Prayer changes me?
I’m binging Dawson’s Creek while doing Laundry this morning and a character just dropped the “prayer changes me not God line”, so of course the internet must receive my thoughts on this.
First things first, Dawson‘s Creek is a legitimately fun show. Yes it’s a teen soap opera, and yes the acting is mediocre, but the show is very well paced and well executed generally. I recommend it if you’re bored.
Mini review aside the whole “prayer changes me” thing. I first encountered this phrase in the Anthony Hopkins Shadowlands film, which remains one of the most moving films I’ve ever experienced. I watched it by myself on a tiny TV in my grandparents attic the summer after junior year of HS. I had just said good bye to a girl I thought I truly loved and would probably never see again. Such is the dramatic life of an MK. Unfortunately for both of us we did see each other again…and it turned into several years of pain, involving some of the more emotionally dramatic moments of my life. To top things off I’m pretty sure she’s a lesbian now. 🤣
In any case, that version of Shadowlands came along at a very significant moment of my life. And the themes of romantic love and loss, couched within a relationship with God involving existential struggle really marked me. The film has since become a bit unpopular with Evangelicals because it’s not the most accurate or heart warming portrayal of one of our favorite popular Christian thinkers. In some ways the film is downright anti Lewis. And I’ve always thought Lewis would have loved that about it.
I still love the film, and always will. I still remember how hard I cried watching it the first time. I cry in movies all the time, but I don’t sob often. There’s a moment towards the end where Hopkins begins to cry and it just destroyed me. I completely and fully felt the losses in my own life through his acting and the narrative of the film, and it broke me open.
But a lot of Evangelicals seem to see God as very absent in the film. And I guess that’s why I relate to it so strongly. I’ve never felt particularly close to God. And so I relate to the hollowness and existential angst of the film. And I really relate to the phrase “prayer changes me.”
Because it’s true. Prayer, religion, liturgy, etc these things are a fundamental part of the human experience and an essential part of Christianity. Prayer does change us.
But I think there’s a legitimate critique of that phrase, because a secular person can believe that too. “Prayer changes me” is literally something Sam Harris could believe. And that is troubling if that’s all prayer is. But it clearly isn’t.
The Biblical narrative does not present God as a platonic unmoved mover, but rather a being in whose image we are made, He is completely fleshed out as a “person” for lack of a better phrase. And Christian theology has generally tended to claim that this is anthropomorphism. But the way God chose to reveal himself to us, to make himself naked before our eyes, involves too much emotion (especially anger and pain) on his part for it to all be analogies.
And it’s not just the humanity of Jesus, it’s the angry OT God. Anger is an intensely vulnerable emotion. You’re only angry with someone or something if you care. Last night I was very grumpy because someone significant to me had to return to her home. And I realized I’d never been grumpy like that before. My first marriage of 12 years is now, by God’s Grace, mercifully over and I can’t remember a time that I was grumpy about not having access to my first wife. I don’t remember ever being grumpy about not having access to someone, but I think this person is becoming my best friend…something I thought was a fairy tale honestly. Best friends are soooo 3rd grade 😆
But at this “Late” stage of life I think I might have found a best friend, and being grumpy about missing them made me feel good. It made me feel connected. It helped me see how valuable this person is to me.
Negative emotions reveal our heart in a way that positive and happy ones simply don’t. And God’s primary emotions throughout the biblical narrative seem to be negative. Negative emotions are the true basis of intimacy between people. It’s in pain that our needs are revealed. Being grumpy at some one’s absence is a sign of vulnerability and trust. God’s calling Israel a whore isn’t about Israel as much as it is about God. He is saying “I love my people, I long to be intimate with them but I can’t because of their sin.”
So then does prayer change God? No. But even when God isn’t answering our prayers interactively, even when he doesn’t heal the cancer etc, it isn’t just about the act of prayer changing the individual in isolation. And when Hopkins gives that line in Shadowlands, the conviction with which he delivers it spoke to me in this way: yes, any prayer is better than no prayer, but praying to the God who is there changes us not merely because of the act but because of the connection to God.
Prayer changes us, the same way that calling my friend today during her lunch break will change me. Prayer is interactive. It isn’t just an act of meditation or psychologically healthy (though those are true and beneficial) but for the Christian it’s real. Just as real as talking on the phone with your best friend. God can and does answer prayers, but the main reason we pray is connection to our maker and I can’t think of something that would change us more profoundly than that.