Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Limits on prayer

The NT contains several prayer promises of the "you will get whatever you ask for" variety. Since that doesn't happen, that's caused some professing Christians to lose their faith. 

These prayer promises don't state any exceptions. Does that make them deceptive? Is it special pleading to say they take implicit exceptions for granted?

Let's consider some examples:

i) Suppose I'm a high school student. There's a really obnoxious classmate I wish would just go away. So I pray that God zap him out of existence. 

Will God answer that prayer? No. That's a wicked prayer request. 

Suppose a man has a gorgeous wife. I'd like her to leave him for me. So I pray that God will make that happen. 

Is God going to answer my prayer? No. That's a wicked prayer request. 

So there's a whole class of entreaties that are exempted from these prayer promises. 

ii) Suppose I have a wife and kids. I find the demands of family life increasingly burdensome, physically and emotionally. So I ask God to end my life and take me straight to heaven. 

Will God answer that prayer? No. Because that prayer request is in conflict with my Christian duties. I have a prior obligation to care for my family. God won't just zero that out. If I have standing duties, I can't pray for something that contravenes my duty. 

So there's another class of entreaties that are exempted from these prayer promises. 

iii) Suppose I ask God to make me the richest man in the world. Will God answer that prayer?

Aside from the question of whether that's even a suitable prayer, what if someone else asks God to make him the richest man in the world? But there can't be two richest men on earth. To be the richest is to be richer than the next richest. 

God can't answer contradictory prayers even if he wanted to. Not all possibilities are compossible. 

So there's another class of entreaties that are exempted from these prayer promises. 

iv) Suppose I'm on vacation during the Christmas season. I'd like it to snow. A snowy landscape is pretty. A postcard Christmas. A "winter wonderland."

Will God answer that prayer? If I were the only person on earth, God might answer that prayer. But what about people who have to go to work that day? For them, snow might be a big nuisance. Answers to prayer must take competing interests into account. That has to be balanced out. What is good for me may be bad for someone else. 

Likewise, suppose I'm running late for the bus. So I pray that the bus will be delayed for a few minutes to that I won't miss my bus. Will God answer that prayer? 

Not necessarily. If the bus is late, that has a chain reaction. Pushes everything else down a step. That might make someone else late for a job interview. That makes a bad first impression on his prospective employer. If he arrived on time for his appointment, he'd get the job, but now he won't. 

By the same token, suppose I'd like to have a second chance to make up for some lost opportunities. Maybe there was a girl in school I had a crush on, but I let the opportunity slip away. She married another classmate, and had kids by him.

I ask God to send me back in time to that I can fix my mistake. Will God answer that prayer?

No. Even assuming that scenario is metaphysically feasible, my prayer request will impact other people. Do I have the right to change their lives for my personal benefit? She will now be my wife at the expense of the husband in the other timeline. 

Likewise, their kids will never exist. Their kids will miss out. My gain is their loss. In this case, my prayer comes at a cost to others. And they pay a high price. 

So that's another class of entreaties that are exempted from these prayer promises. 

v) Suppose I love my grandmother. I don't want her to die of old age. I pray to God to make her immortal. Will he answer that prayer?

No. God has a preexisting policy on human mortality. God won't answer a prayer that contradicts his own policy. 

So that's another class of entreaties that are exempted from these prayer promises.

I could keep on giving examples, but I think that should suffice to illustrate the point. In some cases, we ought to know in advance that the prayer is inappropriate. In other cases, we don't know what the exceptions are until we pray. 

Prayer promises don't mean the universe revolves around any particular individual. 


  1. The passages that I can think of off the top of my head all have limiting aspects, namely faith. We think that having faith is somehow believing really, really hard, like straining at some mental muscle. It's like the Jedi "faith" that Luke Skywalker doesn't have enough of when he tries to raise his X-wing fighter out of the muck. This is absolutely the wrong kind of notion about faith.

    Faith is trusting God. That seems painfully simple, but there are a couple of aspects about it that are contrary to the Jedi version of faith:

    1. If we have a request based on the trust of what we request rather than on God, we do not truly have faith. So if I ask for million dollars, ultimately I'm trusting that million dollars to meet my need or desire rather than God, who I initially ostensibly trust to give me million dollars.

    2. If we base our fulfillment on the strength of our own Jedi faith, although we happen to ask God for it, we ultimately trust in ourselves rather than God.

    Faith is being able to take "no" for an answer and consider your request fulfilled perfectly.

    So the question then becomes, how do we know that God does anything? We have his Word. Our response to any situation, having made our requests known to God, as long as we have faith, will be that rather than our faith carrying us through, God himself has been faithful to carry us through even if he never gives us something we asked for. That testimony is more sure fulfillment of our purpose as the elect on earth than anything else.

  2. The following are the most well known verses/passages. Many of them have qualifications in the surrounding context. Some of them have qualifications in the verses themselves (the ones with an asterisk).

    Matt. 17:19-20
    Matt. 21:21-22
    Mark 9:23
    Mark 11:22-24
    Luke 17:5-6
    John 14:12-14
    John 15:7*
    John 15:16
    John 16:24
    James 4:2-3*
    1 John 3:21-22*
    1 John 5:14-15*

    John 15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

    James 4:2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

    1 John 3:21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.

    1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

    The qualifications are similar to the ones in the Old Testament. For example:

    Ps. 66:18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

    Prov. 28:9 If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.

    Prov. 15:8 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.

    Ps. 34:15 The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.
    [quoted in 1 Pet. 3:12]

    The Lord and the Apostles clearly expected us to pray with the Old Testament as a foundation in the theology of New Testament prayer.