit of prayer comes as a result of consistency, the simple act of showing up.
  • I keep on, though, whether it feels like I am providing or not.  I show up in hopes of getting to know God better, and perhaps hearing from God in ways accessible only through quiet and solitude.
  • I found that I needed the discipline of regularity to make possible those exceptional times of free communication with God.
  • Regular prayer helps me to protect inner space, to prevent the outer world from taking over.
  • In short, prayer invites God into my world and ushers me into God’s.
  • -Psalms keeps me honest by furnishing words to prayers I would not pray apart from their prompting.  I have learned to pray more humanly by reading the psalms and making them my prayers.
  • The goal is to spend time with God, not to follow a legalistic procedure.
  • Each person who prays will need to find a rhythm or method that fits, for each of us has a unique privilege of offering love and attention to the One who made and sustains us.
  • “They are the songs of the fathers and mothers since the calling of Abraham; and by joining that chorus, each man or woman who prays slips joyfully into the long ribbon of life that is the vertical communion of the saints of the ages.”  Phyllis Tickle
  • The common danger we face, though, is getting so absorbed in daily life that we simply fail to show up.
  • For me, the words of prayer are less important than the act of remembering.  I am convince the main requirement in prayer is honesty, approaching God “just as we are.”
  • A sense of unworthiness hardly disqualifies me from prayer; rather, it serves as a necessary starting point.
  • “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”  Martin Luther
  • Jesus taught a model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but otherwise gave few rules.  His teaching reduces down to three general principles:  Keep it honest, keep it simple, and keep it up.
  • Mainly Jesus pressed home that we come as beloved children to a Father who loves us in advance and cares deeply about our lives.
  • Jesus came to earth as dramatic proof of God’s desire to keep company with us.
  • “You can respond to the silence of God in two ways.  One response is for you to go into depression, a sense of guilt, and self-condemnation.  The other response is for you to have an expectation that GOd is about to bring you to a deeper knowledge of Himself.”  Henry Blackaby.
  • No one can reduce to a formula the secret to close communion with God.
  • …all relationships involve an act of will, and I likewise persevere though difficult times in prayer despite my feelings at the moment.
  • Prayer invites us to rest in the fact that God is in control, and the world’s problems are ultimately God’s not ours.
  • My own emphasis in prayer has moved from petition to companionship, and I no longer agonize over the issue of unanswered prayer as I once did.
  • I do not doubt that GOd answers prayer.  Rather, I struggle with the inconsistency of those apparent answers.
  • Somehow we must offer our prayers with a humility that conveys gratitude without triumphalism, and compassion with manipulation, always respecting the mystery surrounding prayer.
  • …the heart of the problem with in appropriate prayers: they are self-serving and not in accord with God’s nature.  They put the focus on our things, not the things of God.
  • …how I treat God’s creation, God’s children, will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship.  Prayer involves more than bowing my head a few times a day; it pervades all of life and vice versa.
  • “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”  Abraham Lincoln
  • And how can we reconcile the lavish promises (of Scripture) with the actual experience of so many sincere Christians who struggle with unanswered prayer?
  • The more we know God, the more we know God’s will, the more likely our prayers will align with that will.
  • …one who works in close partnership with God grows in the ability to discern what God wants to accomplish on earth, and prays accordingly.
  • The very tedium, the act of waiting itself, works to nourish in us qualities of patience, persistence, trust, gentleness, compassion – or it may do so, if we place ourselves in the stream of God’s movement on earth.
  • We have, instead, a relationship with God based on constant negotiation.
  • Those of us who struggle with unanswered prayer dare not overlook an important theological truth about how God acts in this world today.  The church is the body of Christ, and as such it does God’s work.
  • God has chosen to express love and grace in the world through those of us who embody Christ.
  • That prayer exists at all is a gift of grace, a generous invitation to participate in the future of the cosmos.
  • “Christianity is less a set of beliefs than a way of life, and a way of life that actually warns against absolute intellectual certainty.”  William Sloane Coffin
  • No human being, no matter how wise or how spiritual, can interpret the ways of God, explain why one miracle and not another, why an apparent intervention here and not there.  Along with the apostle Paul, we can only wait, and trust.
  • A child may pray… but over time learns that God is not a magician who rearranges life to fit our whims.
  • God neither protects Christians with a shield of health, nor provides a quick, dependable solution to all suffering.
  • “The real direction of prayer for the sick and suffering should be, first, to praise God for the wonderful mechanisms of healing and recovery that God has designed and placed in the person’s body, and the to pray that God’s special grace will take hold of his or her whole person and give the ability to use these resources to their fullest advantage and also that the church would rally around and lay their healing hands on the one who needs support, faith, hop and love.”  Dr. Paul Brand.
