Thursday, March 06, 2014

On a wing and a prayer

Lydia McGrew and I have been having an amicable exchange of views on a recent post of hers. Here's the comment thread:

steve said...
I think Mt 7:8-11 (par Lk 11:10-13) is an implicit restriction on answered prayer. God will only give good things in answer to prayer. But because Christians often lack the foresight or objectivity to know what is best, they may inadvertently ask for a venomous snake when they thought they were asking for bread. If God were to give us everything we ask for, he'd end up giving us venomous snakes every so often, because, when we pray for our own needs or those of others, we don't allays know the right thing to ask for. Something that's good for me may be bad for you. Something that's a short-term good may be a long-term evil.
Lydia McGrew said...
That's a very good point, but I think it sometimes takes independent reason to trust God to accept that that is always the case when our prayers are not answered. It's easy enough to imagine situations where one says, "What bad could _possibly_ come of releasing that pastor from unimaginable torture in Iran?" or whatever. "How could it possibly be bad for *anybody* if God were to heal this baby of this horribly painful disease?"

In that sense, the issue of unanswered prayer really becomes intertwined with the problem of evil. We as Christians believe that we have enough independent reason to trust God's judgement that we trust that God "has a sufficient reason" for not healing the baby or releasing the pastor when God obviously has the power to do both of those things. And in those cases we usually can only dimly conceive what that reason could be. What we conceive are guesses, and sometimes those guesses may be wrong. This is especially true when we add in the constraint, which I think is justifiable, that God does not simply _use_ people for other ends. So, for example, it can't be a sufficient reason for God not to heal the baby that the suffering of watching the baby die will help to bring someone *else* to salvation. That seems like using the baby as a mere means to an end.

All of this really means, though, that what we are looking for is not so much a solution to the "problem" of apparent promises of answered prayer but rather a solution to the apparent problem of God's allowing evil and suffering. And that translation of the one problem into the other follows from your correct response: God only gives good gifts, so it must be that what you are asking Him to do, that He hasn't done, is not really for everyone's best good.
William Luse said...
Isn't there a passage in which Jesus says that if we have faith enough we can move mountains? I wonder what kind of field day the lab-rat atheists have with that.
Lydia McGrew said...
I imagine that, if they are suave, they say that it doesn't _literally_ mean move a mountain but does mean "accomplish something very difficult" in response to prayer, and then would still ask us to test how often something very difficult was accomplished in response to our prayers.

Now, missionaries (for example) can tell amazing stories along those lines. So if all it takes are some anecdotes of very difficult things happening after prayer, that would be the answer. But the atheist (or just the agnostic inquirer) will then point out that often the difficult (and non-frivolous) thing is prayed for and not received, so the amazing stories will be put down as cherry picking.
steve said...
There are several issues here:

i) Does the experience of unanswered prayer contradict NT promises? Of course, ordinary language often resorts to hyperbole and generalities, so even if all we had were unqualified promises, in the sense of promises worded without any caveats, it would be a wooden abuse of language to assume these must be taken at face value.

ii) However, in the same Gospels which contain unqualified promises, we have statements which implicitly qualify the force or scope of the promises. God will only give good things in answer to prayer. Since, however, Christians will at least occasionally (if not frequently) unwittingly pray for bad things, some prayers will go unanswered. Although we intend to pray for good things for ourselves or others, yet short of omniscience, we can't really predict what's a good outcome.

So my observation was about the consistency of the Gospels with respect to promises about prayer.

iii) And that places the onus on the atheist or apostate. In the case of unanswered prayer, he has to show that the world would be better off had God answered the prayer. That the answer would be good for all parties concerned. And that's a very high burden of proof to discharge. He has to compared the repercussions of God answering a particular prayer to God not answering the same prayer. He has to trace out the respective chain-reaction generated by those two alternatives. And it's hard to see how he can pull that off. Or even come close.

iv) There's the further question of what justifies the Christian in trusting God in the face of unanswered prayer, or apparently gratuitous evils.

v) As for your stricture that God doesn't simply use people for other ends, that sounds very Kantian. I agree with you that God never treats anyone unjustly. However, there are some people in Scripture (e.g. Pharaoh, Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas) whom God seems to use as a means to an end. Their actions ultimately benefit others at their own expense.
steve said...
The accusation of cherry-picking is only probative if what we take to be answered prayer is merely coincidental. They stand out because we ignore or forget all the unanswered prayers. But it's really random. The odds are that every so often, we will apparently get something in answer to prayer.

