Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Genie in a bottle

The so-called problem of unanswered prayer is a perennial issue in apologetics and pastoral theology, which is why I revisit this topic every so often. I've offered a number of explanations for why God doesn't always (or even regularly) answer prayer. Let's consider two more explanations:

i) If God always answered prayer, that would include answering prayers for things we can do on our own. But that would trivialize prayer.

ii) If God always answered prayer, or if there is just an overwhelming correlation, even if it wasn't invariable, the church would be flooded with people who were attracted to Christianity for the wrong reason. They's simply be motivated to get whatever they ask for. God as a bottled genie. 

But that's not a proper motivation to be a Christian. No repentance. No heavenly-mindedness. If God answers prayer somewhat sparingly, that prunes away people like Simon Magus. That shakes off fair-weather believers. 

I'm not suggesting that's a complete explanation for unanswered prayer. But there's probably no one explanation. 


  1. I realize that this may just be semantics, and I'm not the first to note this- but to call it "unanswered prayer" is quite inaccurate. God answers our prayers, even if the answer is "no" or "not now, but wait a while." I'm not trying to be pedantic, I think that terminology poisons the well.

    1. David,

      That's a good point. While we can say Steve is referring to prayers going 'unanswered' in respect to the *wishes* of the one praying, your point is indeed a needed corrective to the unbeliever - and even some Christians - who assumes that a prayer not answered in the affirmative is an 'unanswered' prayer by the non-God, or the God who ignores prayer.


      I've read your last two relevant posts and not seen you mention this, but I think you have addressed it before, and that's the issue of contradictory outcomes. For example, say I go for two job interviews. I really want one of the jobs and am not too keen on the other job, but being a good job seeker I have kept my options open. So I pray that God gives me the job I am after. But say my mother thinks the other job is better for me, and prays that God give me that job instead of the job I want. At the very best, one prayer will go 'unanswered.'

    2. I agree that the distinctions of God's answers of 1. "yes", 2. "no", 3. "wait/not now/keep praying" is totally legitimate. The phrase is understood to mean "not granted in the affirmative". In that sense it's fine to use the phrase. Though atheists like to abuse the phrase in a question begging way as if it's evidence that God doesn't exist. That's why I personally don't use the phrase (or without qualification).

    3. I wrote: The phrase is understood to mean "not granted in the affirmative"

      I was referring to the phrase "unanswered prayer".

  2. In all honesty another cause of unanswered prayer is unbelief. We rightfully should be cautious about employing this solution because it can be pastorally demoralizing to believers and is ridiculed by unbelievers (including atheists). But I do think it is a legitimate aspect to the reality of prayers that aren't granted in the affirmative.

    As a Calvinist I don't believe we can change God's decree. However, as a Calvinist who is also a continuationist, I also believe God has made faith such a priority in His dealings with human beings that faith can override (so to speak) God's revealed will. Though, of course it would ultimately be in accordance with God's will of decree.

    I have independently come to very similar conclusions that Vincent Cheung has on prayer and faith. See for example his article Faith Override. Though, I wish he wasn't as condemning of those who haven't come to the same conclusions (as yet).

    1. Admittedly encouraging people to have faith in God for the supernatural could foster a false hope and result in great disappointment, but if God's standard and expectation is faith for the supernatural and we don't attempt it, aren't we being disobedient? Also, wouldn't we be "denying" God the opportunity to sovereignly say "no"? Doesn't God have the right to disappoint us? Often, we're so afraid of God's answer of "no" that we don't persistently ask (or ask at all). Often because subconsciously we would interpret it as rejection of ourselves (i.e. of our persons) rather than merely our requests.

      Nevertheless, in principle, "all things are ours" (1 Cor. 3:21-22) and "all the promises of God in [Christ] are 'yes' and in Him 'amen'" (2 Cor. 1:20). Cheung makes some good points in his blogposts (IMO) HERE and HERE.

    2. George Muller wrote: "It is not enough to begin to pray, nor to pray aright; nor is it enough to continue for a time to pray; but we must patiently, believingly continue in prayer, until we obtain an answer; and further, we have not only to continue in prayer unto the end, but we have also to believe that God does hear us and will answer our prayers. Most frequently we fail in not continuing in prayer until the blessing is obtained, and in not expecting the blessing."

      This blogpost is on UNanswered prayer. Here's an example of an answered one. The following is a link to Duane Miller's radio testimony on Focus on the Family about 22 years ago. He shares how God miraculously healed his voice on tape while he was discussing God's sovereignty in healing. I heard the about 20 years ago. I'm glad to have found an online copy at the following link:

      Duane Miller's Healing

    3. Duane Miller's healing is caught on audio tape. It's played after the interview by Dr. Dobson.