An Ethical Musings' reader sent me the following:
I once asked a Christian minister about a quote I'd read, 'Prayer doesn't change circumstances it changes people and people change circumstances.' He had a problem with this. Your thoughts?
Incidentally, the quotation appears to be a modified version of this aphorism that, after brief research on the internet, seems to have originated with Burton Hillis: "Prayer changes things? No! Prayer changes people, and people change things." Burton Hillis was the pseudonym of William E. Vaughn, a twentieth century mid-American columnist and writer.
Sadly, prayer sometimes becomes an excuse for people to take no further action. Having interceded for a person or situation, it is as if the person or group praying then consigns all further responsibility for action to God. If Hollis' adage that "Prayer changes people, and people change things" is understood as a protest against that attitude, then I agree with the adage. Prayer is not an excuse to do good, love one's neighbor, or care for the earth.
If taken literally, I think the adage may be something of an exaggeration. In order of decreasing certainty, prayer may change things in three ways.
First, praying most assuredly can change the person who is praying. Praying (especially meditative prayer) can focus the attention of the person praying, clarifying thoughts, reducing stress, and shifting focus in positive directions. Numerous scientific studies have documented these benefits. Praying for the well-being of another person can help balance loving self with loving others.
Second, praying for another person (i.e., intercessory prayer) may help the other person. Although nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has conducted a double blind study of prayer, the many less rigorous studies of intercessory prayer tend to suggest a positive association between intercessory prayer and beneficial health outcomes. An ill person's awareness of intercessory prayer offered on his/her behalf tends to strengthen the positive association between intercessory prayer and beneficial health outcomes. The studies that utilize the best methods and analysis acknowledge that correlation is not causation. Psychological factors rather than God's action, for example, may explain the positive association. Of course, those psychological factors do not preclude the possibility of God acting.
Third, God may continuously act upon all aspects of creation. Twentieth century British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead suggested that every aspect of the cosmos is dynamic and that God prehends every individual event, whether a quark (or whatever the smallest element of matter/energy is) or the most complex emergent event (e.g., a human being) in the smallest fraction of time. Whitehead's philosophy is known as process philosophy; process theologians have sought to interpret Christianity in light of process philosophy. In both process philosophy and theology, God's ability to affect the future increases with the complexity of an event. Thus, God may work through prayer to change circumstances, is more likely to change another person through prayer, and is most likely to change the person who is actually praying through that prayer.