The theology of the prayers of Jesus
You may have heard the common phrase, “God is not a vending machine,” but why is that? Should I not ask for what I want? And how should I pray? Prayer becomes further complicated while pondering when (and how often) we should pray. Deeper still, I remember as many denied prayers as I do granted ones. Why is it that God accepts one request and not another? We might mistakenly wonder,
“Is it the words I’m saying?”
“Is God listening?”
“Maybe I don’t believe enough.”
Though it can be frustrating when God does not grant our request, a biblical perspective offers hope and understanding. (1)
We will look to the Bible to answer these questions, theologically engaging with three of Jesus’ prayers. These three prayers are found within the Gospel of Matthew:
- the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:8-13),
- the Son’s petition at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), and
- Christ’s lament on the cross (Matthew 27:46).
When looking into today, we can follow Christ’s example (1 Pet. 2:21b-22) of prayer. (3)
When I speak of prayer, I mean a dialogue between God and us (4). To borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson,
“Prayer is [an] answering speech. The first word is God’s word … we are never first, never primary.” (5)
God openly invites us to dialogue with Him. That means we do not have to wait for God to blind us with holy light (like in Acts 9) or to speak through a donkey (like in Numbers 22). Our Father’s invitation is open to us at all times! When we respond to God’s invitation we become transcended, sanctified, and transformed from glory to glory. (6)
The Lord’s Prayer
“Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”Matthew 6:8b-13 ESV (7)
Within Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer (8) is probably the most studied and practiced prayer. Many have described it as equally prayer and confession. (9) Jesus Himself said that this is how we should pray. (10) By reciting this prayer, our values can be transformed into truthful values. With truthful values, we can participate in confident prayer — where if “we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (1 John. 5:14 ESV)
Before diving into the prayer, let us be aware of Jesus’ reason for the prayer. Jesus prefaces this prayer by teaching us that prayer is not informing God, for our “Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” He is not saying that prayer does not change anything, (11) but that we should not (and cannot) strong-arm God, for our Father is perfectly good and just, and He does not lack in knowledge or goodness. By responding to our prayers, God works through our prayers, inviting us to participate in His perfect will.
Within this prayer, God reveals His identity. God is inviting us to dialogue with God. The name of Father is revealed to us through the Son. (12) The psalmist describes the Father’s nature: “A father shows compassion to his children” (Psalm 103:13a ESV).13 We find that when God tells us He is “our Father,” He wants to communicate compassion, love, and intimacy. So when we pray, we know that prayer is directed to and responded from our compassionate Father.
Likewise, as God reveals His identity, we learn our own. Jesus explicitly states that the Father is “our Father,” giving to us, as Paul states, “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:14-15 ESV). Regardless of our gender, we receive Christ’s Spirit of Sonship (14) — the identity and heritage of the firstborn Son. (15) We gain a childlike spirit, (16) receive an eternal inheritance, (17) and are freed from slavery and fear! (18) We are liberated today through Christ as children before our Father. (19)
Furthermore, have you ever noticed the plural use in this prayer? “Our Father.” This is purposeful. Jesus uses the communal “our” for prayer, meant to be prayed by the church body. Even when praying alone (in the secret place), (20) this prayer unifies us and engages us together under our heavenly Father. (21) Through this prayer, we learn our communal identity as brothers and sisters.
This prayer is a dialogue between our Father and His children. Many theologians dissect this prayer into seven petitions (petition meaning a specific request). (22) We praise God and approach Him with our needs. We pray to God daily, looking into today for our physical (petition 4) (23) and spiritual needs (5-7). (24)
We often hate our needs, for a need communicates a weakness. Do not let your needs hinder you from praying, as though your weaknesses somehow stain the purity of prayer (they surely do not!). For hunger is a need for food, and food was the second blessing humanity received. (25) Some needs were intended before sin entered the world. (26) As Dr. Willie James Jennings wrote, “Hunger needs prayer, but prayer needs hunger. Hunger sets the stage for prayer, and prayer sets the table for hunger.” (27) The need for food unifies all of creation (28) and brings us to our Creator. Here is the usefulness of our weakness: our need brings us to God. By joining in the Lord’s Prayer, we participate in unity — gratefully acknowledging that God is greater than us. (29)
We are like a young painter who, wishing to paint like Van Gogh, studies the art; imitates the painting; and, with a little bit of time, begins to imitate the great painter’s brush strokes. Likewise, we study the Lord’s prayer; imitate His petitions; and, with a bit of time, begin to pray like our great Teacher. In this way, an old theological rule becomes visible, “The law of prayer is the law of belief,” (30) or as Karl Barth put it, “To be a Christian and to pray are one and the same thing … It is a need, a kind of breathing necessary to life.” (31) When our belief becomes aligned with the will of God, our prayers become aligned with the will of God.
