Prayer is vital to the Christian life. The type of prayer varies with the age of the petitioner and the occasion.
Our children learn to say simple prayers before meals and at bedtime. As they grow, they move beyond self-centered requests to include family and friends, the church and the broader community.
As one grows spiritually, private devotions become part of the Christian life, and one prays about things of close and intimate concern that are known only to the individual and to God. In public worship we acknowledge our creature-hood and dependence on God, and give thanks for God’s goodness and praise for the many blessings we have received.
We also bring to God the needs and requests of the congregation and acknowledge the many prayers answered in the past. It is good to reflect on the way that God has ordered and directed our paths and answered our prayers.
It is valuable to think about how God answers prayer and — even better — to have been the answer to one’s own prayer.
Have you ever been engaged in an activity of the church or in trying to exemplify the Christian life among friends and acquaintances and suddenly realized that God had used you to answer someone else’s prayer? It is one of the greatest experiences in the Christian life.
So how does God answer prayer?
We read in the Bible of great physical miracles that are unparalleled in modern times. Some among us believe that the difference is due to modern Christians not having as much faith as the early ones.
Others see it not as a lack of faith, but that God has dealt with creation in different ways at different times. What was appropriate 4,000 years ago was not needed 2,000 years ago, nor was the thing needed in the first century that which is needed in the present.
During my youth I often heard this popular religious cliché: “Prayer changes things.” It appeared in church bulletins, on bumper stickers and on wall plaques — the purple-flocked cardboard kind with letters that glowed in the dark. My wife’s father even had those words painted on the side of his family’s car.
While Christians would not openly challenge the substance of the statement, I wondered then, as many wonder now, “How does prayer change things?”
In the 1950s some people reduced it almost to the level of magic. I heard it said that if you do certain things and truly believe, God was “obligated” to grant the request.
When people tried the formula — and failed — they often received the response that “You didn’t pray hard enough,” or “You just didn’t have enough faith.”
Some people expected direct miraculous intervention by God as described in the Bible, and when it didn’t occur they rejected Christian claims completely.
It is interesting and informative, however, that Luke in describing Paul’s ministry at Ephesus in Acts 1:11 said: “God did extraordinary miracles by the hand of Paul.” Two aspects of that statement are very important.
First, Luke described the miracles as “extraordinary.” The deeds were not part of his ministry in other places.
Second, God did the miracles “by the hand of Paul.” If Paul had not gone to Ephesus, the deeds would not have been performed.
God answered the prayers of those in need through a human agent. Perhaps a more accurate rephrasing of the old cliché would be, “Prayer changes people, and people change things.”
This brings us to another consideration: “What does it mean to say that the church is the body of Christ?”
Paul, in 1 Cor. 12:12-26, makes extensive use of the analogy of the church to a body. There are many members, but they are to work together as one organism, not as competitors.
In verse 27 that follows he writes: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and individually members thereof. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helpers, administrators, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have all gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”
The answer to all of these rhetorical questions is a definite “No.” In Ephesians 1:22-23 and 5:30 Paul again uses this imagery to explain the place and work of the church in the world, and asserts that “we are members of his body.”
The church as the body of Christ is the agent through which the needs of his people are met. One of the first acts of the early church was to create deacons to attend to the material needs of the people while the apostles devoted themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6: 4).
James asks in 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?”
He does not suggest that the hungry will find manna from heaven on their lawns each morning, or that the meal in the jar and the cruse of oil will be miraculously replenished as it was for the widow who fed Elijah.
Therefore, the large question before us is: What is expected of us?
First, we are to pray for and cultivate sensitivity to the needs of others.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus responded to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with a simple answer: “the one who needs a neighbor.”
There are people all around us who have needs that Christians can meet. It might be someone who has no sense of meaning or purpose in life, to whom we can give a message of life and hope.
It might be someone we meet in our business or professional activities. It might be someone in our community — perhaps next door. It might even be someone sitting next to us in church whose needs and burdens are not apparent to the casual observer.
Sometimes the need might be for something as simple as a word of encouragement for someone facing difficult circumstances.
Second, we need an effective way to move from the recognition of a need to meeting it. The New Testament gives us illustrations of how that is done in two of the examples already cited.
In Acts 6 we have an example of a systematic organized approach to meeting the needs of people. The apostles attended to the preaching of the word, calling people to repentance and saving faith. Others took care of the sick and needy, instructed the children and new converts, and did other necessary tasks.
In the organization of our congregations we have followed that model, but need constantly to be alert to the changing needs of our community — and likewise adjusting our ministry to the needs of the 21st century.
The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates an unanticipated need and a spontaneous response. It was not the work of an organization, but that of an individual who had a love for the neighbor he didn’t even know, and an active concern for his welfare.
Every day we meet people with needs. We should be sensitive to these and alert for opportunities to be of service. As individuals or by organized effort, we cannot meet every need but that is no excuse for not doing what we can.
We should pray daily that we would be used to achieve God’s purpose, and to be the answer to the prayer of someone in need. There is no greater blessing for a Christian than to have that prayer answered. NFJ
—Ray Cowan, with an academic back-ground in religion and history, taught for more than 30 years at DeKalb College, now part of Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is a member of First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga.