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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What is the real purpose of prayer?

Today, Parableman's reflection on Belief Seeking Understanding's pondering whether or not retroactive prayer is well formed caught my attention. In his post, Jeremy walks very ably through the philosophical underpinnings of prayer, God's actions and His timelessness. The issue about which both Jeremy and Douglas are wondering is the wisdom of praying about events that have already happened.

Douglas used the following illustration to highlight the conundrum:
Suppose you go to the doctor, and the doctor says "Well, based on everything I know at this point, you either have x or y. X is somewhat of an inconvenience, but y is significantly more serious." Is it foolish to pray "Please God, let it be x and not y?" If y is the consequence of a lifetime of choices, isn't praying such a prayer functionally equivalent to asking God to zap you into some alternate parallel universe where you had x, from another one where you had y?
Both Jeremy and Douglas acknowledges God's timelessness, and Jeremy explicates how this important concept does not preclude us from praying for past events on the grounds that "we don't know [the outcome] when praying..." Further, Jeremy poses the following questions about prayer and God's answers to it
Is it possible for my prayer to be answered positively given that the negative answer is true? No. Is it possible for my prayer to be answered ignoring any information about whether the positive answer happened already? Yes. The question is whether it's proper to ignore information about the past if you don't know it. Normally, we assume the past is irrevocable and thus don't try to do something that might change it, simply because we can't. But what if our prayer can genuinely lead to a past decision on God's part? Then it seems it is indeed proper to ignore that there might be facts about the past for the same reason it's proper to avoid facts about the future. What makes it come out the way it did/will hasn't happened yet.
The underlying assumption from which both Jeremy and Douglas work is that prayer really does cause God to respond and act to change things. This is a common understanding of most people. In fact, "Prayer changes things" appear to be a slogan that is quite commonplace. However, while I don't doubt the truth of the statement, I wonder if this kind of thinking about prayer distorts its real purpose and effectiveness, and is in fact a misunderstanding of the practice of prayer. And, if misunderstanding, then, it is detrimental to our spiritual formation.

Sometime ago, I wondered about the theological implications behind our practice of prayer and why we assume that God's answers to our prayers are in any one of three ways: "Yes," "No," and "Wait" and then, only count those times when our prayers have been answered affirmatively as real answers. We say "Praise God! He answered our prayers!" but only do so when we actually see positive answers to our prayers.

This problem is closely related to the question I recently asked myself when reflecting on--and asking God to change--the circumstances in which I found myself. I wondered if it was proper for me to ask God to remove me from the difficult situation or to ask God to remove the situation from me, and then I contemplated if the wiser, if not proper, prayer was to invite God into my situation.

Perhaps rather than think that the goal of prayer is about changing things or circumstances, we ought to think about prayer as a means to changing people. In fact, prayer is more about changing the person doing the praying, than about bringing changes to world events. I am not denying that God does act to change things in response to the prayers of His people, but my contention is that this is not the Biblical emphasis of prayer.

When we understand prayer as a discipline in which we engage God in our lives and engage in His life, as a means of intimacy with God, then it doesn't really matter if the things we pray about are in the past, or in the future. For then, we would be praying not for or against the occurrence of an event, but rather we would be praying for our responses to events.

While this understanding may not preclude us from wondering about whether or not to pray for things that may have passed, it does help us to focus our prayer on our responses to whatever comes, not in a fatalistic manner of "whatever will be, will be" (which was Jeremy's worry), but more in the manner of asking God for wisdom and faith to respond courageously, whatever the outcome.

So, do we ever pray for some things to happen rather than other? In the Bible, there are specific passages where this seem to be the case. Jesus' prayer in the garden, "Let this cup pass from me" seems to be an example, yet its emphasis might be more in the "nevertheless let your will, not mine be done." At another time, He taught his disciples to pray that God give us our daily bread and deliver us from evil, and yet, it appears that the prayer is more about our interaction with God than about asking God specifically for different things. Yet further, He teaches his disciples to ask that the Lord of the Harvest send workers to the ripened fields, but even so, this prayer can be seen as a prayer of entering into the heart of God, than of asking God to change certain events.

It would be an interesting exercise to study all the passages of prayer in the Bible (or even the major ones). My suspicion is that there is more emphasis about changing people's hearts (specifically changing the hearts of those doing the praying), and more about inviting God into our circumstances, and entering into God's heart--his work and mission--than about asking God to change things, in a vendor machine-like manner. Perhaps, asking God to change things or praying for things to change is a first step in learning about prayer, and about our walk with God, but as we progress in this relationship, we need to see prayer as more about engaging God in our life and engaging in God's life in the context of an intimacy that is our relationship with our Savior and Lord.