In the last week, newspapers have spent a great deal of ink covering church prayer services. For this we Christians should be grateful. It's good for journalists and the larger community to see how essential the local church is to so many people.
The only problem is that nearly every journalist seems to be clueless about what exactly is going on in these services. A sampling of recent headlines:
- "Seeking Solace in Time of Fear: Religious Leaders Tread Carefully To Soothe Worried Worshipers"
- "Residents attended church services throughout the San Gabriel Valley this weekend as a means of seeking comfort in troubled times"
- "Finding comfort in prayer and reflection"
And on it goes in papers big and small, from The Washington Post to The Fresno Bee. Today's issue of The Winchester (Va.) Star reports that "Ideally, [spiritual leaders] want to help quiet internal battles between war and peace, and between faith and politics."
Let me be fair: journalists are partly right. Prayer does, in fact, bring comfort to the fearful and anxious. But why are these journalists universally reporting that the whole scope of these prayer services is to bring comfort? Are the pastors telling them this? Are parishioners? Why are so many assuming that the primary purpose of prayer is to make us comfortable? Is anyone in these churches telling these journalists that they are missing the biggest story going on in these prayer meetings—that prayer actually changes things?
It seems that one saying of Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has become the lens through which journalists look at prayer. Kierkegaard once wrote, "Prayer does not change God but changes him who prays." Here's the train of logic I think Kierkegaard was following: God knows everything that's going to happen ahead of time. God has a perfect will. No puny human being is going to get the infinitely wise God to change his mind and do something stupid. Nor is God going to change the future he has mapped out because some poor Harry in Bismarck, North Dakota, needs some help. The implication is that Harry needs change. He needs to become less anxious, selfish, and trustful of God's providence, and that's what prayer can do for him.
Indeed, we pathetic creatures need a great deal of changing. And sometimes the answer to prayer is for us to suck it up or go out and do something instead of whining to God.
But here's another take from another "philosopher": "You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly father give good gifts to those who ask him" (Matt. 7:9-11). Jesus assumes that prayer doesn't just change us; it also makes a difference in what God does.
But how does this square with the traditional Christian teaching that God is "immutable," that he is unchanging? Or that he is providentially in control of history? Or that he is all wise? It's not as if God, after hearing our prayers, says, "Gosh, I never thought of that. Good idea. I'll get right to it."
To be sure, we are trafficking in mystery at this point, but a simple analogy may help.
About some matters, God simply will not change his mind, no matter how hard we pray. So don't even bother with "God, help me embezzle funds from my company today." It ain't going to happen.
Then there are those matters that are going to happen whether we pray for them or not. Thus it is pointless to pray, "Lord, please make the sun rise tomorrow morning" (though it's not pointless to praise God for the sunrise).
But apparently, according to Jesus, there are some matters about which God does not have a specific and definite plan. He'll do them if we pray for them. He won't do them if we don't. These matters don't change his overarching, eternal plan, because part of that plan is that we get to decide some stuff along the way.
Donald Bloesch is a Reformed theologian, meaning he is not one to slight the providence of God. He put it this way: "God's ultimate will is unchanging, but the way in which he chooses to realize this will is dependent on the prayer of his children. He wants us as covenant partners, not as automatons or slaves."
That's how it worked with my children and me when they were younger. My wife and I had a providential plan for our children that included, among other things, taking music lessons until high school. We started each of them on piano, and if they said nothing, then they just continued on piano. But if one of them said, "Dad, Mom, I hate piano; I'd like to play the flute," we'd let them. It didn't matter to us which instrument they played, just that they played some instrument.
Back to the war in Iraq. I trust that when churches are gathering, they are praying not just for their own comfort, but for friends and relatives in Iraq. For solders, diplomats, relief workers. For justice. For our enemies. For protection. For peace. And so on. And I trust they are praying as specifically as possible, for God seems to love specific prayers, ones that speak of stones and loaves of bread and fishes and snakes. And I hope they recognize that God in his wisdom and mercy will answer some of those prayers, and that they realize some things will not happen if they don't pray.
In other words, I hope they understand better than journalists that prayer isn't about getting us comfortable with the troubled world, but about changing it.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today, and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Prayer(Alpha Books).
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive.
A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at CurrentIssuesBibleStudy.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Previous Christianity Today articles on prayer include:
Reflections: Prayer | Quotations to stir the heart and mind about speaking with God. (June 24, 2002)
Prayer After 9.11.01 | The author of The Prayer of Jabez says now, more than ever, we need to seek God's power. (September 28, 2001)
Shaken Christians Turn to Prayer | Impromptu services usher in the bereaved by word of mouth, road signs, and e-mail. (September 13, 2001)
For more stories, see Christianity Today'sPrayer and Spirituality archive.
Recent Christianity Today articles about Christian reaction to war include:
CT Classic: War Cry | As 1991's Gulf War began, a Christianity Today editorial said the church's best weapon was tearful prayer. (March 24, 2003)
A Nation at War—And on its Knees | American Christians pray for peace, justice, and wisdom. (March 21, 2003)
Peacemakers Seek to Show War from Point of View of Iraqi Civilians | Six Christian Peacemaker Team members remain in Iraq as bombs drop. (March 21, 2003)
Speaking Out: Where Do We Go From Here? | Now that the bombs are falling, we'll need to repair Iraq—and our nation's moral standing. (March 21, 2003)
CT Classic: Weeping over Baghdad | Desert Storm cost Iraq thousands of lives. At its conclusion, a Christianity Today editorial called for the church to deal with the living souls that remained. (March 21, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)