“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it”
– Soren Kierkegaard (1847)
We misunderstand Kierkegaard’s meaning here if we think he’s saying prayer doesn’t reach God. Neither is he calling prayer a one-way street, or a futile method of venting hope and desire, or a technique of problem-solving by self-hypnosis.
We Christians know that ‘God does not change’ (Mal 3:6); ‘shows no partiality’ (Rom 2:11); ‘nor shadow of turning’ (Jas 1:17). But we have also been invited to pray (Mat 9:38 & etc.). How’s that going to work then?
The average person might admit the Bible teaching but not recognize the theo-logical importance of a concept of an unchanging God. The point is that prayer invoked with the idea that God may be changed or show partiality tends to move our worship in the direction of an imaginary being of our own creation – a man-made god. A prayer made in expectation that God will fulfill our needs and desires is a wish to make God more like us. This is opposed to that faith which would make us more like God.
Kierkegaard recognized the religious need to reach God – to be heard – and the theological value of the concept of an unchanging God. He preached an address in May, 1851, entitled “The Unchangeableness of God” (Jas 1:17-21), in which he developed the religious sense of this paradoxical situation – the human need for change from a God who must be – by the Bible and the best theological definitions – unchangeable in nature.
From the opening prayer to the 1851 address:
“… Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh; this moves Thee, O infinite Love! But nothing changes Thee! O Thou who art unchangeable! O Thou who in infinite love dost submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”
I think Kierkegaard’s insight was to recognize that impassibility (freedom from suffering) was not a necessary quality of divine immutability when considered in the context of an unchanging love.
What God gets in this arrangement is a man who seeks in his prayer time the next move in the continuous change he should be making in the direction of more and more God.
What man gets is a God that hears him, and even suffers affliction with him (if need be) in unchanging love.
Note: Top quote, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (2. “Remorse, Confession, Repentance”) – ET D.V. Steere, 1938; 1851 address, in For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! (Princeton, 1941)