Friday, February 24, 2012

The problem of answered prayer

Is unanswered prayer a problem?

i) To begin with, it isn’t even possible for God to answer all our prayers. And that’s because two people (or even the same individual at different times) can pray contradictory prayers. Two grandsons may pray for their ailing grandmother. One grandson prays that God will heal her while another grandson prays that God will take her. The first grandson prays that God will heal her because he will miss his grandmother if she dies. But the other grandson prays that God will take her becauses he thinks she will be better off to put this life behind her and be with God.

These are mutually exclusive prayers. Answering one cancels out another.

ii) In addition, who lives and who dies generates different future timelines. Say two teenage boys (let’s call them Jim and Tim) suffer life-threatening injuries in a traffic accident.

Both boys have a crush on Jessica. If Tim survives but Jim dies, Jessica will marry Tim. If Jim survives but Tim dies, Jessica will marry Jim. If both die, Jessica will marry John.

If both survive, Jessica will marry Tim while Jim will marry Jane. Each scenario will have a ripple effect down the line. Who lives and who dies will impact other lives down the line. The law of unintended consequences.

iii) Likewise, stopping to have a conversation with someone has a ripple effect. For that slows something down. If you didn’t stop to have that conversation, you and she would get to wherever you two were going a little sooner. And slowing things down has a ripple effect. It affects the timing of other events. One thing can only happen if something else happens at the right time. Like a tightly coordinated subway schedule. If a train is running late, that triggers a chain-reaction.

So God may not answer someone’s prayer because each answered or unanswered prayer generates an alternate future. And God prefers one future over another. (Indeed, God decrees one future rather than another.)

iv) But let’s bracket the issue of incompossible prayers. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God answered every prayer. Suppose he was both able and willing to do that. Would infidels credit universally answered prayer as evidence for God’s?

According to infidels, God doesn’t answer any prayer unless he answers every prayer. They accuse Christians of sampling bias. We only count the hits, and discount the misses.

So suppose we always got what we asked for? Would infidels admit that was evidence for God’s existence?

I think not. If prayer operated with law-like uniformity, if it mimicked a cause/effect relationship, like a chemical reaction, wouldn’t infidels take that as evidence, not that God was answering our prayers, but that we had the mysterious natural ability to cause the outcome?

They’d say this only goes to show that humans have natural psychokinetic powers. It’s now a question of discovering the hidden mechanism.

To say “Goddidit” is a cop-out or science-stopper. There must be some natural explanation. 


  1. Technically in (i), doesn't God actually answer both prayers, one yes the other no?

  2. God can answer one or none, not both.

  3. Why wouldn't you say that God answers one in the affirmative and the other negative?

  4. A "negative answer" is not what we mean by "answered prayer." Of course, we could get into a semantic debate about how to define an answer to prayer. But we still need terminology to distinguish between getting what you ask for and not getting what you ask for. To use the same label for both is uninformative.

  5. "They’d say this only goes to show that humans have natural psychokinetic powers."

    Oh come on! If you called together a press conference, and you asked some seismologists to monitor Mount Everest, and then you commanded it to uproot itself and be cast into the Pacific Ocean, and it did that, even Dawkins would believe there was some transcendant conscious thing causing that. I realize you'd say that this is probably hyperbolic, but the point is it's inaccurate to say that whatever your prayer was, non Christians would resort to "blue pill" excuses in order to deny it.

  6. Actually, they'd probably invoke alien technology.

  7. "If they don't believe Moses and the prophets . . ."

  8. There are two prayers offered by any one person when a request of God is made. The first is the request, the next is the prayer of gratitude for whatever God did anyway. If we didn't ask for something according to God's will, then the mature Christian will thank God for not answering it according to what was asked. God does answer the gratitude after the fact with a deepened relationship.

    The question then becomes not whether God answered our prayer, but whether we truly desire God's will.

    There is a biblical sense in which God uses our prayers as second causes to give evidence to believers of His activity: Mat 7:7ff, Mat 18:19 (in the context of discipline), Mat 21:22, Jn 14:13ff, Jn 16:23ff. The condition of faith is not a dependence on our our own ability to believe with enough certitude, but a dependence on God's ability to give what is best.