Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When the cat's away, the mice will play

43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 24:43-51).

i) Unanswered prayer is one reason some professing Christians lose their faith. On the face of it, some NT statements about prayer overpromise and underperform. How do we address the prima facie discrepancy?

ii) Keep in mind that the NT writers who wrote or recorded the promises surely experienced unanswered prayer. I doubt they got everything they prayed for, any more than we do. So even if the language is unqualified, they themselves would have understood there to be implicit qualifications.

iii) Unbelievers claim that examples of answered prayer are the artifact of sample selection bias. We forget all the unanswered prayers and only remember the answered prayers. Given how often we pray, it's statistically inevitable that sometimes we will experience an outcome that dovetails with our prayer. But that's random. What's left over after we discount all the misses. 

iv) Now there's sometimes a grain of truth to that. Some Christians are guilty of wishful thinking. 

However, the primary function of prayer is not to prove God's existence. Rather, its primary purpose is either to ask for something that only God can provide, or to make the outcome contingent on something more than natural probabilities or our own abilities.

That is to say, although there are situations where the desired outcome might be naturally obtainable, that depends on factors over which we have limited control. We pray, in part, to raise the odds (as it were) that it will turn out the way we hope. Not to mention cases where only God can make the difference. 

But prayer isn't designed to furnish direct evidence for God's existence. Rather, that's a side-effect.

v) In addition, the question of whether answered prayer is just luck isn't different in kind from how we generally distinguish coincidental events from intentional events. For instance, although it's astronomically improbable that I will see any particular license plate, it's inevitable that I will see some license plates. If, however, I see the same license plate several times a day when I glance in my rearview mirror, I have good reason to suspect I'm being shadowed. 

Even though some examples which we take to be answered prayer may be ambiguous, that doesn't mean every case is ambiguous. Some examples of answered prayer may resist a coincidental interpretation for the same reason that some other events resist a coincidental interpretation. Indeed, there are obviously situations in which a coincidental interpretation would be willfully irrational. If I keep seeing the same license plate in my rearview mirror, I ought to be suspicious. If it happens once, that's random. If it happens twice (in the same day), that's coincidental. But if it repeatedly shows up, then something funny is going on.

And, of course, some one-time events are clearly by design. You don't necessarily have to multiple instances to up the odds that it's not a random event. A one-of-a-kind event can still be orchestrated. If I return to my home to find the furniture rearranged, I know that didn't happen by accident, even if that's a unique experience for me. 

vi) One reason NT writers don't use qualified language in reference to prayer promises is because the reader is expected to make reasonable allowance for obvious exceptions. 

Some answers to prayer are precluded in advance by God's standing policy. For instance, I can pray that I will stop aging at 25, but God won't answer that prayer because the aging process is part of the curse. That will continue until the Parousia.

Likewise, I can pray that I will never be a victim of crime, but if God has determined that crime will exist in a fallen world, then I can't count on God answering that prayer. Maybe he will protect me, but if he doesn't, that's not surprising. Prayers like that reflect an overrealized eschatology. They conflict with God's plan at this stage of world history. 

In the nature of the case, God will not answer prayers which conflict with what he has determined to be the case. And there are certain kinds of situations where that's predictable. 

vii) On a related note, two or more answered prayers have the potential, in principle, to generate conflicting consequences. Many prayers may go unanswered for the simple reason that the answers must be coordinated to avoid a train wreck down the line. 

To take a humorous example, Alec Guinness made a comedy (The Captain's Paradise) in which he played a bigamist. Because his job required him to ferry back and forth between Morocco and Gibraltar, he took advantage of the situation by having two different wives at respective ends on his round trip. That only worked so long as he could keep that separate, keep each secret from the other. But eventually they began to bleed into each other. 

In many cases, answered prayer can't be compartmentalized. Hence, only prayers are answerable that are mutually consistent with God's plan for the future. 

viii) Finally, there's the studied absence of God. Take the Bible text I quoted at the top of the post. Passages like that are classified as "the delay of the Parousia." But there's another way of viewing them. 

To some extent, God acts like an absentee landlord. Why? It's a test of faith. How will you behave when you think there's no God who's monitoring your actions? It's easy to be faithful when you think God is watching you. A truer test of fidelity is how you act when the supervisor is out of sight. 

How do people act when they begin to doubt God's existence? When they doubt the supervisor will return? 

If, however, God routinely answered prayer, then there'd be no real correlation between faith and fidelity. If you have continuous evidence that the security camera is rolling, you will behave yourself. But how you behave during a power outage, when the security camera is dead, is what truly reveals your character and commitment. 

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