The seductive idea that prayer only changes us

Sign from the church in the Garden of Gethsemane.

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.

10 thoughts on “The seductive idea that prayer only changes us”

  1. I agree that prayer changes things from what they otherwise would be absent the prayer. God, looking from eternity to eternity, does as he has planned to do, but what he has planned to do takes/took into account what he knew we would/do pray for. And that might well be different from what he would have done if we had not prayed (as per your passage from James, and some of Moses’ prayers). (I think C.S. Lewis made a similar point.)

    I also agree that the likelihood of prayers being answered “yes” varies somewhat based on the content and motivation of the prayer. As James also says, “You pray and do not receive because you would use that to satisfy your lusts.” Also, prayer responses vary (somewhat) according to the “righteousness” of the pray-er. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James again.) “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” So, I think prayer is vitally important, and I think at least one motivation for righteous living is to have our prayers more likely answered affirmatively. If otherwise appropriate. “The Spirit intercedes for us, because we do not know how to pray as we ought to pray.” And would we really want a “yes” answer if God knew/knows better? But the point is, without the prayer, the content of what God knows/knew to be better may well be something different than what it would be/would have been without the prayer.

  2. Thank you very much for these reflections. It’s a “tension” that I live with, one of those things that I keep hoping to find the answer to but don’t understand yet.

    In the case of God’s healing someone with Stage IV cancer, is it a matter of my lack of faith if I don’t pray, or if God doesn’t answer the way I want? Or something else that I simply don’t/can’t know?

    1. Jeremy, I am sure Brent will have a better response than anything I might say, but in my estimation “lack of faith” is not very often the cause of a prayer not being answered “Yes.” I don’t believe “faith” requires a conviction that the thing you ask for will happen, even though I admit there are some passages which might indicate that (which I think certainly can cause some confusion). I would note, however, that God is said to have denied prayers from persons whose faith we can hardly doubt, such as when Paul asked for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, but God said no because there was some higher purpose to be achieved by the thorn remaining. Jesus own prayer in Gethsemane was denied, and I don’t think his statement of “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done” was some “lack of faith,” but rather specifically a recognition that God is not required to say “Yes” to even PERFECT faith. Also, I don’t think that a recognition that God very rarely answers certain types of prayers with “Yes,” and therefore not praying in that specific fashion, shows lack of faith, as opposed to instead being “in step” with what we perceive is “God’s economy” in how the universe operates under his direction. Lack of faith to me simply means a lack of conviction that God has the power to take whatever action he might choose to take–again, not some confidence that whatever we ask for will be done. So, I don’t think my view here is adequate to answer all the “puzzles” that some verses might raise, but I do think that in large measure this understanding of the role of “faith” with respect to prayer is fairly accurate.

      1. That’s a good answer, Tom. Both examples with Jesus in Gethsemane and Paul’s thorn are on point. Living with the “tension” of unanswered prayer, as Jeremy says, is an inescapable part of Christian living. But keep praying!

  3. Prayer does change things but maybe more importantly it changes US. I have come to believe that prayer is more about developing a relationship with God than anything else. God created us because he wants a relationship with us; prayer is one of the ways that relationship occurs and grows. I like the quote by Frank Laubach, “The trouble with nearly everybody who prays is that he says ‘Amen’ and runs away before God has a chance to reply. Listening to God is far more important than giving him our ideas.” I don’t know which prayers God answers with a ‘yes’ or which ones he says ‘no’ to or which ones he says ‘maybe later’ – but I go to him and say what’s on my mind or in my heart and then I try to remember to be observant because he WILL send an answer my way. Sometimes the answer is that he gives me what I need to get thru a challenging situation; sometimes what I get is the right perspective or the right words. And maybe sometimes the fact that we ask for a specific thing is a sign to God that we are ready to accept what he has had waiting for us all along. Kind of like the ruby slippers that Dorothy always had and just didn’t know? And then there are the times when we are the answer to our own prayer like when we pray for a friend or neighbor or acquaintance to have something they need. If it is within our power to help that person or to be part of a group who does, then I think God will lay that on our hearts as well if we are listening.

    1. Nanci, I agree with you that there is more to prayer than asking God for things, and that it may well be that those other aspects of prayer besides making petitions are the more important ones. However, I think the key issue HERE is whether the PETITION ASPECTof prayer actually gives rise to action by God as a result of the prayer (regardless of whether that results from a “seen from the beginning and history planned accordingly” vantage point or an immediate response). I think this is where James’ admonitions that we have not because we ask not, and that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, and that prayers can bring about healing come into play. Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given unto you,” and also gives the illustration or parable of the woman who would not give up pestering the unjust judge until he granted her petition. So, while I would agree with you about other aspects of prayer, I think God does admonish us to offer petitionary prayers and that he says he will respond by granting them, unless there is some other “competing principle” on the table which overrides giving a “Yes” answer.

    2. I like the idea that we are sometimes the answer to our own prayer. Listening is also an underrated part of prayer.

  4. Brent & Jeremy, I recall now how in the past I reconciled the verses which say, “If you ask in my name I will give you what you ask for, ” etc., with our common experience that we often do NOT get what we ask for. This is what I call the “Doctrine of Competing Principles.” Thus, God WOULD always give us what we ask for under these promises, except that there is often “something else on the table,” which, on balance, “overrides” that rule. This is similar to Jesus giving the illustration about David and his men eating the consecrated bread “which was lawful only for the priests to eat,” because they otherwise might have starved, when the Pharisees asked why the disciples did what was not lawful on the Sabbath by husking wheat to eat. The rule of keeping people alive overrode the rule of consecration. Similarly, the Egyptian midwifes were blessed by God for lying about why the Israelite boys were not being killed by the midwives because the midwives feared God. Here the rule against lying was overridden by the law of preserving life. A modern day example would be Corrie Ten Boom.

    A “natural” example of this rule would be the intersection or “collision” of the laws of gravity and electromagnetism. If you dropped a steel ball from a skyscraper, gravity would dictate exactly when it would land and where. However, if you switched on a powerful electromagnet across the way when the ball was dropped, the ball would not hit the ground at the same time and place. Something else was “in the picture” besides just gravity.

    So, when we pray, the “prayer rule” is that the answer will be “Yes.” But other rules may be applicable at the time which, upon collision, will “override” the prayer rule (or modify it, as a “competing” principle). Thus, to state the converse of Jesus’ statement that, “If your child asks for bread, will you give him a stone?” I would say, “If he asks for a stone, will you not give him bread?” because the bread is better for him than a stone. Benefitting the person requesting something is more important than just giving him what he asks for. Or, if a preacher for an out-door revival were to pray for no rain, but the adjacent farmer were to pray for rain for his crops, the competing principles would lead to one prayer being granted and the other not. The two prayers would be “competing” with each other.

    Well, that is how I see it, and I hope that may be of some help in dealing with the “puzzle.”

  5. Well, I just got an email which ties in with this point of competing principles, which is that my Mom (80) is being taken to the hospital with a fever. I am reminded of Paul saying he was in a strait between the two, dying so as to go on to heaven, “which is far better,” or to stay on earth, “which is more needful for you.” In that situation there was clearly a colliding of competing principles. Paul concluded in that instance that this was a “more needful to you” circumstance. But at some point, going on to be with Jesus “overrides” all other competing principles for everyone. We don’t know which will at a given point in time, but that is something for us to keep in mind when we pray for someone to get better.

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