However, the plausibility of that explanation depends on the details. If some outcomes are too specific, too opportune, too antecedently unlikely, then it's special pleading for the atheist to chalk that up to luck. I don't see that unanswered prayers negate the evidence of amazing anecdotes.

Indeed, could't we turn this around? Suppose most prayers went unanswered. That might mean answered prayers demand a special explanation, precisely because (ex hypothesi) it's so extraordinary.

To take a comparison, if a missile installation has multiple fail-safe mechanisms to prevent accidentally launching a missile, as a result of which that's extremely rare, and if in spite of that, a missile is launched without authorization, then that may well be reason to suspect sabotage. The backup mechanisms didn't simply fail. Rather, someone hacked into the system and overrode the protocols.
Lydia McGrew said...
I'm definitely going to bring it back to Bayes factors. E.g. I've heard a story from a family in ministry of their needing a specific sum of money. When I say "specific," I mean, including cents. As the story was told, they prayed for this sum of money and the next day received it in the mail from a donor who must have mailed it before they prayed for it. The donor said it had seemed that "the Lord was laying it on her heart" to send it.

I would say this clearly has a positive Bayes factor for the hypothesis that God anticipated their need and sent them the exact sum of money by influencing the donor's mind.

The question then is just how positive a Bayes factor it has. For example, how likely was it that this donor would send them _some_ amount of money merely through natural, personal inclination? If so, how probable is it (presumably we could do this merely with some kind of probability measure over a finite set of possible amounts) that the donor would send just _that_ amount by chance?

In general, the negative Bayes factors for the failure of answered prayer are usually going to be weaker than the positive Bayes factors for answered prayer. This is for various reasons, including the fact that God does allow the order of nature to proceed and does interventions mostly as signs. It would certainly be incorrect to stack up "answered prayer" against "unanswered prayer" and merely cross-cancel the numbers. That would be a crude method that fails to take into account that an event can be much stronger evidence _for_ something than the absence of that event is evidence _against_ that conclusion. These things are often asymmetrical.

Which is a wordy way of saying that I agree with you that the cherry picking accusation is not necessarily going to be a knockout. It depends on _what_ apparent answered prayers it is intended to offset.
steve said...
Since atheism is a universal negative (there are no divine answers to prayer), there's also the question of how many well-attested cases of answered prayer one needs to consign falsify atheism.
Lydia McGrew said...
Well, I suppose to be neutral one would have to say *apparent* answers to prayer, but yes...That would depend on the prior probability of atheism. :-)

Regarding God's not treating people as mere means, I'm going to stand by that, while stressing the word "mere." God never treated Judas or anyone else as a _mere_ means to an end. God is not willing that any should perish, but since Judas chose to betray Jesus, God used that sin for great good. That's quite a different matter from saying, "God allowed this infant to die in agony, not for any reason pertaining to the good of the child himself, but in order to bring the parents' to the end of their rope so that they would be saved." _That_ would be using the child as a _mere_ means to an end. Ultimately, though in some way we cannot understand, God must always have _that_ individual in mind in what he allows to come to that individual. Of course, God can _also_ use what happens to that individual for the good of others, but that is on top of whatever plan there is for the individual himself. Judas rejected God's plan for himself.
steve said...
This could quickly become a substantial digression from the main point of your post, so I will just confine myself to a few brief points:

i) Superficial appearances not withstanding, 2 Pet 3:9 is really not about God's benevolence towards humanity in general, but about God's forbearance for Christians in particular. As Richard Bauckham documents in his classic commentary, "God's patience with his own people, delaying the final judgment to give them the opportunity of repentance…for in Jewish thought it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment," Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-13.

