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This article is from Issue 64: July/August 2013

Does Prayer Work?

As a seminary student in my mid-20s, I faced a crisis. The yearning to learn, study and write coursed through my veins daily. I was convinced God had called me to teach—but where? Should I become a pastor and teach in a local church? Should I become a professor and teach in a classroom? Should I apply to Ph.D. programs?

I didn’t know—so I prayed. I read my Bible with the kind of existential desperation for clarity that only those in crisis experience. But I still didn’t know the answer. So I met with my seminary professors, each of whom affirmed my calling to teach.

Their encouragement, however, did not yield the definitive clarity I wanted. Why, I sometimes cried aloud in my prayers, Why, God, don’t you just tell me?

I know I’m not alone in asking. Many of us have moments when we would like God to speak to us audibly and just tell us what He wants us to do. We want to follow Him—it would just be nice if He told us how.

Many Christians, of course, already understand prayer as more than one-way communication. The Bible reveals prayer as a conversation. But even so, we start to get uncomfortable when people talk about listening to God through prayer. Sure, we can hear God through the Bible, but do we really hear God speak today?

Dallas Willard, in his book Hearing God, put it this way: “Hearing God is but one dimension of a richly interactive relationship, and obtaining guidance is but one facet of hearing God.”

Perhaps the single most important demonstration of how prayer works, one element of this “richly interactive relationship,” is found in Genesis 18.

Here, God visits Abraham in the guise of three men. Abraham receives the men into his home with the extravagant hospitality customary to the ancient world.

During their time together, the Lord reveals to Abraham that Sarah will have a son—a promise He fulfills in His own time.

But He doesn’t stop there. God is in a revealing mode. When the three men get ready to leave, they observe Sodom from afar and wonder, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” What happens next is a biblical template for prayer that reveals prayer is not one-way talking to God, but an interactive relationship.