Prayer and the Character of God

There are some people who are skilled at prayer. I am not one of them. R. C. Trench, the 19th-century Anglican bishop, once described prayer as “the simplest act in all religion.” I am inclined to agree with him. Until I start to pray. Then, a kind of uncertainty overtakes me. I do not feel confident. It’s not that I doubt whether God can grant my requests. I question whether He will. I often feel as if I must somehow win God over to my side of things.

When I first learned to pray, I thought the goal was to persuade God. But how does one do that? I believed it had to do with the manner of my approach. I thought that before God would answer my prayer, I had to show Him that I was sincere enough or convince Him of the merits of my case. When that didn’t seem to work, I wondered if prayer was more like a contractual dispute, and I had failed to grasp the terms. Prayer became a negotiation. I made requests, sometimes even demands, and then offered promises to God in return for the thing I wanted. That didn’t seem to work either.

Prayer may be simple but that does not mean that it is easy.

Then someone told me that prayer was simply a conversation with God. This view was more appealing to me. But I quickly discovered that I am not much of a conversationalist, and neither is God. It was hard enough for me to make small talk with ordinary people, let alone with the Creator of the Universe. I was awkward and easily distracted. I mumbled through my requests, like someone reading a grocery list. If I bored myself, how must God feel? And as for God, His response to my holy chatter, at least as far as I could tell, was mostly silence. Prayer may indeed be simple, but that does not make it is easy.

How Does Prayer Work?

For many who struggle with prayer, ironically, it is God who poses the problem. How do you pray to someone who doesn’t change His mind and who never has second thoughts? God knows my prayers before I pray them (Ps. 139:2–4). The answer is decided before the request has even been made (Ps. 65:24; Dan. 9:23). If there are no grounds for persuasion, and we can convince God of nothing, how exactly is He moved by our prayers? Should we even bother to pray? Maybe we should just wait quietly for whatever God had decided in advance to do.

Of course, this doesn’t fit at all with the way we talk about prayer in church. Those who pray believe that prayer has an effect on God and that He, in turn, acts upon the world around them. So which is it? Do our prayers move the hand that made the world? Or is God’s hand unmovable and our sense that we are partners with Him in prayer merely an illusion?

The theologians teach that  God is immutable. This means that His character, purposes, promises, and plans do not change. According to James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The theologians also say that God is impassible. As theologian J. I. Packer explains, this means “that no created beings can inflict, pain, suffering, and distress on him at their own will.” We cannot manipulate God with our prayers. We cannot wheedle Him until we get our way. We cannot agitate Him into action on our behalf.

The doctrines of God’s immutability and impassibility are a comfort when it comes to His moral consistency. But they pose something a stumbling block where prayer is concerned. If God doesn’t change, then it also follows that we cannot change His mind. If I cannot make Him feel more sympathetic toward my request or convince Him of my argument, what is the point of going to Him at all? If God has already decided what He is going to do, and knows what we will do, then why should I waste my breath?

The Danger of Two Extremes

These are old questions that are hard to answer without slipping into theological difficulty. If we lean too far in the direction of immutability and impassibility, then prayer seems both impersonal and pointless. We might as well be praying to a mountain or a machine. A God who is not moved by our prayers can only respond to them by working out of His foreordained purposes with clockwork precision. What looks to us like results has little to do with our words. The outcome will be the outcome, no matter what we say or do. The whole thing is like one of those clocks that tell a story. The figures may bend and twirl but not of their own accord. They merely show up at the right time and act out the parts that the clockmaker has programmed them to play. This is more like fatalism than prayer as Jesus both described and modeled it.

But if we lean too far in the other direction, we erode the divinity of God. We humanize God, but in the process, dehumanize prayer until it is only a matter of stimulus and response. We pray like the pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). We attempt to bully God with numbers, soliciting people to pray like political activists collecting names on a petition drive. Or we concern ourselves with empty forms, worrying over the method but ignoring God. This paganized view diminishes God’s role to the point where prayer becomes an occult practice. Prayer is no longer a request or even a conversation but merely a Christianized form of word magic.  If you speak the incantation and follow the right forms, then something is bound to happen. “Do not be like them,” Jesus warns, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).

God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation.

Divine immutability, whatever it means, does not mean that God is inactive or immobile. God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation. God does not change, but He does effect change. In the same way, we shouldn’t confuse divine impassibility with impassivity. God is not unfeeling. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, His anger, and even His grief. God is not reactive, but He does respond. God is especially responsive to the cry of prayer.

This was Jesus’ point in the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1–8. Jesus told this parable to His disciples “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The tone of the story is one of gentle humor. Although the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” he is brought to his knees by the persistence of a poor widow. This scenario admits to the imbalance of power that exists between those who pray and God who hears. It also acknowledges what we often feel as we wait for an answer. We worry that the judge has overlooked our case. But the moral of the story is equally clear. God is not like the unjust judge (v. 7). He will respond, and when He does, that response will be consistent with His character. The God to whom we pray is both a just and compassionate judge.

Collaborators With God

Prayer is not a tool that we use to prod a passive God into action. In reality, the movement is in the opposite direction. God uses prayer to draw us into participation with Him and with His work in the world. In an essay entitled “The Work of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis observes that the participatory nature of prayer is consistent with the way God ordinarily works. “Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand,” Lewis observes. “Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.” Lewis compares history to a play “in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.”

In another essay entitled, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” Lewis argues that it is no less strange to think that our prayers should affect the course of events than that our actions should do so. “They have not advised or changed God’s mind–that is, His over-all purpose,” Lewis explains. “But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.” Prayer changes things. Or conversely, some things do not change if we choose not to pray. “You do not have because you do not ask God,” James 4:2 warns.

Does God know the outcome in advance? Does He know whether we will pray or not? Lewis does not exactly say. But he does acknowledge the difficulty of fully grasping what it means for God to enable free-will to co-exist with Omnipotence. Lewis seems to say that when it comes to praying, we are true collaborators with God. At the same time, he warns that we must not forget that God is still God. “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God,” Lewis warns. “Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.” The uncertainty always moves in our direction, never the other way around. God is never uncertain.

Jesus’ Prayer is the Key

If there is a key to this cosmic puzzle, perhaps it can be found in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. On the night before His suffering, Jesus prayed. “Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In this prayer, Jesus speaks both of possibility and uncertainty. He speaks of what God can do but in a way that suggests that what Jesus wants may not be the answer that God will grant. As Matthew’s version puts it, “. . . if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt. 28:39). Perhaps even more surprising, Jesus speaks of a will of His own that diverges from His Father’s will but is not sin. When Jesus limits His request by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He implies that the matter has been settled even before the request is made.

I find the ambivalence of Jesus’ prayer liberating because it shifts the burden of responsibility for the answer to God. It means that I can state my request simply and honestly and then trust God to sort out the rest. The old bishop was right. Prayer may not be easy, but it is simple. Prayer is as simple as the infant’s cry or the beggar’s reach. The power of prayer does not lie in the rigor of its method or the beauty of its vocabulary. Its efficacy does not depend upon the supplicant’s posture or the prayer’s length. The power of prayer is simply in the asking. Our comfort in prayer is the confidence we have that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him.

Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon the God who made the world and sustains our life. It is a moment-by-moment confession that in Him, we live and move and have our being. After all these years, prayer doesn’t seem to be any easier for me. But it really couldn’t be simpler.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.