How the Devil Derailed Prayer

For many Christians, prayer is not as important as it should be. Many Christians only pray before meals, before bed (when they are children), or in emergency situations. The concept of “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17 – ESV) [1] is not a part of the lives of most Christians. How did the average Christian lifestyle drift so far from what the Bible says to do? The short answer is that most Christians are taught that everything that happens is God’s will, or “God is in control,” and that even Satan (if the Christian believes in Satan), has to ask God’s permission before he can act.

We all hate meaningless work, and that includes meaningless prayer. Good, solid, powerful, focused prayer takes a lot of work, a lot of time and mental energy. No one wants to make that effort if his or her prayer does not really make a difference. Unfortunately, that is what the teaching that “God is in control” does; it teaches that our prayers really do not make much, if any difference.

If everything that happens is God’s will, then God’s will gets done whether or not anyone prays. If prayer does not change anything, then what purpose does it serve? We have been told it demonstrates a person’s humility and obedience to God’s command to pray. Also, it has been used as a punishment for sinning (such as in the Roman Catholic Church when prayers are assigned as a penance for sin). Also, it has been said to be therapeutic because confession and prayer are “good for the soul.” It has also been taught that we pray to help align our own thinking with what God is doing, and to humbly accept the will of God.

It was Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.) who discussed and defended the doctrine of “predestination” with such vigor it became an intrinsic part of Church doctrine. The doctrine of predestination played a large part in devaluing the importance of prayer in the everyday life of Christians. It has even been considered heresy that prayer could be effective for salvation. This is why even today there are no “altar calls” for salvation in the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, or other denominations that believe a person cannot choose to be saved because God made that choice for him ages ago. [2]

Augustine did teach that prayer was valuable and acknowledged that it was a person asking God for His favor. However, his words do not create much motivation to pray. To Augustine, and to the millions of people who follow his teachings, prayer was just asking for things that God already knew He was going to do. According to that theology, prayer does not change anything in heaven or on earth.

The doctrine that “everything that happens is God’s will” is held by many thousands of sincere, God-loving Christians. It has been around for more than 1500 years as a foundational doctrine of many Christian denominations, but it produces bad fruit. For example, the exemplary Christian, Watchman Nee, writes: “Prayer does not alter that which God has determined. It never changes anything; it merely achieves what He has already foreordained.” [3] Not surprisingly, Nee, who acknowledges that prayer does seem to change things, in timing if not in essence, also wrote: “God’s people must pray before God Himself will rise up and work.” [4]

Nee’s two statements are contradictory. If people must pray to get God to work, then prayer does change things. On the other hand, if prayer changes nothing, then God’s going to work when His people pray is just coincidence. Watchman Nee is a wonderful and influential Christian. Imagine how much more helpful his teaching about prayer could be, if instead of being forced by his theology to say that prayer never changes anything, he could aggressively proclaim that prayer changes things dramatically, because it does!

The Bible says that prayer makes a difference; it changes things. Scripture never teaches that prayer is just a ritual, or just affects the one who does the praying. It is true that there is no verse that says, “Prayer changes things.” Nevertheless, this is the clear teaching of Scripture. We are supposed to learn from the examples in the Bible as well as its statements of fact. The many examples of people who prayed and received answers clearly teaches us that prayer makes a huge difference in what happens on earth. Furthermore, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you…” (Matt. 7:7a), and “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matt. 21:22). If we have to ask for something before it can be done, then we play a significant role in getting God’s work done on earth.

[intro]God is not in control of what happens on Earth[/intro]

We assert that God is not “in control” of what happens on planet Earth. Many things that occur are not His will. He wants all people to be saved, but most will not. He wants people to live godly lives, but most will not. God does not want the crime, corruption, and disasters that occur around us to happen, yet they do. Why? Because God is not “in control.” Jesus knew that God’s will often did not happen here on earth, so in “The Lord’s Prayer,” he prayed to his Father and said, “…your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10b). That would be an absurd request if Jesus knew God’s will was in fact always being done on earth.

