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Does Prayer Change God?
All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.
Prayer is the power by which that comes to pass which otherwise would not take place.
‘I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3:6 NIV)
`My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.'(Hosea 11:8 NIV)
Those two statements, both recorded in the Bible as the words of God, frame a mystery. I could marshal other verses describing a changeless God and balance them with more passages that show God changing his mind. Truth to tell, we want some of both: a dependable God we can count on and yet an attentive God whom we can affect.
Not everyone worries about the philosophical underpinnings of prayer. For those of us who do, however, what we conclude about this issue may well determine how we view the utility---or futility---of prayer.
Origen was the first Christian writer known to mull over the paradox of praying to a God who does not change: `First, if God foreknows what will come to be and if it must happen, then prayer is in vain. Second, if everything happens according to God's will and if what He wills is fixed and none of the things He wills can be changed, then prayer is in vain.' Origen came down solidly on the side of a changeless God, arguing that from the moment of creation God could foresee all that we would freely choose, including the contents of our prayers. Many philosophers followed the same track: Immanuel Kant, for example, called it `an absurd and presumptuous delusion' to think that one person's prayer might deflect God's plans.
Calvinism, with its emphasis on God's absolute sovereignty, shifted the focus of prayer from its effect on God to its effect on the person praying. The devout Jonathan Edwards questioned petitionary prayer. He wrote, `it is not to be thought that God is properly moved or made willing by our prayers'; instead, God bestows mercy `as though he were prevailed upon by prayer.' (John Calvin himself, I should note, had no such doubts about prayer. He urged people to pray, and included a chapter on it in the Institutes next to his chapter on predestination. About his more extreme followers he said, `It is very absurd, therefore, to dissuade men from prayer, by pretending that Divine Providence, which is always watching over the government of the universe, is in vain importuned by our supplications ...')
As discoveries in science explained away phenomena that people had always considered part of providence, sons and daughters of the Enlightenment saw less reason for prayer. The natural cycle of storms and droughts became more predictable, apparently less subject to the whims of God or those who prayed to God. Thomas Hardy described God as `the dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle Show'. In the modern novel Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut mocks prayer in a scene where the main character, Billy Pilgrim, puzzles over the well-known Serenity Prayer:
GOD GRANT ME
THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT
THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE,
TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN,
AND WISDOM ALWAYS
TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE.
Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
Vonnegut had no need to point out the obvious conclusion: What good is prayer in such a pre-determined world?
The Bible's View
Turn to the Bible's view of history, however, and you see a picture of God as a personal Being who alertly listens to prayers and then responds. Jesus filled in that portrait, and the disciples took up praying right where Jesus left off, making specific and personal requests for God to act.
The most famous prayer, the Lord's Prayer (or the Our Father), Jesus gave spontaneously in answer to his disciples' request for help. Introducing this model prayer, Jesus acknowledged that God already knows our needs in advance:
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray. . .
Some see God's omniscience as a disincentive to prayer: Why pray if God already knows? In contrast, Jesus treated God's knowledge not as a deterrent but as a positive motivation to pray. We do not have to work to gain God's attention through long words and ostentatious displays. We don't have to convince God of our sincerity or our needs. We already have the Father's ear, as it were. God knows everything about us and still listens. We can get right to the point.
`Prayer holds together the shattered fragments of the creation. It makes history possible,' wrote Jacques Ellul, a modern French thinker who could not avoid the Bible's direct statements that God acts in response to prayer. Indeed, the great events of the Old Testament---Abraham's family, Joseph's rebound in Egypt, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the victories of Joshua and King David, deliverance from Assyria and Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple, the coming of Messiah---took place only after God's people had cried out in prayer.
Throughout, the Bible depicts God as being deeply affected by people, both positively and negatively. God `delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.' Yet, as the prophets tell, at times God also feels wearied by disobedience and eventually God's patience reaches an end point: 'For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.'
The New Testament presses home that our prayers make a difference to God and to the world:
Ask and it will be given to you ...
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well ... The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer ...
You do not have, because you do not ask God.
