Saturday, 5 August 2006

Does prayer change God?

Joe Cathey raises the question: does prayer change God, or does it only change us?

It seems to me that the only way to take the biblical witness seriously is to say that prayer really does “change God.” If we approach the concept of prayer via a philosophical or theological analysis of “the divine nature,” we may well end up concluding that prayer cannot “change God.” But nothing could be plainer about the God of the Bible: he hears prayer, he is moved by prayer, he responds to prayer, he changes his mind when people pray. Nothing is more characteristic of the God of the Bible than his attentiveness and responsiveness to prayer.

We’ll always get into trouble if we start out with a prior concept of what the “divine nature” must be like (e.g. that God must be transcendent, or immutable) and then try to understand prayer. Instead, as Gerhard Ebeling has pointed out, we should start with the reality of prayer, and we should allow prayer itself to determine the way we think about who God is and what he is like.

One of the best discussions of this topic is Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/4, pp. 87-115. Barth writes: “If ever there was a miserable anthropomorphism, it is the hallucination of a divine immutability which rules out the possibility that God can let himself be conditioned in this or that way by his creature. God is certainly immutable. But he is immutable as the living God and in the mercy in which he espouses the cause of the creature. In distinction from the immovability of a supreme idol, his majesty, the glory of his omnipotence and sovereignty, consists in the fact that he can give to the requests of this creature a place in his will.... God cannot be greater than he is in Jesus Christ, the Mediator between him and man.... For this God is not only occasionally but essentially, not only possibly and in extraordinary cases but always, the God who hears the prayers of his own” (p. 109).


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