December 12, 2023 at 9:39 a.m.

Can prayer change God’s mind?

Maybe the best way to grasp why prayer not only is essential, but how it does indeed change things, is to realize that, at heart, it is a relationship.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered whether it’s worth all the effort we make to pray? I mean, if God knows all things, aren’t they going to happen anyway? What’s the point of asking God to change them? 

To be fair, this is a lazybones’ cop out. “I pray so hard and so long and I wonder whether God is even listening. And if he is, whether he really cares what I am asking for. And even if he does, he’s gonna do what he wants anyway. Because he’s God.” I’ve heard this complaint before. Maybe I’ve even been that complainer. I’ve asked myself and many a complainer, “well how long have you been praying anyway?” A very typical answer is, “like two weeks!”

Okaaayyy … Maybe a better way to tackle these questions is to start with just being honest. Can’t all these questions be resolved if we admitted that, with this attitude, all we are really asking of God when we pray for something is, “be reasonable: see it my way!?” Yes, we would hardly pray (would we?) if we did not think it reasonable to ask God for something that we think is perfectly sensible, maybe even something we feel we deserve. And because we would like to have that blessing or gift or personal favor (for ourselves or someone else), we can’t imagine God would not want it, too.

I doubt God has a problem with this. IF it is really good for us or someone else, I cannot imagine God would not want us to have it. After all, God is not at war with our wills. We are made in God’s image and likeness and that means we are made for love and out of love. Love is the essence of the Trinitarian personality — three Persons crazy in love with one another (“pazzo d’amore,” as Saint Catherine of Siena would say it), revolving about each other for all eternity. This is that Eternal Love from which all creation springs and of which God’s crowning masterpiece, humanity, is made. And love must be free, or it is not love. You cannot force anyone to love. Love is a choice, a decision always, an act of the will.

This, by the way, is one reason why God had to ask Mary whether she would consent to be the Mother of God, why the angel Gabriel waited for Mary to say “yes.” It is also one reason why genuine prayer, which is and must be an act of love to be authentic, always respects God’s right to say “yes” or “no.” None of us can predict how God will answer our prayers, but God will never give us anything that harms us or diminishes our integrity in any way. God is by nature a Creator, a healer, a sanctifier and always wants what is good for us. To get that good done, however, God needs our cooperation. We have to be ready to go with the grace. And it may be that to get to that point, God needs something in us to change, or to be ready for it to be fruitful, to accomplish its purpose.

Recently, on one of my pastoral visits to our seminarians, I decided to play a little game with each of them during our one-on-ones. I proposed this to them …. The diocese really needs priests and I know that this is why you are here, going through all these preparations. Suppose, I said, I ordain you tomorrow! What if I say you’ve studied and prayed so hard and what’s the point of us waiting any longer? I will ordain you tomorrow!

One of the men is a deacon and he said right away, fine, I am ready. Fair enough. We both laughed and, God willing, his ordination is not far off. He is almost there. The other men, however, responded quite appropriately by laughing, maybe a little embarrassed, lowering their heads, realizing that they were not quite ready yet, and even hoping that I was just joking. This was a good starting point for where I hoped the conversation would go from there. I asked each, if you know you are not ready, what do you think you need to learn or do in order to be ready? We all need to participate in getting to a goal we seek.

I think it is important for any of us who are hoping to achieve some goal to have some idea of what we need in order to get there, regardless of what the goal might be. If it’s a house we are building or even something modest, like a kitchen that needs refurbishing, a certain plan must be devised. What materials are needed, what is the cost, how long will it take, when is a good time to start, when do we expect to finish. All of these steps are a part of any formation process, whether in seminary or doing a dissertation for a college degree. Prayer is not all that different. To get done what needs to be done, with the help of God’s grace, may take some investment of time, talent and treasure, a good degree of patience, and a willingness for both the asker and the receiver to be open to some changes in their lives. 

Now, to get back to the original question, is the purpose of prayer to change God’s mind? Or is it to give God permission to go ahead with what God may very likely want to do anyway, but was waiting for us to ask — and to be ready for the answer? There is good reason to be confident that every prayer is inspired by the Holy Spirit. In a way, one might say, that is what God does all day long, listens to and answers prayers. It is what the greatest Pray-er of all does all day long, Jesus Christ forever lifting us up to the Father, in the Holy Spirit, in one eternal action of prayer. We are caught up in this eternal love affair when we pray.

Because we are human and live in time and space, the ongoing activity of God needs to unfold in our lives with our cooperation. God does not force love on us, but showers us with its seeds of grace all the time. This is why, as I may have mentioned in my last column, even when we engage in the prayer of contemplation, which is done in silence and with few words, just being there, actively, in God’s presence, quietly listening and letting the clutter out of our minds and hearts, opens floodgates of divine love and mercy, poured into our hearts and souls, even when we do not feel it. The seeds are planted and they will sprout in due time.

Maybe the best way to grasp why prayer not only is essential, but how it does indeed change things, is to realize that, at heart, it is a relationship. Love is always a personal relationship. And prayer is an act of mutual love. I suppose one can speak of a certain “relationship” even with a vending machine. You put some money in the slot and out comes a candy bar or a bottle of soda. Sometimes we may be tempted to treat God like a spiritual vending machine. If I deposit a certain amount of spiritual currency in the God-machine, so to speak, then God has to dispense the quantity of the item I “paid” for. Crass as this may sound when put this way, I have witnessed arguments over “announced” Masses that were “paid” for and did not show up in the church bulletin as expected or were forgotten by someone in the oral announcements. Of course, I could understand the feeling that a certain injustice was done, and I would always apologize for this if called to task. But let’s be reasonable …

Here we go again on that point. Is prayer really about asking God to be reasonable and to see things our way, so that somehow the mind of God is changed? Or is it more of a disposition that comes from our heart, asking God to be present to us or someone else and be ready to be at God’s disposal for any way in which God chooses to be who God is (“I am Who AM!”), even if it means that it is us whose mind, heart and actions must be changed? 

Let me say with the conviction of faith that I have no doubt that every prayer is answered and answered generously. I am thinking here particularly of prayer that we offer to help heal the wounds to the mystical Body of Christ, which is his Church and all those to whom our mission in this world God so loves may send us. Some very spiritual and holy people have spoken of consoling the heart of Jesus, how his human heart still aches with a thirst for souls that are wounded or have strayed from God’s love, perhaps scarred by sin, theirs and those of others. Every loving act of prayer for them — and that person may be you or me! — is a union with the God of all love who wants nothing more than to give us more love. It is not “changing” God’s will to “get” more love from God, but letting God, after all, just be God!

 @AlbanyDiocese


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