Prayer and Theology

We are to come to the Lord with our requests—among other things—but we are to come to the Lord. That is, we do not approach one whom we do not know, are not trying to know better, and who is not worthy. In fact, decency requires that we endeavor to understand him whom we approach with these requests, and reverence demands that we do it to the best of our abilities.

The result ought to be that when we approach the Lord, we not only bring our requests but also our theology. Here can be found the dynamic element in prayer. We tend to think the dynamic element in prayer is found in God. But God never changes. This is not to say that God does not hear and respond to our prayer, but it is to point out that we ought to expect prayer to be dynamic not outside of ourselves only (in a change to a circumstance or situation we have in mind). We ought to expect prayer to change us.

God never changes. This is good theology: he is immutable. How does that influence our prayers? It points out that the one who needs to change is not God. Is God ill-disposed toward us? Is the circumstance we are undergoing unforeseen? Has he run out of ideas and is he looking for some suggestions from us about what to do? God has all the options, all the power, all the wisdom and insight, and he goes so far as to understand the end of the story of which that situation is merely a part. It cannot be said of us that any of this is true.

I have often thought of God as capricious, or intolerant, ill-tempered or irrational. All these are idols and a comment on the state of my heart more than a comment on anything external, let alone anything real. These attitudes and ideas do not reflect reality, and the only thing they affect is me. When God says he is a jealous God, we ought not to think that he is such a being as is affected by the passion of jealousy, that it suddenly overtakes him influencing his behavior so that better thing that he might otherwise have done are eclipsed. This is to approach God without good theology, as if he were a mutable God, or more precisely, a passible rather than an impassible God. This kind of theology discourages prayer.

It is counterintuitive to say the opposite: God’s impassibility encourages prayer. The truth is, however, that a God who does not change is a God who is not like us, and that, after all, is a compelling reason to pray to him. What would God change toward if he were subject to change? One who is omnipotent cannot become more powerful, the only direction of change would be toward less power. Praying with the expectation that God will diminish in power is not really prayer. One who is perfectly good could only become imperfectly good, and that is not what we ought to desire. We do not want to have a God who changes. Impassibility is a part of God’s immutability. God is not affected by things, he does not change his affections, which means he does not have emotions. He does not go from a state of happiness and good-will to one of anger and ill-temper. He is not subject to passions.

Were he to be subject to passions, he could be surprised. God’s omniscience excludes divine surprise. God cannot be surprised. God cannot be informed of our situation either. He cannot be reminded of how it is for us: he knows that already. And what is more, he cannot be persuaded by us to do something less than what he has purposed. What God has purposed is perfect. It is just, it is right, it is good: it is what should be done, and it is what we should want.

And there is that dynamic element: what we want. One of the things prayer does for us is to reconcile us to our situation. It does that if we come to the Lord with adoration, acknowledging that he is impassible and good and wise and that all things are done according to the council of his will. Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we come with thanks, thanking God for not being capricious, for never making a mistake, for always doing what is best, for having foreseen not just more than we can foresee, but for having foreseen because he has foreordained all things.  Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we confess our own faults, our idolatries and evil desires. When we come to God with our requests and our theology, we may find our requests modified, but what we can be sure never will be modified is God himself. And as we draw near to him, he draws near to us, and works in our hearts, and fits us for his plans, rather than fitting himself, or his plans to us. And that is the answer to the great request.

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