Hayyei Sarah
For the week of November 3, 2007 / 22 Heshvan 5768
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 1:1-31

How Prayer Works

And he said, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, 'Please let down your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink, and I will water your camels' - let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master." Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. (Bereshit / Genesis 24:12-15; ESV)

This week's Torah portion has an interesting example of prayer in action. Abraham assigned his servant the task of finding a wife for Isaac back in the land of Abraham's relatives. Upon arriving at his destination, Abraham's servant prayed that should the young woman he asks for a drink respond in a very particular way, then that woman would be the wife for Isaac.

The narrative tells us "Before he had finished speaking" Rebekah comes on the scene. As the story goes, she does all the things stated in the servant's prayer.

Many have tried to figure out how prayer works. Perhaps the greatest challenge in coming to a clear understanding of this is the fact that it is to God we pray. While the people in the Bible address God in a fashion similar to petitioning a ruler - which is fitting, since God is the great King of the universe - unlike human authorities, God knows what we are going to say before we speak (see Psalm 139:4). The way Rebekah is introduced in this passage hints at God working behind the scenes even before the servant offered his prayer.

So if God already knows what we are going to say, then why do we need to pray before God does something?

As the King of the Universe, God is sovereign, which means that he is in full and total control of all that happens. That God chooses when and how to intervene in our lives is his business. Certainly it is nothing that we have control over.

Some people try to understand prayer by limiting God's omniscience (his knowing everything) and/or his sovereignty. This way of thinking leads to notions of God needing our prayers to fulfill his own desires or that we have the power to move God in ways he would not otherwise move. But limiting God in this way is not in keeping with the overall understanding of Scripture.

Those who emphasize God's omniscience and sovereignty also tend to draw unbiblical conclusions about prayer. For example, asserting that the actual purpose of prayer is to change us who pray rather than to affect circumstances, disregard the reality of the story at hand and many other accounts of prayer in the Bible. Certainly prayer has a positive spiritual effect on our lives, but this is a byproduct of prayers like these, not their purpose.

Some create complicated philosophical notions such as claiming that the sovereign God who determines the answers to our prayers also determines the prayers we pray. Not only does this turn us into robots, it makes prayer into some sort of divine ventriloquism, whereby we simply mouth words that are not actually are own. This view also disregards the accounts of prayer throughout the Bible. Prayer does not flow from our lips due to God's manipulation of us.

So why pray? Why did Abraham's servant pray? He did so, because he needed God's help and believed that God would help him if he asked. I don't think it is any more complicated than that. Trying to understand how prayer works does nothing to help us pray. While the Scriptures reveal God and his ways to us, they don't tell us everything about the mechanics of spiritual dynamics. While it is essential to try to grasp as much as possible of what God has revealed to us, it is not helpful to try to figure out those things of which he has not given us sufficient information. How prayer works is one of those things.

That the all-powerful, sovereign, good and gracious God invites us to engage him in prayer should be sufficient to get us praying.

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