It had been a long and dramatic day. Hundreds of prophets of Baal had feverishly gyrated around an altar with the hope that their god would answer them, but as evening approached, no answer had come. Now there was quietness, as the lone prophet of Jehovah, Elijah, urged the people to come near as he carefully repaired the altar of the Lord. Then lifting his heart heavenward, he prayed, “O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel …. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell, and the people fell on their faces with one acknowledgement, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1Ki 18:36,37,39 ESV).
Few of us have had such a dramatic and powerful answer to prayer, but James, in his reference to the prayer life of Elijah, presents a faithful principle: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas 5:16 ESV). Interestingly, Elijah was no “super saint,” for he was a man just like ourselves, with strengths and weaknesses and “highs and lows,” but despite these factors, he knew that his God was the omnipotent Sovereign, and so he prayed “earnestly,” or simply put, he “really prayed!” His was not a recitation or a display of vocabulary but a heart in tune with heaven beseeching God to work. And the rain stopped – and the fire fell – and the rain started again – all in response to the power of one man’s prayers. Now this power did not reside in the prayers themselves but rather in the One to whom the appeals were made. Confidence in God’s personal concern and sovereign resources unleashed the power he lacked in himself (1Jn 5:14-15). So what does prayer do?
Power to Appreciate the Heart of God
Prayer for many of us centers on “results” and “answers,” but God’s focus is on our relationship with Him and our time conversing with Him. The Bible reveals a God who is not only approachable but who longs to have His own draw near to Him. Parents value the moments when their children approach them for counsel, help, comfort and affection, and the God of heaven is no different. He extended a heartfelt invitation in Jeremiah’s day when He said, “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things that thou knowest not” (Jer 33:3 KJV). He longs to make Himself known, and as we draw near to Him, He has promised to draw near to us.
It’s touching to view Abraham conversing with the El-Shaddai in Genesis 18 and to read that “Abraham stood yet before the Lord” (18:22 KJV) – a delightful picture of two friends talking together. Even in the spiritually dark days of Malachi, remnant believers “spake often one to another” (and no doubt to God as well), and the “Lord hearkened, and heard it” (Mal 3:16 KJV). Wonderfully, He “pricked up His ears” with the sensitivity of His love and He “heard them” in the strength of His affection. He has identified with us in every aspect of our lives, and that’s why we can come boldly to a Throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16).
Power to Address the Heart of Our Concerns
It has been said that “prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscles of omnipotence,” for prayer activates the power of God. The early Church was convinced of its power, as seen in the crisis of Acts 12. James had been killed and Peter had been arrested and was headed for the same gruesome end. And so, “prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him” (Act 12:5 KJV), and at the critical hour, prison doors swung open.
Centuries before, in the midst of a battle and with the sun beginning to set, Joshua spoke to the Lord regarding the extension of daylight so that the victory could be completed – and “the sun stood still.” The summation of the account is noteworthy: “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel” (Jos 10:14 ESV). Prayer does change things! Speak with Hannah, Daniel, Moses, David, Nehemiah, Samuel – so many of God’s people saw their needs met often in extraordinary and unexpected ways.
Power to Experience Change in Our Own Hearts
Perhaps most importantly, prayer’s power produces change in us personally. Too often, prayer is considered to be wasted time or a last resort when we can’t figure out what to do. We rush into the presence of God with our requests and expect God to check off all the boxes, but God is more than a restaurant waiter standing alongside to take our order. Our time with God centers in our relationship with Him, and when we quiet ourselves before Him in prayer, we ourselves are inwardly changed. Prayer is not pulling God to my will but rather the aligning of my will to His. Our minds and hearts will become attuned to see His perspective and to trust the faithfulness of His heart and the tenderness of His care. Fear and uncertainty will dissipate as we appreciate His sovereign power and the wonder of His purpose and will. Anxiety will give way to quiet trust, even as Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” and quickly added, “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Php 4:6-7 ESV). Amazingly, that was written from a Roman dungeon! Instead of panic, patient waiting for God’s will to be unfolded will become a reality as we bow before our Lord and will no doubt confess that “His ways are past finding out.” As one writer commented, “Prayer means letting God be God.”
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian believers needs to be our prayer – that we might “know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Eph 1:18-19 ESV). Christian, keep praying, for God is still on the Throne!
 Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 296.