What Really Happens When We Pray?



This is a picture of my dad, Billy Ray Judkins (1937-2005), around 1953. He loved to joke with the family that he played “End, Guard, and Tackle,” and he would go on to say, “I sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water jug, and tackled anyone who tried to steal it!” 

One of the most special memories I have of my dad was seeing him at our kitchen table almost every morning praying and reading his bible. He wasn’t a perfect man, and never claimed to be, but he consistently did his best to live out his faith. One of the most valuable things you can do as a father is to live your faith in front of your kids.

I am convinced that my dad’s prayers helped make him the man he was, and yet his prayers also raise important questions for me. My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in junior high, and ended up dying from complications from lung problems related to recovery from cancer about seven and a half years ago. We prayed and prayed that Dad would be healed, but it seemed that our prayers went unanswered. 

 Maybe you’ve struggled with what seemed like unanswered prayers as well, and maybe that has made praying a challenge for you. It could be that you’re like me sometimes, and prayer can be challenging because you’re not really sure if anything happens. 

The people in John’s day wondered the same thing. After all, in Chapter 6 we just saw those who had lost their lives for the faith gathered in a place of honor under an altar in the heavenly throne room praying, “how long?”

The churches John wrote were asking the same thing. Why, if we are consistently praying to God, does it seem like nothing is happening? 

John’s vision, after the last seal is opened gives us an incredible glimpse behind the scenes of what really happens when we pray. 

“When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.” Revelation 8:1-2

This silence represents all of heaven and earth listening intently. It is a moment of preparation for the final seal, but it is also a moment in which the prayers of all creation can be heard. 

We then read, 

“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Revelation 8:3-4

ImageThe basic outline of what happens is described as follows:

An angel appears with a censer

Stands before the altar

Mixes incense with prayer

This is a scene of worship, and the prayers of God’s people are purified on the altar of incense, before God, just as in the temple below.


“This language is a poetic way of affirming that the prayers of God’s people are not in vain; God hears their prayers.” M. Reddish

We learn some very valuable lessons from John’s vision. 

First, God hears our prayers. 


A couple years ago, while in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 

I had the opportunity to visit a 400 year old Catholic Church called Iglesia de Santo Tomás. While there, incense burned so often that the wallswere stained with the smoke. Comparing that to this image of prayer from Revelation seems to suggest that the very walls of the heavenly throne-room of God are marked by the prayers of God’s people. God faithfully hears every prayer we pray. 

Prayer, at it’s most basic level, is being attentive to God and speaking to God. Like many of you, I find it much easier to talk about God than to talk to God. However, prayer is a gracious invitation to be in conversation with the God of all creation. 

Prayer is a focus upon God whereby all things come into focus. By centering attention on God the center, all things become centered. 

Prayer is our primary “mechanism” for giving our attention to the God who is at the center of the universe.

How to pray? We can follow the wisdom of Abbot John Chaman, who once wrote in his advice to people asking how to pray, “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.” John Chapman

Finally we see the effects of prayer: 

“Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.” Revelation 8:5

Prayer makes a difference – what seems sometimes to have little effect in our limited vision of reality in fact has an incredible impact. Eugene Peterson uses George Herbert’s memorable phrase describing prayer as “Reversed Thunder” to describe the incalculable ways prayer impacts our world. 

While in seminary, I was struck more than once by hearing a quote from our school’s chancellor, Dr. Maxie Dunnam, who asked, “What if there are some things that God either will not do or cannot do until and unless we pray?”

ImageOver the years, we prayed for my dad to be healed from the disease that ravaged his body, and in the end, he wasn’t healed in the way we hoped for or expected. However, our prayers did not go unheard. I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt that our prayers were answered in other ways. 

While my dad wasn’t healed physically, he was a different man by the time he died. He was more gentle, more present, more at peace, and more focused on God in countless ways.  Sometimes our prayers are so focused on one way of understanding the outcome of what we ask for, we miss the greater results that God has in mind. 

Looking back, I realize our prayers for healing were answered in tremendous emotional and spiritual healing that we would miss if we only defined prayer from our perspective. If all I looked for in response was “physical healing,” then I would miss the powerful work God does in and through prayer. 

God hears your prayers, and God acts on your prayers in ways that profoundly impact the world. We are invited, by some mysterious gift and the gracious love of God, to walk and communicate with  God while working together for the redemption and restoration of the world.

[This post borrows heavily from the work of Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination, and Mitchell G. Reddish’s Revelation from the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary Series]

One thought on “What Really Happens When We Pray?

  1. Thank you for this beautiful post, Matt. How amazing that God hears our prayers and responds, even when we don’t always understand how God is responding at the time. And praise God that the Holy Spirit does often answer prayers in ways that are unmistakable.

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