The Son’s Petition at Gethsemane
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’ … Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ … He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.”Matthew 26:39, 42, 44 ESV
By this prayer, (32) Jesus anticipated the sufferings of the cross. This prayer is expressed with brutal honesty. God is not like a dentist, to whom we might be tempted to say, “Yes, I have been flossing.” Such dishonesty is useless and even harmful. Brutal honest prayer is only worthwhile because our Father is trustworthy to attend to our petitions with kindness, gentleness, and compassion. (33) God provides salvation from sin and death — salvation from our mistaken ways.
Let us look to the Father’s response to this request. The Father denied Jesus’ request to let the cup pass. The Father did not deny the petition because Jesus prayed poorly or unrighteously. To let the cup pass would be counter to the Father’s will. The same will that benefits all; offering salvation to all, bringing His children home, and glorifying Christ. If the cup had passed, none would benefit.
As in this prayer, sometimes our Father does not grant our request. However, God’s response is always a good gift. Søren Kierkegaard worded it eloquently, “This is our comfort, because God answers every prayer; for either he gives what we pray for or something far better.” (34) While approaching with a petition, Jesus finishes with submission. Likewise, we can have the confidence to approach our Father; first with our request, understanding that our petition may turn to submission.
It is the same as the thorn in Paul’s flesh, where he prayed three times for deliverance. God did not give Paul what was expected. Instead, God spoke, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9b ESV). (35) Where God denied Paul’s petition, God gave Paul something greater, allowing Paul to realize, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10b ESV). No longer could Paul be discouraged by “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, [and] calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:10a ESV). God gave Paul revelation through and because of weakness.
Our Father desires to restore us so that we would never suffer again. Sometimes, we must relax our grip, take God’s hand, and follow Him through the pain. When you are suffering, petition God first and listen for His answer. Bring your mind to Him — dialogue with Him, read His words, and meditate upon Him. When a request is denied, our petition becomes submission — offering us the greater gift of revelation. We share with Christ in heart and mouth, “not as I will, but as You will.”
Jesus’ Lament on the Cross
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’Matthew 27:46 ESV
Of all of the prayers we will examine, this is the most sorrowful. If it was by Gethsemane that Jesus anticipated the cross, it is by this prayer that He suffered it. The distance Jesus expresses is potent. (36) No longer does the Son pronounce God as His “Father.” Instead, Jesus express God’s identity through the psalmist’s lament, “My God, my God.” (37)
While some may perceive the Father’s response calloused, neglectful, and silent, is instead a compassionately responsive Father. (38) The Father responds with an intrusive event, tearing the veil from top to bottom, (39) forever changing the way humanity interacts with Himself. “The earth shook,” “the rocks were split,” and “the tombs also were opened” (Matthew 27:51-52 ESV). The Father’s response is so evident that the Roman soldier exclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54b ESV), crediting the Spirit of Sonship, and, likewise, crediting the Father’s responsive actions.
From this lament, the Father responds with actions louder than words. However, sometimes our Father answers with actionless silence. Kierkegaard once profoundly prayed,
“Father in heaven … As our Master answered not a word to His haughty accusers, thus exposing their fraudulent deceit and revealing His own innocence, so you speak in love and understanding when you speak not a word! … Bless, then, the golden moment of silence, for the same paternal love is ours when you are silent as well as when you speak!” (40)
For God is listening, and what might appear as an unanswered prayer is an answer itself.