So your appeal to this verse is counterproductive to your contention.

ii) The intuitive plausibility, if any, of the Kantian deontological principle (i.e. "act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means") turns, not on the abstract principle itself, but on the use of morally or emotionally appealing examples to illustrate the principle. It seems plausible when we use a plausible illustration. For instance, your example of babies evokes the protective instinct which adults ought to feel towards the young and helpless. But it loses plausibility when we extend that to wicked adults, who are not entitled to the same deference. Substitute an unsympathetic example, and the principle suddenly becomes implausible.
Lydia McGrew said...
Actually, I disagree that the distinction between the wicked adult and the infant is merely that between an emotionally sympathetic and unsympathetic example. The distinction turns on free will and choice. There is every reason to believe that the wicked adult has had and has rejected the opportunity to receive God's grace. It is, moreover, his _chosen action_ which God is using for good despite the wicked adult's intention. Moreover, if the wicked adult were to suffer, this would be either a) punishment, which does not violate the Kantian principle but is, rather, due to the person or b) intended to bring him to repentance, which is for his own good. The infant is not committing some act which God is using for good. Rather, in the example, it is the infant's _suffering_ that is allegedly being allowed for someone else's good. Moreover, since the suffering of the infant cannot be either punishment for his own act nor for the purpose of bringing the infant to repentance, those ways in which the infant's suffering might be construed as oriented _to_ the infant as an individual (not _merely_ for the good of others, even if _also_ used for the good of others) are unavailable.

So I disagree that the example turns merely upon protection and emotion.

My strong suspicion, here, is that our different approaches to this issue arise from the fact that I am not a Calvinist and that (if I recall correctly), you are.
Lydia McGrew said...
I suppose I should also point out that the infant scenario turns on level of consciousness. Any person old enough to understand can profit from suffering through the "vale of soul-making" concept. An infant, it *appears*, cannot do so, because he cannot think and reflect, draw closer to God, and the like, because his mind is insufficiently developed for those purposes.

My own conjecture, which I put forward as a mere conjecture on which very little weight should be placed, is that God may use the "vale of soul-making" purpose for the infant in some mental realm at the moment of death or beyond death. Hence, the infant's suffering in this life may somehow contribute to his wisdom or bliss in heaven when he has been given full mental development as part of the gifts of heaven.
steve said...
A few quick points:

i) When you say "in the example, it is the infant's _suffering_ that is allegedly being allowed for someone else's good," I don't know who's alleging that. It was you, not me, who who introduced that example into the discussion. So you seem to be shadowboxing with someone else. Perhaps this is a carryover from another debate.

ii) That said, it's a tall order to argue that God was ever acting in the best interests of every individual–if that's what you mean. Both in Scripture and history, there's enormous prima facie evidence to the contrary. Of course, appearances are sometimes deceptive, but it's not as if there's a standing presumption in favor of the Kantian principle, which I must laboriously overcome.

iii) True, I'm a Calvinist. Are you suggesting that freewill theism selects for Kantian ethics?

"My strong suspicion, here, is that our different approaches to this issue arise from the fact that I am not a Calvinist…"

Well, nobody's perfect! :-)
Lydia McGrew said...
Sorry to be unclear about "alleging." I'm imagining one _kind_ of attempted answer to, "Why does God not answer our prayers to heal this infant?" That kind of answer says (alleges) that God may be allowing the infant to suffer for the sake of the parents' souls. I'm saying that such an answer seems insufficient. My problem with such an answer is that, while there is nothing wrong with the idea by itself that God uses the infant's suffering for the good of the parents' souls, that cannot be the _entirety_ of God's purpose in allowing the infant's suffering, for that would leave the good of the infant himself entirely out of accounting, treating him merely as a kind of useful tool, not as an eternal being of infinite worth: "Ah, good, here we have a being whom these adults are deeply attached to. A being, moreover, capable of great physical suffering. I shall refuse to intervene to prevent his suffering, because he will then suffer, and that will cause his parents to suffer agonizing emotional trauma, and that will help them to become closer to me." The child's own eternal worth and value is nowhere represented in that scenario, in _that_ as a full answer to the problem. In fact, God's love for the child is nowhere represented.

I'm working on the assumption that it is part of Christian theology that God loves all men whom he has made. Now, that love need not be gooey or sentimental, but what it does entail is caritas--divine love, the relentless desire for the good of the being loved. That is entirely compatible with allowing that being to suffer. What it is not compatible with is leaving the good of that being *out of account* and allowing him to suffer solely for the sake of others.
steve said...
Well, since I don't think the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition is unchristian or subchristian, I don't think it's a part of Christian historical theology (much less exegetical theology) that God loves all men. Rather, that's a subset of those Christian theological traditions which take that particular position. So we will have agree to disagree on that point.


