Lesson 9: Frequently Asked Questions
Tonight we’re going to discuss frequently asked questions regarding prayer. Let’s start with an easy one.
“Should I pray for people to get saved?”
There are two passages that immediately come to mind. The first is 1 Timothy 2:1-4. You might remember that when Pastor Kit preached on this passage, he said that the prayer for all men is a prayer for the salvation of all men. How do we know that? Well, look at v. 4. Paul says that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” So, pray for the salvation of all men because God desires for all men to be saved.
But in case you’re not convinced that 1 Timothy 2:1-4 is about praying for the salvation of others, this next passage closes the case (Rom 10:1). Not too much to comment on there. God wants us to pray for people to be saved.
Let’s do another relatively easy one before we get into some deeper topics.
“To whom should I address my prayers? Is it wrong to pray to Jesus or the Holy Spirit?”
Consider this response from the popular Bible teacher, Dr. J. Vernon McGee:
“You’ll remember that the Lord Jesus told His apostles, 'Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you' (John 16:23). He didn’t say we’re to ask the Holy Spirit, but we’re to ask the Father. When you pray to Christ or the Holy Spirit, you rob yourself of the Great Intercessor — that is, the Lord Jesus. So if you want to be right in your prayer life, pray to the Father and pray in the name of Christ. I believe that we should use the name of Jesus in prayer; I want the Father to know when I come to Him, I’m coming in Jesus’ name because I don’t have much standing up there but Jesus does. So I want to pray in the name of Jesus to the Father, and I trust that I pray down here in the power of the Spirit. Because we’re told that’s the way we are to pray. Paul says we have only two weapons down here that are for the offense of the believer, and one of them is 'praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit' — not to the Spirit.”
Now, I think we should go easy on Dr. McGee. After all, I just found this quote online. I have no idea of the context in which it was stated. However, if I’m understanding him correctly and he’s saying that we should only pray to the Father and never to the Son or the Spirit, then I would have to respectfully disagree.
Our normal practice should be to pray to the Father through the Spirit in Jesus’ name.
So, here’s how I would answer this question. I’d do it in three parts. First, I would say that our normal practice should be to pray to the Father through the Spirit in Jesus’ name. That is the biblical pattern. The Father’s primary role in prayer is addressee. He is the One to whom we pray. The vast majority of biblical prayers along with the model prayer that Jesus gave us are all addressed to Him. Jesus’ primary role is mediator and high priest. If it wasn’t for His work, we would not have access to God the Father. The primary role of the Spirit is to help us in prayer. Paul says in Ephesians 6:18 that we are to pray “in the Spirit” and in Romans 8 that the Spirit makes intercession for us according to the will of God when we don’t know what to pray for. That’s part one.
It’s certainly not wrong to pray to Jesus or to the Spirit.
Part two is that it’s certainly not wrong to pray to Jesus or to the Spirit. Why? Well, first, because Jesus is God and so is the Holy Spirit. If prayer is talking to God, and Jesus is God, then by very definition, I should be able to pray to Jesus. Even more significantly, there is biblical precedence for praying to Jesus. This morning, I referenced a prayer to Jesus found in Revelation 22:20: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” Also, in 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul characterizes Christians by saying that they are those who “call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” What does it mean to call on the name of the Lord? At the very least, it means to pray to Him! In addition, before he died, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). So clearly, it’s not wrong to pray to Jesus.
But what about the Holy Spirit? This one is a little trickier, since there aren’t any biblical prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit. However, I would say that the theological argument I mentioned earlier still stands—that since the Holy Spirit is God, it is not wrong to pray to Him. However, based on the lack of biblical support, I would certainly disagree with anyone who thinks that praying to the Spirit should be an emphasis in our public worship or private devotion. Does that make sense? It is helpful to note that the early church apparently prayed to the Spirit. I say that because an early Christian creed says, “[We believe] in the Holy Spirit… who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” So at least by the time this creed was written, believers were praying to the Holy Spirit. Also, it is somewhat common to address the Holy Spirit in hymns. For instance, this morning, when we sang, “Counselor, Comforter, Keeper, Spirit we long to embrace,” we were addressing the Holy Spirit. Other examples of this would be “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” “Spirit of the Living God,” or “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.” That’s part two.