To combat confusion, it is important to know how the Father responds to each petition. Colossians 4:2 gives us guidance, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (41) When we pray, we are to be watchful for God’s response; looking to learn who God is in His response. If God responds in word, it is for our information. If God responds in silence, it is for our redemption. If God responds in action, it is for our liberation. God always responds, and His response is always greater than our imaginations can grasp.
Therefore, we pray with thankfulness, for even the very act of turning to God is an act of gratitude and thanksgiving! (42) Though it is not always easy to praise with thanksgiving, Hebrews 13:15 tells us, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (43) We sacrifice our preferences and expectations to learn real and right values. We practice what we do not know to learn what only God can show. Our Father is a compassionate Father who loves, listens, and responds.
At the beginning of this article, I proposed several questions. Let us address each question to conclusion.
Why is God not a vending machine?
Firstly, our Father is relational — having personhood. With God, we do not see a Heath Bar, press E4, and leave unchanged. We petition Him and are changed after dialogue. The very nature of this relationship changes us. Secondly, our Father only gives good gifts, and our preference may prove harmful. After we’ve petitioned God, the Heath Bar is not promised, but He will answer with a guaranteed good gift.
Should I not ask for what I want?
It is important to petition God with your honest desire while being watchful, waiting for His response. If you do not ask, you may struggle with what the apostle James proclaimed, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2b ESV). As we learned from the Son’s Petition at Gethsemane, we approach God with our petitions, knowing that we may leave in submission — offering us a greater gift of revelation.
How often should we pray?
As we learned from the Lord’s prayer, we pray whenever we are in need and each day for daily needs. (44) It is important to remember that the ministry to people is tied to the ministry of prayer. To participate only in the ministry of prayer neglects the ministry to people. To participate only in the ministry of people neglects the ministry of prayer. Either on its own is unfaithful, abandoning the footsteps of Jesus. (45) Only by engaging with both prayer and community can we obey the greatest commandments — to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37b ESV) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39b ESV).
How should I pray?
We should express our feelings, concerns, and praises to our Father. Through expression, we pray from our weakness with brutal honesty and not from our own righteousness. (46) We approach the Father through the righteousness of the Son — the Spirit of Sonship imparted to us. Paradoxically, we also recite Christ’s prayers (even when they feel dishonest), for His example is truer than our honesty. Through recitation, we practice the nature of the Truth. Through expression, we experience the reality of the Truth. Both are needed, likened to tools for their specific task. So we turn to God, continuing “steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2 ESV), expressing the gratitude and thankfulness from our approach — the approach that expressed both our weakness and our Father’s strength.
Why does God give with one request and not another?
God may reject our request because the alternative would be harmful. (47) The apostle James addressed rejected petitions, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b ESV). We do not receive because we ask for harm. For instance, God would not steal or lie on our behalf. There is no benefit in such a response. God cannot do evil, and His gifts are always good. (48) It is understandably frustrating when God rejects our preferences, but our comfort is that God’s response is always beneficial.
Therefore, do not be discouraged by God’s answer, but always turn to God in prayer. As the James wrote,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” (49)James 5:13-15 ESV
ANDERSON HULTGREN is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Worthwhile Theology magazine.
- Note: This article cites many theologians that hold a wide variety of views. Counter to instinct, we will approach each proposal outside of the whole of the theologian’s work, using the wisdom from each theologian.
- 1 Pet. 2:21b-22
- B. Girdlestone, Thirty Thousand Thoughts: Being Extracts Covering a Comprehensive Circle of Religious and Allied Topics. Edited by: Rev. H.D.M. Spence, Rev. Joseph S. Exell, Rev. Charles Neil (NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), 309; Prayer is a subject that theology has discussed since the beginning. Though some may see the first prayer after Seth was born, Adam communicated to God in Gen. 3:10. Likewise, God dialogued with humanity from conception (Gen. 1:27). Adam likely dialogued back to God from the beginning.
