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What is the purpose of prayer?

Can it change God's mind or influence His actions? It seems from the actions of Moses that this is possible.


What is the purpose of prayer? Can it change God’s mind or influence His actions? It seems from the actions of Moses that this is possible. I guess I was wondering more specifically about prayer for unbelievers. I have searched the entire New Testament and have found only one instance of Jesus asking us to pray for our enemies. And in John 17:9 Jesus said that He doesn’t pray for the world but for those who will believe in Him. What’s your viewpoint on this? Should I pray for my unbelieving friends? Or should I pray just for those who are appointed to salvation? What effect do my prayers have on a God who sees the choices that people with free will make?


Good questions. God teaches us to pray; even Jesus prayed, though He was perfectly united with the Father. Surely God takes our prayers into account. After all, why would He instruct us to do something useless? It’s true that from the depths of his bitterness, Job once wondered whether prayers have any point, but he later confessed that he hadn’t realized what he was talking about (Job 21:15, 42:1-6). Besides, Scripture is full of instances in which God adjusted His plans in accordance with human requests — not just the requests of Moses, but the requests of other biblical figures too. I’d like you to notice that many of these prayers were offered on behalf of other people, including nonbelievers. For example, when Agrippa said to Paul, his prisoner, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”, Paul replied, “Short time or long — I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28-29, emphasis added).

Yes, I understand that you have found only one command from Jesus to pray for our enemies. By the way, it’s recorded in two places, Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:28. But how many times does Jesus have to say it? Three? Thirty? The Son of God Himself is speaking; isn’t once enough? And how could we pray just for those whom God knows will be saved? He hasn’t told us who they are.

You end with a good question — how could our prayers affect a God who sees the choices people make with free will? There are various theories about this, but one point may help. Yes, God’s knowledge is eternal — but remember, He eternally knows more than one thing. From eternity He knows how nonbelievers respond to His actions toward them — but from eternity He also knows what prayers their Christian friends offer on their behalf. There is no reason why He cannot, from eternity, adjust His actions toward nonbelievers according to the prayers which He accepts. Does that help?

Of course, we don’t know from experience what that’s like, because we know things successively — moment by moment, rather than all at once, like Him. But we don’t have to know what that’s like to know that He can do it.

Grace and peace,


Copyright 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J. Budziszewski

Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

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