Adress Jesus or the Spirit when it makes sense based on your prayer.
Part three is about how to determine when to address Jesus or the even the Holy Spirit instead of the Father. This is what I do. I address Jesus or the Spirit when it makes sense based on my prayer. For instance, you can’t say, “Father, thank You for dying on the cross for me” because God the Father didn’t die on the cross for you! So, in that case, it would be appropriate to say, “Jesus, thank you for dying on the cross for me.” And that’s the same logic that some of those older hymns apply to the Holy Spirit. I would also say that in practice, I rarely pray to the Spirit.
“What system should I use to keep track of my prayer requests?”
I’d like to begin by making a really bold claim. Are you ready? Here goes. If you can read and write, you ought develop some kind of system for remembering people and their prayer requests. Now, I'm sure there may be some exceptions to that rule, but generally-speaking, I think it’s true.
However, it’s also important to note that you’ve got to go with the system that works best for you. So, what does that look like?
Church Prayer Lists
Well, a lot of people use prayer lists. Some people just pray through some sort of prayer list that is published by the church each week, and maybe they pencil in the requests that are given audibly. That’s not a bad thing to do, but can I suggest to you that if that is all you’re doing, it’s insufficient? We are very limited in space in these bulletins. That means that there are many other people you should be praying each week for whose names are not in this weekly bulletins. Also, based on the public nature of the bulletin, it tends to focus on physical requests. But we saw this morning that spiritual requests ought to dominate our prayer lives. If all you did was pray through this list, then, for instance, husbands, you would never intercede for your wife’s spiritual growth. And that would be a tragedy. So, you’ve got to have something more than this.
A List of Names
It could be as simple as a list of names. Some people have lists of names that correspond to the days of the week. That’s the idea behind the member prayer lists that we publish for the church. Some people pray through the church directory. That’s also a good idea too, because it allows you to see the faces of the people you’re praying for. Some people do the same thing with missionary prayer cards. They keep them in a stack, and use them to pray for the missionaries one at a time.
Of course, the issue with this system is that there isn’t a way to keep track of specific requests. George Mueller used to write out his prayer requests and then mark when each of them was answered. You can’t do that when you’re just praying down a list of names. That’s why many people build their own prayer notebooks.
When it comes to ways of keeping track of prayer requests, a prayer notebook is one of the best ways to go. I use Excel sheets for my prayer lists. That way, I can write out all of the names and pray for specific people on specific days, but I also have limitless space under each name to record countless prayer requests and answers to prayer. Also, the spreadsheet is easy to manipulate, for instance, I can move a person’s name to a different category or adding another name in alphabetical order. Of course, like I said, you could also keep a list like this in a paper notebook, if you prefer not to pray in front of your computer.
Now, some of you are like, “That is way too detailed for me! I could never keep up with that! In fact, I probably wouldn’t even pray because the spreadsheet would be so daunting!” That’s fine. Elise is that way. I remember when we first got married, I tried to start a spreadsheet for family prayer time and she rebelled. It just didn’t work for her. But there are other ways to keep track of prayer requests.
Another system that I’ve read about recently is prayer cards. What you do is get a 3x5 card and write on it the name of a person or entity you want to pray for. For instance, you could make a prayer card for Pastor Kit, or Ironwood Christian Camp. You can also make a prayer cards for particular topics. For instance, you could have a “people-in-suffering” card and write on the same card the names of multiple people who are suffering. You could even make a card for some project you are working or a long-range goal. Then, in your prayer time, you just shuffle through your cards and pray for those things. In the extra space on the card, you can write observations about the person, specific prayer requests, or relevant Scripture verses. I guess you could even doodle!
