What kinds of things do you pray for? Only the impossible stuff? Things over which you have absolutely no control? What about requests that are “safe”?
The things we pray for probably more than anything else are impacted by our views on what’s actually happening during prayer. Why do we pray? To change God’s mind, to get results from heaven, or to grow in our faith and get closer to God?
As my own understanding of prayer has developed, I’ve found it helpful to read Biblical accounts of how people interacted with God using prayer. One in particular caught my eye yesterday.
Genesis 25:19-34 tells us the familiar story of Jacob and Esau, the fraternal twins who were such opposites that they didn’t even get along in the womb. Nothing about their lives was smooth sailing, even their conceptions.
Isaac didn’t get married until he was 40, and at some point it became apparent that Rebekah was having trouble getting pregnant. God had already promised Isaac's father Abraham that he would have more descendants than there were stars in the sky or grains of sand on the beach. And Isaac no doubt knew that God’s promise was going to be fulfilled through him. I’m not sure whether Isaac thought the pressure was on him or on God to make sure the promise was fulfilled, but he apparently decided he was going to do more than just sit on his duff and wait.
Isaac knew better than to try to “help God out” by getting a female slave to be a surrogate mother. (It probably took Sarah and Abraham a while to live down that little episode.) So Isaac did what we often do when things are beyond our pay grade. He prayed.
“Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, since she was unable to have children. The LORD was moved by his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” (Genesis 25:21 CEB)
We aren’t given every detail here. Isaac was 60 when Jacob and Esau were born, so we know that he and Rebekah had been childless for 20 years. But we don’t know when Isaac started praying or how many times he had to pray before God took action. All we know for sure is that Isaac’s intercession moved God and brought fulfillment of the promise.
Isaac wasn’t just praying in vain-- this passage portrays his prayers as pivotal. He knew what God had promised-- and still he prayed anyway. This is part of a seemingly paradoxical pattern in the Bible where God makes a promise but requires the beneficiary in some way to take possession of what’s promised.
The LORD was moved by Isaac’s prayer, and there’s no reason to think that he isn’t moved by prayer today. We can’t presume that we’ll get everything we want when we pray, and we also can’t take for granted that the will of God will be done automatically if we don’t pray.
James 5:16 says that “the prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.” Some translations use the words effectual or effective in this verse. The main idea is that the people of God can pray and get results.
Prayers can move God.