In this recent blog post, Roger Olson grapples with that harmful bumper-sticker theology that says, “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes us.” [I've heard it expressed more often as, "Prayer doesn't change God (or change God's mind); it changes us." The point is the same.] Olson traces the the idea back to the father of liberal Christianity, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who believed that petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do things for us or others, is an immature form of prayer.
In seminary, I studied a sermon by Schleiermacher (which, unlike his dense theological writing, was surprisingly accessible) on Jesus in Gethsemane. Schleiermacher’s point was that prayer was always a matter of aligning our will with God’s will, and that Jesus was trying to teach us as much with his prayer, “Not my will but thine be done.” Answered prayer, he said, was the “happy accident” (his words, as I recall) of our will aligning with God’s.
In other words, prayer teaches us to want what our Father wants. As we do so, we find that our prayers will be answered more frequently—not because God actually intervenes in the world in response to our prayers, but because we’ve learned to ask God for what God is going to give us anyway. And God knows best, not us.
Do you see how appealing this idea is? In one fell swoop, Schleiermacher neatly dispatches the problem of unanswered prayer. He also answers the scientific objections to God’s involvement in the universe. (This was intentional: Schleiermacher was trying to show that Christianity was fully compatible with the Enlightenment’s dual emphasis on science and reason.)
While I totally get the seductive appeal of this idea, I find it contrary to the spirit and letter of scripture. For one quick proof-text, consider James 4:2: “You don’t have because you don’t ask God.” In fact, the Bible is filled with examples of God doing something in response to petitionary prayer—something that God wouldn’t otherwise do. The idea that prayer doesn’t change things sacrifices the authority of scripture on the altar of reason and logic. As Olson writes,
I have trouble even understanding why a person whose worldview and spirituality is shaped by the Bible would ever say that prayer doesn’t change things, it only changes him or her… I am personally opposed to attaching “If it be thy will” to every petitionary prayer. If the Bible says something is God’s will, then we should pray that he do it. What if he doesn’t? Then we live with the tension of that and acknowledge God’s sovereignty and higher wisdom.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should pray for frivolous things. While I won’t speak for everyone, I can know without asking, for example, that God doesn’t want me to have a Bentley. I’m never going to pray for that. We need to learn to pray in a realistic manner. As Olson suggests, we can often use scripture and reason to discern God’s will in a particular situation. As a pastor, when I’m at someone’s bedside in a hospital room, I try to discern what I can realistically pray on this person’s behalf. A prayer for physical healing, for example, would probably be inappropriate for someone dealing with Stage IV cancer, whereas a prayer for physical comfort wouldn’t be. So I pray fervently for that.
Someone might object: “So you don’t really believe that God can heal someone with Stage IV cancer?” I reject the premise of the question. Do I believe that God can heal someone with Stage IV cancer? Yes. Absolutely. But will he? I highly doubt it. This should hardly surprise us: Death has been a problem since Genesis 3. It won’t cease to be a problem until our own resurrection. We must all die of something, unless the Second Coming happens first. I’m with C.S. Lewis: every deathbed represents an unanswered prayer.
That’s life in a fallen world. The good news is that it won’t always be this way.