Bob Russell is a best selling author and pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the largest churches in America, with 16,000 attending every weekend.
The simple message of Bob’s latest book, When God Answers Prayer, is that prayer works. Even if prayer doesn’t always come easily or your prayers aren’t always answered as you’d hoped, you will come away from this book convinced that God rewards genuine prayer.
Pastor Bob, how does your book “When God Answers Prayer”, stand apart from other books on prayer?
I think there are a couple of things that make it a little bit unique. One is its balance. There’s a great deal of inspiration in this book when we relate examples of some pretty dramatic answers to prayer. This also has a section of instruction about maybe why God doesn’t answer prayer or what our response should be with prayers unanswered.
The other thing that’s distinctive, I think, is it’s very realistic. We approach prayer from the standpoint that it isn’t answered affirmatively all the time. In fact, there aren’t usually dramatic answers to prayer. And there’s a difference between answered prayer sometimes and a miracle. Paul didn’t have his prayer answered when he prayed that his thorn in the flesh would be removed. Moses prayed that he’d enter the Promised Land and that wasn’t answered. I think people can read this book and say, “Yeah, this is how prayer works”. And it reinforces our faith in prayer.
What encouragement can you offer Christian married couples who believe in prayer, but who find that praying together sometimes doesn’t come really easily for them?
I can really resonate with that question. Even though I’ve been a Christian, have been married all those years and have been a pastor, I found it very difficult to swallow my pride and say to my wife, “Let’s pray before we go to bed tonight.” I’m embarrassed to admit that, but that was the absolute truth years ago.
We were on a marriage retreat one weekend and there was one of those questions “What would you change if you could change one thing?” Judy wrote down “I wished we prayed together.” I had to swallow my pride and say “Well, I’ve thought about that.” But it’s really hard for a man to pray with his wife because you’ve been so volatile. That’s such a tender side, a personal side of your life and so I said, “I want to do that.” That night when we went to bed she took the lead. And every night when we go to bed, now we just join hands and we have prayer together. But somebody had to say, “Let’s do it.” We’ve done that for years now. And we never go to bed without praying together. You know, it’s not the big things so much that tie couples together as it is those little routine things that you do every day.
Are we really able to change God’s mind when we pray?
I think that “Yes, we can change God’s mind”, in a sense. There’s that passage in Numbers 23 that says, “God is not a man that He can change His mind”. But balance that out with Moses praying that God would spare the Israelites that says, “God relented” or “God repented of what He was going to do”. So I say, “Yes.”
I think that there are times when “No, we can’t change what God is going to do, because He has a predetermined will and that’s going to be carried out.” But there are other areas of our life where God may allow latitude. God may say “Either way. I’m still the Father. I don’t have a particular path for you here. Either way, you can be a blessing to me.”
When Jesus tells us to “pray and the Father will give good gifts,” I think the key phrase is “good gifts”. He didn’t say, “Pray and you’ll get yourself in tune with what God is going to do anyway.” Jesus said, “Pray, and you’ll be able to move mountains.”
You talk about practical elements that can enhance your prayer life. Can you share some of those with us?
We have to accept the fact that prayer will vary in feeling. It’s not a matter of “Prayer is effective if I feel good about it”. Sometimes you can pray and it’s going to seem perfunctory. But the important thing is it’s a regular meeting with God.
I think about when our children were growing up and we would pray with them. And you know how it is, praying with kids, they are “Now I lay me down to sleep?” Even when they’re teenagers, they’re mumbling what they’ve always said.
But one of my teenage boys got into trouble. He violated some basic rules of the house. And I was really angry when I found out. And he knew I was angry. And he was caught dead. And he confessed. And he was in tears. After we confronted it, he looked at me and said “Dad, could we pray?” We knelt down by the couch and prayed. But you know, if we hadn’t prayed on a regular basis in those perfunctory times when there was no feeling — the real intense prayer, it would have never come.
I think that there are times when we need to try some new things in prayer. I’ve tried journaling, and I’ve gone for prayer walks?and I think we need to break the routine sometimes in order to give us some energy and some vitality in our prayer.
What encouragement can you give a Christian spouse who says that their prayers have seemingly gone unanswered and they just can’t perceive God’s will in their marriage?
That’s a tough question. I think that we have to accept that God does not override people’s freedom of the will. You can have a spouse who’s not a Christian and who is resistant and cold. Or you can have a spouse in some kind of an addiction. And you know it’s not God’s will and it’s a big barrier. And you’re praying for that spouse. Now God intervenes in this. He brings circumstances into that person’s life that makes it more likely that they will repent.
Sometimes it seems as though God isn’t answering our prayers, simply because He doesn’t violate the freedom of the will. But the other side of it, is that God’s will for marriage and for our lives is outlined pretty clearly in the scripture and sometimes we want things to change dramatically.
But sometimes, we’re impatient. A year seems like an eternity for us. And that’s why it says, “Keep on seeking, keep on asking, keep on praying. Don’t give up.” Just keep praying for that mate and keep praying that your attitude will be right. I’ve talked to people who’ve said, “I didn’t think my marriage had a chance. I didn’t ever think that I’d have any feeling at all for this person. I was just numb. And so I made up my mind, I’m gonna stay with him anyway. And I kept praying. And you know what, I saw some changes and my heart softened and we have rekindled our romance and I am so thankful I stayed with this person.” People do change. God does answer prayer, but not always today.
Is there anything else that you would like to say about prayer to our viewers on Marriagetrac?
The Bible says that we’re to “pray believing”, I think sometimes people misinterpret that. When it says, “pray believing”, I think we need to believe that there is a God who loves us; believe that there is a God who wants what is best for us and believe that God will answer our prayer according to what is best for us in the long run. But we’ve got to understand that God still does answer prayer dramatically.
I’ve seen some pretty dramatic answers to prayer. We had, about 8 months ago now, an 11-year-old girl in our church who was having seizures — twenty to twenty-five seizures a day. Her mom and dad were so distraught; they tried every doctor and they finally, out of desperation, called the church and said “You know, the book of James says we ought to ?call the elders of the church, anoint them with oil and pray.’ Would you come over and anoint with oil and pray?” And we did.
We got in a huddle and her little eight-year-old sister had the best prayer of all. She said, “Dear God, help Mary not to be sick anymore.” And you know, she has not had one seizure in the eight months since that time. Now I use that illustration in the book and say, “Does that mean that God is going to heal everybody that we pray for and anoint with oil?” No. Does it mean that Mary will never have another seizure? We have no guarantee of that. But we do know over the last several months that God honored that prayer. And when you see that kind of thing happen, it reinforces your confidence in prayer. And you say, “You know what? I’m not a great prayer, but I believe in God and I believe that He answers prayer and I’m willing to give my best.”
Copyright © 2004 Marriagetrac.
Bob Russell became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-two. Thirty-four years later, that small congregation of 120 members has become one of the largest churches in America, with 16,000 attending every weekend. Bob has written ten books, including Life Preservers and Money: A User’s Manual. He is heard weekly on the national radio broadcast The Living Word and has a weekly column in The Lookout Magazine.
Bob and his wife, Judy, have been married for thirty-five years. They have two married sons who live in Louisville and are active at Southeast. They enjoy being grandparents to three wonderful grandchildren.