God is not “in control” of everything that happens on earth now, but that does not mean that He is not involved, or will not take control in the future. Jesus Christ will come down from heaven with the armies of heaven, fight the Battle of Armageddon, and conquer the earth (Rev. 19:11-21). When Jesus Christ rules the earth in the future, the will of God will be done on earth, and the things that make life so difficult now will not occur. If God was in control of things on earth both now and in the future, then why would we expect our next life would be any better than this one?

Understanding the spiritual situation that exists today helps us to understand the value of prayer and why God says over and over again that we should pray. There is a state of war that exists in the universe today, with God, Jesus Christ, good angels, and Christians on one side, and the Devil, demons, and evil people on the other. [5] The evil that occurs on the face of the earth today is not just “good” that somehow looks like evil. Some theologians try to convince us that when someone is murdered, raped, or killed, it is the will of God and therefore, somehow ultimately good, no matter how “evil” it seems to us. Yet, Jesus taught us that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:24). If God is the cause of sickness and death, then when Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, he was undoing God’s work, and God’s kingdom would fall apart.

A World at War

God originally created the world under His control. Then, in an act of amazing love and trust, God gave the rulership of the earth to mankind (Gen. 1:28). For a short time Adam and Eve ruled the earth according to God’s will, and it was a blessed place. When the Devil deceived Eve (1 Tim. 2:14), and Adam and Eve sinned, somehow (the Bible does not make clear exactly how) the rulership of the world was transferred to the Devil. That is why the Devil is called, “…the god of this world…” (2 Cor. 4:4 – KJV), “…the prince [archon = ruler] of this world…” (John 12:31), and “…the ruler of the kingdom of the air…” (Eph. 2:2). The Devil rules the world, so he was able to offer it to Jesus (Luke 4:5-7). It is also why 1 John 5:19 says the Devil controls the world: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” [6] The world has taken on the characteristics of the Devil, becoming a very dark and difficult place to live.

The earth is now a war zone between the forces of good and evil, and each side wins some battles. Every time a person gets healed or saved, it is a victory for God. Every time a person gets harmed or killed, or what is worse, dies unsaved, it is a victory for the Devil. God is trying to help and bless people who live on the earth. However, He is righteous and just, and will not simply step in and take control of what He had entrusted to others. Our prayers open a door for God to work in our lives.

The Bible is full of the imagery of war. God Himself is called “the Lord of hosts” many times, and the word “hosts” means “armies.” [7] But if everything that happens is God’s will, why does God need an army? Who is He fighting? The simple truth is that God needs an army because the world is at war. Theologically, the book of Job has been used to trump the huge number of verses that show God fighting the Devil. Theologians use the first two chapters of Job to teach that, although the Devil is the agent doing the evil, he must have God’s permission to act. However, if that is correct, then all God would have to do to stop evil would be to say, “No!” to the Devil. Furthermore, the “God controls the Devil” theology does not answer all the clear verses about God at war. [8] For example, Acts 10:38 (ESV) says Jesus healed those who were “oppressed by the devil.” But if God had to give permission for people to be oppressed, it would have been easier for God to stop granting permission to the Devil, than for Jesus and his disciples to expend so much effort to get people healed.

Scripture says, “The Lord is a man of war…” (Exod. 15:3 – ESV) because there is a war, a real, genuine, “win some and lose some” war, going on between God and the Devil. God does not win every battle. [9] Many verses depict God at war for His people. Psalm 18 is a Psalm that has comforted many people through the years. It tells of a person who was in distress and called out to God for help. God “heard my voice” (v. 6) and responded. First, He got angry (v. 7); so very angry that “Smoke rose from his nostrils…” (v. 8). Then God “…parted the heavens and came down…” (v. 9), and “…shot his arrows and scattered the enemies…” (v. 14) and “…rescued me from my powerful enemy…” (v. 17).

Praise God that we have a God who will fight for us, but if what is happening on earth is God’s will, Psalm 18, and many others like it, make no sense. If everything on earth was God’s will, the poor man in Psalm 18 would cry out to God about his suffering, and we can imagine God calling back and saying, “I know what is going on. Quit complaining. What you are going through is my will and for your own good.” Psalm 18 only makes sense if what was happening on earth was not God’s will, if the “enemies” were real, and if God was able to intervene when the person prayed to Him for help.

