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Theology at prayer

There is a two-way street between our theology and our prayers.

Convictions concerning the nature of God and God’s relation to his creatures naturally inform the manner and intent of our prayers. An ambivalent deity needs some convincing. An angry God needs some placating.

Conversely, the way we pray conditions our view of God. Lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of praying is the law of believing.” To risk a superficial example: the more I address my prayers to “Papa,” the more familiar, and indeed familial, my conception of God. The more I pray the Trisagion — Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us — the more transcendent, and perhaps Trinitarian, does my image of the divine become. It is for this reason that a healthy prayer life moves often and effortlessly between “Abba” and “Ancient of Days.

Faith flourishes at this intersection of prayer and belief. But such two-way traffic also results in the occasional head-on collision. Bad theology misdirects our prayers, occasionally even discouraging us from praying altogether. On the other hand, unexamined assumptions governing the way we pray often distort our view of God, leading us however unwittingly to pray to a god of our own making.

In considering the question Whether it is becoming to pray? St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) alerts us to three perennial errors, pitfalls at the intersection of prayer and theology that the Church must carefully circumnavigate (ST IIa IIae, q. 83, a. 2).

On the one hand, some hold that divine providence does not rule human affairs, in which case it would obviously be useless to pray. God is as the Deist contends — a skilled artisan who nevertheless leaves his handiwork to its own immanent processes. According to St. Thomas, such a view fails to do justice to God’s active commitment to the flourishing of his creation. God does not abandon creation to the caprices of history; God lovingly directs his creatures to their appointed ends. God governs for the good of his creatures, leading and sustaining all things along their voyage back to God.

At the other extreme, some hold that all things happen of necessity — either by virtue of the intractableness of divine providence, or by some other astrological or cosmological (or, we might add today, genetic) determinism. Once again, such a state of affairs would seem to make prayer redundant: fatalism makes a mockery of intercession. But Aquinas is adamant that providence is not a hindrance to creaturely freedom. Divine governance is not coercive; it is the very condition for creaturely freedom. God lovingly bestows upon his creatures what Thomas refers to as ‘the dignity of causality’ (ST Ia, q. 22, a. 3). God freely ordains the exercise of our freedom.

Finally, and perhaps most pervasively, some hold that while God is sovereign, he may nevertheless be persuaded by our prayers to change his mind. If the first two errors were errors of doctrine muddling our prayers, the final error is often the result of our prayers tampering with our theology. When I see rain on the forecast (as I often do, living in Wales), and I pray for sunshine, what I really want is for God to take my weekend plans into consideration, however much I may intone Thy will be done.

God may have perfectly good reasons for keeping Cardiff sodden, but the dog needs walking, the garden needs mowing, and I would appreciate a pint on the patio. And so my prayers slowly condition me into thinking that I can win God over to my side, convincing him by the strength of my arguments or the desperation of my pleas to hear me out.

The problem with this way of thinking, Thomas argues, is that God’s will is unwavering. This is not, as critics of divine immutability often suggest, some metaphysical hobbyhorse snuck in through the back door by Aquinas’s slavishness to Hellenistic philosophy. Thomas comes to this conclusion by his reading of Scripture: ‘”For I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6); with God “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). What’s more, as St. Thomas argues elsewhere, it is to our benefit that God does not change, for in relation to his creatures, God is resolutely committed to their good (cf. ST Ia, q. 20, a. 2). God is stubbornly set upon our wellbeing.

So where does this leave us?

For example, having made the necessary theological calibrations, what sense are we to make of Jesus’ instruction to pray without ceasing? Are we not thrust into the quagmire of those thorny Sunday School sophisms:

If God knows what I want before I ask, why bother asking? If nothing escapes the providence of God, what use are my petitions?

Thomas responds with a variation on two themes:

First, “We pray, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may obtain by asking that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers.” C.S. Lewis put the matter elegantly:

[God] could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men. … Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will.[1]

So it is with our prayers: God allows the petitions of his people to achieve certain effects in the world.

In other words, when we pray we exercise the “dignity of causality.” We discover what it means to be an instrument as well as a recipient of God’s providential care.

Second, we pray, not in order to make known to God our needs or desires, but “that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God, and that we may recognize in him the Author of our goods.” In prayer, we are schooled in the knowledge of the giftedness of all good things. We learn to see things as they truly are: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (Jm. 1:17). We learn to see our daily bread, not simply as the fruit of our own labor, but a testament to God’s provision. We learn to appreciate a sunny day, not simply as an interlude in Welsh weather, but as an occasion for thanksgiving.

In sum, in prayer we discover both our dignity and our dependency. God has given us a role to play in the execution of his will, so we pray. God alone is the giver of all good things, so we pray.

And so St. Thomas concludes his article on prayer with the cheerful words of St. John Chrysostom:

Think what happiness is granted thee, what honor bestowed on thee, when thou conversest with God in prayer, when thou talkest with Christ, when thou askest what thou wilt, whatever thou desirest.


[1] Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (Mariner Books, 1986), p. 9. “Co-operation” is a potentially misleading term with respect to the relation of divine and creaturely activity — giving the impression that divine agency stops at the point where creaturely agency begins (as though God puts in 50% of the effort while we supply the rest). It is important to recall that there is a “non-competitive relation” between God and creatures, such that God’s activity engenders rather than delimits creaturely activity (cf. Phil. 2:12-13).


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