I approached a church member who was in the late stages of a life-threatening illness. Quoting the Apostle James, “If anyone is sick let them call for the Elders,”[i] I asked my member if I could call the elders together and have them pray for her and anoint her for healing.
I’ll never forget her response. “Why Bother? What good is it going to do, anyway? God is going to do what God is going to do!”
After getting over my shock and talking to her a bit longer about it, I came to understand she was not talking from a position of lack of faith, at all, but rather of deep personal conviction. Her view may have been a little too Calvinistic for my liking, but she was, in fact, upholding a high sovereignty of God outlook.
The more I thought about it, the more I was deeply troubled, in a good way, by the implications of what she was saying. Do we really think our words will change God’s mind?
Isn’t God going to do what is best for us because he loves us and not because we figured out the magic words to get our genie out of the bottle? Is that really how it works? If I get just the right words and say them, Poof! My spell is cast, and God has to do what I want him to do. Right? Or maybe it’s if I pray long enough, kneel sincerely enough, or beg, plead, cry, fast, beat myself, then God will finally give me my wish that I just can’t live without… But I thought it was supposed to be God I could not live without? And if God does not answer my prayers, maybe I just did it wrong? Maybe I was not pure enough, or I just did not pray hard enough? Maybe my faith just wasn’t strong enough. After all, doesn’t James make it clear, “ But he must ask in faith, without doubting, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.…”[ii]
The more I thought about the ways we approach prayer, I became more perplexed.
So many people believe they failed because they did not get what they prayed for. But maybe, maybe prayer is not like writing a letter to Santa Clause and promising you will not be naughty and only nice if you can avoid the coal of life and just reap the presents from Heaven. Maybe, prayer is not at all about what you get.
After all, Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”[iii]
Ha! I am sure most of my prayers are babble to God. I babble on to poor God subjecting Him to endless “baby-talk” about what I think is the right thing for Him, the God of the Universe, to do, or get me. I incessantly go on about how good I have been or how better I promise to be if only he grants me my fantastical fancies. Seriously, do I think God needs my advice on what is good for me? What a joke! Ha! My ways always turn out as train wrecks! Yet I spend ninety percent of my prayer time listing out my wants, desires, and demands to God rather than seeking His will for me!
My favorite Christian Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard offered me a profound sobering truth that rebuilt my faith in prayer in ways which I needed it most:
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
Why must I pray? To change God’s mind. No! God is perfect. He doesn’t need to be changed, nor should the likes of me, ever move the unmovable, he is the perfect “primum movens”[iv] (unmovable mover) and it is I who must be moved by Him; never He by me! And that is why I must pray! God knows there is so much about me that needs to be changed, so much about me, that needs to be moved by Him!
He tells me; “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”[v] The door that needs to be opened is not the door of God’s kindness, pity, or compassion, that has been wide open from the start! The door that needs to be opened, unlocked, loosened is the door of my heart that wants “My will,” not “Thy will to be done.”
God gives me the ministry of prayer and tells me to seek, find, and knock because my will is rarely His by default. I am rebellious, and I am demanding, and above all I am impatient. So He says, pray, seek, that I might find His ways. Knock, because the longer I knock, and plead for Him to open up the door to me I start to notice I am actually not knocking alone. He stands by me knocking with me and crying, and pleading to me, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”[vi]
Oh joy, oh the surprise, oh the honor; the Unmovable Mover does not need me to move Him, because He already desires all good for me! He wants into my heart to move me! Now, when I talk to God I ask that He may tell me something, I seek that he may show me something, I knock that I may find him already at the doorstep of my Heart longing to come in with me to find levels of joy, peace, and love that I did not even know enough about to imagine for myself! He is not the genie in the bottle, He is my best friend, He is my comfort, He is my security, He is the unmovable rock that I must tether my heart too and never let my will separate us again! When I pray, this is God leading me into the Narrow Gate.[vii] It is the prayer-gate that only He can lead me through. It is the door I knocked at. The door is buried deep, deep in my own heart underneath all those other selfish wants. It is the door that leads to His will! It is the door that leads to the Narrow Way, that few choose to enter. It is the door that leads me away from destruction and to the road that leads to life!
I choose life! I choose Jesus. I choose to reject my wants. My ideas. My will. I choose to get forever lost, for all eternity, to dreams, desires, and perfection that in my fallen human nature I just simply would not have known to ask for the “greater” that He desires to give.
Yes, call for the Elders. Let us pray. Let us anoint. Let us be redirected to the Narrow gate, put back on the path of life, let us be moved by the Unmovable Mover! “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.”[viii]
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it” –Soren Kierkegaard (1847)
[iv] Latin: primum movens for ‘that which moves without being moved’ because it is the prime mover. It originates from Metaphysics, Book Λ, by Aristotle. It became a key Christian way of seeing God’s prime sovereignty by its adoption by Thomas Aquinas into the church.
[vii] Matthew 7:13-14 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
[viii] A quote attributed to CS Lewis in the 1993 Movie Shadowlands. While it gels with Kierkegaard there is no known writing of Lewis that contains it. It is used here because regardless of authorship it is true.