Psalm 18 gives us a glimpse of the importance of prayer. The world is controlled by the Devil, but God is able to act when we ask Him. The whole process of deliverance in Psalm 18 started when the person called out to God for help. The word “pray” means, “ask,” and if we want God’s consistent help in our lives we have to ask Him for it. We ask (pray), for His help.

The well-known Christian, Brother Andrew, author of the best-selling book, God’s Smuggler, saw prayer change things so dramatically that he wrote the book, And God Changed His Mind. [10] Brother Andrew’s book is a step forward from the idea that God’s will is eternally fixed and always done and that, therefore prayer does not really change anything. He asserts that, in the end, God’s will is always done, but he teaches that our prayers can get God to change His mind:

“…God’s plans for us are not chiseled in concrete. Only His character and nature are unchanging; His decisions are not!…when we see things happening in the world that appear to be ‘acts of God,’ and we disagree with what God seems to be doing (or allowing), we can ask Him to change His mind.”

Thank God for Brother Andrew’s book, but it leaves us with some very important questions: “Why should we have to ask God to change His mind? Why would He do harm in the first place?” If someone has cancer, and we pray for the person’s healing and God “changes His mind,” and heals the person, we are left wondering why a good and righteous God would give the person cancer in the first place.

The only satisfying and Scriptural answer to why there is evil, and why prayer actually works and is vital to Christian life, is that the world is at war. Our prayers give God permission to work in a world that is now controlled by the Devil. How can we give God permission to act on earth? When we become saved, we legally become God’s property, paid for by the death of Christ (1 Cor. 6:19 and 20, 7:23). God can act on behalf of His property, and when we pray, we sanction His intervention. [11]

We may never understand why some prayers seem to work and others do not. However, the answer is not that God does not care about us, or that somehow He is doing what seems evil to us but is actually good. God only gives us a tiny glimpse of the spiritual realm and the spiritual battle, but if we take what we see at face value, we see that often prayer is speaking into existence the legal permission for God to act in our lives.

The Importance of Free Will

Since the time of Augustine of Hippo, the Christian Church has for the most part rejected the premise that mankind has freedom of will. The Roman Catholic Church followed Augustine. Later, in the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin and many others, continued with the same basic theology. A summation of the major argument against free will is: If a person can make his own choice whether or not to be saved, then he is saved by his own efforts. Since Scripture says that people are saved by grace, then they cannot be saved by their own efforts, so God must be the One who chooses who gets saved and who does not.

There are many reasons to reject the above argument and assert that mankind does indeed have freedom of will, and there are ample defenses of free will in books and on the Internet. [12] Two simple reasons to reject Augustine and predestination are that, first, salvation by grace does not mean that a person cannot have any part in his salvation, it just means that the salvation being offered and accomplished is by “grace,” i.e., we did not deserve it. Second, if we do not have free will, then hundreds of Scriptures have no practical meaning. If we cannot really do what God asks us to do unless we first have His help, the verses that tell us to choose life, to live godly lives, to be holy, or to be wise, become pointless, and even disingenuous.

To understand the necessity and value of prayer, it is vital that we understand that we truly, genuinely, have free will. God respects the choices that we make for ourselves, beginning with the choice to be, or not be, saved, and then the choice to ask for, or ignore, His help. We have a right to decide to be unsaved. It may be a stupid decision, but we have the right to make it. Similarly, we have the right to live without God’s help. That may be stupid too, but we have the right to try to fight the Devil on our own and get along in the world without God’s help. As we have seen, the world we live in is controlled by the Devil, and he acquired rulership of it from Adam, who got it from God, so now God cannot just interrupt the Devil’s rulership to help us, even if we need it.

Sometimes it seems like God breaks into our lives uninvited, but there are always reasons for that, even if we do not know what they are (perhaps someone else was praying for us).

It is amazing how many people complain to God about their lives but never diligently pray for God’s help. Those people are like children who complain to their friends that their parents never get them what they want, but have never asked the parents for anything. The book of James is clear: “You want something but don’t get it…You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). We need to be asking God for help all the time, over and over again, all day long. We need to pray like Paul says, “…on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests…” (Eph. 6:18). We need to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17 – ESV).

