I grew up in a Christian denomination that tends to downplay the role of the supernatural in God’s dealing with humankind. I often heard the maxim, ‘Prayer doesn’t things; it changes us.’ And who can argue with the conviction that prayer can and should transform us? But these words were often said as though personal transformation is all prayer accomplishes. It was almost the idea, as one popular spirituality book suggest, that prayer is ‘just talking to’ yourself and ‘reprogramming’ your internal computer.
When I enrolled in a hospital chaplaincy apprenticeship program during seminary, the subject of praying for patients came up in our training group. ‘I pray out loud with a patient when he or she asks for it,’ my chaplaincy supervisor told us. ‘The patient often finds it emotionally therapeutic.’ For him, that was about it. It made patients feel better. But for him it seemed to do nothing to influence God or shape the outcome of events. It would never fall on responsive ears.
But we can say more than that prayer reassures us when we are needy. Much more. God stands in relation to the world and its events not as an autocrat but as an artist whose work of art shows in every stroke or chip the contribution of an apprentice. ‘The strongest one in Christ’s kingdom,’ wrote E M Bounds, ‘is he who can knock the best.’
God listens attentively to our asking, not because he is cowed by us or our demands, but because he chooses to do so. Prayer changes things not because it is a magical formula but because behind it is nothing less than the Creator’s power. Prayer moves the hand that holds the universe. There is more to our asking than we can ever imagine because there is more to God than we can ever fathom. And there is in him a generosity that exceeds our imaginations.
From chapter 7 of The Art of Prayer (revised and expanded edition), published by Waterbrook Press, 2005