- Donald G. Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer. (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1988), 50; St. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, Book III, Chap. 24; Jn. 15:15; Jas. 2:23; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God. Trans. Margaret Kohl, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 220-21; Bloesch defines prayer as a “Dialogical Encounter,” citing theologians such as Gregory of Nissa and Jacques Ellul. Other definitions include St. John Damascene, “Prayer is the raising of the mind to God, or the petitions of fitting things from God.” However, the Protestant tradition has different specifics in their definition. For Protestants, wordless prayer would be considered meditation, and recitation also differs from prayer but both can be a launchpad into prayer. God responds, and we respond to His response. Moltmann noted, “Friendship with God find its preeminent expression in prayer … The friend knows that his friend is listening to him. God ‘can be conversed with.’ God listens to his friends … Kant said that friendship combines affection with respect. God makes men and women his friends by inclining affectionately towards them and by listening to them. He makes people his friends by letting them find themselves and by respecting their responsibility. People draw near to God by praying without begging and by talking to him in a way that shows they respect his liberty … it is a conversation in the freedom of love, that shares and allows the other to share. Friendship is ‘the concrete concept of freedom.”
- Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (UK: W.B. Eerdmans, 1987), 47.
- Rom 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18; G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1908), 93; Chesterton wrote, “That external vigilance which has always been the mark of Christianity (the command that we should WATCH and pray) has expressed itself both in typical western orthodoxy and in typical western politics: but both depend on the idea of a divinity transcendent, different from ourselves, a deity that disappears … By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self- isolation, quietism, social indifference—Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation—Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.”
- See also: Lk. 11:2-4
- Moltmann, Trinity, 164; Nicu Dumitraşcu, “The Lord’s Prayer in Eastern Spirituality,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 52, 4, (Dec 2013), 349-56; St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 7 on the New Testament, chap. 2. Online. Accessed June 7, 2020: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160307.htm; Moltmann wrote, “The Lord’s prayer is in fact directed towards the first Person of the Trinity, not the whole Trinity, as Augustine thought.” However, I could not find any evidence regarding Moltmann’s claim. In fact, it seems quite the opposite, as St. Augustine wrote, “But because the inheritance which He promises us is such as many may possess, and no one be straitened; therefore has He called into His brotherhood the peoples of the nations; and the Only Son has numberless brethren; who say, Our Father, which art in heaven.” Likewise, the Orthodox Church affirms this prayer to Father — the first Triune member.
- Nicu Dumitraşcu, “The Lord’s Prayer,” 355; “The Lord’s Prayer is a true confession of faith. In terms of its content, it basically sums up all the riches of the Orthodox theological tradition in particular … In the patrimony of Christian spirituality, in public or individual worship, and in the realm of catechetics or homiletics, there is no prayer more comprehensive and more complete. It is a perfect summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
- Mt. 6:9
- Lk. 18:1-14; Citing the nature of prayer before God — our good judge. What prayer changes is highly debated within Theology, it is evident that prayer does not inform God, we are to be persistent in prayer, and God does somehow responsively honor prayer. See the closing note for more on the subject.
- Tertullian, On Prayer, Chap. 3. Online. Accessed June 8, 2020: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0322.htm; To which he said, “The name of God the Father had been published to none. Even Moses, who had interrogated Him on that very point, had heard a different name (Ex. 3:13-16). To us it has been revealed in the Son…”
- Moltmann, Trinity, 29; We learn what the great Theologian Jürgen Moltmann concluded, our Father’s kingdom is one of “compassion, not the kingdom of dominating majesty and slavish subjection.”
- Lee A. Johnson, “Paul Intended to Restrict Women’s Participation in Worship,” in Women in the Biblical World: A Survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Edited by: Elizabeth A. McCabe (Lanham, MY: University Press of America, 2009). Ebook; Rom. 16; The disparities between gender roles in the 1st century were much more significant than they are now. The point is not that God removes gender but that God removes the human-made limitations of gender. Whether male or female, all Christians have the confidence of Christ’s sonship before our Heavenly Father. Like Jesus’ multi-gendered audience, the audience of the Roman Church was multi-gendered, as Paul greets: Phoebe (1-2), thought to be the woman used to deliver the Roman epistle; Prisca (3), who Paul greeted Prisca before her husband; Mary (6); Tryphena (12); Tryphosa (12); Persis (12); and, though her gender is debated, Junia (7).
