As we continue to reflect on prayer, I want to get to the heart of what many wonder about prayer.
Does prayer change things?
Actually, in my experience, there are a lot of people who don't wonder if prayer changes things. They have already decided because they have prayed and seen things change, that prayer does change things. Or, because they have prayed and joined with others in prayer and still watched their loved one die or the disaster still happen, they have concluded that prayer doesn't change things. For those that have decided, one way or the other, there is no wondering at all.
I would like to invite us, whether we are among the wonderers or among the already decided, to consider this question again. Does prayer change things? And, if so, what does it change? As we reconsider it, let's do remembering the starting place that prayer is, at its core, and invitation into a loving relationship. If it is about a relationship, it isn't really about the impact it has "out there." It is about what happens within the relationship and within the persons in the relationship.
That is to say, if prayer is going to be about changing anything, from my perspective it must first be about changing me. Secondarily, it may be about changing God. (Not who God is or any essential attribute of God, but potentially about how God acts within the world.) As I change and if God changes, then that may lead to a change in the reality "out there." But any change out there is because of the change in the persons involved in prayer.
Since I cannot fully and truly know the mind of God and since I cannot know if God's heart and action are truly changed towards something, let me suggest that to spend time conjecturing about if and how God is changed in prayer is an interesting (even important) theological exercise, but it is venturing into that which cannot be known for certain. Perhaps more significantly we should recognize that if one person enters into any relational interaction with the goal being to change the other person, it actually demeans and damages the relationship.
Prayer is something that should be more than just an exercise and we certainly should not want to demean or damage our relationship with God by having our goal be to change God (or God's mind or behaviour). That leaves one other thing that we can be open to seeing changed when we pray. Ourselves. Much of prayer's impact cannot be measured or directly proven as the result of prayer, but the change it has on me and my life can be measurable and observable.
Here are some ways that accepting the invitation into relational prayer can change me or you:
Let me give you a very contemporary example. One of the challenges of our current pandemic situation is that so much is out of my control. Prayer can lead me to acknowledge that I can't control things and actually help me to stress less because I stop trying to control things I'm unable to anyway. It leads to me trusting God to do things I cannot and opens me up to invite others to contribute because I'm not trying to control things as much.
As I look around and see people having very different approaches to the pandemic, and some going through some very challenging times during the pandemic, I pray for them. As I pray for them, I grow in love for them. When I grow in love for someone who sees things very differently than me, it changes how I think of them, speak of them, and act towards them. For example, if someone is far more worried about getting COVID-19 than I am, my growing love for them doesn't mock them, it leads me to try to understand their concerns and seek to empathize. My patience for them grows.
And that leads to the final point, it changes how I act because I'm working cooperatively with God. As I pray for God to minimize the impact of COVID-19, if I think of things in terms of a relational partnership, I am led to consider how I can minimize the impact of COVID-19. That changes how I act. Wearing a mask and honouring social distancing isn't about anyone "controlling" me at all. It becomes something that is embraced out of love for another and out of figuring out how I can partner with God to make things safer and better for those around me.
Let me speak bluntly here, at risk of offending some who disagree. It breaks my heart to see churches who are regathering - particularly in "hot-spot" areas - with little to no precautions in place for COVID-19. Many of them are doing so claiming it as "their right" to gather. The posture that seeks to defend their rights at the risk of harming their communities does not seem to reflect a growing love of God for those around them. Others are framing their actions as trusting in God to protect them. Expressing trust in God to protect them without partnering with God to enact wise and healthy protections doesn't seem to reflect an acknowledgment of the relational aspect of our connection with God. When sickness spreads among them (which it has in several church contexts) the issue isn't that God wasn't trustworthy. The issue is that they didn't participate with him in caring well for the world.
There are many nuances to our current pandemic that this is not the place to address. My point here is simply that if we take seriously that prayer is an invitation into a relationship with a loving God, the primary thing that we should see changed in prayer is ourselves. And that change should lead us to increasingly embody the self-giving love of God to each other, to our neighbours, and to our world.
And I believe that as we - followers of Jesus - are each open to being changed like that through prayer, and as that kind of change takes effect, the end result will be that a lot of things will change for the better in our world due to prayer!