By “works” I mean when people pray, God acts. Not that prayer obligates God to do anything. God owes us nothing! Still, God has set things such that when his children pray, he responds. Not always immediately. And not always as we expect. And not always as we would like. But he does respond.
In fact, he promises in Scripture he’ll respond:
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops (Jas 5:16–18).
Likewise, Jesus taught:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. . . . For your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matt 6:6, 8).
Prayer works and I’ve seen it over and over.
As a child, I remember my family praying for missionaries, many working in remote places foreign to me. Our prayer list included people whose names I couldn’t even pronounce. Missionaries often came to my home for a visit and would tell the most amazing stories about the conversion of Chief So-and-So and his tribe. They would catch us up on the witch doctor and his family. Sometimes their stories involved a high government official in a superpower abroad.
Similarly, I read books of people like John Wesley. He spent no less than two hours on his knees every day, Bible open before him, praying for the world and its salvation. Or George Müller, who claimed that on a single day God answered more than 5,000 of his requests. Among his concerns was the salvation of five friends. One man turned to Christ within a few months, two within ten years, and a fourth within twenty-five. Müller prayed for the fifth man every day for sixty-three years and eight months. He died with the man still unsaved. Before they buried Müller, however, his friend turned his life over to Jesus.
Today, I have a friend who prays for every single member of his church every day. His flock has more than 6,000 members. He has seen thousands of answers to his prayers. I know churches, mission agencies, and parachurch ministries that have prayed for provision. God has faithfully supplied their needed funds.
What about the evidence of prayer’s effectiveness in my experience, and that of my family? For health. For material needs. For wisdom. For strength. For help. For protection. For forgiveness. For comfort. And sometimes, to be honest, for the grace to keep on praying when faith is wearing thin. God has always come through. As Paul told Timothy: “He remains faithful” (2 Tim 2:13).
In short, prayer works.
What We Do and Don't Pray About
This brings me to a second observation: The vast majority of prayers I’ve heard focus at what might be called “spiritual” categories. You know, things like church, missions, evangelism, worship services, God’s will, and marital problems. It also involves family, parenting challenges, and relational issues. And ultimately we pray for our health concerns. And that’s as it should be. That’s all important stuff. I have no problem with praying for any of those areas.
But curiously, one domain consistently and conspicuously overlooked by the discipline of prayer (along with all the other spiritual disciplines) is the huge activity that dominates most people’s lives—their work.
Let me ask: if you’re an executive, when’s the last time you spent a day in prayer before making a key hiring decision? Or if you’re a salesperson, when’s the last time you spent an hour in prayer for every hour you spend pitching potential customers? Or maybe you’re “just one of the team,” quietly doing your job all day. When’s the last time you spent your lunch hour praying for your work, your coworkers, your boss, your company, its customers, vendors, investors, and products or services—instead of eating lunch?
Look, I’m not trying to make anybody feel guilty. I’m asking the logical question that follows from the fact that prayer works. It works in missions. It works in churches. It works in families. So why wouldn’t it work in our jobs? Could the answer be as simple as, “because we seldom think to pray about our work”?
When Businesspeople Pray
One school of thought says people in the “secular” workplace are ineffective at prayer because they spend too much time preoccupied with “worldly” concerns. In other words, they don’t have what it takes to be heard by God—they’re not holy enough to pray. I disagree.
Let me tell you a true story from American history about a time when businesspeople did pray. In the 1840s and ’50s, the USA experienced significant economic growth and prosperity. The West beckoned. The discovery of gold in California promised riches. Railroads were being laid like spider webs, and the money flowed.
A thirty-five percent explosion in the country’s population rendered much of the growth. Immigrants flooded in from Europe. There was tremendous competition for jobs, which led to work shortages and ethnic unrest, including race riots. Add to that ugly mix the smoldering problem of slavery. Unresolved by the Founders, the issue reached a flashpoint. By the 1850s divisions in denominations, regions, and the entire country erupted.