Prayer Notebook vs. Prayer Cards
The strength of prayer cards is that it provides a little space to write something down, and yet is relatively simple. The downside of prayer cards is that your writing space is limited.
The benefit of a notebook or Excel sheet is that you have lots of space to write out individual requests. That’s helpful, because writing out requests forces you to think very specifically about what the person needs and what you are asking God to do. It’s also fun to have a spot to record when God answers a prayer. The notebook then becomes a testimony to God’s faithfulness, which is really cool!
The downside to notebooks is that it’s easy to get so bogged down in your system that your prayer time becomes mechanical. I realized recently that that was happening to me, so I decided to break away from my Excel sheet and just pray through a list of names for a while. That was really good, but after a month or so of not using my list, I found my mind wandering during my prayer times, so I went back to my list. Maybe I’ll end up using the Excel sheet most of the time and then just taking breaks from it every now and then. Maybe at some point, the Excel sheet will get so big that it’s unmanageable, and I’ll ditch it and start over. I
’m also interested in the idea of the prayer cards, and I’ve started to try them a little, but it hasn’t really caught on. The most important thing is not what you do, but that you do something that helps you intercede faithfully and specifically for others.
Alright, we’re on question #4; it’s time to go deep.
"Since God is sovereign, does prayer really change anything? Can I 'change God’s mind' through prayer?
How would you answer that first question— “Since God is sovereign, does prayer really change anything?” Who says “yes”? Who says “no”? Who didn’t raise their hand? Who raised their hand twice? This is a classic example of a question where the answer is “yes and no.”
Let’s consider the “no” side of the answer first.
Prayer does not change God’s sovereign plan.
Prayer does not change God’s sovereign plan. You say, “How can that be?” Well, we have to recognize that God does have a plan, and that His plan comprehends all things. Nothing is outside of God’s control. You say, “Pastor Kris, can you back that up with Scripture?” Sure!
Proverbs 16:4 says, “The LORD has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom.” Ephesians 1:11 says that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” And Romans 8:28 says that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” How can God work all things together for good unless He controls all things? The logic of those three passages is hard to dispute.
God’s plan includes the rise and fall of nations. Acts 17:26 says that He “has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.” In Job 14:5, Job says to God that the days of a man “are determined.” He says, “The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.” So, God has determined how long you’re going to live and it’s impossible for you to live any longer than that!
Not only that, but every decision that people make has been planned by God! Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes.” God says of the pagan king Cyrus, “He is My shepherd, And he shall perform all My pleasure, Saying to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be built,’ And to the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’” Even the sinful acts of humanity are planned by God! Acts 4:27 says, “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.” In some mysterious way, the most heinous sin in history was planned by God.
What’s more, God’s plan extends to the tiniest details! Matthew 10:28 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.” So, God has a plan.
Also, His plan was already in place long before you prayed! According to Revelation 13:8, Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” It’s not that He was crucified before the foundation of the world, but that His crucifixion was planned prior to the foundation of the world. The same idea shows up in 1 Peter 1:20, which says that Jesus “was foreordained before the foundation of the world.” Also, Ephesians 3:11 says that what God accomplished in Christ was “according to” His “eternal purpose.” Titus 1:2 says that God promised eternal life “before time began,” and Ephesians 1:4 says that “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” 2 Timothy 1:9 says that God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.” Acts 15:18 says, “Known to God from eternity are all His works.” In Isaiah 37:11, God says of Sennacherib’s military success, “Did you not hear long ago How I made it, From ancient times that I formed it? Now I have brought it to pass….” And in Isaiah 46:9-10, Yahweh says of Himself, “For I am God, and there is no other, I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.’” God declares the end from the beginning! That means that His plan was already in place long before you prayed.
