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Ask the Pastor - Prayer: Does it Change God's Will?

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Senior Pastor Oakwood Presbyterian Church

QUESTION: ““Can my prayers change God’s plan for history?”

ANSWER: First, let me ask this question:  Would you really want your prayers to be able to alter the complex course of human history?  Wouldn’t that be far worse than letting a two-year old toddler drive your car on I-95?  What an audacious request for me to make – to be able to have God direct the affairs of my life and every other life connected to mine according to my extremely limited and skewed perspective!  It reminds me of a prominent television evangelist who many years ago claimed that it was his prayers that diverted a hurricane that was bearing down upon his ministry headquarters.  If his prayers were the ultimate factor in determining the path of that storm, then what about the prayers of those people whose homes and towns were destroyed farther up the coast? 

     We need to be content to trust in the sovereign, wise plan for every detail of history that has been conceived in the throne room of heaven, from the Lord’s vantage point.  It is even easier to trust in that complex plan that weaves the lives of all people into a  tapestry when we remind ourselves that there is a driving purpose to His plan - that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

     I know this only begs another important question – if our prayers don’t change the events of our lives, then why should we pray?  “Because God commands it” is one answer, but it isn’t a very satisfying one.  God wouldn’t command us to do something with no purpose.

     Another answer sometimes given is that, even though prayer doesn’t change things, it does change us.  And that is very true, and very important to understand.  Prayer is, by necessity, an act of faith and trust.  Prayer isn’t a method to obtain what you want; it is communication upon which a personal relationship with the Lord is based.  It is an acknowledgment that you depend upon the Lord completely, and that you trust in Him to guide, protect, and provide in your life.  If there is no prayer in your life, then you are living in the flesh, trusting in yourself and your own resources.  Prayer trains you to be humble and to rely upon the Lord.

     But there’s still something unsatisfying about that answer.  It helps to understand that prayer is helpful because it changes us, trains us to live by faith.  But if that’s all prayer is, isn’t that a lot like the boot-camp sergeant who makes the recruits dig a deep hole, only to tell them to fill it in again when they’re finished?  Yes, it builds character, but it has no purpose to the rest of the world, no benefit to anyone else. 

     Is that the case with prayer?  I think not.  Here we have to take a peek into the mysterious things that lie beyond the puny intellectual abilities of sinners like you and me.  We can’t comprehend how it is true, but the Bible declares that, in some way, God is able to incorporate our freely determined choices and actions into His perfect plans. 

     That’s why God is able to incorporate into His plan even the sinful actions of men, while not being the cause of their sin.  For example, in Acts 2, Peter describes the crucifixion of Christ in this way:  “This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”  God planned every detail of Christ’s crucifixion, and that plan included the sinful actions of the Jewish leaders.  And yet these sinners were fully responsible and accountable for their sins.  We cannot comprehend it, but we accept it to be true.

     In a similar way, God’s sovereign plan also includes our prayers.  One of my favorite quotes on prayer comes from one of my professors in seminary – he said, “God never sets about to do anything in this world without first moving His people to pray for it.”  God doesn’t need my prayers to accomplish His will, but He honors me with the privilege of participating in the process.  I know it doesn’t answer all the questions, but it is important to recognize that God’s work is almost always preceded by the prayers of His people.  That gives me a sense of urgency in regard to my prayer life – He will use my prayers as an integral, even necessary component of His plan for the world.  It also shows the foolishness of expecting to see God’s work in my life or in the lives of others if I’m not praying for it to happen!

Bonding with the Team

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     I’ve seen numerous polls and surveys that identify Penn State sports fans as being among the most loyal fans in college sports.  I’ve not experienced any other major college environments, but I’ve often said that standing in the midst of 110,000 raucous fans in Beaver Stadium is, by far, the most intense sports experience I’ve ever had, and I can’t imagine a greater one. 

     What is it that produces such commitment and loyalty to a sports team?  One of central dynamics at work in the creation of a fan is the bonding power of sharing intensely emotional experiences together with the players, coaches, and other fans.  The proverbial “thrill of victory” will create an attachment between people that can overcome a multitude of differences. 

      I was a teenager in the Pittsburgh area in the 1970’s when the Pirates won two World Series championships and the Steelers won four Super Bowls and a life-long allegiance was formed.  Then I moved to Philadelphia in 1992 and worked hard to embrace the Philly sports teams.  The Phillies went to the World Series the following year (and lost in heart-breaking fashion), but then followed 14 years of futility with few bright spots.  But I’ll never forget a game late in the 2007 season, when the Phillies took over first place in their division on the way to making the play-offs for the first time since 1993.  I was at the stadium that night, and as I walked out of Citizen’s Bank Park I saw amazing things – total strangers hugging and high-fiving each other; people beeping their horns and hanging out of their cars shouting joyfully to each other; and others waving flags and rally towels and declaring their eternal devotion to the Phils.  And then a year later I stood and shivered with over a million fans, in a corporate act of emotional catharsis, as we watched the parade on Broad Street after the Phils won the World Series, and 25 years of frustration and championship famine in Philadelphia were washed away.

     But the intensely emotional experiences that produce fans and bind them to one another don’t have to be positive ones.  “The agony of defeat” can also produce deep attachments.  How else do you explain Chicago Cubs fans?!  The difference between suffering together through an excruciating loss in a big game and surviving front-line warfare together in a foxhole is only a (great) difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

     This “bonding-through-intense-experience” phenomenon isn’t inherently good or evil…it just is; it’s human nature.  But, in some ways, the process is amplified in ministry situations.  I’d always heard about bonding effect of short-term missions trips, but until I joined the team that went to Turkey over a decade ago, I had no idea how strong that experience can be.  You feel like you develop an intimacy with your team members that would normally take months or years to develop in other circumstances.

     We all long for these kinds of deep connections with other people, and we try to develop them through superficial experiences, like sports events, parties, or hobbies.  But, as Christians, we have a far deeper unity and intimacy available to us, through the indwelling spirit of Jesus Christ.   These are the spiritual bonds that are most satisfying.  But we need to share the gamut of intense spiritual and emotional experiences that happen when we worship and minister together – both good and bad experiences, the highs of celebrating conversions and changed lives along with the lows of persecution, grief, and disappointment in life and each other.

      You can’t experience these kinds of relationships if you’re sitting on the sidelines of our church.  If you invest little of yourself in the life and ministry of the congregation, you will receive little in the way of reward.  Come to Sunday School.  Stay long after worship for fellowship.  Join a small group.  Join a ministry team.  Challenge yourself to stretch in the sacrifice of your time and talents for Christ’s kingdom, and see if you don’t begin to feel as though you’re part of the team… better yet, part of the family.  And the closer you draw to God’s people, the closer you will draw to Him.

     “…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”   1 John 1:3-4

Posted by Rev. Dan Kiehl with

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