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~ Prayer's Influence On God's Plans ~
Here is a striking mandate from God, wherein He tells a prophet to not pray for his people: "So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you" (Jeremiah 7:16); "Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress" (11:14); "Then the Lord said to me, 'Do not pray for the well-being of this people' " (14:11).
The "Serenity Prayer" is well-known: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to tell the difference." Popular as it is poetic, the prayer is not quite biblical. In Kurt Vonnegut's book, "Slaughter House-Five," a central character finds he cannot change anything with courage or self-asserted will, nor can accept in serenity or pain those evils he can't change. Vonnegut is telling us that change, courage, acceptance and serenity are not predicated on us. The Scriptures, I believe, support him on that.
There is, however, one agent of change that is both dependent on us and beyond us. Prayer generates a convergence of the divine and human, of time and eternity. Psalm 139:4 states, "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord." As some may sigh, "Then why bother praying?" we can also view this as an affirmation of prayer's power and importance. It means that our prayers immerse us into eternity (as opposed to the future, present or even past, since eternity is timeless and thus grammatical tense cannot be applied to it.) Our prayers articulate the will of God established eons before our existence. In them we harmonize with our Creator in a timeless fashion, since these prayers, that we utter "according to your will," were "on the books" (so to speak) before the universe was created.
So the Psalms, the prayer book that covers every feeling, longing and expression between desperation and gratitude, were already in God's heart long before they were written down. When we pray the Psalter, we align ourselves with God's will, intents, and purposes that were and are established in eternity. We are not entering time, although the events of our present lives seem to call forth these prayers in response, but are rather entering God's heart, a heart that is changeless.
Yet the heart of God appears changeable by our prayers. Consider: "Ask and it will be given to you," "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask in prayer," and "You do not have because you do not ask." Jesus told us it is the will of the Father to give us the longings of our hearts as gifts. Yet we "do not have because we do not ask." If God's will is set, then why must we ask that it be done and His willing, loving gifts be provided, which is His will anyway? Is God that dependent on our prayers to the point of needing them to manifest His will?
The Old Testament Scriptures record several instances wherein God "repented" (literally meaning "a changing of mind," nothing to do with sin or mistakes in God's case) of a promise or decision in response to the petition of a human. God appears to have established that as an operating principle, which is why He told Jeremiah not to pray that His plans be changed. Was this not a way of underscoring how powerful prayer is to God (not to us)? Is this not another way of God telling us that nothing is manifested, nothing is done, nothing is given, in or beyond His will, without prayer?
There are numerous recorded events that were influenced by prayer. We can even explain to some degree how natural law and physics can be transcended by prayer and supernatural (or metaphysical) intention, such as walking on water and calming storms. I know it is so much easier for Christ to raise someone from the dead than for parents of teenagers to get them out of bed to go to school! What boggles my thinking is this notion that the fulfilling of God's will is intimately intertwined with our prayers, or that our prayers can, in some way, "change" His mind, so to speak. Yet this dance of divine will and human prayer is well documented in Scripture and human experience. We are taught by Christ and the apostles to pray over everything, that prayer is primary and essential to any endeavor, task or fulfillment, not a last resort after we have exhausted our human abilities, resources and hope.
Christ would tell His apostles that some knowledge is known only "by the Father" and thus was not able to answer some of their questions (as in the timing of the earth's restoration and the final judgment of humankind.) Yet He also declared He and the Father are one. Christ willingly sacrificed His fully divine nature to assume ours. Since the Triune God knew us "before the foundations of the world" as well as the events of every single day of our lives before the Creation, Christ's need to pray to discern God's will for the choosing of His disciples seems odd until we grasp that Christ was living in time, as we do. He prayed publicly many times, the most notable prayers being recorded in the gospels. But His private, all-night prayers in solitary places of which His disciples did not know were far more numerous, rather regularly, and, of course, there are no records of those.
I often wondered about what Christ was praying. We can be certain He was not spending eight to twelve hours asking God for things. Some explain that Christ was "communing" with the Father, reveling in His Presence, like a child on a parent's lap. Though more plausible, that still seems a bit trite. After all, I believe Christ was "communing" with the Father every moment of His wakefulness and of His sleep. Do we not do the same with a loved one, someone on our minds and in our hearts day and night, in thoughts and dreams? Does not God mandate that from us regarding Him? What else would "Love Me with ALL your mind, strength and heart" mean?
Even if we don't understand it, let's consider the notion of prayer being a convergence of the divine and human, time and eternity, knowledge and Wisdom. If God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit knew us before creation, the Son, the Word through Whom all things were made, would certainly know who the apostles of the Christ would be. He also knew, before the foundations of the world, that Judas would need to be among them. The Christ, in human body and human time, would need to enter into eternity to learn what He already knew (and determined Himself) before creation as God Himself. The way into eternity, into all wisdom and revelation, is through prayer.
Before Christ's arrest, He prayed to the Father about the "cup" that He needed to drink. Being in time and being human, He asked that a couple of His apostles stay close by Him, to pray and watch with Him. He also asked the Father about another way, if possible. But He already knew, through revelation from eternity, there was none. Had Christ not discussed this hour with Moses and Elijah in that magnificent transfiguration in the presence of the same apostles He asked to keep watch with Him as that hour approached in time? So Christ prayed, thankfully for us, that the Father's will be done. He also knew and declared that, if He asked, the Father would instantly send an army of angels to rescue Him from the fate He already chose before creation. If Christ had not prayed, "But your will be done," our fate would not be one of redemption, to put it very mildly.
Well-known theologian Karl Barth expounded on the sovereignty of God while
also asserting "He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer
exerts an influence upon God's action, even upon his existence...The fact
that God yields to man's petitions, changing his intentions in response to
man's prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, in the glory of his majesty
and power, has so willed it."
So we pray, "Your will be done." And, now, can't you hear Him responding,
"As long as you pray for it to be done, for that is my will"?
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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