by Tim Reddish
If we are honest, most of us do not find prayer to be easy. It is, after all, a spiritual discipline and such
practices require effort. We can also be disinclined to pray because we are not entirely sure what good it does. There are two reasons why this is so, one scientific and one theological.
Here is the scientific reason. We are literal thinkers imagining God to be outside of an ever-expanding universe, therefore God is experienced as ultra-remote and becoming more distant all the time. Furthermore, many of us have sub-consciously absorbed into our worldview an image of a mechanistic universe. This leads us to think of the cosmos as a closed system of pure cause-and-effect. For the modern mind an emphasis on God’s transcendence can lead to the difficulty of relating to a God who is beyond the bounds of a closed and expanding universe. It is no wonder God can seem both silent and distant.
Here is the theological reason. What is the point of bringing our prayer petitions to an omniscient God who knows all that can be known? Even worse, another of God’s traditional attributes, impassivity, asserts that God cannot be affected by creation, including being influenced by our prayers. Some theologians respond by saying that although prayer does not sway God or alter the physical world, it changes our perspective. Prayer is therefore only for our benefit, not God’s. This is totally uninspiring. Additionally, if we believe the future is already settled, prayer cannot modify what God has already decided. If this is the case, in what coherent sense can we honestly say that God “responds” to our prayers?
We are left praying simply out of obedience because we believe we should pray. Some even feel guilty for not praying while simultaneously doubting prayers are going to be effective or change outcomes. If we could better understand the process and potency of prayer then we would be more motivated to pray. This requires us to change our view of both God and creation—and the relationship between the two.
There are two necessary criteria for theological coherence in prayer. The first is frankly, prayer only makes sense in a certain kind of world. Prayer is illogical in the rigid framework of a clockwork universe. Modern science insists that we do not live in a purely mechanistic cosmos; rather the world is open to new and emergent possibilities. Our universe is a mixture of regularity (laws of nature) and randomness; both elements are necessary to describe God’s good creation. Second, prayer only makes sense with a certain kind of God. God needs to be relational and engaged with sequential events as we experience them, rather than purely “outside” of time. Only from this perspective of openness and relationality will we have the confidence to engage in the discipline of prayer.
Furthermore, prayer’s effectiveness cannot be proven or disproven logically. Just because a specific request was “granted” does not mean that it would not have been realised had we not prayed. We are bound by the arrow of time; we cannot go back and run through the exact same scenario again, this time without prayer, and see if the same result is achieved. The effectiveness of prayer is a matter of faith. Consequently, prayer is a living expression of our relationship with God and his covenantal commitment to us.
For others, prayer is unnecessary because there is a fatalistic expectation that God will always do what is “best” anyway. However, there are a myriad of complexities in an open world; this means it is far from likely there is only one “best action” for God. Rather there is a range of creative alternatives open to God. Consequently, what is “best” if we do not pray might well be different from what is “best” if we do pray.
Returning to the earlier question, why articulate prayer if God already knows what we want and need? Yes, God may know what we want better than we do, but God only knows what we request if we actually request it. There is a difference between wishing and asking. We can wish for something without putting any conscious or physical effort to bring that desire about. In contrast, to request something of God requires us to think of him, rely on his ability, and trust in his character. It is both an act of our will and our faith. This is why it is necessary for us to articulate our request in prayer and not just hope that God might give us what we desire.
How God responds to our requests we cannot say since we do not know the constraints of the whole system or the involvement of others who also have freewill. Nevertheless, in the complex web of possibilities within an open world, our prayers become part of the causal matrix. Prayer will always make a difference to the world even if it does not expressly give us the outcome we desire. This groundwork should inspire us to pray!
I appreciate your clear and concise articulation here. And I agree with it as far as it goes. But it seems to me this is the kind of spiritual theorizing that easily becomes the basis of another legalism. “You must speak your prayers out loud or God won’t know what you are asking for.” I think this perspective somewhat denies God’s all-encompassing, fully-relational and uncontrolling love.
I believe “religion” is a matter of the heart. It is a relationship. When we open our hearts fully to God, He gives Himself fully to us. When we invite Him to “search me and know me,” He comes in and transforms us, even giving us “holy” desires. We more and more desire what he desires. These desires, often expressed in “groans too deep for words” aren’t the same as wishing. Desires and longings and spirit groanings come out of the place where our spirit communes with His Spirit. They are fueled by faith, hope, and love.
A believer who responds to God’s invitation to allow Him into their innermost being, isn’t just “wishing” (as your essay uses this word). God has given us the gift of language, and He surely does want us to bring words to Him in the form of conversation with Him and prayer/petition/praise/thanksgiving to Him. But some of our deepest, truest, and answered prayers may never be spoken out loud.
