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2. Prayer Doesn’t Change God

with Rev. Alex Lang

January 22, 2022

When you pray to God, what is your expectation? Are you hoping for a favorable response? Are you hoping God will intervene in the world and answer your prayer? This Sunday, we talk about what prayer does and doesn’t do!

The Scripture

Genesis 18:20-33

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

 

Mark 5:24b-34

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

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As we begin the New Year, we’re doing a series called Top 5. The question this series is designed to answer are what are the top 5 things you should know about a certain topic in the Christian faith? The topic we are focusing on in January are the top 5 things that every Christian should know about God. Last week we talked about the idea of how if God truly gives us the free will to make our own decisions, then God does not make a plan for our lives. God allows us make our own paths, which leads us to what we are discussing this week: if God doesn’t intervene, then what role does prayer play in our lives?

The reason why our next step in the top 5 is to discuss prayer is because there is a fundamental assumption behind the idea of prayer that God can intervene in our lives. And, indeed, we see this in our scripture this morning from Genesis, which I consider to be one of the most challenging scriptures in the entire Bible. Let me set the scene for you.

 

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God has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The reason for this is because the people who live in these two cities have been deemed sinful by God. After Abraham is told of God’s plan, Abraham becomes worried that his nephew, a man by the name of Lot who lives in Sodom, will be destroyed along with everyone else.

So Abraham begins to question God’s plan, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Say there’s 50 righteous people. Are you still going to destroy the cities?” And what’s so fascinating is the way that God reacts to Abraham’s question. You would assume God would respond by saying something like, “The decision’s been made, there’s nothing you can do about it.” But God doesn’t say that. God exhibits a certain degree of flexibility, almost as if he’s saying, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before. So sure, if there’s 50, I’ll change my mind.”

Now what’s so funny about this is that Abraham is kind of taken aback by God’s acceptance of his offer. It’s like when you’re a teenager and you ask your parents if you can drive the nice car for a date and you’re expecting them to say, “No,” but then they say, “Yes,” and you’re like, “I didn’t expect that to happen.” But once you have the keys in your hand, you start pressing your luck, right trying to get gas money and seeing if you can stay out late. That’s when my dad would get agitated and say, “Do you want to go out tonight at all?” And I was out the door.

Now as crazy as it sounds, that common interaction between a teenager and a parent is not unlike what begins to unfold between God and Abraham. Abraham, after being given a little bit of leeway by God, starts revising his numbers downward because he’s concerned that he set the number of righteous people needed to save Sodom and Gomorrah too high. So Abraham comes back to God, “Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And God says, “Alright fine, if there’s 45 you’re good. I won’t destroy the city.”

But then Abraham is like me with my father, he keeps coming back to the table with another request and every time he wants a new lower number. Abraham does this until he has bargained his way down to ten. Ten righteous people, that’s all that’s needed to save these cities. If you’re anything like me, this negotiation between God and Abraham raises some interesting questions, such as: can you actually bargain with God? Does that really work? Can you say to God, “If you do this, then I’ll do that?”

When I was a young boy, about 5 years old, I had a really good friend whose name was Mike. Mike and I did everything together. We were inseparable. We loved all the same kinds of toys, we watched all the same cartoons, we even did all the same sports together. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of being inseparable is that our parents had to make sure that they bought the same toys for us at the same time so that one of us wouldn’t flip out due to jealousy, which happened more often than I would like to admit.

Therefore, every so often, my mom would show up with a new toy. One for each of us. Well one day, my mom decided she would add some flair to this ritual and told Mike and I to go outside and open the trunk of her car because there was a surprise inside. So we ran outside, opened the trunk and, lo and behold, there were two new pristine action figures in their plastic casing. We grabbed them out of the trunk, took them inside and immediately began to play with them.