Underscoring these lavish promises, the Bible tells of prophets and apostles praying for physical healings and even the resuscitation of dead bodies; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth praying against their infertility; Daniel praying in a den of lions even as his three friends had prayed in the midst of fire. When God sent the prophet Isaiah, the most God-connected person of his day, to inform King Hezekiah of his imminent death, Hezekiah prayed for more time. Before Isaiah had left the palace grounds, God changed his mind, granting Hezekiah fifteen more years of life.
In a sort of negative proof of the power of prayer, three times God commanded Jeremiah to stop praying; God wanted no alteration in his plans to punish a rebellious nation. Prayer had, after all, softened God's resolve before. `Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,' the prophet Jonah proclaimed to a heathen city, but `when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.' Four times the Old Testament reports that God `relented' or `changed his mind' in response to a request, and each shift forestalled a promised punishment.
A Work in Process
How do we reconcile the changeless God described in the Bible with the responsive God also described in the Bible? The revivalist Charles Finney, who moved away from the strict Calvinism of his youth, grounded his belief in the power of prayer, ironically, in God's unchanging character: `If you ask why he ever answers prayer at all, the answer must be, Because he is unchangeable.' To give an example, a God bound by unchanging qualities of love and mercy must forgive a sinner who prays repentantly. God changes course in response to the sinner's change in course, and does so because of those eternal qualities.
The contemporary theologian Clark Pinnock follows a similar line of logic. Since God's nature is love, he says, God must be impressionable and sympathetic: `Because God's love never changes, God's experience must change.' Pinnock contrasts two models of God's sovereignty. We can picture God as an aloof monarch, removed from the details of the world. Or we can picture God as a caring parent with traits of love, generosity and sensitivity---an infinite Being who personally interacts with and responds to creation. Accordingly, God considers prayers much as a wise parent might consider requests from a child.
Andrew Murray, himself a Calvinist, concluded that, `God does indeed allow Himself to be decided by prayer to do what He otherwise would not have done.' Murray points to the Trinity for a clue into how God's mind might change. We have seen how Jesus on earth relied on prayer to commune with the Father and to make requests---some of which, notably, were not granted. Now Jesus as our advocate represents human interests within the Godhead. The apostle Paul affirms that the Holy Spirit also has an intimate role in prayer: `We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.' In one of the few verses that mention all persons of the Trinity, Paul brings the three together: `For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.' The Father, Son and Holy Spirit conduct a kind of inner conversation, showing that God welcomes debate and counsel.
C.S. Lewis seemed fascinated by the questions posed by prayer, especially how a sovereign God might listen and respond to our prayers. As a young Christian, he had felt embarrassed about praying for his brother Warren overseas when he heard of a Japanese attack on Shanghai. What difference might one puny prayer make against the inevitability of fate or providence? He went on to explore the topic in several of his books and many of his essays and letters.
Lewis once presented the problem in the voice of a sceptic akin to Kurt Vonnegut:
I don't think it at all likely that God requires the ill-informed (and contradictory) advice of us humans as to how to run the world. If He is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn't He know already what is best? And if He is all-good won't He do it whether we pray or not?
In reply, Lewis said that you could use the same argument against any human activity, not just prayer. `Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without your washing them ... Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything?' God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms. God chose a different style of governing the world, a partnership which relies on human agency and choice. God granted the favoured human species the `dignity of causality', to borrow a phrase from Pascal.
The sceptic, then, is objecting not merely to prayer but to the basic rules of creation. God created matter in such a way that we can manipulate it, by cutting down trees to build houses and damming rivers to form reservoirs. God granted such an expanse of human freedom that we can oppress each other, rebel against our Creator, even murder God's own Son. Lewis suggests that we best imagine the world not as a state governed by a potentate but as a work of art, something like a play, in the process of being created. The playwright allows his characters to affect the play itself, then incorporates all their actions into the final result.
