A story is told of a seven-year-old boy playing in the sandbox. He dug a hole, parked his yellow Tonka dumptruck in the hole, and pushed the dirt back in. Only the edges of the bed remained above the surface. Such fun for a seven year old! But now he wanted the dumptruck. So his little fingers grabbed the thin protruding edges of the bed and pulled. Try as he might, he could not dislodge the truck.
His father watched from the lawnchair a few feet away, as his son tried unsuccessfully. The boy’s frustration grew. He plopped down in the sand pouting.
Dad said, “Son, use the strength that is available.” The boy stood up, trying with all his might this time, grunting and straining. But still could not dislodge the truck so much as a wiggle. He threw himself down, nearing tears.
Finally, Dad intervened. Disguising a smile, he stooped down, and with just two fingers, easily pulled the truck free of the sand. He shook it off, and placed it in the arms of his son. He said, “When I said, ‘use the strength that is available,’ I didn’t mean your own strength. I have been sitting right here the whole time. You just had to ask, and I would use my strength.”
Though we know “prayer moves mountains,” (Matthew 20:21), sometimes we need specific reminders of how powerful prayer is (more accurately, the power of the God who responds) in order to encourage us to pray.
Prayer Changes Our Circumstances
Paul was in jail when he wrote to Philemon. Paul had every reason to fear his meeting with Caesar would end poorly, with added jail time, exile, or even execution. But he asked Philemon to pray for his release. You’ve heard the one about praying for rain but failing to bring an umbrella, right? Paul was so confident he said, “Prepare for me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you” (Philem. 22, cf. Phil. 1:19-26).
It’s important to trust God and submit to His will (Matt. 26:39, 2 Cor. 12:7-10), but at the same time, to make our requests without doubting God’s ability (James 1:5-8). Remember Elijah (James 5:17-18).
In fact, we might be so shocked at the power of prayer we become careful when we tap into it. I know of a Christian who prayed for relief from a certain situation at work, and relief came, because other people lost their jobs! She stopped and thought about that, because she felt kinda bad to think she prayed for something that caused others harm. Now, at the end of the day, we can take comfort that God has many options open to Him when answering prayer. She had not prayed specifically for others to get fired; and so she felt comfortable thanking God for answering her prayer, without blaming herself (or God) for causing suffering. Still, my mind goes to Acts 12:5, when “Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.” God answered the prayer and Peter was miraculously delivered from Herod’s clutches. But, Herod “ordered that [the guards] be led away to execution” (12:19). The church’s prayer was so powerful that Peter was spared; but it caused the deaths of many unsaved people!
Prayer Changes God’s Mind
Normally, God is unchangeable (1 Sam. 15:29, Mal. 3:6, Heb. 13:8). But prayer is so powerful it can even cause God to reconsider His plans. In 2 Kings 20, Isaiah came to King Hezekiah with a message: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die.” Hezekiah wept and prayed. God stopped Isaiah before he made it out of the palace, and sent him back to Hezekiah with a new message: “I have heard your prayer … I will heal you.” Later writers commented on this, how “the Lord changed His mind” (Jeremiah 26:19, cf. Exodus 32:14, Amos 7:3).
Prayer Changes Us
In some ways, the most powerful change is within our own hearts, to know that God has heard, that God can help, and that God will do whatever is in our best interests. The act of “casting your anxiety upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7) is therapeutic. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, was able to eat and function normally again, not because God had answered her prayer, but simply because she had approached God in prayer. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
Prayer Changes Eternities
I do not mean that we can pray others into Heaven—but prayer is a big part of evangelism. We should pray for specific doors to open, specific hearts to respond (Rom. 10:1 cf. Luke 11:13, Col. 4:2-4, Eph. 6:19, Phil. 1:9-11). –John Guzzetta