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Does prayer change anything?

by on February 18, 2015

aa5b59b090d6f0d23ce055c0215a7b69“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” So says the character C. S. Lewis in the play Shadowlands.

It’s an inspirational quote, loved by thousands all over the web! It’s full of feeling and passion and raw honesty. It’s the expression of a vital, active faith.

But is it true?

I don’t mean did the real Lewis ever say these words, no one seems to be claiming that he did. But we often struggle with the question, do my prayers, do our prayers make a difference? 

Does prayer change anything? Does it change God’s mind? Can his eternal plans be altered by the petitions of his people? We agonise over this, never coming to a good solution. And it can rob people of the conviction that prayer is important in the Christian life. Prayer can end up as a question mark.

I mean, when I pray for someone who’s sick, I want more than just me to be changed, right?

I reckon there are a couple of problems with this ‘does it change anything?’ line of thinking.

First and biggest, the question is impersonal. It’s the sort of question a scientist might have in his experiment. ‘If I apply this stimulus here, what happens to the system?’ ‘Has anything been affected?’ Empirical questions, to be answered by observation.

We bring this sort of scientific model to prayer, and we ask, does it make a difference to the outcomes?

Trouble is, scientific experimentation may not be a great model through which to understand prayer. It’s big failing is that it’s not personal. Prayer is not an experiment of that kind!

When we pray we are talking to our Father who is a person, who knows and loves us and his creation. It is an exercise in communication, not in adjusting the world.

Which brings us then to the question of whether God is changed by our prayers. This is I think a particularly unhelpful one. Because we so readily ask it from the empirical/impersonal approach outlined above.  As though God himself were the subject of our experimentation. But he is not: he is Lord. The question, is God changed by my prayer? seems to me to be very likely irreverant.

But even worse, I think, the question is non-relational. The natural question to ask about prayer is ‘Did God listen?’ This is the question the psalmists are always putting. When we pray, we are primarily hoping that God will answer. We are hoping he will hear and respond to us. We are hoping for a living interaction in the medium of prayer, that God will act for our benefit. These are the fully relational issues raised by the business of prayer.

The question ‘What got changed?’ gives few clues to all this.

The question, ‘Does God respond?’ is much richer. And here we have ready answers from Scripture. We have a Father whose heart is wide open to us, in Christ. And that should surely get us back on our knees!

From → General

One Comment
  1. I was just watching Shadowlands and I was searching the net to see if this line was really from Lewis, then I came across this post; does God answer versus does God change? Hmm, I see how you may be against some of the romantic ways in which people choose to interpret the line – you call it scientific, I call it romantic; but then, people will always do that: take up some lines and romanticise them; putting that aside, here’s what I think: we don’t and shouldn’t pray expecting God will respond to all of our prayers; what we expect from our prayers is that as we pray, our prayers will come to reflect more His will than our random wishes; I think that’s the point of the line: it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t interact with us through our prayers, but we cannot change God with our prayers, can we? He changes us; through our prayers: through His answers or silence, He shapes us so that our will will be more in tune with His Own; so prayers are not meant to change God – He is immutable, or else He may just as well be one of the pagan gods – they are meant to, eventually, change us to that we are better acquainted with His ways; it is highly personal because it changes us as who we are as a person
    Does God change through our prayers?: no, I should hope not
    Do our prayers make a change?: yes, the whole point of it is to make a change within ourselves
    Does God respond?: of course, that’s how we change
    Just a few lines to tell you that I sympathise with your thoughts but what you take on as your antithesis doesn’t really function as one

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