In this view, prayer as a means of advancing God's kingdom is no stranger than any other means. Go into all nations and preach the gospel, Jesus told his disciples, thus launching the missionary movement with its harrowing history; would not a large banner in the sky have served God's purpose just as well? Heal the sick, visit prisoners, feed the hungry, house strangers---Jesus also commanded these activities, delegating them into our hands rather than enlarging his own Galilean ministry to global scale. Consistently, God chooses the course of action in which human partners can contribute most.
Lewis sums up the drama of human history as one `in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise. It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.' Prayer is a designated instrument of God's power, as real and as `natural' as any other power God may use.
I envy, truly I envy, those people who pray in simple faith without fretting about how prayer works and how God governs this planet. For some reason I cannot avoid pondering these imponderables. At the same time, a little reading in modern physics and cosmology has convinced me that creatures bound by time and space may never gain more than an inkling of the rule upholding the universe.
For example, physicist Stephen Hawking cites with approval Augustine's notion that any God must exist outside of time. We humans are confined to a space-time universe that began at a moment of time, but God is not. Experiments on relativity have proved that, strange as it seems, time itself is no constant. As a person's velocity approaches the speed of light, time `slows down' for that person, so that an astronaut launched at high speed into space will return measurably younger than her twin brother left at home. Cosmologists seriously speculate about a reverse arrow of time that might allow us to travel backwards in time; popular movies like The Time Machine and Back to the Future depict adventures the traveller might have, tempted to change the details of history even before they occur.
How does God's timelessness affect prayer? C.S. Lewis decided it altogether reasonable to pray at noon for a medical consultation that might have been conducted at ten o'clock as long as we do not know the final result before we pray. `The event certainly has been decided---in a sense it was decided "before all worlds." But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering.' Lewis notes such a notion would be less shocking to modern scientists than to non-scientists.
Older models of physics also established a clear trail of cause and effect. One billiard ball strikes another, energy gets transferred, and both balls move along a predictable and determined path. New models, though, deal with complexity theory and information theory. In a complex system---such as a single cell in the human body, much less an entire body, much less a community comprising many persons all of whom exercise free will---simple rules of cause and effect do not apply. Each step up the ladder, from matter to mind to many minds, introduces staggering new levels of uncertainty and complexity. We need a model far more sophisticated and, yes, mysterious than anything Isaac Newton might have dreamed up to figure out why things happen, and whether prayer might enter in.
Scientists insist that measuring the spin of one particle may affect the spin of another particle billions of miles away. Some even suggest, in a theory called `the butterfly effect', that the flapping of a single insect's wings may contribute to the great causal chain that eventuates in a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico or a tornado in Texas. Who can say with confidence what causes any single event, in nature or in a human being?1
What caused the hurricanes that ravaged Florida in 2004 and New Orleans in 2005? Or, if a teenager decides to get drunk one weekend, what role do genes, brain chemistry, parental nurturing and stubborn free will play in the decision? What role does God play in natural events like weather anomalies and birth defects? Does prayer ever influence those events? Why must people suffer natural calamities? Why are pain and pleasure distributed so randomly and unfairly? When the Old Testament character Job posed his anguished version of such questions, God erupted with a science lesson of his own. Poor Job repented in dust and ashes, shamed into silence by his ignorance in the face of God's own `complexity theory'. (In an intriguing aside to the story, God informed Job's friends, who thought they had cause and effect all figured out, that he would deal with them not according to their `folly' but according to Job's prayer for them!)
At various times, according to the biblical record, God has indeed played a direct role in manipulating natural events: causing a drought or a plague of locusts, reversing the course of disease and disability, even restoring life to a corpse. Apart from these rare events called miracles, however, the Bible emphasises an ongoing providence, of God's will being done through the common course of nature and ordinary human activity: rain falling and seeds sprouting, farmers planting and harvesting, the strong caring for the weak, the haves giving to the have-nots, the healthy ministering to the sick. We tend to place God's activity in a different category from natural or human activity; the Bible tends to draw them together. Somehow God works in all of creation, all of history, to bring about ultimate goals.
