If a person has been around religious people much, he has surely heard the statement, often made with absolute certainty: "Prayer changes things!" The question is this: "Is there any truth to the claim?" Some tired cliches are tired but true; others are just tired. Into which category does this claim fall?
The problem with analyzing cliches is that there are multitudes of perspectives possible. That is certainly true of this one. But, let me say at the beginning that, though there are several ways that this cliche is used with extraordinary deceit, it is most certainly true, regardless of the deceptions. The problem is that it is true in ways people often never consider and not even close to being true in the ways in which many people most confidently consider it to be true. Let's see if I can explain myself, and win you over to my way of thinking. First, the apostle Paul said that we should not be deceived into thinking that our activities are ever fruitless. He said it this way, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7; King James Version--to escape the snares of the copyright laws). He went on, then, to say that if our actions were sponsored by the flesh, we would reap corruption and if they were sponsored by the Spirit, we would reap eternal life. But his point was really very simple: act and you will create a reaction. I may be wrong, but I think I remember learning a law of physics that says the same thing in the physical realm: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, the apostle is simply moving what is obvious from observation into a realm that is not quite so obvious.
However, with his statement in mind, it is hard not to conclude that if a person prays (an action) he will "change things" (create a reaction).
In other words, prayer changes things because it is an act that operates within a cause-and-effect universe. So, in that sense, prayer always changes things.
But, the fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1) that makes the whole thing stink is this: sometimes (lest I should say most times) the changes are for the worse instead of the better. For example, in our generation we have some folks who have exalted prayer to a mindless exercise that is supposed to do "good". We have folks who think we can all pray together without identifying the God/god upon whom we are calling. But this is an illusion, and the prayers so offered are extremely dangerous. Why? Because, when a person prays to a false god, the prayer falls upon one of two kinds of ears: deaf ones, or demonic ones. Isaiah mocked those who crafted gods out of metal or wood or stone and then called upon them as if they had ears that could actually hear (Isaiah 44:13-20). Paul, on the other hand, said that when people offer sacrifices to false gods, they are, in reality, offering sacrifices to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20). In both cases, however, some things have been set in motion that the person cannot call back. Remember, God is not mocked: once an action is undertaken, its effects are beyond recall.
So, what are the things that have been set in motion? Especially if the prayer is to a deaf god? Remember, prayer changes things. In this case, it alters the person doing the praying in one of two ways. It either alters him in the direction of self-righteousness, or it alters him in the direction of cynicism.
First, if a person prays to a false, deaf god, and then things happen in his life that appear to be an answer to his prayers, two things happen at once. First, he is encouraged to go back to the deaf god because he thinks he was heard and that confirms him in the worship of a false god. Second, he is encouraged to think that he was heard because the deaf god considered him "pious", i.e., righteous. This is true because all of us tend to think that the gods hear us if they are pleased with us. Any perceived answered prayer tends to confirm us in our good opinion of ourselves. Thus, we are in a two-fold bondage. We worship a false god and we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. So, indeed, our prayer changed things: it hardened us against the true God and the truth about ourselves. That's not good.
Second, there is always the possibility that the prayer was not answered. That generates cynicism: prayer is of no use. This also alters the person. It tends to turn him in one of two ways. Either he begins to distrust the whole idea of a prayer-hearing God (which would make him pray less and less until there was no more praying done), or he begins to think that he is so out of line that the God/gods won't hear him. In either case, his prayers have done some remarkable damage to himself. He has become either a cynic or a defeatist. That is not good.
Then, suppose that his prayer was heard -- by a demon. This is no idol of stone with no power to act. This is an active agent of evil with some capability to act. In this case, both the pray-er and the prayer have set some things in motion that are distinctly tied to the kingdom of darkness. When this happens, neither the person who prayed, nor the things moved to occur by demonic power, can escape the inevitable evil that was built into the action of praying to a demon.
So, prayer changes things, if we allow the word "things" to include the people who pray. And the changes are not always automatically "good" just because they were born of prayer.
