The Pastor Next Door

Prayer Doesn't Change God

Photo of a man praying by a misty lake by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Prayer is something so difficult for me to get my mind around. As I think about praying it raises so many, many questions.

If God is sovereign why pray?
Why doesn't God answer my prayers?
Why don't I hear God when I pray?
What value is there to praying?
Why did that person get healed and that one didn't?
Why did that prayer have “results” and that one didn't?
Does prayer do anything?

And so many, many more.

I often think of prayer in the context of utility. Quite simply, “does it work?”

As far as I can tell Jesus' closest followers only asked to be taught one thing, how to pray.

How did Jesus respond?

“He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:2-4)

Short. Focused. To the point.

Elsewhere talking about prayer Jesus said,

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8)

What are we to make of these things?

Throughout the history of religious people prayer has always played a significant role. I remember in seminary reading about the desert fathers and mothers and how prayer was central. Or learning about the monastic movement and the important role of prayer for these people.

Every week I pray a “pastoral prayer” and a prayer of invocation and a prayer over the offering. I pray before I preach and after I preach. I pray before meals. I pray before I write. I pray before I spend time in the Scriptures. I prayer before I meet with people. I pray during my devotional times.

As I think about it, I pray quite a bit.

Yet, I wouldn't consider myself a pray-er.

My friend John, he was a pray-er. After he died his wife passed out index cards that he kept on hand that tracked what he was praying for for his friends.

Prayer was central to his spiritual life.

I know of many people for whom prayer is significant to their lives and spirituality.

My mentor, Bob, is a pray-er. He prays like his life depends on it. There is a qualitative difference between his prayer and my prayer.

I think I often pray as someone who has to pray as opposed to wanting to pray. I think this is because I can't quite figure out prayer. It doesn't fit my intellectual boxes.

Perhaps it's similar from the opening lines of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller when he wrote, “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve.”

He goes on to write, “But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”

When I see people like Bob or John pray, I want to love prayer the way they do. These guys have and do show me the way.

Yet, I struggle.

I have found lately that simply praying the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples has helped me. Often I will find myself meditating on the words. Or the words will just come into my mind as I drive or walk.

When this happens I feel something in me.

I feel a connection to the divine. It's faint. But it's there.

I am coming to grips with an idea that I first heard about in the film Shadowlands. It's a film about C.S. Lewis and his relationship with his wife, Joy. Near the end of the film there is this line, “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.”

The idea that I'm coming to grips with is this: I'm helpless.

That's not easy for me.

I think of myself as strong. I think of myself as someone who rarely needs anything. Yet, if I am honest, truly honest, I am helpless.

“Prayer doesn't change God—it changes me.”

As I continue to learn to pray, I am learning that this ethereal, surreal, intangible practice of seeking to be in the presence of the divine changes me.

It's not a utilitarian practice. It's something deeper than that. It's experiential.

I long to be able to speak that line from the film and mean it. I long to pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping.

Perhaps, as I grow in my desperation to desire to pray I will someday learn to pray.


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