Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Perils of prayer

Some Christians believe God always answers prayer. That creates a conundrum in face of apparent experience to the contrary. So they propose explanations that harmonize their belief with disappointing reality. 

Their explanations, while pious and well-meaning, amount to special pleading. The problem is that special pleading is only persuasive if you happen to be in the mood to suspend disbelief. But ad hoc explanations make it more likely that a professing Christian will suffer a crisis of faith or lose his faith when events grind him into the dirt. At that point he no longer has the patience to entertain ad hoc explanations.

1. God always answers prayer–yes or no

i) At one level that's a semantic quibble. "Unanswered prayer" is a conventional designation. In customary usage, to say "your prayer went unanswered" is synonymous with "God didn't grant your prayer request". 

If the objection is just rhetorical, that's not a hill to die on. You can put it however you like, but I reserve the right to my own preferred usage. 

ii) But at a deeper level, there's no practical or discernible difference between no answer and a "no" answer. 

2. God hasn't answered your prayer…yet!

i) On this view, it's not yes or no but wait. And there are situations when that's the right explanation. God defers some answers to cultivate faithful patience. Not now but later.

ii) But it's inadequate as a general explanation. For one thing, some prayers have deadlines. And it's not a case of dictating to God when he must answer our prayer. We didn't impose that deadline on God; rather, we find ourselves up against a deadline. 

After the deadline, the prayer request is moot. At that juncture it's too late to make a difference. We passed the last exit. 

iii) Given enough time, some problems automatically resolve themselves. There can be the suspicion that this would have happened anyway, whether or not we prayed. That the outcome was in answer to prayer may be less recognizable. But it depends on the details. 

3. God answered after all…in a different way!

i) There are situations in which that's true. In the nature of the case, we pray for what we think is a good solution, but a better solution may not even occur to us because our imagination is limited, or because, when we're in the thick of things, we lack the detachment to think clearly. 

Sometimes God answers prayer in a way that's unexpected. Different, but richer and better than what we could envision at the time. 

ii) But that's inadequate as a general explanation. For instance, you had people who were sure God was going to heal Nabeel Qureshi. And after he died, they exclaim: "God did heal him. Just a different kind of healing. He went to heaven. All's well that ends well."

But that's equivocal. Nabeel and his intercessors pleaded for physical healing. Prayed that he be spared death by cancer. To pray that he not die, then say his death was an answer to prayer, is a bait-n-switch. That's the polar opposite of was prayed for.

iii) That makeshift explanation is counterproductive because it can make people cynical of prayer in general. It's spiritually hazardous to interpret any outcome as consistent with the original prayer request because that makes a prayer-answering God indistinguishable from no God at all. To say whatever happens is an answer to prayer, to say an outcome that's diametrically contrary to you prayed for is an answer to prayer, makes experience interchangeable with a random universe. Unless there's a recognizable correspondence between the request and the result, there's no practical distinction between praying and not praying. 

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