In spite of the Bible’s many exhortations that we need to pray over and over throughout the day, someone may say, “but the Bible says, ‘God knows what we need before we ask Him,’ so why do we have to ask?” (Matt. 6:8). God does know what we need, but He still has to respect our free will decision to include or exclude Him. As we said earlier, prayer is speaking into existence legal permission for God to act on earth. God is often like a frustrated father whose teenager is saying, “I want to do this all by myself,” but struggling hard to write a paper for school. The father could help a lot, but if the teenager refuses, his options are limited. Let’s not be like the teenager. God knows what we need, and tells us to ask Him, so let’s ask. Prayer is asking, and each one of us has plenty to ask for in this life, for ourselves, our families, our faith, our country, and much more. Let’s pray and pray and pray.

Speaking in Tongues

The loss in Christendom of the knowledge of the manifestations of the spirit, and especially speaking in tongues, has greatly affected the average Christian’s ability to “pray without ceasing.” Speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the gift of holy spirit (1 Cor. 12:7-10) and not a product of the mind. Each Christian can speak in tongues out loud or silently whenever he wants, and because his mind is not fully occupied with it, is often able to do other things at the same time. Since speaking in tongues is either praying (1 Cor. 14:13-15), or praising God (Acts 2:11, 10:46; 1 Cor. 14:16), a person can pray by speaking in tongues (we say, “pray in tongues”) in many situations in which he would not be able to pray with his understanding. For example, if a person is involved in a conversation, he can speak in tongues when the other person is speaking and still hear and understand perfectly. On the other hand, it would be difficult or impossible for him to pray in English in his mind while the other person was speaking and still fully get what the other person was saying.

The Apostle Paul took full advantage of speaking in tongues, and disciplined himself so that he spoke in tongues much in his life. So much, in fact, that he wrote to the Church at Corinth, “…I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Cor. 14:18). The Greek text makes it clear that Paul did not say, “I speak in tongues more than any of you,” but rather that Paul spoke in tongues more than “all of you put together.” So when he wrote, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17 – ESV) he was not asking the people to do something that he was not doing. To speak in tongues more than the whole Church in Corinth, he must have spoken in tongues throughout the day. We should too.

Getting Prayer Back on Track

Many Christians have a weak or non-existent prayer life. Perhaps worse, when asked about it, they say something such as, “I know I should pray more, but….” Then they give reasons such as they do not know how, or they do not feel comfortable about it, or their prayers do not sound good. These can be real obstacles in a person’s mind, and have to be dealt with. However, the real bottom line has to be that God commands us to pray and we need to figure out how to do it no matter how we feel. We need to start praying because, “…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Although many people do not pray because they think their prayers “sound bad” or they do not know “how” to pray, the truth is prayer has no “right form.” Remember, praying is asking, and God looks on the heart. If our hearts are full of humility and faith, that is what matters. When a soldier under enemy fire says, “God, get me out of this,” that is a great prayer. The soldier is clear about what he wants, and he asks God for it, and God can then respond. In contrast, many long and flowery prayers do not ask for much and do not give God much to respond to. Keep in mind that the Greek words translated “pray” mean to “ask.” In contrast, “praise” is “to express approval, or a favorable judgment or opinion; commend.” To pray (ask) and to praise are different. Many of our prayers today are a combination of asking, praise, and thanksgiving, but we must never lose sight of the fact that God tells us to ask Him for things, and we must continue to do that.

Ephesians 6:18 says we are to be “alert” when we pray, and Colossians 4:2 says that we are to be “watchful” when we pray. What does that mean? Remember, our prayers are speaking permission for God to act down on this earth, both in our lives and in the lives of others. Our needs, and the situations around us, are constantly changing. We must be alert to what is going on around us: to what people are doing, what the Devil is doing, and what God is doing. What is happening around us will determine much of what we pray for.

