The quote “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays” encapsulates a nuanced perspective on the role and purpose of prayer in human life, one that diverges from the transactional or utilitarian view that often dominates popular understanding.
In a transactional view, prayer is often seen as a form of spiritual bartering. You ask God for something—a job, a cure, a miracle—and in return, you offer faith, good deeds, or penitence. But Kierkegaard’s perspective on prayer is different; it’s less about changing God’s will and more about transforming the individual who is praying.
According to Kierkegaard, the true value of prayer lies in its capacity to change the person who engages in it. This transformative process occurs as one becomes aware of one’s own limitations, inadequacies, and dependencies. In turning toward something greater, more eternal, and fundamentally unknowable, the person praying may find a form of existential grounding that changes their outlook, attitude, and perhaps their actions in the world.
Prayer, in this understanding, can deepen humility, foster gratitude, engender patience, and fortify resolve. It can act as a profound form of existential engagement, a confrontation with the mysteries, paradoxes, and uncertainties that characterize human existence. Kierkegaard suggests that prayer can help reconcile us to the limitations of our human condition, affirming the need for faith in navigating a complex and often inexplicable world.
Kierkegaard, being an existentialist, places high value on the individual’s personal experience and sense of meaning. In his view, prayer is not so much a communal or doctrinal exercise as it is an individual act that reflects a personal relationship with the divine. Through this personal dialogue, one not only seeks to understand God but also gains deeper insights into oneself.
So, when Kierkegaard says that the function of prayer is not to influence God but to change the one who prays, he’s emphasizing the personal transformation and introspection that can come from such a deeply existential act. This change is not superficial but pertains to the ‘nature’ of the individual, implying a transformation that has depth and affects one’s fundamental understanding of themselves and their place in the cosmos.