However, my mom’s impromptu variation on this weekly ritual lodged something new into my 5 year old brain that I had never realized up until that point: mom hides the new toys in the trunk of her car. So the next week when I went over to Mike’s house and my mom came to pick me up, I knew exactly where to go. I popped the trunk of her car, ran around to the back and, voilà, no presents. This was confusing. New toys had been in the trunk last time, so where were they this time?

I said to Mike, “They must be in here.” So we climbed in the trunk and searched around. Nothing. Then I had a bright idea: what if the presents appear when the trunk is closed. Seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, so I closed the trunk while we were inside and as soon as the lock went click, the light in the trunk went out and I knew we were in trouble. Because we couldn’t get the trunk open from the inside, we began to panic. We started screaming and kicking the lid of the trunk, trying to make enough noise so that our parents would hear us. I distinctly remember praying to God in my mind saying, “If you get me out of this, I promise I will be good for the rest of my life!”

Thankfully, our mom’s realized that we were nowhere to be seen and came outside looking for us. They heard us banging on the trunk and opened up the lid to find us in tears. I think they laughed at us, which at the time seemed cruel, but thinking about it from their perspective, I guess it was pretty funny. That’s the first memory I have of making a bargain with God and it wouldn’t be the last.

Throughout my life I have prayed to God in situations where I have felt totally and completely out of control. I have told God over and over again, if you do this then I’ll do that and what’s remarkable is that every time I am saved from a bad situation, I am grateful in the moments shortly thereafter, but then I quickly forget those prayers were ever uttered. When we bargain with God in our prayers, what we are really saying is, “I want things to go my way.”

Sometimes when we pray, things do go our way and sometimes they don’t. When it does go our way, it can feel as though we’ve been subject to a miracle. As if the course of our lives have been changed from one of tragedy to one of hope. When it doesn’t go our way, it can feel as though God wasn’t listening to our prayers at all. Why didn’t God intervene and change the situation? Some pastors say that God hears all prayers, but sometimes the answer to those prayers is, “No.” But then that raises the obvious question, “Why does God say yes to some prayers and no to others.”

At the core of the problem is a very simple question that all of us know intuitively, but we never ask it because it’s such a taboo topic in Christian circles: Does prayer do anything to impact the world? By saying those words into thin air, does it make an actual difference or are things just going to happen the way they are going to happen?

Did my prayer in the back of my mom’s trunk change the outcome of that situation? Had I not prayed that prayer, would Mike and I have never been found and suffocated in the trunk or would my mom have found us anyway? When I pray over a person suffering from cancer and they go into remission, did the prayer actually make a difference in the outcome of that person’s life? Was the prayer the only factor in their recovery? Was it one aspect of the treatment along with the chemo and other medicines that resulted in remission or was it just the chemo and the other medicines?

We don’t like to think that our prayers have no impact on the world around us because, if that’s the case, then why pray at all? This is a conundrum because we want to believe that prayer does have an impact; that it does make a difference. When I’m watching somebody die in the hospital, I cannot tell you how badly I want to be able to say some special combination of words that will change the outcome of that situation.

But here’s the problem with that way of thinking. If God heeds my prayer, intercedes on this person’s behalf and changes the trajectory of that person’s life, then it raises the obvious question: why doesn’t God do that for everyone? So this reality leads us to one of two conclusions: either God picks and chooses which prayers God listens to (and if that’s true, I don’t want any part of a God like that because it is inconsistent with an unconditionally loving God) or perhaps we are thinking about prayer in entirely the wrong way.

Most of us think of prayer the way Abraham thought of prayer: we use prayer as a means to bargain with God to get what we want. We think of God as this celestial Santa Claus who should listen to our requests because we’ve been good people and God rewards good behavior. But that’s not what prayer is all about. Your prayer is never going to change God. That’s not the way prayer works.

The only thing that prayer is designed to do is to change you and, by consequence, the people around you. Now what do I mean by this? Well, prayer works in two distinct ways. The first way is how it changes you personally. When I pray, I often feel a closer connection to God and God’s spirit of redemption in my heart. That prayer hasn’t changed God, it’s changed me. That prayer has opened my heart and allowed me to be more conscious of and connected to the love that God has for me.

