The title of this blog may seem somewhat strange: what do I mean by “twisting God’s arm”?
What I am trying to get at here is simply that for many people, that is, people who believe in God, if they are honest then they have a concept of prayer as precisely that: trying somehow to persuade God to give them what they want. Prayer for them is a case of – attempting – to twist God’s arm. And perhaps behind this attitude is a belief that God is reluctant or too aloof to be bothered?
We might phrase this question slightly better: is God ever persuaded to change His mind about something or do something in response to our – sincere – pleas? And we’re not just talking about something relatively trivial like can I have a new bicycle. Sometimes our pleas are for something very very important: for example, a child you love is seriously ill, perhaps dying, and you “storm heaven” that the child might be cured. And even when what we ask for is borne of love and is something vital, even then, we often times do not appear to get it. Is God heedless?
Prayer has many aspects. Perhaps the greatest and ‘purest’ form of prayer is simply to praise God – not to ask for anything but just to adore His infinite perfection. But the aspect of prayer I’m alluding to here is called the prayer of intercession – when we ask God for something. And this aspect of prayer is valid because Jesus Himself refers to it and actually encourages us to ask, to knock, and to persevere in our petitions (Matthew 7: 7). We may qualify this by stating that Jesus is speaking about a loving Father who knows what His children need, and therefore Jesus is encouraging us to ask for the good things that God wants to bestow on us. But what about things that – possibly – are not in God’s plan for us? This could be the hard realities of life that God has never promised to shield us from – after all Jesus Himself earnestly prayed: “If this cup can pass me by” (Matthew 26: 42). And of course God did not save His own beloved Son from a cruel and unmerited death.
If God will not change His mind for Jesus, why should we ever think He would do so for us? In the example of a dying child, such a thing happens in life, and while such suffering is never ‘sent’ by God there can be no doubt that He ‘permits’ it. Do we then have the right to ask Him to change the situation and possibly work a miracle?
This is a hard question that I rarely ever hear addressed by ministers of religion: does God respond to heartfelt pleas to ‘fix’ something that we experience as bad or cruel? All too often we get fed pious platitudes, something like “this suffering now will gain you a shorter spell in Purgatory”? That don’t impress me much…
There is a maxim about prayer that I treasure as it seems to me to go to the heart of this mystery:
prayer does not change God, it changes us.
What this maxim is telling us is that when we pray, pray from the heart, we change – and then we tune in to God’s will and see the deeper meaning of His ‘way’ which is always so much better than our ‘way’. The power of sincere prayer is precisely that we “put on the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2: 5) and then we know what really is for the best, and we begin to see life from an eternal perspective – which is always God’s perspective. Then we can begin to trust Him and to know His peace, even in the midst of horrendous suffering.
This may be fair enough – hard but fair – but is it still worth asking: does God ever respond to our pleas by changing His plan in favour of what we ask? Is this what a ‘miracle’ is, and do miracles really happen?
I don’t think we can give a definitive answer to that, if only because we are always “looking through a dark glass” (1 Corinthians 13: 12) when it comes to discerning His will, and perhaps when something truly unexpected and wonderful happens, such as a child recovering from a terminal illness, who’s to say that wasn’t in God’s plan all the time? But I want to say that I like the idea of a Father God who is responsive while never compromising His better way. Jesus did indeed tell us that if we had faith we could ‘move mountains’ (Mark 11: 23), that is, work miracles in His name. Perhaps the challenge for all believers is just that: to take our God seriously and to so align our hearts with His love that we become open channels for His grace and He can then be prodigal with His blessings – through us!
We can never ‘twist God’s arm’ but we might become His arm and thereby allow Him to do mighty things here and now in this life. Otherwise He is truly Unmighty God in this life and we experience this as His absence.
God is with us! Martin