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.