In New York City, the wealthy moved out of the center of the city, taking their churches with them. The new immigrants, the poor—mostly the unchurched—took over their places. One church refused to move. The North Dutch Reformed Church of Manhattan remained. It committed itself to ministering to the population around it. To that end, the church selected a businessman, Jeremiah Lanphier, to develop a plan of outreach.
Lanphier was ineffective. He did the usual things: visitation, tracts, evangelism, Bible distribution. Lanphier received little response. So he did what a lot of businesspeople do when they get discouraged trying to make the leap into the social sector. Lanphier decided to round up some of his old business pals and see if they had any ideas. He called them together for a prayer meeting, distributing a flyer that challenged them to give their lunch hour once a week for that purpose.
The first week Lanphier arrived at the church and planted a sign on the sidewalk: “Prayer Meeting from 12 to 1 o’clock. Stop 5, 10, or 20 minutes, or the whole hour, as your time admits.” He went inside and waited. The response was—well, not particularly encouraging. When the clock struck noon, no one but Lanphier was present. So he began to pray by himself. Twelve-thirty arrived. Still no one came. Soon, one man arrived. Lanphier greeted him, and they prayed together. A few moments later, another man entered and a third walked in. By the end of the hour, six had made it to the meeting.
Desperate for God
That was on September 23, 1857. By October 7, the number had grown to more than thirty. On October 14, the day when Lanphier had decided to hold the prayer time on a daily basis, the bottom fell out of the economy. Banks failed. Thousands of businesses went bankrupt. Of New York’s 800,000 citizens, 30,000 people lost their jobs. Even railroads went bust. It was the worst financial crisis in the young nation’s history.
But as is often the case, what humans perceived as evil, God intended for good. Shaken by the ruin taking place around them, people came to the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting. So many arrived that by mid-November the gathering spread to two rooms. Before long, 3,000 participants filled the entire church.
These were everyday folks, mind you, not clergy. Attorneys, bankers, carpenters, deliverymen, and messenger boys walked in eager to pray. Women too. People of all occupations and stations. Each had different aspirations, fears, needs, and spiritual conditions. Some were regular church-goers. But many professed no religion whatsoever. All came together with one thing in common: they were desperate for God to show up!
God responds to desperation. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:28). Like all movements of the Spirit, Lanphier’s prayer meetings multiplied. And other churches opened their doors for prayer. In March 1958, a large theater announced it would serve as a prayer venue. On the first day, it filled to standing room only by 11:30 a.m. Soon other cities and towns across the continent held prayer meetings. Thousands gathered together to pray.
What did the attendees pray about at the meeting? Well, of course, the “usual” things: confession of personal sins and submission to God, the salvation of family and friends, the return of wayward saints, and the strength and courage to lead godly lives. And, as one would expect, the countless unbelievers who came asked others to pray for them. And many trusted Christ as their Savior.
Such prayers had an effect. The total population of the United States was only 30 million. Scholars conservatively estimate as many as one million people came to faith. All within two years, as a result of that prayer movement.
If We Apply Prayer to Our Work
Prayer reports from that time mention nothing about the country’s economic conditions. No one seemed to beseech God for their businesses or their banks or their railroad. True, some prayed for racial reconciliation. But it is as if having allowed economic prosperity to lull them away from God, Americans prayed for the healing of their souls. They didn’t pray for their legitimate economic needs and realities as well.
What might have happened if they had? What might have been avoided? Within a few short years of this revival—described as perhaps the greatest spiritual awakening ever seen in the United States—the country split in half. It exploded into civil war. Millions of men lost their lives, and much of the South was devastated. True, slavery ended. But the former slaves had no real stake in the American economy, with tragic results that remain to this day.
So it’s a fair question to ask, What might happen if we applied prayer to our work? Have we ever tried it? James wrote, “You do not have because you do not ask God” (Jas 4:2). What might happen if we asked? We know that prayer works. In fact, we know that God takes prayer so seriously that Christ himself prays for us (Rom 8:34), as does the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:26–27).
In 1857, one single businessman committed himself to pray and invited others to join him. At first, no one did, but he started praying anyway. The rest, as they say, is history.
So how would you like to spend your next lunch hour?