- Col. 1:15 ESV; While many have struggled with this verse because of the word “born,” the point is missed. For Christ, who has always existed (Heb. 7:3; 13:8; Rev. 1:8), is the firstborn receiving the firstborn’s inheritance, to which He shares with us (Col. 1:12;3:23-24). Therefore, the firstborn does not communicate the moment of a beginning but of an inheritance. Hypothetical Proposal: As for hypotheticals, if Christ is the word: the voice of God. The wavelengths of God’s voice were the causation of creation, as they were the physical substance to which all physical contents came into being. However, this is merely hypothetical, and it is not meant as truth but speculation. Please note the distinction.
- Mt. 18:10
- Heb. 9:15
- Rom. 8:15
- Moltmann, Trinity, 73.
- Mt. 6:6
- Karl Barth, Prayer: According to the Catechisms of the Reformation. Stenographic Records of Three Seminars. Trans. Sara F. Terrien (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946), 11; Barth observed that there is no real difference “between individual prayer and corporate prayer … When the Christians pray, it is the Church; and when the Church prays, it is the Christians.” Though some have argued about Mt. 18:15-20, that pericope is specifically concerned with church discipline. Furthermore, some may be tempted to suggest that we should never pray in the singular. However, there are plenty of times Jesus prays in the singular (For instance: Jn. 17:4-26.). We should not abandon praying with words like ‘our,’ ‘we,’ and ‘us’ even in the secret place. Likewise, we should not leave words like ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘myself’ while praying. In praying this prayer, we learn our corporate identity, which unifies and engages us under our one true Father.
- Mt. 6:9b-13 ESV; Aquinas, Summa. 83.iv.a. Online. Accessed June 9, 2020: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3083.htm; Augustine of Hippo. Sermons on the New Testament. Sermon IX/8. Online. Accessed June 12, 2020: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160309.htm; Of the seven petitions: “1. Hallowed be your name. 2. Your kingdom come. 3. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 4. Give us this day our daily bread. 5. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 6. Lead us not into temptation. 7. Deliver us from evil” (numbering and punctuation added for emphasis).
- St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 7, chap. 7; “This is food and clothing, but the whole is understood in a part.” The church Fathers understood that this did not merely imply bread or food. It included oxygen, clothing, housing, and all the physical needs we rely upon to survive and thrive.
- Mt. 4:4 ESV; Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 73-74; Some of our needs are physical, but others our spiritual for we “shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Volf wrote it better than I, “Life is “more than food” (Matthew 6:25), more than health, wealth, fertility, and longevity. As Jesus, starved after a forty-day fast, tells the Tempter, human beings don’t live by bread alone; they need words ‘that come from the mouth of God’ more (Matthew 4:4). We should strive first after God and God’s righteousness.”
- Humanity’s relationship with food is complicated. Food was the second of God’s blessing over humankind (Gen. 1:29-30), it was through food that we first sinned (Gen. 3:6), it was by food that the gentiles gained acceptance from the apostles (Ac. 10:9-10), and the Kingdom of Heaven is often described through feast and food (Lk. 12:37, 13:29-30, 14:15-24, 22:29-30; Mt. 8:11, 22:2-14, 25:10).
- Some of our needs are not a result of the fall, for even before the fall we had a need for food (Gen. 1:29). God provided good food for Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:9).
- Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2017), 105.
- Gen. 1:29-30; unifying humanity, every beast of the earth, every bird of the heavens, and everything that creeps on the ground: everything that has the breath of life. Also to Acts 10:9-12; started by God’s will (Is. 56:6-8), responded in prayer by the gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:2-4), continuing in God’s will communicated in Peter’s vision of hunger (Acts 10:10-15), and concluded by Peter’s statement of unity, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 ESV).
- The Heidelberg Catechism, Faith Alive Christian Resources, (2011), 116.A. Online. Accessed June 6, 2020: https://rca.org/about/theology/creeds-and-confessions/the-heidelberg-catechism/; “Q. Why do Christians need to pray? A. Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us (Ps. 50:14-15; 116:12-19; 1 Thess. 5:16-18). And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking God for them (Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-13).
