In this post I am trying something old rather than new. It started when I bought a book containing The Republic and other writings by Plato. I had expected it to contain lectures by the man himself. Instead, he records a long and winding conversation between Socrates and several younger friends while “hanging-out.” I’ve discovered that this was a common way to write. Books contained dialogues with a sage and pupils or the author and the personification of certain ideas, like Philosophy, Divine Reason, or love represented by Aphrodite. When people now write about philosophy or theology they often do so by writing systematic textbooks. That’s great for study, but it doesn’t reflect how humans naturally communicate in daily life. To quote Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.” For this reason I have written down a conversation I had recently while taking a walk in a downtown Portland park.
At times I find it a necessity to take walks and get alone so that my mind can clear and I can think and pray. I do not do it nearly as often as I should or whenever the desire arises inside of me. On one mild summer afternoon I found myself walking in a park after answering the prompting inside. This led me to a bench underneath the shade of a large maple tree. Deciding that I needed a rest, I sat down on one side of the bench to catch my breath. I had been sitting there a few minutes when a man dressed in a worn suit sat down on the opposite side of the bench.
“What’s bothering you,” he said.
“I noticed that something appears to be on you mind and I was wondering what it was. I thought maybe I could be of some help.”
“Who are you?”
“Thomas, Saint Thomas.”
This struck me as rather dubious, yet I responded, “It’s the problem of prayer. Prayer is something so basic and yet it’s so confusing to me.”
“That is a problem,” he replied.
“Does prayer really do anything? I mean I know that God knows what is going to happen, so what’s the use of praying if what you pray for is already going to happen. Or does prayer change the future? If so, how do I pray so my prayers get results. When I was younger I heard that God always answers prayers in three ways: yes, no, or wait, but what kind of answer is no and how do I tell the difference between when God is saying no and when he is saying wait. There are verses in John that say if you ask anything in Jesus’ name he will do it, so if I say ‘Make it rain, in Jesus name, Amen’ will it happen. And what about those people who pray for a long time and nothing happens and some people who just pray and it happens. That doesn’t make sense.”
Saint Thomas sat quietly for a moment after I finished and then began. “You do seem like you are mixed up inside, maybe I can provide some healing for your soul. Do you think God can change his mind?”
“Well it says in the Bible that he changes his mind in a few places, like when Moses asks him not to destroy Israel, but that is just anthropomorphism. Like describing him with arms and legs when God cannot actually have them because he is Spirit. So He doesn’t really change his mind.”
“Moses, who had seen God face to face, was comfortable talking about God in this way, why aren’t you? Whenever the infinite expresses Himself in the finite he needs to use language the finite can understand. You wouldn’t explain forgiveness to a four year old using abstract language would you. No, you would use concrete language and analogies. Even the best theologians are using baby language when they say that God is immutable. Some day that will change, but until you grow up, there is nothing wrong in talking or thinking like that. Your prayers have the power to move the heart of God to action.”
“I think I see what you mean, but does that mean that God doesn’t know the future. If he knows he will change his mind, our prayers don’t really change his mind do they and if he doesn’t know the future, well that’s a scary thought.”
He looked at me kindly. “You are still talking about things that are beyond you. You have never known a time when you were not in time. When walking up the steps of your house one step always comes after another in time. When God enters time he is only voluntarily constraining himself, though that is still too simple a way of putting it. He sees all of time, yet allows himself to be acted upon by creatures within time. Be content to know that God knows what will happen in the future and yet his mind can be changed by prayer. It is a stretch for you, but if you are able to believe that the Son was fully God and fully man, then maybe it will not be so difficult.”
“Then,” said I pleading, “Do I not have free will and cannot help but pray or not to pray.”
“Have you not been listening? You soul is in agony. I do not mean to go into this issue too deeply as we are talking about prayer, yet it is important. If man did not have free will then God could not justly punish him for the wrong that he did or reward him for the good because he would not be responsible for their actions. We will assume, as is true, that God is just and man has free-will. Being God and all-powerful he is also in total control of all that happens, another apparent contradiction. Still, if a man can be 100% God and 100% man, then God can be 100% in control and man can have 100% free will. Anyways your idea of free will is quite immature.”
