What is it, exactly, that prayer is meant to do?
We can begin with the theologian Oliver Crisp, who writes that prayer is often considered a “solution to a problem — or, at least, as a means by which a person may find a solution to a problem.” In such a view, prayer sees us on a “forked path” (perhaps as two roads diverge), and our prayers take us down one branch or the other (and perhaps that will make all the difference). The image of the one who prays as the traveler at a crossroads, however, leads straight to insoluble theological problems. As Crisp has reminded us, this image is hard to reconcile with traditional views of God, in which God neither changes his mind nor requires a certain quantity of intercessions before sending us down the right path. (The view that God brings about good by constantly adapting in response to us places God within the map, rather than wholly other as its Creator, and suggests that God is self-constituting rather than already perfectly if inconceivably good [see here and here].)
Further, prayer isn’t only straightforward petitioning but also bringing our complaints before God, whether as clearly articulated grievances or not, and even when our direction can no longer be changed. Finally, it must be said, we, under the influence of self-deception, can pray for false solutions, so prayer as problem-solving would often leave us badly adrift.
But if prayer is not our convincing God to change his mind to turn the world away from crises, what is it? And why wouldn’t prayer then become redundant? Crisp holds that prayer is not meant to change God but instead the one who prays, to bring their will into conformity to God’s. As Calvin writes, it is “not so much for God’s own sake as for ours.” Here, Crisp has an analogy: In a rehabilitation clinic is a desperate addict who must kick his habit or face serious, even fatal consequences. Every day, a physician comes to visit him. “Please help me,” says the addict to the physician. The physician assures the addict each day he has her help, which he has had and will always have. The daily act of praying, even if seemingly only in angst and never changing the physician, is meant to reshape the addict’s will to the physician’s will, in accordance with an essential though painful course of treatment — or, at the very least, to keep the door open for it. Prayer, says Crisp’s fellow Reformed theologian David Wells, is “rebellion,” as it forms an “absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is pervasively abnormal” in both the false self and a broken world.
Still, though, what does prayer do? Crisp argues that his account of prayer is not therapeutic. Through prayer, we receive virtues, especially trust in God, that are not merely coping skills. These virtues presuppose a real God with agency to forgive us specifically when we do not deserve it, to grant us life as a gift when despair seems otherwise inevitable, and to maintain our integrity even as we get nothing of what we desire. In other words, part of prayer is grasping that it is never substitutable by any effects that we might have on ourselves, even by looking at art or considering philosophical concepts. It can be subtly interruptive. Crisp refers to D.Z. Phillips’s classic The Concept of Prayer, which suggests that parents of a sick child pray intensely for healing, not to influence God’s will, but through telling God of the intensity of their desires, to ask to “be able to go on living whatever happens” and to “see that what is of value cannot be destroyed by the way things go.” They do this even as — and because — their desires understandably suggest they simply cannot go on living or see anything of value in this world outliving their child.
But, if prayer changes us (not God), drawing us away from a self that might finally give in to despair, what does it finally change us to? How might we imagine a life marked by prayerful trust in God? The Anglican theologian Austin Farrer wrote a short if dense article for the Times in 1968 that explores this. He begins by reiterating that prayer is not an alternative form of problem solving. If so, prayer would have no future, as we should instead work to advance secular problem solving. Prayer is participation in God’s work as a creature within, not a revision or supplementation forcing itself in from outside, as from a tactfully competitive co-author. In the end, this participation is in fact how we become fully ourselves, because “a man is never so truly himself as when his action is God’s.” We never anxiously bend God to us: “Christ could not teach that God may be persuaded to anything we like to ask.” On the contrary, we follow the example of Christ: “It was in praying that he found and embraced the saving will.” Thus, as Jeffrey Vogel writes of Farrer, Jesus’ life is marked by the sheer absence of duplicity.
In an earlier sermon, Farrer had spoken about the character of Jesus’ embrace of the Father. A pagan god must forcefully act by his own power, “without asking any one’s leave.” On the other hand, Farrer sees Jesus as “utterly derivative.” This receptivity frees Jesus to “speak the words his Father sent him to speak and perform the acts his Father puts into his hands” without backup plans or fail-safes. After all, Farrer notes that one can ask a bike messenger to convey a written message, by placing it in her pocket, or a verbal message, via her memory, but one cannot ask a messenger to just go and be you. The messenger would have to respond, “No, I am afraid I can’t do that, sir; I am not you, I am myself, sir.” For Christ and the Father, however, there finally is never any such conflict: “He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Nothing gets in the way. Jesus is always whom he has been called to be. As Vogel comments, this is an oft-bewildering transparency.
And so, for Farrer, Christ’s holiness is genuinely disconcerting because it is not omniscience or anything like heroic self-glorification. It is just absolute openness: “an obedience to inspiration, a waiting for direction, an acceptance of suffering, a rectitude of choice, a resistance to temptation, a willingness to die.” Vogel writes this is what Simone Weil has called “waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.”
Praying does not aggressively redirect God, as we search for the right path as travelers at a crossroads, but it changes us so that we always are, as Weil describes, watching for “the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words” (my emphasis). This reveals why prayer remains very hard, so our analogies are to rehabilitation centers and rebelliousness. It isn’t that we are neither forceful nor clear enough. Instead, we too often find ourselves drawn — even addicted — to magic and superstition and problem-solving for an uncertain future, anything except for waiting.
This essay has been lightly revised for increased clarity.