On a positive note, prayer to the true God also changes the person -- for the good. Answered prayers addressed to the true God motivate greater worship of Him, and are often responsible for a greater humility in the one praying because one cannot approach the true God without sensing our lack of personal righteousness. Because this is true, answered prayer with the true God does not yield self-righteousness, but a deepening sense of humility.
So, prayer changes things. But let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Does prayer really move God to act so that what He planned to do is altered? If God is wise, can He change His course of action just because someone asks Him to do so? If God is loving, can He change His loving course of action just because someone asks Him to do so? If God is omniscient, can God move in a direction that is different from the direction He would have taken if prayer had not moved Him to act in the way He actually did?
Hard questions. But questions that have biblical answers.
First, the Bible says pointedly that God responds to those who pray so that their circumstances are altered in ways that would not have occurred if they had not prayed. James says "Ye have not because ye ask not..." (James 4:2). Jesus said "What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Mark 11:24). He also said, "If ye abide in Me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you" (John 15:7). Whatever else those words may mean, one thing is sure: the New Testament contains promises that people not only can, but will, have an impact upon their circumstances by praying to the Father of Jesus Christ.
So, we can say that the Bible says that God will act in different ways depending upon whether, and how, people pray. But, the Bible is not the only teacher of this claim. So is reality. If we really do live in a cause-and-effect universe, God is constantly underwriting the reactions that were initiated by the actions taken. This means that God is constantly responding to prayer. By the same token, if a person does not pray, there is no action taken to generate any reaction. So, it stands to reason that if God has underwritten a cause-and-effect universe, He responds differently according to whether we pray or not.
How do we square this with the idea that God's wisdom dominates His actions and that His love governs His reactions? And, more difficult, how do we square it with the idea that omniscience has already locked in what will be?
Perhaps the answer is in taking a different perspective on wisdom, love, and omniscience. Even with men, there are often a variety of ways to accomplish a given objective. Thus, with the infinite God, there are even more ways to accomplish a wise and loving objective. So, God, being infinitely wise, can rather easily incorporate His response to my prayer into the variety of ways He has to accomplish what He seeks to accomplish in respect to both me and everyone else that my actions impact. Men often think that there is only one or two ways for something to come to pass -- especially when that thing is the long-term result of the gradual buildup of multiplied actions and reactions. But with God, there may actually be an almost infinite variety of ways for the ends to come to pass. So, with wisdom and love, the answers are not that hard if we accept the infinity of both.
But omniscience is a different matter. Most folks who think on omniscience for very long tend to move in the direction of the "static God" -- i.e., Fate. Most folks who get into omniscience very far end up saying, "Since God knows all, all is already determined." Some have tried to get around this by developing a doctrine of the omniscible God -- capable of knowing all, but deliberately refraining from that so there can be real personality. That won't work simply because omniscience is not like power. One can be omnipotent and not exercise all of His power all of the time; but one cannot be omniscient without knowing all all of the time. And the Bible says God is omniscient, not omniscible (Romans 11:33).
So, if God is omniscient, how can our prayers have any real impact? Or are they simply "written into the script as a part of the development of highly sophisticated robots?" Do things happen because we pray or are prayerless, but omniscience means that those are not personal actions undertaken, or refrained from, by persons, but simply the consequences of a God-dominating mechanistic universe in which all is predetermined and all comes along with the precision of a finely tuned machine? Is personality an illusion? Is the choice to pray or not to pray a delusion? Some say so.
The Bible does not. Rather, the Bible simply says what any thinking person would have to conclude anyway -- that there is some knowledge that is beyond us. How can even God pour infinity into finitude? As long as we are creatures with finite capabilities, there will be mysteries that are beyond us. The scoffers say, "You always cop out with that "mystery" defense when the going gets tough", but scoffers are ignoramuses too (like the rest of us)...finite in knowledge while bordering on infinity of arrogance! But the Biblical revelation is not unclear on its declaration: omniscience does not reduce man to machine. Omniscience is a fact with God; personality is a fact with man. So, though mysterious, omniscience remains intact while prayers or prayerlessness continue(s) to make real effects as real causes.