Does feeling God’s love in my heart more closely have an effect on the world? Of course it does. Through that connection to God, I’m kinder to other people; I’m looking for more opportunities to serve my fellow human beings and, as a result, I’m spreading God’s love and kindness to others. So when I come to the room of a cancer patient, I’m hoping that person will feel the love of God in my heart. And make no mistake about it, that love can heal people.

Have you ever met people who are so depressed by their prognosis that they lose the will to live? I knew a woman at my former church who had been given a really bad prognosis. She had bone cancer and was declining rapidly. Her husband had died many years prior, she had no children and she spent her days alone in her tiny apartment.

But every day, the same chaplain at the hospital would come to visit her. He would pop in and spend an hour with her every day. He talked to her about her life, he prayed with her, and, ultimately, he became her friend. She lost the will to live because she thought nobody cared about her anymore. But this chaplain gave her the will to live again because he showed her so much love that she decided it was worth living. She lived for another 3 years before succumbing to the bone cancer.

The second way prayer works is how it can change other people. David Orme-Johnson, a psychologist at Maharishi International University working in conjunction with John Davies at Harvard University, researched the effect of collective consciousness on real world events. In 1983, during the Lebanese civil war, Orme was able to document that the quality of life in Jerusalem, Lebanon and Israel was tangibly improved by the positive thinking of a collective of individuals committed to prayer.

For the short period of time these community members joined as one to pray for relief from their oppression, violence and crime decreased. One logical reason for these results is that a normally divided and individualistic community separated by violence was now operating as a cohesive unit. Yet, there were gaps in the results that could not account for the decrease in violence overall, giving rise to the conclusion that the unaccounted factor was the influence of prayer on the community at large.

In short, the conclusion of Orme’s study is that prayer does indeed affect change in the world in dramatic ways. The question is how? Is it God answering requests like an air traffic controller, deciding who’s going to land and who’s going to crash? No, everything we’ve established up to this point in this series tells us that God does not intervene in our world. Instead, prayer is something we can utilize as humans that literally can change our world. Prayer is a special gift we possess as a species. In fact, I would say prayer is a gift that God has given us to help ourselves and each other.

We are connected to each other as human beings, much more so than we realize. Indeed, our connection to each other can be strengthened through prayer. And when we become connected through prayer, amazing things can happen. I’ve seen prayer change the outcome of people’s lives. I don’t deny that. But what’s happening when we pray? Is it God making those changes or is prayer getting us more in touch with God’s spirit of redemption inside of our hearts? I would argue, prayer changes us and, as a result, prayer can change each other.

Prayer can heal people. But the way it works is through our energy, our consciousness, our spirt, whatever you want to call it, prayer creates a strong connection with each other. There is a saying among doctors that the best pharmacy is the one in your head. It’s why in drug studies, certain people who are given a placebo will see results even though they aren’t taking the drug. Our bodies have an incredible ability to heal themselves. But to unleash that capacity, it requires this deep connection to the world around us and prayer is one of the best ways of making that happen.

This is what happens with the woman who was bleeding for 12 years. She has this internal dialogue, like a prayer, where she believes so much in Jesus and feels so connected to him, that she believes if she can just touch his clothes, she will be healed from her illness. This is why when Jesus confronts the woman, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” You would think Jesus would say, “I have made you well,” but Jesus is giving her the credit. He’s essentially saying, “I didn’t heal you. God didn’t heal you. You healed yourself.”

So the next time you pray, remember you that your prayers are not changing God, they’re changing you. They’re changing your heart and connecting you deeply with the people around you. Those prayers allow others to experience the love of God kindled inside of you, those prayers can heal yourself and others, but most importantly, those prayers can ultimately change the world for the better. So if you take nothing else away from this sermon—keep praying, because we all need it. Amen.

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