In the 2015 faith-based movie “The Cokeville Miracle” the Lord miraculously saved over one hundred elementary school children and their teachers from death in a terrible bomb blast set off by a crazed man and his accomplice wife who had demanded $200 million ransom for the children. Only the couple themselves died. The miracle was attributed to the prayers of the children and of many believers who heard about the situation from TV newscasts.
In the movie the Sunday following the incident there was a scene of a Sunday School class in church where the teacher stressed forgiving the perpetrators despite the enormity of their crime and what could have happened had not the Lord intervened. And he said that there was only one way they could forgive: “prayer.”
As important as prayer is in the life of a believer, it is not necessarily the automatic course of action we take in each and every situation we face. Rather, obedience to the Lord and his word are paramount.
According to Scripture, does prayer automatically result in forgiving someone? No. Forgiving someone results from obeying the Lord’s command to forgive.
Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Forgiving another person can result from understanding how much the Lord has forgiven us of the sins we have committed during our lifetime on earth. Forgiving another person from our heart is an act of our will based on sincere obedience to the Lord and understanding what he has done for us. “Prayer” might or might not be a part of it.
The Lord’s Prayer
Even “The Lord’s prayer” does not require us to pray in order to forgive others.
Matthew 6:12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Rather here we are praying to the Father asking him to forgive us our debts, as we also have (already) forgiven our debtors.
“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
In another graphic instance where prayer was not in order, Jesus rebuked the disciples when they cried out to him asking him to save them from drowning when a furious storm came upon their boat on the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew 8:23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
What did Jesus expect them to do in such a dangerous situation if not to cry out to him in prayer? Based on our study of similar situations in the gospels, we believe that Jesus expected them to rebuke the storm with authority instead of simply praying to him to save them.
In the Church today, much emphasis is placed on traditional “healing prayer” to God when someone is sick. We pray and ask God to heal the sick in Jesus’ name, and then leave the results completely up to him. However we do not see such traditional “healing prayer” in the New Testament. It is taught neither by Jesus in the gospels nor recorded in Acts. Rather we see Jesus and his disciples generally exercising power and authority to minister healing to the sick. In line with this, we are convinced that James also taught healing the sick with power and authority when he wrote “pray over” (not “pray for” as we do traditionally) the sick in James 5:14.
James 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.
We conclude that while prayer may be paramount in many situations a believer may face, obedience to the Lord and his word is even more important. We pray when Scripture commands us to pray; but if Scripture teaches us to do something other than pray, we ought to obey and do it. Otherwise prayer can eventually become for us an “idol”—an automatic, knee-jerk reaction in which we actually put our faith instead of in God and his Holy Word. It is possible for prayer to become an empty tradition as it became for the hypocritical Pharisees in the time of Jesus.
Prayer is not a “cure-all.” It is the Lord who ultimately saves us in any and every situation, and not prayer in itself. A sinner is not necessarily saved merely by repeating the “sinner’s prayer”—but rather by obedience from the heart to the Lord who commands all men to repent of their sins and make Christ their Lord and Savior. The “cure-all” is in fact obedience to him and his word—which should be the fruit of our faith. And of course we love him and obey him because of what he has already done for us through the cross and his resurrection.
After the above article was published, one of our Board Members alerted us to what prominent Christian authors C.T. Studd and A.W. Tozer had written (unknown to us) decades earlier:
“We Christians too often substitute prayer for playing the game. Prayer is good; but when used as a substitute for obedience, it is nothing but a blatant hypocrisy, a despicable Pharisaism…To your knees, man! and to your Bible! Decide at once! Don’t hedge! Time flies! Cease your insults to God, quit consulting flesh and blood. Stop your lame, lying, and cowardly excuses. Enlist!”
“Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late – and how little revival has resulted? I believe the problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply will not work. To pray for revival while ignoring the plain precept laid down in Scripture is to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble. Prayer will become effective when we stop using it as a substitute for obedience.”