At the end of my sermon on Sunday, I broached the subject of intercessory prayer (prayers for the needs of others) and whether or not they worked. I was only able to touch on this really difficult subject, but such a discussion is important as we continue in our “Season of Prayer” as a church. As we spend this month praying for First Christian Church and its future, it matters how we conceptualize prayer and what it accomplishes.
There are a number of ideas about prayer that are simply inadequate. One is the idea of an unchangeable or immutable God, who remains unaffected by our prayers. Sometimes this is expressed as God having everything predestined or preordained; other times it is expressed as a God who only answers prayers that align with what God was going to do anyway. No matter how it is expressed, such a view of God borders on the fatalistic and seems contrary to the God of our scriptures who responds and is affected by interaction with humanity.
Another inadequate understanding of prayer treats God like a vending machine. If we pray hard enough and in the correct manner, then God will grant our wishes. According to this view, God is little more than a machine or perhaps a genie existing only to give us what we want. A side effect of this kind of thinking is a message to hurting and grieving people that somehow they are at fault for not praying correctly when a love one suffers or dies. Certainly, prayers are not answered or at least are not answered in the way we want, but to lay all responsibility on the one praying ignores the power of God’s Spirit who hears even our “sighs to deep for words.” We don’t have to say magic words, because God is not a magic trick or a machine. According to scripture, God is involved in our reality and interacting with us—both we and God play a part in prayer.
A better understanding of prayer, I believe, comes from a healthier understanding of God. Such an understanding allows for the free will of humans, the natural order of the universe and the supernatural activity of God. Theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann speak of the “self-limitation” of God, which means that God gives creation—including humanity—freedom to exist according to certain rules or laws of nature (gravity, mortality, etc.). Furthermore, humans are given free will—freedom to choose, to love, to hate, etc. In this free creation, a certain amount of randomness and even tragedy exists, assumedly because to eliminate it would also limit the freedom given to creation and to humanity. There is, however, some wiggle room here. Although, God does not control everything, God is at work within the natural order of things—to the extent that God can do so without taking away humanity’s free will. It is in that space where God works to change things for the better without controlling them that prayer for others comes in.
The analogy I used Sunday was a game of chess. I’ve recently begun playing chess with my six year-old son (who soon will be looking for someone better at the game than me). Each move made by a player in chess affects what moves are possible and desirable to his or her fellow player. In an analogous way (realizing of course that all analogies about God break down), God can be thought of as a chess master who is responding to the moves of creation and humanity. On this immense playing space known as our reality, God’s moves are influenced in part by our moves. If our moves are at odds with God’s, perhaps God can do less; on the other hand, if our moves are in sync with God’s then perhaps God’s aims can be accomplished more easily. God’s moves remain influenced by many variables (free will, the laws of physics, etc.), but our prayers could be just the extra nudge to make room for an act of God’s grace.
One of my seminary professors, Glenn Hinson, liked to use the analogy of the chess master to help explain the possible effects of prayer. In his book, A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle, he concludes his discussion of prayer by referencing a Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who. In the story, Horton, an elephant, heard a “Who” speaking to him from a clover blossom—the entire society of Whos lived on a single blossom. None of Horton’s friends believed his tale of hearing from a microscopic person and threaten to destroy the blossom, so the elephant convinces all the Whos to make all the noise they can. The Whos cannot be heard by Horton’s friends until one last little Who girl adds her voice to the cacophony. Her little “Yopp” added just enough volume for the Whos to prove they were real, ultimately saving their city from destruction.
Perhaps your prayer or mine may be just enough to make a space for God to work wonders in the community of believers that is First Christian Church.
Grace and Peace,