- Charles Mathewes, “Toward a Theology of Joy” in Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life. Edited by: Miroslav Volf, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015), 43; “Lex orandi, lex credendi.”
- Barth, Prayer, 23.
- (Mt. 26:36-46; Mk. 14:32-36; Lk. 22:40-46); Paul Louis Metzger, The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town (Downers Grove IL, Intervarsity Press, 2010), 211; Specifically in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke accounts. However, though the Jn. 17 account does not mention this prayer, but the High Priestly Prayer. That prayer is equally (if not more so, given its length and content) valuable as an exemplar for prayer. Metzger went as far as to say that it was Jesus’ mission statement. If this article could stomach a greater length, the High Priestly Prayer would surely be discussed.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Edited by Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 2007), 347; Kierkagaurd gives us insight on the point, “The important thing is to be honest to God, until He Himself gives the explanation which, whether it is the one you want or not, is always the best.”
- Kierkegaard, Provocations, 349.
- See also: Ps. 24:18-20; Mt. 5:3-11; Ps. 107; As can be seen in the relational interplay between God’s steadfast love and the desert wanderers (4-9), the prisoners in darkness and death (10-16), the fools (17-22), the traders (23-32), and the princes (40).
- Moltmann, Trinity, 78; Moltmann describes it, “It is not by chance … that this cry is the only time that Christ does not call God familiarly ‘my Father,’ but addresses him as if from a long way off and quite officially and formally as ‘my God.’”
- See also: Mk. 15:34-36; Ps. 22:1
- Miroslav Volf, “The Dark Side of Hope (Miroslav Volf),” The Table | Biola CCT, (2018), 28:24-28:34. YouTube. Accessed Jun. 5, 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7OwvJyK0pU; In an interview, Miroslav Volf gave his perspective, “What happens after He [Jesus] just says, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Forsaken is the last word! The curtain in the temple splits into two, the graves open; the response of God!”
- R.T. France, “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New International Commentary of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 1540. Online. https://www.scribd.com/read/276707262/The-Gospel-of-Matthew; To which France commented, “The fact that such a tall curtain is torn from the top rather than from below indicates that this is God’s work.”
- Kierkegaard, Provocations, 348.
- The Heidelberg Catechism, 116.
- Mt. 6:11
- Mt. 14:13-16; Jesus knew that ministry to people may take priority over time in prayer. At times, Jesus would withdraw from ministry to pray alone, but at others, Jesus would minister to the crowds.
- Mt. 6:5-8; B.P. Hail, Thirty Thousand Thoughts: Being Extracts Covering a Comprehensive Circle of Religious and Allied Topics. Edited by: Rev. H.D.M. Spence, Rev. Joseph S. Exell, Rev. Charles Neil (NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), 318; B.P. Hail wrote it well, “It is not the arithmetic of our prayers, how many they are; nor the rhetoric of our prayers, how eloquent they are; nor the geometry of our prayers, how long they be; nor the music of our prayers, how sweet our voice may be; nor the logic of our prayers, how argumentative they may be; nor the method of our prayers, how orderly they may be — which God cares for … ‘Fervency of spirit’ is that which availeth much.’”
- A. W. Tozer, “Does God Always Answer Prayer?” in Man: The Dwelling Place of God, What it Means to Have Christ Living in You. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), Chapter 21. Ebook; As A.W. Tozer wrote, “The truth is that God always answers the prayers that accords with His will as revealed in the Scriptures.”
- Jas. 1:13, 17
- Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” (1885) Composer: Charles C. Converse, (1868). Accessed June 5, 2020: https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/789; Reminiscent of Joseph Scriven’s hymn, “What a Friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer!”
Closing Note: Aquinas, Summa, 83.ii.a.; R. C. Sproul, Effective Prayer. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub, 1984), 15; Barth, Prayer, 13.; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993), 247.; Kierkegaard, Provocations, 364, Quoting: Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, Chapter 2;
One area within theological debate concerns the functional nature concerning prayer and change, answering the question, what or who does prayer change? There are three major views throughout theological history, which I shall name: the Classical view, the Barthian view, and the Kierkegaardian view. Change and Prayer is a vast enough subject for a dissertation or a book (as I’m sure it has!), but I will try to keep it concise.
