It is interesting, don't you think, that he that wrote 'faith with without works is dead', later wrote 'the prayer of faith will save the sick'? This subject has been on my mind for quite some time, and I finally got around to sitting down, and hammering out some of my thoughts on the matter, thoughts I believe, that God has revealed to me through study of His word and meditation on it, and through discussion with His people on the subject of prayer.
The Power of Prayer
This is a popular phrase of late; 'Do you believe in the power of prayer?', and the idea, which the Bible seems almost to support, that 'prayer moves the hand of God', are several questioning ( and questionable ) statements that are probably somewhat familiar.
Does prayer, in and of itself, possess any value, any real power to do anything? It's just words, right? Words can surely lead to action, and usually do, although not always to the desired action. Action, when we pray to God, and even when we make request of our fellow man ( or woman ), is what we're looking for. There is no question that God answers prayer, just as most human beings will, in their own way, strive to fulfill the desire of their fellow human being, when asked, and even sometimes, without be asked, especially if a need presents itself. Much of the time, though, our prayers are not answered in quite the way in which we requested, or desired, and often not within the time-frame that we'd prefer. To answer the question above; we must determine then, if, when, and how ( to what extent ) words themselves have any power.
Do our words have power?
We know from history that words have power. Not the words themselves, maybe, but the actions, or reactions they usually engender. I'm sure that many wars or battles that have taken place may not have ever happened without a few choice words, either spoken or written. When God created the 'heavens and earth' in Genesis 1, He simply said 'Let there be..' ( from this has come the simplistic notion that 'God spoke the world into existence' ( I'm not saying this is not possible, or even true ). Scientifically; it can be shown that sound waves can be a destructive force; so in that sense, words do have power. You've heard the phrase, 'The pen is mightier than the sword': English author and playwright George Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined this phrase for a play that he wrote in 1839, an can be taken to mean that 'a person can cause people to change their opinions (e.g., to fight a war) and on a large scale whereas a sword can only change a person's opinion by force and then often only results in the person's death', for instance, Kevin Cooley wrote 'The Founding Fathers of the United States of America considered the pen to be mightier than the sword, and therefore were able to gain the freedom of America by uniting the colonists.' This, I believe, is only common sense; even the Bible supports this; Solomon king of Israel, arguably the wisest man ever, wrote 'The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars[b] are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd' ( Ecclesiastes 12:11 ), and in Proverbs 6:2; he warned his son of the dangers of ( making ) ignorant, yet well-meaning promises; he wrote 'You are snared by the words of your mouth; you are taken by the words of your mouth'. In Proverbs 16:24, we read, 'Pleasant words [ are like ] a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones' ( see also Psalm 119:103 ), and, in Proverbs 25:11, 'A word fitly spoken [ is like ] apples of gold in settings of silver'. Pretty obviously then; our words have power, power to harm, and power to heal!
When to, and when not to........
Sometimes, as we have all learned by experience ( by then its usually too late ); it's best just to keep your mouth shut, even though you know the right answer, and are dying to give it. Like we tell our kids, 'just because it's the truth doesn't mean you have to say it': there is such a thing as 'tact', and often, we can and do ) say the right thing at the wrong time, the other side of the coin being that sometimes we say the wrong thing at the right time, which can actually lead to further trouble. What I mean by saying 'the right thing at the wrong time' is that sometimes a person is not ready for a certain truth at any given time ( and this is where tact comes in ), but we must sometimes bide our time and watch carefully for just the right moment ( a marriage proposal, for example ). Telling a person an untruth at a time when he is desperately seeking answers can often turn out to his ( and your's ) detriment, especially if that person is in the least gullible. This is one reason, I believe, and the Scriptures bear witness ( James 3:1 ), that teachers must be extra studious, and take great care that what they are teaching is true! Solomon, again, in his book of Proverbs ( 17:27a ), wrote, 'He who has knowledge spares his words', and later, in 23:9, 'Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words'. This same wise man wrote, 'Do you see a man hasty in his words? [ There is ] more hope for a fool than for him.'
Something that has always puzzled me, somewhat, is when Solomon wrote, 'Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him', and then seems to contradict himself by saying, 'Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes' ( Proverbs 26:4 & 5 ). I believe now that Solomon was teaching his son to be tactful, reminding him that there is a time to , as some say, 'beat a dead horse', but that he must also realize that there are times when he can begin to 'talk in circles', making as little, or less, sense than the one he is striving to persuade. Solomon, as the Preacher', in Ecclesiastes 3, wrote, 'To everything [ there is ] a season, a time for every purpose under heaven', and later in this same passage that there is, 'a time to keep silence, and a time to speak'. This is a hard lesson to learn, especially for certain ones of us, and it's an easy one to forget, as well, that we must learn when ( as well as what ) to speak, and when not to speak.
How to deal...............
To some extent; we have already studied how we present to our listeners ( or readers ) 'apples of gold', which are 'sweetness to the soul' and 'health to the bones', and how, presented in the right way at the right time, our words can prove a boon, and not a detriment to their recipients. When Solomon ordered his proverbs and presented them to his his son, he gave this purpose for them; 'To know wisdom and instruction', and, 'to perceive the words of understanding'; our purpose in learning is to know how to use our words to the utmost effect, and as we saw above, 'to heal', and not 'to harm'! We have already seen that our words do have power, so how do we harness this power that James said is 'an unruly evil, full of deadly poison' ( James 3:8b )? Turning, once again, to the wisdom of Solomon; we read, in Proverbs 10:19, 'In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips [ is ] wise', and likewise, in Ecclesiastes 9:17, 'Words of the wise, [ spoken ] quietly, [ should be ] heard rather than the shout of a ruler of fools'. It is through ( and in ) wisdom that our words should be presented ( and displayed ), and that wisdom, James said 'is from above', and is 'first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy' ( James 3:17 ).
