Does Prayer Change Outcomes?

One of the great gifts of Refuge is that our church is a safe space to ask questions. We live into our name in this way especially. One Sunday in August, we watched a video put out by in which Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, defines prayer as a state of communion or connection with God or another person.1 For Rohr, then, prayer has a much broader definition than simply “talking with God.”

This discussion prompted a follow-up question: Does prayer change outcomes? When we pray, specifically, when we make petitions to God, does God in fact respond directly to those prayers? Not a small question. In fact, it’s quite loaded. How you answer this question relates to what you think about who God is, how God in God’s triune nature is active in the world, and how you interpret Scripture’s numerous accounts of prayer, among other factors.

One way that I was taught to think about prayer and prayer changing outcomes comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 7:7-8 states, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Hence, the lesson gleaned from these two verses seemed obvious. Ask God for whatever you want and God will give it to you.

I was baffled, then, when one of my teachers pointed to these verses in a conversation about prayer. She pointed out that these verses are in the same paragraph as the Golden Rule! “Do unto others what you would have them to do you” (Matt. 7:12). What? Huh? I thought the famous “ask, seek, knock” triad was all about what God was supposed to do for me, not what I was supposed to do for another!

Here’s the paragraph in its entirety from the Common English Bible:
7 “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened. 9 Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? 10 Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? 11 If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. 12 Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:7-12).

It seems, then, that Jesus expects that others will ask things of me and that I am supposed to respond by giving what is asked. When someone is searching, lost, or discouraged, I am supposed to offer to walk alongside him or her. When someone knocks on my door, I am supposed to answer it. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Understanding ask, seek, and knock this way might mean that we become the answer to someone’s prayer.

We did not reach a conclusion, come up with a final answer, or even all agree—and that’s all right. We will, however, continue to pray together each week, making some bold requests of God:
From the Refuge Common Prayer:
“Do not allow us to become comfortable.
Give us the ears to hear the cries of the oppressed,
The eyes to see the needs of the poor,
And the voices to speak on behalf of the marginalized.”

Perhaps God is asking us to become the answers to these prayers and to those who ask, search, and knock.

What do you think? Does prayer change outcomes? Is God calling you to become the answer to your/our prayers?


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