Another challenge to prayer: “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes us”

March 7, 2013

Lauren, a very thoughtful reader of my blog (as if I have any other kind!), offered the following in the comments section of my previous post. I thought her comment and my response were important enough to pull out as a separate post. She wrote:

Brent, there is a line from the movie Shadowlands, when C.S. Lewis is asked by a colleague in reference to his wife Joy’s cancer, “Have you prayed for her healing?” And Lewis answers that in his prayers, he doesn’t strive to change God’s mind or actions, but through prayer, his ideas and thoughts are changed.

I don’t know if this is scriptural, but I like to think that in that sacred space of our encounter with God, in bringing our petitions to God, He changes us. You used the image of a parent wanting a child to come to them so the parent can hear what is going on in the child’s life. In the same way God, hearing about our life, can change our life.

Yes, I know this doesn’t have anything to do with the topic…, or at least I can’t suss it out if it does. I just like the thought.

I like the thought, too… at least as far as it goes. I responded:

Lauren, I agree that you’re onto something (or Lewis is) when you suggest that one important reason to pray is to allow ourselves to be molded or shaped by God. I’ve preached before that as we we grow in our relationship with God, what we pray for ought to conform more closely to God’s will. Thus, as we become more faithful Christians, we will find—voila!—our prayers being answered more often.

This idea was put forward very succinctly in a sermon by a 19th-century theologian named Schleiermacher. But he took the idea too far by saying that “answered prayer” was only the happy coincidence of our wills aligning with God’s will. This may sometimes be a comforting thought for those of us who know the pain of unanswered prayer (and what Christian who’s been at it for a while doesn’t know that pain?), but it contradicts too much of what God has revealed to us in the Bible. (Scheiermacher, the father of “liberal Christianity,” was far more interested in harmonizing Christianity with Enlightenment claims than with the Bible.)

From my perspective, our prayers sometimes change God’s mind—if you want to think of it that way. To be clear, I should say that God graciously allows his mind to be changed through our prayers—because, as I said in the post, this sort of give and take is the nature of a loving relationship. God will do things in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do.

Roger Olson explores the same idea in this post, including this paragraph:

I resist the common saying that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” Of course it does change me. That’s not the part to which I object. The part I object to is “Prayer doesn’t change things.” Scripture is filled with prayers that change circumstances, not by means of magic but by appealing to God who responds by changing circumstances. 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. Even Calvinists normally don’t say that prayer doesn’t change things (although that would seem to me to fit better with their deterministic theology).

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