The most harmful idea about prayer

At least to me. It’s a variation on that tired theme, “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us.” From Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

And God’s “response” to our prayers is not a charade. He does not pretend that he is answering our prayer when he is only doing what he was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference in what God does or does not do. The idea that everything would happen exactly as it does regardless of whether we pray or not is a specter that haunts the minds of many who sincerely profess belief in God. It makes prayer psychologically impossible, replacing it with dead ritual at best. And of course God does not respond to this. You wouldn’t either.[†]

I like the way Willard says that this belief makes prayer psychologically impossible. I know from experience that this is true. If you don’t think God is going to do anything in response to your prayers—other than “change” you, of course—you can’t go through the motions of prayer for very long. The call of duty never seems quite loud enough.

I wonder if this is why we easily venerate more exotic forms of praying (meditation, lectio divina, prayer beads, prayer labyrinths, etc.), however helpful they may be in and of themselves, above the simpler, humbler form that Jesus himself offers in his model prayer of Matthew 6:7-13 (which we’ll focus on in this Sunday’s sermon).

If you don’t actually ask God to do anything for you or someone else (asking is near the center of all biblical prayer), then you can’t be proven wrong. There’s no danger your faith will be tested. We can easily turn prayer into an exercise to produce within ourselves a warm, vaguely “spiritual” feeling. If that’s what we’re going for, then we won’t be disappointed. And there are plenty of “techniques” to help us accomplish that. They insulate us from both disappointment and God.

Prayer—true prayer in the biblical sense—is something riskier than that. God may not give us what we ask for. But even if he doesn’t, it won’t be because he can’t or won’t out of principle. He always can, and he sometimes will.

At least if we dare to ask.

[†] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 244.

2 thoughts on “The most harmful idea about prayer”

Leave a Reply