  1. It seems implausible to say that a human being is of "infinite worth." That's surely going to be problematic for a pecuniary view of the atonement (though Lydia may not take that view).

  2. Lydia McGrew said...
    God only gives good gifts, so it must be that what you are asking Him to do, that He hasn't done, is not really for everyone's best good.

    In Scripture God promises to Work all things and to Do all things for the good (I'm not sure of "best") of the elect. There's no promise that God would do the same for the non-elect (whether temporally and [obviously] eternally).

    As a non-Calvinist, it's understandable that Lydia McGrew doesn't even consider the possibility or implications of an infant being non-elect. I personally don't discount the possibility that some infants are non-elect.

    Steve said...
    ii) However, in the same Gospels which contain unqualified promises, we have statements which implicitly qualify the force or scope of the promises. God will only give good things in answer to prayer. Since, however, Christians will at least occasionally (if not frequently) unwittingly pray for bad things, some prayers will go unanswered....

    Exactly. The Lord's point in His analogy is that what appears good to us can sometimes actually be bad given God's knowledge of all the factors involved and His plan for us individually and collectively. In the real world some stones can look like bread. Some snakes can actually look like fish. A scorpion, like an egg is hard on the outside and soft on the inside. But rather than being nutritious, on the contrary, scorpions (like snakes) can bite and kill with poison (Matt. 7:7-11 // Luke 11:9-13).

  3. This issue of God using people as a means to an end came up on Randal Rauser's blog last month:

    His position is similar to Lydia's. You can see my comments there. I don't find it very convincing.

    1. Rauser and Breuer basically posit that their position is true by definition. That's conveniently immunizes their position from refutation. Unfortunately for them, their stipulative definition is begs the very question at issue.

  4. Most Christians know this, but I think it's good to be reminded of the following.

    There are two extremes professing Christians have a tendency to slide toward. Either the extreme of thinking that all things hinge on our prayers, or the extreme that teaches God's sovereignty to such an extent that it virtually makes prayer superfluous.

    A.W. Pink does a great job correcting the former error in chapter 9 of his classic book The Sovereignty of God. Here's the link to Chapter Nine: God's Sovereignty and Prayer

    With regard to the other extreme, here's a short video of John Piper on "Prayer Causes Things to Happen" (or HERE).

    Calvinists rightly believe that whatever happens, to the smallest degree, is positively ordained by God. And even if we speak of God's permission of certain things, we deny that it's a "bare permission". God wills willingly, not unwillingly. Yet, we Calvinists sometimes forget in practice (even if not in thought and theology) that God ordains both the ends and the means, along with ordaining causal connections.

    Which means that SOMETIMES (not always) prayers are not answered because we just didn't pray enough or fervently enough. Or pray properly/correctly . For example, hypothetically speaking, the disciples would have been able to cast out the demon out of the demoniac in Matt. 17:14ff. if they had had enough faith. As I pointed out in other comments (.e.g here):

    "...[I]n God's sovereignty He also orchestrates the causal nexus of means and ends so that secondary causes can affect the degree of an outcome.

    For example, Elisha reprimanded Joash king of Israel for only striking the ground with his arrows 3 times. Elisha said that Joash should have struck the ground with his arrows 5 or 6 times.

    18 And he [i.e. Elisha] said, "Take the arrows," and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, "Strike the ground with them." And he struck three times and stopped.19 Then the man of God was angry with him and said, "You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times."- 2 Kings 13:18-19

    God is sovereign over the quality of our prayers and therefore also their degree of efficacy. Otherwise James 5:16b wouldn't make any sense, "...The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (cf. 1 John 3:22; John 15:7, 16; Ps. 34:15-17; 66:18; 145:18-19; Prov. 15:8, 29; 28:9)."

    1. I think this needs to be emphasized to non-Calvinists because of their strawman representations of what Calvinism entails. Also, emphasized among Calvinists lest we end up being less prayerful than we ought to be.

      Here's a link to Curt Daniel's lecture on "Prayer and the Sovereignty of God." It's from his 75 part lecture series The History and Theology of Calvinism