That’s What Prayers Are For

Yesterday in the Twitterverse the following quote was going around:

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

It’s alleged that this quote comes from Kierkegaard, though I haven’t seen a reference appended to it anywhere.

The first time I saw the quote, I jumped into a good conversation about it. Then after the third time I saw it, I was done.

If I may put it provocatively: the quote is a cop out. It transforms prayer from a dangerous act in which we summon the God of all the earth to act now upon the earth over which God is sovereign into something that’s just for shaping our little hearts. This is the worst sort of existentialism working itself out in a theology of prayer. The real thing isn’t that God would be intimately involved in the real world, acting on behalf of those upon whom God has set God’s name. No, the real thing would be getting ourselves aligned with some transhistorical God who won’t be bothered to engage the lives of God’s people.

If Kierkegaard is right, Christianity is not worth believing, and prayer is not worth doing.

Ok, let me soften it a bit: it’s not “not… but…” but rather “both… and…”

Yes, in spending time with God in prayer we will be changed, hopefully conformed more to God’s image by subjecting our own will to God’s.

And, every single time in the entire Bible that we read about prayer, or see someone praying, the whole point is to invoke God to break into a world that seems to be running amok and to redirect it for God’s glory and the good of God’s people (which, incidentally, are inseparable).

When I go to the Father, Jesus says, you will ask in my name–and you will receive because I am going to the Father.

When you pray, says Jesus, ask for all this stuff: God’s name to be hallowed, God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth, your daily bread, and forgiveness of your sins.

When Christians pray, we are asking God to act–specifying places in the world where God’s kingdom is not yet come, where God’s will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven–to transform this world into the place that God created, and has destined it to be.

The idea that we pray only to be transformed ourselves is the profession of a defeated people. It’s the theological excuse of a people whose prayers are weak, or go unanswered. And rather than wrestle with God or continue to confess the truth about prayer as it should be, we create a theological legitimation of our own lack, of God’s own absence.

I’d rather cling to the truth in boldness, and pray for God to act.

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3 thoughts on “That’s What Prayers Are For

  1. Thanks but I am wondering about free will and prayer. Is the reason for so much misery on earth that God allows God’s creation the freedom to groan on without God or are diseases like cancer not connected with our lack of faith? I read the Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven and believe that God wants to renew this creation. Are we stopping the Sovereign God?

  2. Perhaps the exception to what you’ve written here about prayer is confession, penitential prayer, which was the actual topic of Kierkegaard’s lesson from which the Twitter meme was ripped. In fuller context:

    “[D]o not raise the objection against the confession that there is no point in confiding to the all-knowing One that which He already knows. Reply first to the question whether it is not conferring a benefit when a man gets to know something about himself which he did not know before. A hasty explanation could assert that to pray is a useless act, because a man’s prayer does not alter the unalterable. But would this be desirable in the long run? Could not fickle man easily come to regret that he had gotten God changed? The true explanation is therefore at the same time the one most to be desired. The prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it. It is the same with the substance of what is spoken. Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession.”

    Sören Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing” (1847), trans. Douglas V. Steere; Ch.2, ¶18.

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