  • “I used to see prayer as my way of trying to get God to do what I wanted.  Now I see it as my way of being in on what God is doing, and just hanging on.”  Jacqueline
  • In my own experience, those who most readily recognize their dependence on God are the ones who have no other choice: the disabled, the suffering, and those who care for them
  • What is the point of prayer if not to express our heart’s desire, especially when it matches what we know to be God’s will on earth?
  • Suffering and grief cut across personality difference and reduce us all to lamenters.
  • “Sometimes there is no happy ending and we’re simply suspended in grief… we need to stay with the grief for a while, feel it, let it out.  Maybe we can see things through tears that we can’t see dry-eyed.”  Pastor John
  • Sin can disrupt the relationship between ourselves and God in a way that jars the alignment of body, soul, and spirit.  Confession resores the channel of communication with God while at the same time flushing away anxiety, guilt, fear, and other obstacles to health.
  • I gain peace when I realize that I do not have to talk God into caring.  God cares more than I can imagine, and has ultimate control over all that happens.
  • During hard times my vision narrows so that I think only of myself and my problems.  Then, more than ever, I need to widen that vision, to expand the circle of God’s love.
  • …because of a weak theology of suffering, many churches tend to view unhealed people as an embarrassment, a token of failure.
  • “What makes a difference, I firmly believe, is how seriously we take prayer.  I see prayer as a process of becoming available for what God wants to don on earth through us.”  Bud
  • I have learned that I have no time in which to live out Christ’s life other than now.  This very moment is all I can count on.
  • Grace descends as the gentle rain from heaven… it floats like a cloud high in the sky, and the thirsty pray for it as desert nomads pray for rain.
  • “The greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.”  F.B. Meyer
  • “…create space in which God can act.”  Henri Nouwen
  • Being present with someone I love is never a waste of time, especially if God is the One with whom I am present.
  • Ultimately prayer proves its power by producing changes in us the prayers.
  • …a true image of God calms, rather than provokes, fear.
  • I need to see prayer as a place to deposit my anxiety, by naming my concerns as specifically as possible and asking for God’s help in relieving me of the burdens.
  • There is a cure for impatience in prayer, I have found: keep praying.
  • Waiting is not the goal, but may be a necessary stage in attaining the gaol  We wait for what is worth waiting for, and in the process learn patience.
  • …living in the present, recognizing the past is irremediably gone and the future  irrelevant, because who knows whether it will happen or not.  Now, a fleeting, instant, represents the intersection of eternity with time.
  • Life is not a meaningless sequence of actions, but an arena which to live out the will of another world, the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Praying for those who I love gives ma a glimpse of how God must feel.  I cannot impose my own wishes; God who probably could, chooses not to out of respect for human freedom.
  • “Holding them one by one steadily before the mind and willing that God may have His will with them is best, for God knows better than we what our friends need, yet our prayer releases His power, we know not how.”  Frank Laubach
  • Perceiving them as mere enemies, I never took the step of brining them before God and asking for God’s point of view.
  • “By praying for such enemies… we do victoriously for them what they cannot do for themselves.  Who needs love more than those who are consumed with hatred?  Through prayer we stand beside our enemies and plead to God on their behalf.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Start with what really energizes you and touches your heart… Ask God to remind you, as you do it, that you’re doing it for Him.
  • I am learning the difference between saying prayers, which is an activity, and praying, which is a soul attitude, a “lifting up of the mind to God.”
  • After reviewing the prayers contained in the Bible, I have stopped worrying about inappropriate prayers… According to Jesus, nothing is too trivial.
  • “It is a kind of pride to insist that none of our prayers should ever be petitions for our own needs; for this is another subtle way of trying to put ourselves on the same plane as God – acting as if we had no needs, as if we were not creatures, not dependent on Him…”  Thomas Merton
  • My own concern about inappropriate or irrelevant prayers melts away as I view prayer less as a technique than as a relationship, a way of keeping company with God.
  • Who, indeed, deserves our praise but the God who originated every good and perfect gift.
  • We kneel, only to find that we rise taller, because praise does not diminish but fulfills, by establishing our true place in the universe, and also God’s.
  • Our most treasured gift to God, that which God can never force, is love.
  • By bringing us into the presence of God, and giving us a glimpse of the view from above, prayer radically changes how we experience life.
  • Jesus left the global concerns in the care of His Father and spent His time instead among nobodies.
  • I pray in astonished belief that God desires an ongoing relationship.

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