I never understood the line that “prayer changes us not the circumstances.” My thought was always, what is the point of praying for something if it doesn’t change anything. But on the other hand, do I really want to think about humans changing the mind of God? It sounds like a recipe for chaos. Like all paradoxes I believe that the answers lay in the tension between the two extremes- prayer changes nothing, God answers prayer. But today I want to focus on the side that talks about prayer changing us. I think that if we fail to understand this part than we fail to understand Christianity. Everything points back to a relationship with God. When we focus on the “results” of our prayer, we lose that. In some cases, prayer becomes a magic spell to achieve some end.
E.M. Foster wrote, “To pray is to change.” You may have heard that prayer changes us, or that we are praying not to change God but to change us. This may feel like platitudes or trite answers, but there is a deeper truth here. It wasn’t till after I became a therapist and began seeing Christianity as a relationship with God rather than a code of conduct or a mission.
There are several psychological principles that I draw from to make this conclusion. But for this blog, I’d like to focus on two concepts:
- Why ask God for something if he won’t provide it? If we look through the lens of relationship we get a very different picture. I consistently counsel my clients to express their wants in relationship even if the other person doesn’t accept, understand, or react well to those expressions. Why? Because relationships grow more deeply as we share all of ourselves and wrestle together, even in our differences. It is the act of transparency and vulnerability that states that I believe in myself and I believe in the other that I am speaking with. This could be a book in and of itself but I’ll leave it there for now.
- From a neurological perspective, relationships change the brain. The reality is that relationships have the profoundest impact upon our actual physical brain and the formation of our minds. These findings have been so influential that there has been a shift from a “one person psychology” to a “two person psychology” model. Meaning that we cannot really understand another person apart from the relationships they have and are engaged in.
When we pray we are engaging God on a relational level. When we express our desires we are exposing that part of ourselves to him. From a psychological and neurological level we are no longer the same in that moment. As we bring parts of ourselves into the relationship with God they are altered. I am not negating or minimizing spirituality, but I am suggesting that what is spiritual is relational- what makes it spiritual is who we are relating to.
But in order to be changed in a relationship we must be able to allow the change. Many encounters are not impactful ones. Kneeling and asking for a series of requests to be answered may not be spirit changing. In fact, as a therapist I have seen many people use words to keep another at a distance. Words can become a barrier between people, a way to not allow anything in. When we stop censoring our feelings and thoughts, stop trying to come up with the right formula to influence God, and simply connect, then we are changed because true contact occurs. The mind blowing part about this (please excuse the pun) is that our minds are changed without any additional work. We are changed simply by genuinely encountering God in the same way that we are changed when we have genuine, vulnerable connection with another. This is a fact, it does not require a feeling and you may not see a change in thought or action but rest assured prayer has changed you each time. There are actually many studies that have shown that the brain of those who have spent significant time prayer looks different and functions differently than those who have not.
Bottom line, keep relationship in mind when engaging God and thinking about Christianity- its not a club, vending machine or even therapy.
Prayer does change us!