The Classical view primarily holds the Doctrine of Impassibility but believes that God wills the petitioner to pray, thus praying within God’s will. This way, the petitioner cannot change the Impassible God. Here are a few key verses: Num. 23:19, Ps. 102:27, Mal. 3:6, Heb. 6:17-18, Jas. 1:17. Aquinas worded it,
“For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words ‘that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,’ as Gregory says (Dial. i, 8).”
The Classical View is often held by the Reformed tradition. As R.C. Sproul wrote,
“When God hangs His sword of judgment over people’s heads, and they repent and He then withholds His judgment, has He really changed His mind? The mind of God does not change for God does not change. Things change, and they change according to His sovereign will, which He exercises through secondary means and secondary activities. The prayer of His people is one of the means He uses to bring things to pass in this world. So if you ask me whether prayer changes things, I answer with an unhesitating ‘Yes!’”
The Barthian view is one that can be found in Karl Barth’s teachings on prayer, though this view was not necessarily first claimed by Barth. This view holds that God is influenced (or changed) by our prayers. It follows in line with Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-32), Jesus’ parable of the women and the evil judge (Lk. 18:1-8), and other passages (Gen. 18; Ex. 32:14; Jer. 18:7-10; Jon. 3:10). In the book Prayer (the textual version of three seminars Barth spoke in from 1947-1949 at Neuchâtel, CH), Barth taught,
“Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God answers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word ‘answer’ means.”
Likewise, Moltmann seems to have held a similar perspective,
“One prays through the Son to the Father in the Spirit. In the brotherhood of Jesus, the person who prays has access to the Fatherhood of the Father and to the Spirit of hope. Only in this way does the character of Christian prayer become clear. The New Testament made a very neat distinction in Christian prayer between the Son and the Father. We ought to take that up, and ought not to speak of ‘God’ in such an undifferentiated way, thus opening up the way to atheism.”
Though Moltmann was using this to critique Monarchianism and Atheism, it does display his view on prayer.
The final view is the Kierkegaardian view, which, like the Barthian view, may not have been first made by Søren Kierkegaard. This view values the self’s finding God as a primary. Kierkegaard once wrote,
“The earthly minded person thinks and imagines that when he prays, the important thing, the thing he must concentrate upon, is that God should hear what he is praying for. And yet in the true, eternal sense it is just the reverse: the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God is asking for. Prayer does not change God, it changes the one who offers it. Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession.”
This view has been taken to the extreme by many, possibly exaggerating Kierkegaard’s original intent.
In conclusion, if we pray because God’s grace allows us to pray according to His will, He answers prayer. If we pray and God changes His mind, then He answers prayer. Prayer is equally sufficient. To assume that prayer causes either “an influence upon God’s actions” or that “prayer only changes us” is equally presumptuous. Neither is given by revelation but by only presumption and speculation, and neither option follows in the footsteps of the Biblical teachings.
The Bible affirms that God answers petitions that aligns with His will (1 Jn. 5:14-15), and that we should always petition and not lose heart” (Lk. 18:1), and that prayer [or any interaction for that matter] with God will sanctify us (2 Cor. 3:15-18). The functional nature of prayer remains a mystery and will continue to be debated by theologians. However, the practice of prayer does not change. We ought to offer petitions to the Lord, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2, ESV)
Roger E. Olson has a blog, which has many great insights: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/
A few helpful posts on prayer:
- “Can Prayer Change God (Yes and No),” July 20, 2018: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2018/07/can-prayer-change-god-yes-and-no/
- “Musings about Prayer: What It Is and Does,” Oct. 26, 2012: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/10/musings-about-prayer-what-it-is-and-does/
- “What is ‘Prayer?’” Apr. 28, 2020: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2020/04/what-is-prayer/
- “Can God Change?” Mar. 18, 2020: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2020/03/can-god-change/
Aquinas on Prayer: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3083.htm
St. Augustine of Hippo has many sermons on the New Testament. Sermons 6-9 all address the Lord’s Prayer.