In addition, God did not base His plan upon the decisions He knew you would make. For instance, when it comes to salvation, God did not look down the portals of human history and choose you because He knew You would choose Him. That’s how some people define “foreknowledge” in Romans 8:29, but that’s not the best definition in context. Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” We are unable to come to Jesus unless we are drawn to Him by the Father. God must initiate the relationship. As Romans 3:11 puts it, “There is none who seeks after God.” 1 John 4:19 says, “We love Him because He first loved us.”
Finally, the Bible is clear that God’s plan never changes. Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man that he should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” Hebrews 6:18 also says that “it is impossible for God to lie.” So, to conclude, the Bible is clear that every event that will ever take place was planned before time by God, and nothing can change His plan. That means that your prayer does not change His sovereign plan.
Prayer does change outcomes.
However, the Bible is also clear that prayer does change outcomes. James 5:16 says, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” And then he goes on to give an example. He says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” Obviously, the clear indication of this passage is that God answered Elijah’s prayers.
The fact that God answers prayer is such a dominant, obvious theme in Scripture, that it hardly merits proving! Nevertheless, I’ll cite a few verses. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask. We know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.” Matthew 21:21 says, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what is done to this fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
Perhaps the most stunning examples of answered prayer in the Bible are the passages in which it is either stated or implied that God actually changed His mind as a result of prayer. In my study, I counted at least seven of these passages (Genesis 18:16-33, Exodus 32:9-14; Numbers 14:12-20; 16:20-24, 41-50; 2 Samuel 24:17-25; Amos 7:1-2). However, the most famous of them is found in Exodus 32, so let’s take a look at that passage. Turn to Exodus 32:9-14.
So, Israel builds a golden calf and engages in debauchery, and God is so angry that he tells Moses to leave Him alone so that he can destroy them all. He says that He will make of Moses a great nation. But Moses will not leave God alone! Instead, He pleads with God not them. He reminds God that the people of Israel are His people, whom He delivered from Egypt. He asks God why the Egyptians should be given a reason to mock Him, and most importantly, He recalls God’s promises to the patriarchs. In response, God relents from the harm that He said He would do to His people. So, did God change His mind? Well, in one sense “yes,” and in another sense, “no.”
We know that God didn’t change His mind in the ultimate sense because as we’ve already seen, He said that He would never do so. Also, if God had not relented in this case, then He would have proven unfaithful to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s the very fact Moses was counting on! As one commentator puts it, “Moses is never more like God than in such moments.” Ironically, He is pleading with God based upon God’s own character!
So, there is one sense in which God did not change His mind. He knew all along what He was going to do. Based upon His character, He could not do otherwise. However, there is another sense in which God did change His mind. There is no indication from the text that in this situation, God was play acting! Referring to this situation, Psalm 106:23 says, “Therefore He said that He would destroy them, Had not Moses His chosen one stood before Him in the breach, To turn away His wrath, lest He destroy them.” God actually intended to destroy Israel and would have done so had Moses not interceded for them!
How do we reconcile those two ideas? Well, I would say it this way: God planned to get angry, He planned for Moses to plead with Him, and He planned to relent. So, in the ultimate sense, His plan did not change. However, underneath the umbrella of God’s sovereignty, there was a significant change that took place.
But make no mistake, God’s sovereignty did not render Moses’ prayer meaningless! As I said, God actually would have destroyed the people had Moses not prayed for them! Which is actually why Moses could not have done otherwise, in the ultimate sense.
Let’s look at another passage that may help to solidify our thinking on this subject. Turn to Ezekiel 22:23-31. We see in this passage the awful condition of the nation of Israel. The people of the land were in sin. They needed godly leadership. Unfortunately, the leaders they had were busy sinning themselves! God describes the situation by saying, “I looked for someone who would stand in the gap” [many interpreters take that as a reference to intercessory prayer]… but I found none.” And because there was no one to stand in the gap, His judgment fell on the land. That’s sobering. As one theologian put it, this passage teaches us that “God expects to be pleaded with; He expects godly believers to intercede with Him. Their intercession is his own appointed means for bringing about his relenting, and if they fail in this respect, then he does not relent and his wrath is poured out” (Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 164).
