When I worked as a chaplain people often asked me about prayer. They wondered whether God really listens, whether our prayers can change outcomes, and why God listens to prayer if He already has a plan. These are big and important questions, and while it’s easy to begin postulating about the answers, we can more helpfully respond by looking at the Bible.
In Genesis 18, while Abraham is resting in his tent, God and two other men appear. Abraham offers them food, water, and hospitality. While they’re visiting, the Lord states again that Sarah will birth Isaac, and she laughs (Gen. 18:1-15). Then, after they rest for some time, Abraham, the Lord, and the two men get up and walk over to look at Sodom.
This is where the interaction between God and Abraham gets especially interesting. You can read the full text here, but in Genesis 18:15-32, God decides to inform Abraham about his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, “I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know” (v. 21).
So God has heard the weeping and the cries of those who have been treated unjustly, and He feels so upset about their cries that he intends to wipe out the land.
Abraham intervenes by bartering with God. Over the course of the following ten verses, he slowly persuades God to not destroy the land. He begins asking if God will destroy the land if he can find fifty innocent people in it, and when God says he won’t destroy the land under those conditions, Abraham asks if God will destroy it with forty-five innocent people. God slowly begins agreeing that He won’t destroy the city, given Abraham’s conditions.
The funniest part of the text, in my opinion, are these little lines that Abraham throws in during their negotiations to ensure that he doesn’t upset God. He says things like, “even though I am soil and ash,” “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord,” and “let me speak just once more.” He wants to ensure that he doesn’t push God too far with his requests, and ultimately, it pays off. By the end of the chapter, God has agreed that if He can find ten innocent people, He won’t destroy the cities.
Isn’t this such a fascinating interaction? As Abraham made requests of God, God listened, evaluated, saw the merit in Abraham’s points, and agreed with him. It’s conversational.
More and more often I hear people say that talking to God just doesn’t “feel right,” or they find that silence is more effective than discussion. While I respect quietness and peacefulness, and at times think they’re helpful forms of prayer, I’m also Italian and have far more of a preference for conversation. And based on the Bible, I think God likes conversation as well, because God values our feelings and opinions.
Prayer isn’t too complicated: it’s the decision to commune with God. While prayer can take place in powerful ways through the church, worship, and meditation, it can also take place while you’re washing dishes and telling God about your day. We may not have the benefit of God walking around with us in a human body, as Abraham did, but we certainly have the Holy Spirit living in us and with us, as the ever-present marker of God.
May we take time to pray today, intentionally remembering that God listens and cares. In those moments when we feel like God is especially quiet and distant, may we pray what we can, knowing that we’re never truly alone. And finally, may we find strength and encouragement today, knowing that the Lord uses both prayers of hope and despair to bless our lives, as well as the world around us.