Questions abound when it comes to prayer. I was recently asked by a parishioner whether having more people pray would be more effective. Should we really try to get as many people as possible praying in a certain crisis?
When we go to the Bible, we do find believers often enlisting the prayers of as many fellow believers as possible. In the Old Testament, one thinks of Esther who asked all the Jews in Susa to fast on her behalf – a practice which undoubtedly would have included supplicatory prayer (Esther 4:16). In the New Testament, Paul asked the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him, “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured…” (2 Thess. 3:1). The author of Hebrews requests widespread prayer as well (Heb. 13:18). From these and other examples, it would appear that there must be some advantage to having more people praying.
Now we can dig deeper and ask, “Are more prayers then more effective?” To that, I would say, “More effective for what?” For a true Christian, prayer will always be effective. Prayer will always be effective to make a true Christian more humble and dependent on God. Prayer will always be effective to make a true Christian more thankful to God. In other words, prayer is an effective part of our sanctification – how the Holy Spirit produces more holiness in our lives. So, more prayers are more effective to work more sanctification in more people. Paul speaks along these lines in 2 Cor. 1:11, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us through the prayers of many.” Many prayers produce much thanksgiving to God! Being more thankful is part of our sanctification.
But what about the effectiveness of many prayers to change our circumstances? Do many prayers have a greater impact on the way God answers our prayers? There are two dangers we need to avoid when answering.
One is a fatalistic view of prayer where our prayers make no difference to how things unfold. Against that, James 5:11 says “The prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working.” Somehow our prayers are incorporated into God’s sovereign rule over creation. God works through our prayers to carry out his will. Our prayers do make a difference.
The other danger is the idea that we mere humans can manipulate God by strength of numbers. Somehow we can overwhelm God by the sheer volume of prayers coming to him. Against that, Scripture reminds us repeatedly of God’s sovereignty and almighty power. No one can push God around and force him to do something. He is completely free to do as he pleases.
If he wants to, then, God is free to work with the prayers of many as he wishes. If he desires, he can take the prayers of many and incorporate them into his sovereign rule. Is he obligated to? Because God is faithful and true, he can only be obligated by his own word and whatever promises are found there. Does God anywhere promise in the Bible to give more heed to the prayers of many? I’m not aware of any such explicit promise. The closest we get are the words of Jesus in Matt. 18:19, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” That does seem to suggest that having more people pray is better in terms of changing the circumstances, but I’m not sure if it extends beyond the specific context of church discipline in Matt. 18.
We can’t be dogmatic about whether more prayers make a difference to our circumstances. We know that they do make a difference in our sanctification. We know that prayer in general is part of God’s sovereign rule. We know God is free to act as he wishes. Perhaps, in his ordaining of things, more prayers are more instrumental in how God changes our circumstances. Perhaps not. Regardless, the Scriptures do show us by example and command that we ought to ask each other to pray for another. Maybe we should just do it and not overthink it.