Saturday, April 01, 2006

Does prayer make a difference?

Continuing my little thread on intercessory prayer in light of the recent Harvard study, I’d first draw attention to a post by an Evangelical Aussie.

i) Our friend from Down Under draws attention to the fact that the sample group of prayer warriors was recruited from non-Evangelical churches.

This is hardly a representative sampling.

As I said before, prayer is not unconditional. Scripture doesn’t promise that just anyone will get anything he prays for.

ii) In addition, prayer is not like a vending machine where you feed your nickels and dimes into the machine, push a button, and out comes the selection.

Christian prayer is not a mechanical exercise governed by natural laws. Rather, prayer is a dialogue between divine and human persons.

iii) We would not expect God to answer every prayer request for the obvious reason that we often do not know what’s best for us.

Once you get to be a certain age, you play the mental game of asking yourself what you’d do differently if you had it all to do over again.

Every halfway wise adult has certain regrets. He can see, with the benefit of hindsight, that many of the choices he made, which seemed to be perfectly good choices at the time, turned out to be shortsighted and foolhardy.

Always getting what you ask for is not a good thing. Part of being a friend is to sometimes say “no” to a friend.

Prayer is not a brand of borrowed omnipotence. God’s omnipotence is not on loan, to rubberstamp our every whim.

The idea of plugging omnipotence into a fallen and fallible creature is something out of a horror movie.

iv) What is the apologetic value of prayer, if any?

The primary purpose of prayer is not to prove the existence of God. That is, at most, an ancillary value.

The Christian experience of prayer goes something like this:

a) There are prayers that go unanswered. At least, they seem to go unanswered.

b) There are prayers that seem to receive a negative answer.

c) There are also prayers that seem to receive a positive answer.

Because we most often prayer for very ordinary things, answered prayers may also seem to be very ordinary.

If you were a sceptic, you could attribute such “answers” to simple coincidence.

This is one reason that prayer is an act of faith instead of sight.

A Christian doesn’t take everything on faith, but he does take some things on faith.

An answer corresponds to the object of the request. If you prayer for something very mundane, the answer will be very mundane.

d) Even at this mundane level, there is a cumulative pattern. Taken by themselves, one at a time, you could dismiss many answered prayers as sheer coincidence.

Yet over time, they do add up. If a Christian were to keep a diary, he would begin to see a subtle pattern emerge, a pattern not discernible from the individual outcomes, taken in isolation.

But because most of us don’t keep a diary, because our prayers are for such ordinary, ephemeral things, we tend to forget our prayers, especially when the thing we prayed for no longer poses a problem. Once the problem is past, we no don’t remember the problem or the prayer.

Life goes on. New petty problems take the place of old petty problems. So many answered prayers fade into the woodwork of a short-term memory.

v) Prayer is just one element in God’s providential care of the Christian. Again, because our lives are so ordinary, God’s providence doesn’t necessarily stand out in bold relief.

Yet the longer a Christian lives, the more he is able to discern the hidden hand of providence guiding his life every step of the way. In retrospect he sees how God saved him from one calamity after another.

Life is like a narrow winding path along a cliff. And we walk it in the dark. One misstep and you’re dead.

At the end of life, as the Christian looks over his shoulder, by the rising light of immortality, he can see that long, treacherous, circuitous route—from start to finish.

He can see how often along the way he would have slipped or stumbled and tumbled over the cliff. He can see how God gently took him by the hand and led him all along the journey.

This is the argument from experience. In the nature of the case, its apologetic value is limited to the insider. But as with any personal experience, that doesn’t make it any less genuine.

vi) Finally, there are remarkable answers to prayer. Prayer for remarkable things, which give rise to remarkable answers.

Some Christians go through life without any remarkable answers to prayer. They live unremarkable lives with unremarkable problems.

Other Christians do, on rare occasion, receive remarkable answers to prayer. Because they may face a remarkable challenge, they may receive a remarkable answer.

While still other Christians have this experience on a more frequent basis. A lot depends on the circumstance in which the Lord has placed you. If you lead a very smooth, ordinary life, it comes as no surprise if you enjoy a very ordinary level of spiritual experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But unlike ordinary answers to prayer, considered in isolation, such extraordinary answers to prayer cannot be chalked up to pure coincidence.

vii) Of course, the evidence for ordinary and extraordinary answers alike is anecdotal. For life is anecdotal. No life is like another.

Every individual Christian has an experience of God which is, in some respects unique, and in other respects a thing he shares in common with his fellow believers.

Prayer is akin to history instead of science. Science is the study of the universal, but history is the study of the particular.


  1. We have no reason to expect a modern study of prayer to produce evidence of answered prayers. It could produce such evidence, but nothing in the Christian concept of prayer requires that every study of a group of people will result in discernable answers to prayer. As Steve has suggested, the historical evidence we have for answered prayer can't be overturned by any modern study. If God works in the life of an Elijah, a Paul, or a George Muller through prayer, then we have evidence for God answering prayer, even if a recent study of a group of people in the modern world doesn't produce the same results. Roger Steer writes in his biography of George Muller:

    "It would be foolish to claim that the events of Muller's life constitute scientific proof either of the existence of God, or, if He exists, of His willingness or ability to answer prayer. It is the view of the author, however, that what Muller described as 'the Lord's dealings' with him constitute - not proof of these things - but evidence which deserves to be taken seriously." (Delighted in God! [Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1981], p. 382)

    There have been people in history who have received significant, publicly discernable answers to prayer. But we have no reason to expect that to happen in the life of every person who prays.

  2. Great article. I think Christian Pastors often mislead their people into thinking prayer is a cure all.
    I've heard pastors say prayer moves mountains or has atomic power. This
    always seemed silly to me because I never saw the mountains move or the mundane problems people face on a daily basis solved through prayer. I think we need a new way of looking at prayer. I came out of the word of faith movement and prayer was viewed
    as a formula. I saw people lose faith in God because they didn't get their prayers answered.
    On the surface I understand why baby Christians lose faith when prayers are not answered because they think life is about them and not about God. In many ways prayer is a terrible apologetic for God because we all know most prayer does go unanswered because people have been taught a false view of prayer and God.