Prayer to an Unchanging God

If you aren’t familiar with the properties of God, perhaps the strangest, to us, is that God is unchanging. It follows necessarily from the fact that God is simple, that is, he is not composed of separable parts that are capable of existing independently. That follows from the fact that God is necessary, unlike us, who are contingent. Since God is necessary, he cannot be composed of things which are not necessarily together. And since God is necessary, he cannot change, because change means some part coming into being or ceasing to be. Since God is necessary (and has no contingent parts), there is no part of him which is capable of not existing. So far, OK, but how, then, does prayer work if God doesn’t change. What does prayer do?

It’s easy enough if you only consider our side of prayer, that is, how prayer changes us. But that’s not all prayer does. Prayer can change the world. We can pray for good things to happen, and God can answer our prayers with good things, if often (having to take everyone’s good into account) in ways so complex we don’t understand them until much later if at all. Or we can get immediate answers to our prayers, as in the case of miracles. How can that possibly work if God is unchangeable?

I think that it will be easier to give the answer if we first look at the fact that we creatures are able to interact with each other. C.S. Lewis mentioned, addressing the question, “since God knows what’s best, how can it make sense to ask him for anything?” He pointed out that the same problem applies to umbrellas. Surely God knows whether we should be wet, so why give him our opinion on the subject by opening our umbrella?

The answer to that question is that God has given it to us to take part in designing creation. This is part of a general plan of delegation which God seems to have. For a great many things, instead of doing things directly God gives it to us to do his work for him. He could feed the hungry man himself, but he gives it to us to be his feeding of the hungry man by us giving the hungry man food. You can see this in the analogy of the parent who gives his child a present to give to someone else; the parent could have given the present directly but the parent is incorporating the child into the parent’s act of generosity. Unsurprisingly, God does a far more complete job of it than human parents do. This is part of why people can ignore God; they see only the action of the people incorporated into God’s generosity and ignore the rest.

When God gives us these things by way of delegation, what happens is that we end up acting sort of like a lens to the sunlight. From our perspective, we don’t change the sun, but we do change how the sunlight affects earthly objects. By holding our hands up we make a shadow, but holding up a lens we concentrate the light on a place, with a prism we break the light into distinct pieces and make a rainbow. Real life is vastly more complex than just lensing the sun, but it works as a metaphor to show us how you can change the effect of the sun without changing the sun itself.

Prayer is the same basic thing, except we can’t directly observe it. By prayer we interact with God such that we change not God, but how his unchanging love for creation is expressed in creation itself. Prayer is like holding up a magnifying glass in front of the sun, shaping where the light goes without doing anything to the sun.

The Lessons of Beetles

I once heard a story which I have dearly loved ever since. It was originally told as a joke, I believe, but I think it actually captures an important theological insight:

Some time in the seventeenth century a naturalist, funded by the crown, returned from one of his voyages and came to an audience before the Queen, who was the one principally responsible for his being funded. After he recounted some of his more interesting discoveries the Queen asked him, “And what have your investigations into the natural world taught you about the Creator?” The naturalist paused for a moment to consider, then replied, “That he has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Beetles currently comprise about 25% of known life-forms and 40% of all known insects, with new species of beetles being described all the time (currently there are around 400,000 described species of beetles). Clearly, God loves beetles. But humans who love beetles are considered quite weird: in movies they’re usually played by scrawny guys wearing glasses and bad haircuts and given dialog which proves in every line that they have neither social skills nor friends. And in fairness, God does stand alone; “from whom does God take counsel?” and all that. But the critical difference is, of course, why.

Human beings, being fallen creatures, love things primarily out of need. We are a dying species in a dying world, and we seek scraps of life wherever we can get them. This is almost a literal description of eating food, but it is more relevantly a description of the things we enjoy. We go on hikes because the beauty of trees and rocks and sunshine fills us up for a little while. We go on roller coasters because the rush of power reminds us for a moment that we are alive. We’ll even go to the ruins of ancient buildings made by long-dead hands because, remote as it is, we can feed on the crumbs of life which spilled over when someone was so filled with life that he built something only that it might exist. Art, when it is not purely commercial, is an act of generosity, and therefore life, because things are generous precisely to the degree that they live.

God stands apart because God is fully alive, and therefore needs nothing. He is not just fully alive, he is life itself, or as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it, the “subsistent act of to be”. (Subsistent in this case meaning to be in itself, rather than in another as a subject; the terms of scholastic philosophy are rather specialized.) God loves things in a purely generous way. He does not love anything because it is interesting; it is interesting because he loves it. When Saint John famously said, “God is love”, that might reasonably be rendered, “God is generosity”. Generosity, after all, comes from the same root as “generate”.

God loves all things into existence that he may give them more and bring them from potentiality into full actuality with him in his eternal actuality, which is why God does not disdain the smallest thing. We disdain the small things because our needs are so great; God needs nothing, and so he disdains nothing. God is interested in everything because his ability to give is so great.

God loves beetles, and he even loves the dung which the dung beetles feed on. There is no spec of dust on any cold and lonely planet so far from its sun that the sun just looks like another star in its sky which is not immediately in the presence of God. Most of our lives are made up of mundane moments no one would ever make a movie about; perhaps we can all take comfort, as we trudge through the details of everyday life, from the fact that God is inordinately fond of beetles. For it means that the smallness and dullness of our lives is only a defect in our sight.