What is Prayer for and what does it do? A Polite Rejoinder to Daniel Kirk

At the end of May, J.R. Daniel Kirk posted his thoughts on an oft-repeated reflection of Soren Kierkegaard: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Kirk found this to be a “cop out”: “It transforms prayer from a dangerous act in which we summon the God of all the earth to act now upon the earth over which God is sovereign into something that’s just for shaping our little hearts.” He goes on a bit later by arguing that prayer is about praying in such a way that God transforms this world.

I think this is an important discussion, and I think Kierkegaard’s quote is worth giving attention. I think, at first blush, it would be quite easy to call this a “cop out” – not expecting God to work powerfully. However, there are a number of reasons to give some more thought to this matter.

Let me start off by saying that Kirk softens his sharp edge by saying that it is both…and – what he would be frustrated with is a one-sidedness that emphasizes only relationship. However, he is so castigating towards the thinking behind the quote above, I want to respond in some defense to the “prayer is meant to change me view” while also agreeing it is both…and. I think my post could help restore some balance.

1. Personal-transformation prayer is focused on humans as agents of God’s powerful redemption on earth. To pray for world needs and sit and wait for God to act – to me, that is a cop out! Personal-transformation prayer is a good model of incarnational ministry. God did not send an angel to defeat the problem of sin and evil. He sent his Word-become-flesh. Too often, in my experience, when we come together to ask God to do something in response to world needs, we say it (in true belief), and then go home and have a snack, put our feet up, and read the paper. This is an epiphany that C.S. Lewis had. In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis reflects on his struggle with prayer. For a long time, when he prayed the Lord’s prayer, he felt a cold resignation: “Thy will be done…” Then he came to a realization – the line of the prayer means…”Thy will be done…by me…now” (p. 26)! In the words of Jon Foreman, “Get up, get up, Love is moving you now.” To have a changed nature in prayer is to become shaped for the task of fulfilling kingdom goals. That is more powerful to me than praying for “big things” to change and waiting.

2. Personal transformation prayer is important because it focuses the daily life. Bonhoeffer wrote about this in Life Together. We often think of prayer as about asking, but Bonhoeffer focuses on the important of meditative prayer on God’s Word. Morning prayer, then, is a way of focusing on God and communing with him and to be shaped and transformed in daily living by that encounter (like Moses having the radiance of God’s glory, which fades over time). Bonhoeffer writes, asking about the impact of prayer, this: “”Has prayer transported him [the one in morning prayer] for a few short moments into spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so soberly and so deeply in his heart that it holds and strengthens him all day, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day will tell” (Life Together, Fortress, p. 92). Is not Bonhoeffer quite close to Kierkegaard in this? Kirk refers negatively to a low expectation of God only shaping “our little hearts” – that may be everything in Tegel.

3. Personal transformation prayer is exemplified by Paul. While the apostle Paul did pray for “things to happen” (Philemon 6), the highlight of Paul’s prayer life (I would suggest) comes in 2 Corinthians 12 when he asks God to remove the thorn in his flesh. He prays 3 times – why 3? Apparently, it is to say: he prayed enough. God said no. Instead of being free from the thorn, which may have been an enhancement to certain aspects of his ministry, he was changed by God’s negative answer to identify through participation with the weakness of Christ. In a sense, in that experience, his nature was changed (from triumphalism to cruciformity?) for the good of all who read Scripture.

4. Personal transformation prayer is probably part of a wider activity of prayer, though it may be the foundation. C.S. Lewis, again, in his Letters to Malcolm talks about Mark 11:24 and the work of believing prayer that can enable you to ask for amazing things (in tune with God’s will) and receive it – like removing mountains. This reminds me of what Kirk is talking about -we need to be praying in faith for God to bring his kingdom in specific ways that reveal his awesome power. However, Lewis processes this in a unique way. Someone (Malcolm?) suggests that Mark 11:24 seems naive, who could really pray like this, asking for something and receiving it? Lewis responds in this way:

We had better not talk about the view of prayer embodied in Mark XI, 24 as “naïve” or “elementary.” If that passage contains a truth, it is a truth for very advanced pupils indeed. I don’t think it is “addressed to our condition” (yours and mine) at all. It is a coping-stone, not a foundation. For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait (p. 83)

Lewis processes this “asking” prayer as the prayer of the advanced, mature believer who is fully in tune with God. Yet, he includes himself in the category of believers that stick to the “Gethsemane” model (“your will be done”). I think Lewis is siding with Kierkegaard on this one! What might be useful in Lewis’ ruminations is that the personal transformation aspect of prayer is necessary and foundational and…”removing mountains can wait.”

5. The Gospel of John may help us process the dialectic between personal-transformation prayer and divine-action prayer. Paul N. Anderson talks about the tension between “signs faith” and “blessed faith” in John. The former involves the miraculous, visible miracles in John that show readers and would-be disciples his Messiahship and glory. However, at the same time, John upholds the importance of “blessed faith” – the idea that faith in what one sees can become selfish, faith in the tangible idolatrous. While signs-faith is called for in the Fourth Gospel, the climactic scene with Thomas and the resurrected Jesus places blessed (unseen) faith as the hallmark of “true” belief in the easter era. I think there is an analogy with “blessed” faith and personal-transformation prayer. This is a prayer that changes us inside out, in an unseen way. The external divine-action prayer, while not unholy is still fixated on (usually) the seen. It is a triumphant prayer. John works the opposite way. The victory and glory is in the cross. That is not something anyone was going to pray for. People tried to stop Jesus. The pattern of the cross is previewed in the footwashing. This reminds me of personal-transformation prayer – accepting the call to be shamed and to stoop down low as a way of “despising the shame of the cross” so to speak. Is external divine-action prayer good? Certainly. Is the prayer that changes ones nature in order to invest in a cruciform transformation good? I would say it is more blessed.

In the end, I agree with Kirk that it is both-and, not either-or – however, I am with Lewis. I am still young enough and simple enough to stick with the Gethsemane prayer – Thy will be done in me. Use me.

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2 thoughts on “What is Prayer for and what does it do? A Polite Rejoinder to Daniel Kirk

  1. […] Nijay Gupta: The victory and glory is in the cross. That is not something anyone was going to pray for. People tried to stop Jesus. The pattern of the cross is previewed in the footwashing. This reminds me of personal-transformation prayer – accepting the call to be shamed and to stoop down low as a way of “despising the shame of the cross” so to speak. Is external divine-action prayer good? Certainly. Is the prayer that changes ones nature in order to invest in a cruciform transformation good? I would say it is more blessed. […]

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