The movie Shadowlands is the story of C. S. Lewis and his wife Joy. At one point in the film, after finding out Joy’s cancer has gone into remission, one of Lewis’ friends says to him, “I know how hard you have been praying, and now God is answering your prayer.” Lewis, brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins, replies, “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
Lewis is speaking of petitionary prayer, which requests something from God. He points out that we don’t pray to change God’s mind. God doesn’t grant prayer because we pray or because of how hard we pray; such a God would be either arbitrary or cruel. Why would God grant one person’s heartfelt prayer and not another’s?
Some might answer that question by pointing to God’s omniscience. God knows something we don’t know, or God sees a bigger picture. But I don’t find that answer satisfactory; in my experience in ministry and friendship, it is not comforting to those who suffer or who feel their prayer has not been answered. God does not wave a magic wand and make everything turn out alright. The person who has cancer still dies. The car accident cannot be undone. The person who breaks your heart doesn’t come back.
Prayer is about participating in the relationship God offers us. We pray because part of being in relationship is sharing the things that are weighing heaviest on our hearts. Friends or family may already know what I am going through, but I still want to talk about it. They listen and are present to my experience. The same is true of God in prayer.
Returning to Lewis’ quote in Shadowlands, prayer neither changes what God knows, nor does it change what God does. Instead, prayer changes us. Prayer is about being in relationship with God and pouring out our hearts to God. Prayer is about God receiving all that is in our hearts in love. Prayer is about not being alone. Prayer is about God Emmanuel, God who is with us in our darkest and hardest moments. Prayer is about Jesus crying out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” God is with us in those moments of feeling abandoned. As Lewis says later in the movie, “We pray to know we are not alone.” We pray because God created us to be in relationship, and relationship requires communication and communion. We pray to be with God.
This article also appears in the February 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 2, page 49).