Hi Catherine, this brief essay is but a part of a broader conversation on prayer. I also believe that our groans and the Spirit’s groans (Romans 8) are indeed understood by the “Heart Searcher,” and this offers a further powerful (theological) rationale for prayer―since it is co-prayer with the Spirit. Even so, and as you point out, articulating our prayers is also important, since that is a sign of relationship.
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I am glad you have chosen to wrestle with this complex topic. There are many good points you have made, especially for how prayer can change the person who is praying but still falls short on petitionary prayer, which is usually asking God to act differently in particular persons and situations.
Unfortunately, you write about prayer but do not give any practical examples modeling your theory. For example, if you provided an example of someone praying to God for a sick person from afar, than I think your model would begin to break down.
For example, what range of possibilities are open to my sick grandfather who has cancer and is suffering many states away? What range of “best actions” are there that I can pray for that might affect God and God’s actions (besides praying for oneself and being open to how God might use the one who prays to attend to the grandfather)?
Instead of the word “fatalistic,” I prefer the term “faith.” I have faith that God, who knows all there is to know in the present, who is always the smartest, wisest, and most loving person in the room, knows how to love better than anyone. If my grandfather is sick, I can rest assured that God is lovingly and compassionately doing the best God could do with a myriad of options, in the midst of vast complexities, that far surpass my ability to think about and come up with. It might be likened to the same faith I have in my mechanic. My mechanic knows infinitely more than me about cars (ashamedly, I can’t even change my oil). When I leave my car for him to fix my brakes, I do not ask him to fix it in particular ways. The reason why I don’t is not so much about my underlying philosophical belief in fatalism, rather, it is about my faith and trust in the character and wisdom of my mechanic.
Praying typical petitionary prayers like “God, give wisdom to the doctors,” or “God, please fill my grandfather with your love,” or “God, give my grandfather peace” are illogical and pessimistic. It doubts the love, power, and wisdom of God. So instead of engaging in an illogical and faithless practice which makes no difference (because a loving God would already be doing the above things), I would rather spend my time being motivated not by fatalism, but by faith. I would rather pray prayers of thanksgiving, such as “God, thank you for giving wisdom to the doctors,” and “God, thank you for filling my grandfather with your love,” and “God, thank you for giving my grandfather peace.” Which is a similar approach I would have with my mechanic. As I drop my car off to him, I might say, “John, thank you for being trustworthy and thank you so much for fixing my car.”
I think the statement “God only knows what we request if we actually request it” is a false declaration. God takes the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram to a whole other level. Also, I think God is the greatest psychoanalyst that ever lived. We express desires consciously, but we also express desires unconsciously. Because God has the capacity to keep in present awareness every thought and action we had since an embryo and knows intimately every present thought, spoken and unspoken, I think God knows what we want. It is precisely because of God knowing us so intimately that God loves us in ways we cannot comprehend and perhaps would blow our minds. This is why Jesus said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).
You write, “to request something of God requires us to think of him, rely on his ability, and trust in his character.” In my opinion, to do so actually proves the opposite. To make requests to God actually relies on our own extremely limited perspective and doesn’t rely on God or trust in God’s loving character. If God cannot love us in ways that are contrary to our will, since you elevate the human will so highly, then knowing God’s wisdom is infinitely greater than ours would caution us to pray with our limited perspective. Because we are limited and do not always know what is best for us, and because God respects our will, then it would be better not to make requests and thus limit God’s love in our life.
The above reality is why I would share my heart with God and express my desires verbally because God values the relationship and values communication. But I am not doing so to express something to God that God didn’t know previously. I am not praying because it enables God to love me in an ideal fashion and give me what I desire. I am praying to God because God loves it when we talk together. God loves relational communication.
After sharing my heart, I might pray, “God, I already know you are loving me to the utmost in every moment and know what is better for me than I know myself. Thank you for that unconditional and wise love. Thank you for listening. I know I rambled and shared a lot and I know you love that about me. I have a direction I might want to go with all of this but can you open the eyes of my heart in this very moment and share your heart and wisdom with me?”
Hi Mark, thank you for your insights and for engaging in the material. We see things differently on a number of points. You emphasize your faith in a loving God as continually doing his “best” in life’s circumstances. You then advocate prayers of thanks, rather than petitions―which seem to be pointless (you use the words “illogical” and “pessimistic”). If God is continually doing his “best,” then there is―effectively―only one possible future. I think the future is more open than that, as God invites our participation (and does not coerce us or over-ride our freewill) to further his kingdom. There are real options here! Moreover, the outcome of prayer is much more than producing a psychological change in us, but really changes the outcome in the physical world too (i.e., is part of the complex causal matrix). Now that is a “faith position,” because identifying the precise divine causal-joint is difficult (if not impossible) in any given situation. Indeed, God is not invading a “closed” world by “intervening,” but intimately involved in all that occurs in our “open” world as he is the Sustainer (or continually creating)―not just the Creator.