The act of prayer brings together Creator and creature, eternity and time, in all the fathomless mystery implied by that convergence. I can view prayer as a way of asking a timeless God to intervene more directly in our time-bound life on earth. (Indeed, I do so all the time, praying for the sick, for the victims of tragedy, for the safety of the persecuted Church.) In a process I am only learning, I can also view prayer from the other side, as a way of entering into the rhythms of eternity and aligning myself with God's `view from above', a way to harmonise my own desires with God's and then to help effect while on earth what God has willed for all eternity.
In prayer I ask for, and gradually gain, trust in God's love and justice and mercy and holiness, despite all that might call those traits into question. I immerse myself in the changeless qualities of God and then return to do my part in acting out those qualities on earth: `your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'
So many times I turn to prayer feeling besieged. The news from CNN reminds me of poverty and injustice, of human cruelty and terrorism and nuclear threats and a hundred things that foster anxiety. My distress spirals inward as I think of family, friends and neighbours, so many of them battling illness, divorce, financial burdens, children in trouble. To my shame, petty interruptions in my own life often crowd out these concerns: a temperamental computer, a series of car and home repairs, a to-do list that never gets done. I confess to God my sins, and realise they are the same sins I confessed yesterday, and last week, and the week before. Will nothing ever change? Will I?
Go into your closet and shut the door, Jesus advised. I envision doing just that: entering a closet with my pressing, time-bound burdens, and asking God to renew, refresh, remind---in other words, to pour some eternity into me. I try to get my mind off myself, to empty it.
I think of Mother Teresa's nuns kneeling in their chapel long before daybreak, asking for the energy and the purity to go forth this day and ease the destitute of Calcutta toward a merciful death. I think of hospice workers and Army chaplains and so many of God's servants who daily, face mountains before which my own worries shrink into molehills. I think of Jesus himself, facing the darkest day in human history, pausing to pray the longest prayer recorded in the Gospels, the prayer of John 17.
The scene of Jesus huddled in a locked room with a dozen friends, one of them a traitor, while outside temple guards and Roman legionnaires buckle on their swords and whips and torture devices, preparing for another dreary night's work, stands as a tableau of human history. A hushed moment of foreboding, a heartfelt prayer, a subdued connection with eternity, while just outside invisible forces of evil mobilise in opposition.
Anticipating his death, Jesus prays to the Father for his disciples: `I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world ... they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.' As if to underscore the point he repeats himself: `My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.' He, too, must see the group gathered around the table as a tableau of the conflict he is setting loose in the world.
For thirty-three years Jesus has stripped himself of the prerogatives of God, including omniscience and a timelessness that sees all history in a flash. (He once admitted he did not know the time of final judgment and healing of the earth, though the Father did.) In this prayer, however, he bridges time and eternity, recalling for a moment his stunning existence before volunteering for this violent planet: `And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.'
Jesus is reminiscing about life before planet Earth, eternity before time. In this lengthy, luminous prayer he gives the ultimate answer to the `Why?' questions. Why creation? Why free will? Why human history and the onslaught of time? From the beginning, before the beginning, God willed to share with other creatures the love and fellowship---the life---enjoyed in the Godhead before creation, now, and forever. Despite all that has happened and is about to happen, God is committed to restore creation to its original design, to regain perfect intimacy and love with human beings. Jesus' prayer renews the vision, for himself and for us.
In a few other places the New Testament gives hints of God choosing us `before the creation of the world'. God's grace, claims Paul, `was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time', with Jesus `chosen before the creation of the world but revealed in these last times for your sake'. Our eternal life was promised `before the beginning of time'. Thus the essentials of hope---God's love, heaven, grace, resurrection---the Bible specifically grounds outside of time and creation. Long before Einstein's theory of the relativity of time and space, long before any notion of a Big Bang origin of the universe, the New Testament writers established these truths as, quite literally, timeless.
Our sun, now middle-aged, will burn itself out in four or five billion years. Eventually the universe itself may collapse. Yet in the words of the Creator we have assurance that we will be reunited. The universe is not such a sad, lonely place. The prodigals have a home after all.
Of all that Jesus said that night in the candlelit room in the warrens of Jerusalem, one comment must have puzzled the disciples more than any other. Jesus knew the melancholy effect of his words about impending death: `Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief.' As if to cheer them up, he added, `But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away.'