The Power in prayer
I've asked the question, 'Does prayer, in and of itself, possess any value, any real power to do anything?' We can say for certain that words have power, because they have proven throughout history to be so, with starting wars, and such, or with bringing peace. Words, whether written or spoken, have inspired men to greatness, or to baseness, to nobility, or ignobility. Although they seem to have this power to move people to certain actions; I believe it is hard to argue ( though some have, I believe, and yet may ) that this power is intrinsic, or within the word itself; it is neither easy to deny the facts.
When we utter a prayer to God; we can be assured that His 'ear' is open to our prayer. We know from Scripture ( Romans 8:26 ) that God 'hears' our prayer, even when we're not sure ourselves what we actually need. This should tell us that the power is not so much in the word itself, but in the hearer, or hearers. We read, in Genesis 20, of God closing the wombs of the women of the Philistine king's household, and then upon Abraham's prayer for him, opening their wombs once again. When the 'children' of Israel had sinned against God with 'The Golden Calf', in Exodus 32, and God announced His intention to destroy them right then and there; Moses uttered this intercessory prayer, 'LORD, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit [ it ] forever.' As we know; God did not destroy them at that time. Numbers 11:1-3 records one instance when these 'children' complained against God's provision, whereupon He kindled a fire in their midst, which began to consume them, and when Moses prayed to God for them, God quenched ( or squelched ) the fire. Later, when he was about to depart; Moses, in recounting the many sins and rebellions of his people, in Deuteronomy 9:26; reminded them how God had expressed His intention to make an end of them, but how he had interceded for them, and thus brought them grace. When Hannah prayed to God for a son, In I Samuel 1:10; He heard her prayer, and her vow, and He opened her womb and Samuel was born ( Samuel means 'heard of God'). After David, king of Israel, had sinned against God, by taking a census of his people, in II Samuel 24, for which God unleashed a terrible plague upon his kingdom; it is recorded that, when David made a prayer of intercession, crying 'mea culpa': 'the LORD heeded the prayers for the land, and the plague was withdrawn from Israel'.When the king of Syria surrounded Dothan in order to capture and most likely, to kill, the prophet Elisha, this man of God prayed that God would reveal to his servant the true Strength that protected them, and 'the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw......the mountain [ was ] full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha' ( II Kings 6:17 ). When Hezekiah king of Israel prayed to God because of the very real threat that the king of Assyria and his armies posed to their holy city; it is recorded in II Kings 19:20 that God responded to Hezekiah, through Isaiah the prophet saying 'Because you have prayed to Me against Sennacherib king of Assyria, I have heard'. At this time, and at many other times throughout their history, God delivered His typical people when they turned to Him ( however sincerely, or with their 'whole hearts' ) and made supplication before Him.
Jesus told His disciples ( Matthew 21:22 ), 'whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive'. This sounds almost to good to be true! It sounds to, aside from its contexts, like Jesus is telling them/us that all we have to do is believe for something to happen. Most Christians, though, will admit that this is not the case, and that only if God has willed it, is something going to happen, or be presented to you; as John wrote to his 'children ( I John 5:14 ), 'Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us'. Only if we pray according to His will ( 'Your will be done...' ( Matthew 6:9-13, 26:39 ) does God hear, or answer our prayer.
One of the most heartfelt prayers in the Bible ( NU-text posits that this is a later addition ) was when Jesus cried, from the cross, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do' ( Luke 23:34 ). This question may engender others, but did God answer His only begotten Son's prayer? Did He forgive those for whom Jesus prayed ( John 17 )? I believe that most people, because of the sentence structure ( 'for they do not know what they do' ) will tell you that Jesus prayed for His captors, for those abusers, tormentors of His, who 'pierced His hands and His feet' ( Psalm 22:16b ), and this may have been another instance like when, in the Garden, He prayed, 'O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You [ will ]' ( Matthew 26:39 ), and on the cross, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?' ( Matthew 27:46 ( Psalm 22:16 ); the Son of Man, human as He was ( yet fully God ), naturally tending away from the pain He knew was in store, much of which He already experienced, and reeling from the pain He felt in His Spirit but showing the love and tenderness that He had towards His people, in wishing as Paul, in Romans 11, for their reconciliation. Another explanation could be that those for whom He uttered that prayer on the cross, were the same ones for whom He interceded in John 17, praying not 'for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours' ( 'world' here is kosmos, same as in 3:16 ), even those who, despite their frenzied acceptance of His kingship, days earlier, had cried 'Crucify [ Him ], crucify Him!'
There is power in prayer, there is no doubt of that, but it is clear that the power rests, not in the one who utters the words, nor in the words themselves, but in the One to who prayer is made. Like John wrote above; we receive what we ask for when we pray according to His will, and according to Jesus, when we believe that His will is done.
There is also a form of prayer we use when we ask our brethren for things. If a thing is not within our grasp, or power, to get, or to do; if it is within their power to meet our need; I believe that they are manifested as the sons, or 'children', of God, when they do what is needed. There are things that we can get, or do, for ourselves ( and often fail to ); I do not so we should pray about that ( except maybe for strength ), but for those ( things ) that we cannot do on our own, we can be assured that, if we need it ( truly ( not just want ); we will have it ( Matthew 6:33 )!
Charles Haddon Shank