I have chosen to call this article ‘The Power of Prayer’ because this is such a popular expression among evangelical Christians.
I have written on this subject before and you can find a fairly recent article HERE where I deal briefly with two major causes of prayerlessness in the church. In this article, I want to set out more comprehensively why I believe that there is no inherent power in prayer and the implications for using the expression ‘the power of prayer’.
Mass Prayer Meetings and Prayer Email/WhatsApp Campaigns
Seldom a quarter goes by without someone organising some or other form of mass prayer campaign. Yesterday a group of passionate Christians in the USA were calling on all believers everywhere to pray in unity that President Trump would prevail in the face of a declared Democratic election victory. Here in South Africa, we have had several mass prayer meetings or campaigns to pray for rain, the political condition of our nation, or farm murders. I am in favour of prayer gatherings of any size, but perhaps for reasons not shared by the organisers of these events.
The question is this: ‘Why are these events or campaigns organised and why do we participate in them?’
Sometimes the appeal is to fill a sports stadium and at other times it is for us all to pray simultaneously and in unity where we are. Whatever the causes and methodology, the principles and motivation are similar. However, do we believe that more people praying will equate to more effective results? If we do believe this then what are the implications? Here are some alternatives to consider:
- God will be obliged or even compelled to act if enough people pray;
- God will be more inclined to answer our prayers if a lot of people agree together;
- The act of praying releases spiritual energy (power) which in itself changes reality.
Most people I know would reject the first option, ponder on the second, and secretly believe the third. Not you? So why then do you send out emails, WhatsApp messages and the like to ask people to pray when a loved one is desperately sick, injured, or perhaps jobless? Perhaps you have never done this or even forwarded a prayer campaign chain letter, but I know of a lot of folks who have.
The Questionable Power of Prayer
We have heard the expression ‘the power of prayer’ so often, and from so many sources, that it is hard not to accept it as being true. However, does the bible teach that prayer releases or initiates spiritual power? Did Jesus teach this or model this? If the answers are ‘no’ and ‘no’ then on what basis do so many Christians believe it?
The bible as a whole, the witness of the early church, and the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus all present prayer as communion with God – no more and no less. God has infinite power and he does sometimes use his power to change reality in response to the prayers of his people. God has power but prayer in itself does not. When we pray, we express our dependence on God, ask him to act on our behalf, or petition and intercede for others. God is powerful and through prayer, we communicate with the all-powerful God.
The Heart of the Misconception
At the heart of the misconception that prayer has power, is the human heart. By ‘heart’ I mean self, ego, emotion.
We choose to believe that prayer has power because then we feel powerful when we pray.
We do the business. We achieve the goal. We are the important factors in the equation and God is just an approving spectator to our triumph. Sometimes we believe in the power of prayer because we are desperate and feel helpless. What can I do? Perhaps I can pray with others and then I won’t feel so helplessly out of control.
Whatever the motivation, the idea is just wrong! We speak to God and he may respond in several ways. He might answer, he might do what we have asked of him, or he may empower us by his Spirit to make the difference we are expecting him to make.
The Biblical Basis for Prayer
Throughout the scriptures, prayer is presented as communion with God. I use the word ‘communion’ because prayer is not always verbal and sometimes also includes worship of some kind. Consider just the following texts:
- 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land”.
- Jeremiah 29:12 “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you”.
- Matthew 6:6 “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father…”
- John 17:1 ‘After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you”.
- Acts 4:23-24 ‘On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said…’
In all of these examples, those who pray are believers and the one prayed to is Almighty God. There is one instance, however, that some people use to teach that prayer, in itself, has power. James 5:16, in the NIV, includes the words: ‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”.
The Exception that is No Exception at All
To rightly understand James 5:16 we only need to place it into its proper context, which is ‘forgiveness of sin’. The Amplified Bible translates verses 15 and 16 as: ‘Confess to one another therefore your faults (your slips, your false steps, your offenses, your sins) and pray [also] for one another, that you may be healed and restored [to a spiritual tone of mind and heart]. The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in its working]’. The source of the available power is God, not the act of praying.
Some teachers also use the previous verse in James 5 to validate the intrinsic power of prayer: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up…” The translation ‘make the sick person well’ used by the NIV is a little misleading because the Greek word more accurately translates as ‘save’ and not ‘heal’ or ‘make well’. This is why the HCSB translates this verse as ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up”.
If God is the recipient of our prayers and it is he who can, and often does, respond with power, then why do we gather together to pray? I have written about this HERE, but the following are a few reasons why corporate (group) prayer is important:
- We join together with one heart, mind, and purpose. We express our concerns and present our requests to God as a people and not just as individuals.
- We sometimes find fuller expression as a group than we could individually because we can agree with and add onto other peoples prayers.
- We are encouraged by being together and knowing that others share our concerns.
- Together we constitute a spiritual temple and often the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst is powerful and almost tangible. In this environment of God’s glory, we can often receive from him words and anointing that we may not if alone in prayer.
Now For Some Final Questions
Yes, I know I am as full of questions as a four-year-old, but indulge me one last time. If you believe what I have written here (and hopefully you have prayerfully tested it against the scriptures) then are you in future going to (1) desist from loosely using the term ‘the power of prayer’? (2) cease attempting to ‘use’ prayer as some form of spiritual warfare weapon? (3) direct your prayers to God alone and depend on him for a suitable response? And (4) participate in group prayers, prayer campaigns, prayer chains and the like for all the right and none of the wrong reasons?
Why this Matter is so Important
When we place ourselves, individually or corporately, as the source of power and prayer as the means of achieving powerful results, then we sin.
Self-centredness and self-reliance have from Genesis 3 onwards been the prime sin. To be even blunter, it is the sin of idolatry, self-idolatry. When we believe that our prayers generate or release power then we relegate God to an indirect sponsor at best or a redundant bystander at worst. Furthermore, when we speak, teach, and model the ‘power of prayer’ we communicate error and encourage self-idolatry.
Please test what I have written against the scriptures and specifically against what Jesus taught and modelled. Set aside the books, videos, and audios by pastor so-and-so or dr what-what and go straight to the source of truth – Jesus and the written Word of God.
Oh, and I would be happy to interact with you via email if you would like to do this.