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!