Those words puzzle me as well. I cannot help thinking of all the ways God could have accomplished the divine will in the world: by providing enough manna to solve the world's hunger; by eradicating each new strain of virus and bacteria as it mutates into dangerous form; by narrowing the margins of human freedom to eliminate tyrants like Hitler and Pol Pot. Instead, God sent his Son to live in a remote corner of the earth for a few years. He delivered in person the message he wanted to convey and then he left, claiming it to be somehow for our good.
Soon the disciples who were accustomed to presenting their questions, complaints and requests to Jesus in person would have to fall back on a different approach: prayer. Of all the means God could have used, prayer seems the weakest, slipperiest and easiest to ignore. So it is, unless Jesus was right in that most baffling claim. He went away for our sakes, as a form of power-sharing, to invite us into direct communion with God and to give us a crucial role in the struggle against the forces of evil.
Making Requests Known
Karl Barth, the twentieth-century theologian who pounded home the theme of God's sovereignty, saw no contradiction in a God who chooses to be affected by prayers. `He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God's action, even upon his existence. That is what the word "answer" means.' Barth continues, `The fact that God yields to man's petitions, changing his intentions in response to man's prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, in the glory of his majesty and power, has so willed it.'
Why pray? Evidently, God likes to be asked. God certainly does not need our wisdom or our knowledge, nor even the information contained in our prayers ('your Father knows what you need before you ask him'). But by inviting us into the partnership of creation, God also invites us into relationship. God is love, said the apostle John. God does not merely have love or feel love. God is love, and cannot not love. As such, God yearns for relationship with the creatures made in his image.
`Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,' Paul instructs. The King James Version speaks of `making known' our requests. How can we make known a request to a God who already knows? Relationship is the key.
Occasionally in the mail I get a request for help from a stranger, often a prisoner or someone in a foreign country. Sometimes I give in response, sometimes I check the facts with a local person, sometimes I refrain from getting involved for fear of encouraging a flood of similar requests. When my neighbour has a need though, or my nephew or someone known to me, I do everything I can to meet the need. Relationship ups the urgency of any information---it's the difference between watching news reports of a tragedy overseas and watching those same reports when your son or your fiancee is there.
Consider again the act of repentance. Confessing my sins before God communicates something God already knows. Yet somehow the act of confession binds the relationship and allows a closeness that could not otherwise exist. I make myself vulnerable and dependent, bringing God and me together. The same kind of intimacy happens when (all too rarely) I apologise to my wife for something we both know about. I do not bring her information, I bring her my heart, my humbled self.
I will never figure out the precise role of prayer in events like the path of a hurricane or the downfall of Communism. None of us time-bound humans has that capacity. I go to God with my concerns, though, as a child goes to a loving father. I admit my dependence and make known my requests, fully aware that God and not I will make the final decision. In the time I spend with God, I may come away with a different view of the world or at least a new appreciation of my limited point of view. In exchange God gets my attention, my engagement, my soul.
By using prayer rather than other, more direct means, God once again chooses the most freedom-enhancing style of acting in the world. God waits to be asked, in some inscrutable way making God's activity on earth contingent on us. Does the kingdom, or `God's will', advance more slowly because of that choice?2 Yes, in the same way parents slow their pace when the youngest child is learning to walk. Their goal is to equip someone else, not themselves. [121-135]
1. The conversations of modern cosmologists bring to mind arcane discussions from the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, in an attempt to reconcile sovereignty and free will, the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina proposed a 'middle knowledge' of God: the ability to project in advance what every possible creature would do as well as how those free choices might affect each possible world. Stephen Hawking and several Nobel laureates endorse a many-worlds theory in which any choice I make may have an effect in some alternate universe, although I only perceive the one present to my consciousness. (String theory proposes at least eight additional dimensions of reality undetectable by us.)
2. C.S. Lewis writes, 'For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication.' Lewis adds in another book, `Creation seems to be delegation through and through. He will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures. I suppose this is because He is a giver.
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