“Oh, I am beginning to see,” I said, “And yet I still wonder why my I don’t always see the effect of my prayers.”
“What is troubling you is that you treat prayers like scientific experiments or magic spells. Add A in this amount, mix with B, boil for this long, then add C,D, and E, all performed with the correct words at the correct times and finished with an ‘In Jesus name’ and you expect to get your desired result. Prayer is communication between two beings, one created and the other Creator. Surely you would not reduce communication with another human to a set of procedures designed to get exactly what you want from them, unless you were being manipulative. And this using ‘Jesus name’ like a magic incantation, an abracadabra that guarantees results is most distressing and really out of line with what Jesus intended. When a police officer tells someone to stop ‘in the name of the law’ he or she means in accordance with the authority and meaning of the law I order you to stop. To ask anything in Jesus’ name means to ask in accordance with his will and his purpose. If you study the Scriptures you will see that name refers to a person’s character and the essence of who they are. If you ask anything that is in line with Jesus’ will, it will not be refused.”
“I’m sorry, but this is confusing to me. I pray for many good things that God refuses to grant. My grandparents are not Christian, yet I pray for them often. Are you saying that it is not God’s will that they should be saved. I thought it was God’s will that no one should perish, but that everyone will receive eternal life.”
Saint Thomas’ brow furled as if thinking and then continued slowly, “There are many things that I do not know. Only the Father, Son, and Spirit know what is in the mind of God. This I do know, God cannot force anyone to accept Jesus. He can offer his love in the most attractive way, but it is against his nature to force it on a person who will not accept it. It he did it would not be love; instead it would be to violate them. Why some come to him and others do not I do not know?”
“What about praying for a person with an illness or for children who are starving to receive food?” I said to probe him further, “surely these do no face the same difficulty. Does God really desire that children should die because of choices other people made? They are innocent, yet must suffer. It is not as if He has never miraculously healed someone or fed orphans. Why doesn’t he act when I pray for those things?”
“If only you could see what my eyes have seen, you would find comfort, if not answers. When my Lord died it seemed so unfair that the innocent should die, when God could have rescued him. It was not until later that I realized why it happened.”
I was on the verge of interrupting him when he raised his hand and continued.
“I know what you describe is different to a degree. The understanding likely will not come in your lifetime only when you have seen what my eyes have seen will it all begin to make sense. You have not yet lived a quarter of your life and what is your knowledge, but a tiny dot in a large world. Look at you world, is it not a tiny speck in a vast universe of stars, planets, and galaxies. There are realities beyond what your mind can comprehend, yet God has named every star and knows the number of hairs on your head. Do you believe that God is good?”
“Yes,” I said.
He repeated, “Do you believe that God is good?”
“Yes I do.”
He began to repeat it over and over again until I began to feel ashamed. At the moment at which I was about to break he stopped.
“Then you will know that everything he does is ultimately good, even if you do not understand it. I know it still hurts,” he said putting his hand on my shoulder. I thought I saw tears welling in the wrinkles beneath his eyes. We sat quietly for some time.
“Is prayer for you or for God,” he asked at the end of the silence.
“I don’t know.”
“God doesn’t need our prayers, but he knows that we need them. In prayer we turn to God and open up communication with him. A communion or sort of union takes place through which he works on us. When we allow ourselves to focus on God in prayer, he is much more able to work on us. Prayer invites or gives “permission” for God to come into a situation or an area of our lives to work. The work he does in us may be more important than the requested answer to the prayer. Sometimes God allows obstacles to come our way so that we will turn to him in prayer because he craves that communication and communion with us. You, yourself know that you would not have drawn as close to him as you have without the trials that have forced you to seek him for help.”
“Is that why He commands us to pray so much because it is through prayer that He changes and conforms us to His image.”
“You are beginning to understand,” replied Saint Thomas, “Yet again don’t treat this as a formula or a way to manipulate God to produce spiritual growth. It looks like this medicine has been helpful to your soul.”
“It has, thank you. Still it hurts some.”
“All wounds take time to heal,” he said, standing up. Then tipping his slouch hat he walked down the path.
My eyes followed him until he was hidden from view by the trees and bushes.