Prayer in the Twentieth Century

By Mike Willis

The disciples of Jesus were very much impressed by His practice and preaching regarding prayer. Frequently, Jesus resorted to some quiet place to pray (Mk. 1:35; Lk. 5:16). One of the most pointed passages in all of the New Testament pertained to the subject of prayer. Jesus related the parable of the unjust steward to teach men “that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1). As He brought the parable to a close, He asked, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:8). The question asked whether there would be men who had sufficient faith to continue to offer prayer.

Naturalism: An Attack On Prayer

Whether we are conscious of this or not, everyone of us has been affected to some degree by the philosophy of naturalism. Naturalism is the “belief that the natural world is the whole of reality and that there is no supernatural or spiritual creation, value, control or significance; it holds that scientific laws can explain all phenomena.” Many scientists cling to naturalism to the total exclusion of any supernatural phenomena; everything is explained by them on the basis of the present order of things. But, what does this have to do with prayer?

Elton Trueblood, in his book Philosophy of Religion, discussed the problem as follows:

“The greatest difficulty is felt in connection with petition and intercession. Men have long prayed for rain, but how can this be done with intellectual honesty when we realize something of the nature of meteorology? Men have long prayed for the restoration of the health of their loved ones, but how can this be done by honest persons who know something of the action of germs? When a patient has pneumonia what is needed, it would seem, is not prayer, but antibiotics. Such considerations do not, of course, prevent recourse to prayer, but they hinder it. Most parents, it is probable, pray for a child who is in danger of contracting infantile paralysis, but many wonder, in doing so, if they are acting rationally.

“The difficulty is most clear when the time factor is involved. If a person receives a letter and, before opening it, prays that the letter may not contain bad news, the prayer has no justification. Whatever is in the letter is there already, and nothing under heaven will change it. In other words, such a prayer is self-contradictory. It asks that what is be something other than what it is. But the same difficulty remains in less obvious situations. Prayer about the contents of the letter Is pointless at any time after it is written.

“Much of our uneasiness to regard to other areas, such as the physical and biological, arises from the conviction that the situation is already as fully determined by natural laws as the contents of the letter are already fixed by the writer. Whether there will be rain is already in the cards. But if this is true for one day, why not for a million? In the same way, the ravages of a disease seem to be already determined by the introduction of germs. In short, it is always too late. Perhaps, then, prayer is merely an irrational survival of a superstitious and anthropomorphic age. In that case, it will eventually cease with the growth of critical intelligence or continue as a sentimental gesture, but nothing more” (pp. 208-209).

If you think that what Trueblood described is unreal, ask yourself how long has it been since you prayed for rain or fair weather? Yet, the Bible explicitly teaches that God personally controls the weather (Job 37:5,6; Mt. 5:45; Amos 4:7; etc.).

Actually, prayer is based on a certain belief about God which is in conflict with many popular philosophies. One particular philosophy teaches that God has wound up the universe like a clock and has left it alone to run down. Hence, He is not personally involved in its activities. Obviously, such a philosophy will prevent meaningful prayer. “If our image of God is that of a once-active, but now retired owner of the universe, who governs it-if He does-in absentia, then prayer becomes little more than a formal recitation before a favorite masterpiece in a museum” (G. Curtis Jones, Patterns of Prayer, p. 15).

Doctrine Of God For Prayer

Belief in a God so totally removed from the universe that He is not involved in its daily activities destroys any usefulness to prayer. Prayer is designed to effect change or produce results; it is not a glorified siloloquy. Hence, belief in the power of prayer presupposes certain beliefs about God. Included among them are the following:

(1) God is personally involved in the operation of the universe at this present day. In classes which I have taught, I have frequently encountered people who believed that God used to be personally involved in this world but that He withdrew from it after Calvary and now watches its operation, although He is not personally involved in it. However, God is described as follows by Paul:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself glues to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your poets have said, `For we also are His offspring”‘ (Acts 17:24-281.

Notice the facts affirmed regarding God in these verses: (a) He gives life and breath to all things; (b) He determines the times of people; (c) He governs the boundaries of the habitations of people (i.e., He controls the nations); (d) In Him, we live and move and have our being. Earlier, Luke recorded that Paul said that God was the One who gave us rain and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:17; cf. Mt. 5:45). Paul added that all things in the creation of God are held together by Christ (Col. 1:17); He upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). Hence, our doctrine of God states that God is, even unto this day, personally involved in the course of events in this universe.

(2) God is concerned for man. The God to whom we pray must be a God who cares for us; otherwise, there is no reason to pray. The Bible teaches that God cares for us. Jesus taught that God providentally watches over man; He said,

“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toll nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, 0 men of little faith? Do not be anxious then, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or, `What shall we drink?’ or, `With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Mt. 6:25-32).

Again, He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt. 10:29-31). The God of heaven loves me! Hence, He cares about the things which are on my mind. He listens to my prayers.

(3) God has the power to answer my prayers. An impotent God would be a God to whom it was useless to pray. Yet Jehovah is God Almighty (Rev. 4:8; 11:17). Jeremiah said, “Ah Lord God! Behold, Thou hast made the heavens and the earth by Thy great power and by Thine outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for Thee” (32:17). No wonder Paul marvelled, “Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that ve ask or think . . . .” (Eph. 3:20). Our God has the power to answer our prayers.

(4) God’s will is altered by the prayers of man. Here the essence of prayer. I would not pray if I did not believe that my prayer to God could alter the course of events which God had previously planned for this world. On a number of occasions God had decided to utterly destroy Israel because of her rebellion. However, Moses intervened and persuaded God to change His mind (cf. Ex. 32:11-14). Moses’ prayer caused God to change His mind. Tennyson declared, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

Over Reaction?

I fear that many of us have over-reacted to Pentecostalism to such an extent that we have made prayer virtually impotent. Because God does not work miracles now is no reason to believe that God does not work! I have witnessed Christians raise their eyebrows as if to question a brother’s soundness because he told of how he prayed that God might keep his daughter alive she accidentally after she had drunk some poison. All night he was in prayer to God and the daughter lived. Have we become afraid to ask God in His providence to change His plans to allow our loved one to live? The church was not afraid to ask God to change the course of events so that Herod could not slay Peter as he had slain James (Acts 12).

There is no doubt in my mind that our over-reaction to Pentecostalism is what occasioned the recent Holy Spirit movement among us. There is no doubt in my mind that our over-reaction to Pentecostalism caused us to fail to attribute to prayer the power which God has given to it. Hence, our disbelief causes our prayers to go unanswered; James said, “But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord” (Jas. 1:6-7). The question which Jesus asked-“However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”-is a pertinent question for the twentieth century church. Will men have enough faith to offer a prayer of faith to God?

Truth Magazine XXI: 7, pp.99-101
February 17, 1977