One of the weaknesses of memorized prayer is that it is “fixed” and cannot adapt to what is happening. Most cultures have memorized prayers. While they can sometimes help us focus on God, Jesus warned us not to think that God will pay attention to us just because we repeat a prayer over and over. Bible versions differ on how to translate Matthew 6:7, but the point of Christ’s warning was that repeating the same memorized prayer over and over, which was the habit of some pagans, did not have a benefit (“…do not heap up empty phrases…” (ESV, RSV, NRSV), “use not vain repetitions” (KJV), “…do not use meaningless repetition…” (NASB), “…do not keep on babbling like pagans…” (NIV)). [13]

Repeating the same memorized prayer is not the same as praying day after day for the same thing. Jesus taught his disciples to pray again and again for something in order to help it come to pass (Luke 11:5-9, 18:1-7). We can watch in prayer by paying attention to the people and situations around us, lifting them up in prayer. Another way we can watch in prayer is by letting the morning newspaper or newscast become a “prayer guide” for us. We can pray for the people and the situations we learn about. Another thing that can be helpful is to keep a “prayer list” of people and things that need prayer.

Another way to be watchful in prayer is to pray for the things we pass as we drive down the road. Americans are in the habit of just listening to the radio or to a CD as we drive, or to just “space out” as the miles go by. However, driving is a wonderful time to pray. We can ask God if there are any specific needs that may exist in the places and people we pass, or just pray in general for God to bless and help those we pass. If Christians would pray for the things they pass on the road, lots of businesses, families, and farms that never get specifically prayed for would get blanketed in prayer, and there is no telling what God could do in response to those prayers.


The teaching that “God is in control” has, knowingly or unknowingly, adversely affected the prayer lives of millions of Christians. Many people are not motivated to pray because they have been told that God’s will comes to pass whether they pray or do not pray, while many others do not pray throughout the day simply because they have never seen that modeled for them by other Christians. Prayer changes things dramatically, and God needs us to ask in prayer, so He tells us again and again to pray. God is willing to do His part if we will do ours. Let’s not sit around complaining about how bad the world is; let’s do something about it! God wants us to do something, and a powerful thing we can do is to pray.


[1] Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
[2] The man who argued with Augustine, and said that a person could choose to be saved and attain that salvation by his own efforts, was Pelagius. Hence the belief that a person can attain salvation by his own efforts is referred to as Pelagianism. It is still considered “heresy” by many Christian denominations. We disagree with Augustine and the doctrine of predestination, and assert that God gives each person the choice to be saved and that today, people make that choice by accepting Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10: 9-10).
[3] Sentinel Kulp, Secrets to Spiritual Power (Whitaker House, New Kinsington, PA, 1999), p. 40. Kulp compiled writings from Nee for this book.
[4] Ibid., p. 40.
[5] I have left “good people” out of the list. The earth is a spiritual battlefield, and people are only equipped for battle if they are spiritually equipped, which God has done for each Christian by giving him or her the gift of holy spirit. Being “good” to others does not qualify or enable a person as a spiritual warrior.
[6] The KJV does not do a good job translating 1 John 5:19, but almost all modern versions get the sense of the verse correct, even the NKJV.
[7] The concept of “Yahweh of armies” has not been understood theologically due to the overall teaching that God rules over everything from heaven and everything that happens on earth is His will. If that were true, why would He need an army? This has led to most versions (KJV, ESV, NASB, RSV, etc.) using the phrase “LORD of hosts,” which is unclear at best, and the NIV using the phrase “LORD Almighty,” which is far removed from the original text.
[8] For an explanation of God and Satan in the book of Job, see our book, Don’t Blame God!
[9] Many people deny that such a battle could occur because they believe that God has the power to squash the Devil if there were such a war. However, the basis of the war is not strength, but legality and right. God gave the world to Adam, and gave both angels and mankind free will to make their own choices, and now He must fight for His people righteously, and support them in making right choices.
[10] Brother Andrew, And God Changed His Mind (Chosen Books, New York, 1990).
[11] It was Bob Wilhite who stated that prayer is “sanctioning God’s intervention…” He is quoted by Cindy Jacobs in Possessing the Gates of the Enemy: A Training Manual for Militant Intercession (Chosen Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1991), p. 48. Thus, the idea that our prayers give God permission to work is one that is recognized by prayer warriors around the globe.
[12] A good defense of free will has been done by David Bennett and can be found at
[13] Scripture quotations marked (RSV) are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, © 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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