I received some thought provoking and candid responses to this question:
How much of prayer is meant to change us, not necessarily our/the circumstances?
One respondent wrote:
This is the problem with a providential God. For every atrocity there must be an equal or greater Good, which can only occur if this atrocity does. This, in turn, can cause us to (justly) question the goodness/perfection of God (as well as God’s creation.) In short, an anthropocentric providential God who answers some prayers but not others is not a viable theological construct.
Prayer, then, is meant to make us happy. It allows us to feel that we have done something when, in actuality, we have likely done nothing.
I believe Marcus J. Borg has made a point similar to the first one above. Another respondent:
I am just not really sure. I think it is certainly both factors working in concert for the glory of God, but I don’t know in what proportion. Perhaps the proportion varies based on the situation. There is power in prayer to change the circumstance– this is stated as well as demonstrated in the Bible, but it certainly doesn’t work that way all the time. For instance, I doubt God lets people he has more work for die just because not enough people pray hard enough, nor do all people who recieve prayer survive. So on the other hand, scripture also seems to point to the idea that God’s plan is bigger than our temporal circumstances, his purposes are higher, and he is working things out for his kingdom purposes, not for our immediate comfort and ease. So I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking a bit about this, and the best I can manage is that prayer is what God wants it to be. Our perception of it is an expression of our free will, but attempting to quantify or classify prayer’s effect is a humanly impossible task. It would seem that prayer is more about maintaining a relationship with God than changing circumstances, but at the same time there are plenty of examples where both the circumstance and the individual involved underwent a change of some sort.
Prayer is a vehicle for change to occur. The minute we pray about something, the beginning stages of change within ourselves has already occurred (i.e. – we’ve stopped relying on ourselves to ‘fix’ things and involved someone much greater). This breeds more change in us (i.e. – hope, patience, endurance, persistence, adjustments in viewpoints/attitudes, etc. – conversely anger, bitterness, contempt, etc. if we feel our cries have been unheard.)
As soon as the initial prayer takes place, change in the circumstance takes form – seen or unseen. (i.e – it goes away, it becomes easier/harder to deal with, becomes worse/better, peace with the circumstance sets in, etc etc.)
That’s the whole piece of sprituality coming into play. We only see what is happening on the tip of the iceberg but don’t/can’t ever fully grasp what a seemingly subtle change to the tip (like prayer) does beneath the surface of the iceberg (like our circumstances).
This is why we should pray without ceasing – to take everything to God’s throne for the change to start there and move through Him first – change in us, and in our circumstances.
If i come to God with ONLY the desire for my circumstances of my life to change, and finish “my prayer” there, i doubt that i have changed (for the good at least) nor my circumstances. Unless you think God actually listens to prayers like the one i attached.
I have no idea what the ratio would be, but i do believe we will be surprised at the end of our life at just how much our prayers were more meant to change us and not so much just our circumstances. Why? I believe changed people change things. In Matthew 14 there’s a bunch of hungry people (like, thousands) and the disciples want to usher them away so that the recently saddened and overworked Jesus can slip away. In the conversation between Jesus and the disciples, look at where the transformation is:
v 15 let’s slip away, let them buy themselves food
v 16 Jesus tells his disciples, “they don’t need to leave, YOU feed them.”
v 17 the disciples again look only to their circumstances: “We only have a little food.
Then the miracle takes place. And though we don’t know explicitly what happened in the disciples’ hearts, you gotta imagine that they joined Jesus in having compassion (see v. 14) and even thankfulness (see v. 19) despite having little food. Jesus shows that compassion and thankfulness alter circumstances, not the other way around.
He wants us to come to Him not with need, but with compassion. And prayer, i believe is for us to become more like Him so that as we become more like Him, He and we are more able to change circumstances but more importantly properly view our circumstances.
One final respondent:
I don’t know ‘how much’ but do see how it does change a person….I think of two things immediately
A – a friend who’s alcoholic mother had neglected him then abandoned him as a child. He had discovered an amazing relationship with God in college and his life changed, still though he had an anger towards his mother – a mentor encouraged him to pray for her. Reluctantly at first he did and amazing changes happened, but not to her, to him. His anger dissipated – slowly but it did. He was able to love his mother in her pain and her behaviors that resulted from that pain and the choices she made. He became a more loving and understanding man. He credits this to God – God softening his heart as he held up his mother in prayer with more and more compassion and fervor each day.
B – I think of Phillippians 4: 4-7 ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ – I think of it because the Lord brings me to it constantly – if I decide to Rejoice in any and all situations wow, what a life and what a statement to those around me about the Lord and his Glory and Goodness and Love. I think of Prayer and Rejoicing and Worship in similar ways – in everything rejoice, in everything worship, in everything take it to the Lord in Prayer…..no matter what, no matter if it changes the situation because it changes you.
Moses was changed by the presence and power of the Lord – Moses came to God and said some version of ‘Look I know you may be settled on this but here are the reasons you shouldn’t do what you are planning on doing’ – did I get that right? hahah…I mean prayer is being in the presence of the Lord…it is! It is spending time with Him – his presence changes us, opens us.
I believe this is something worth thinking about and questioning, especially in the mix of “I’m praying for you” texts and Facebook status comments. Does prayer really do anything for the circumstances or mainly affect the one praying? Of course, how can we even begin or try to gage this?