Did you catch what D.A. Carson said there? He said that intercession is God’s appointed means. That is very important. How can prayer change outcomes without changing God’s plan? Here’s the answer: prayer is God’s appointed means for accomplishing His appointed end. God’s sovereignty does not render the causality meaningless. One theologian put it this way. He said, “God has decreed the day of your death, but that doesn’t mean you should stop breathing” (paraphrase of A.A. Hodge in Still Sovereign). Or to use a more “spiritual” example, it’s not that the elect will get saved whether or not somebody witnesses to them. They will get saved because somebody witnesses to them! Paul says, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” If nobody witnesses to them, they won’t get saved! And then we can conclude about the situation that they were not elect, but that will never detract from our responsibility to share the gospel or from the devastating consequences of failing to do so!
Let me see if I can illustrate it this way. Let’s say that you have a neighbor who’s never heard the gospel. Let me ask you a series of questions.
Is your neighbor more likely to get saved if you witness to him? (yes)
Is he less likely to get saved if you don’t witness to him? (yes)
Okay, so what you’re saying is that your decision regarding whether or not to witness to your neighbor is directly related to the likelihood of his conversion. Are you sure? (Yes!)
Okay, let’s say that you witness to him and he gets saved. Did you please God? (yes)
Did your obedience lead to his salvation? (yes) Will your obedience lead to greater blessing for you? (yes)
Will it lead to greater blessing for him? (yes)
Did you cause your neighbor to be among the elect? (no)
So if this set of circumstances were to take place, what could we conclude about God’s sovereign will? (That it was God’s will for you to witness to your neighbor and for him to get saved.)
Does that in any way detract from the significance of your decision or its outcome? (no)
Okay, how about this? Let’s say you have multiple opportunities to witness to your neighbor, but you don't; and he dies and goes to hell. Is God pleased with you? (no)
Are you responsible for your sinful neglect? (yes)
Might your neighbor have gotten saved if you had witnessed to him? (Yes, he might have.)
Could we even say that your neighbor will face suffering that could potentially been avoided had you witnessed to Him? (Yes, and that is a very sobering reality.)
Did your lack of witnessing frustrate God’s eternal plan? (no)
What could we conclude about God’s eternal plan based on this set of circumstances? (Your neighbor was not among the elect.)
Does that in any way detract from your responsibility to witness to him or his responsibility to believe? (no)
Does it in any way detract from the consequences of sin? (no)
So, what are we to conclude? We must never use biblical doctrines in ways they were never intended to be used. God’s sovereignty, while perfectly good and true, is never presented in Scripture as a reason not to pray. God’s sovereignty does not detract from the necessity of prayer, the effectiveness of prayer, or our responsibility to pray.
So, if you want God to do something, pray about it! God may very well grant your request. And then in the back of your mind, you can know that that was His will all along. On the flip side, if you fail to make a request, don’t expect God to do it “just because” and don’t blame your prayerlessness on His sovereignty. It doesn’t work that way.
Here are a couple of closing thoughts. First, I have left a lot of stones unturned. There is more to say on this topic than I could possibly cover in one evening service. So, if there is something I said that bothered you, it may very well be because of what I left out. If that is the case, I would ask you to please come and ask me a question after the service. I would love the opportunity to clarify.
Second, there is a degree of mystery involved whenever we get into the deep things of God, and ultimately, we have got to be okay with that. We should go as far as we can in answering some of these questions, but we must also acknowledge that we are never going to close all the loopholes. The truth is I don’t want a God I can fully comprehend! Because if with my puny little mind, I could fully understand Him, He wouldn’t be all that impressive now, would He? Romans 11:33 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” When we come to the end of our own mental capacities and realize we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding His character and ways, all we can do is respond in praise.