Jacob, trying to throw off the stifling yoke of his father-in-law, Laban, flees with his wives, children and possessions. But leaving Laban brings him into the path of Esau, his brother, from whom he stole the birthright. Pinched between two enemies, Jacob prepares for the worst, then heads off by himself to pray. Dawn reveals Jacob wrestling with the angel, then marked by a limp. He next meets Esau, and avoids war.
Samuel heads to the home of Jesse, on a mission from God to anoint a king. Moved by the word of God in his heart, he anoints the youngest son, David. It took another decade and a half before David was finally installed as King of Israel.
Daniel, in Persia, sends aloft a prayer for understanding. Immediately, God sends his messenger. But the messenger is opposed by demons, and it is three weeks before Daniel receives his answer.
Word comes to Jesus of Lazarus’ illness. He waits long enough for Lazarus to die. Four days later, Lazarus emerges from the tomb.
We wrestle not against flesh and blood, Paul tells us. Our lives as Christians are constantly immersed in realities we do not perceive with our senses. All around us is an immaterial reality we do not see, which our prayers influence and which influences our prayers.
We do not often know when our prayers have impact on these realities. This is the great mystery of prayer, this co-laboring with God for the transformation of our world and our lives. Sometimes we see the immediate effects of our prayers. Limping from his all night wrestling, Jacob immediately experienced the pacification of his brother. Earlier in Daniel’s life (and one chapter earlier in the book that bears his name), Daniel prayed and Gabriel was on his way with an answer while Daniel was still praying. Other times we do not see the effects of our prayers for some time. David had a lot of fleeing and fighting and praying to do before his anointing as king was fulfilled. We might also mention Abraham who waited twenty-five years before Isaac was born. There is a providence here unique to each person, and not always discernible.
What are we to make of these things? First and foremost: prayer matters, because it matters to God. Though God may choose to act apart from human cooperation, it is most often his way to invite into this creative labor those whom he has called to pray over a specific person, situation or struggle. This is why prayer requests are no light thing, not simply a way to greet or bid farewell (though when such words are indeed backed by action, it is a most powerful and meaningful way to cement our bonds with our fellow Christians). When we take on the glad duty to pray for someone, we set ourselves at odds against an unseen reality, a multitude of hosts whose sole existence is our harm and destruction. When we undertake to pray for the change in a situation, the relief from struggle, we enter into conflict. We are engaging in actions that by God’s cooperative grace, will change circumstances, change hearts, heal wounds, give life where there is death, call into existence that which does not exist, bring divine wisdom to minds and hearts clouded with confusion.
Prayer changes things. A disease, a particular troubling situation, a conflict has a hold on our life, binds us, keeps us from the freedom and joy we are meant, as adopted children of God, to enjoy. We call out to God, we ask the King of the Universe to take what is presently the case and to change it. From mercy, God responds. Our prayers call down invincible power, make possible what is impossible.
But God in his infinite wisdom, though he could instantly change all diseases into health, bring relief to all circumstances of trouble and adversity, end conflict and bring peace, sometimes does so and sometimes chooses to bring about change over time. He always does what is best. We may trust him in that.
There is no doubt, however, that our prayers, cooperating with God’s grace, create turning points. We sometimes perceive the immediate effects. Most often we don’t. In rare cases, God may give us the spiritual eyes to see the turning point in the immaterial realm, the assurance that the victory is already won, and the joy of watching it unfold in time to our material senses.
All these things we take by faith. Our prayers are not ineffectual, however long we may pray them without a discernible answer. Who knows but what with God we created a turning point that we have not yet seen? We may nonetheless trust that God is at work, doing always what is best for us.