Thursday, January 09, 2020

Is prayer ethical?

This is another post on the perennial "problem of unanswered prayer". The point of the question is not whether it's unethical to pray. The question, rather, is whether it's unethical for God to make the satisfaction of certain needs conditional on prayer. 

Before proceeding, let's narrow the terms. There are different kinds of prayer: prayers of praise, confession, and thanksgiving. The focus of my little post is on petitionary prayer, and intercessory prayer, which is a subset of petitionary prayer. 

We pray for different reasons. In some cases we pray for reasons of piety rather than necessity. Suppose I get a job offer for a better job in a better town. I pray about it. My acceptance of the offer isn't contingent on my receiving a discernible answer to prayer. If I don't hear back from God (so to speak), I'll take the job. Put another way, I'll take the job unless something comes up. By praying to God, I'm asking God to make the offer fall through if it's a bad idea. 

Likewise, we pray when a loved one undergoes surgery. The prayer may be unnecessary. The surgery might be successful with or without prayer. But maybe prayer makes the difference. It would be presumptuous not to pray just because it might work out anyway. 

Then there are desperate prayers. We pray because we really really need something that only God can provide, for us or for a loved one. The outcome is beyond our human control. 

Why doesn't God just meet the need without making it contingent on prayer? The conventionally pious explanation is that the habit of prayer cultivates an awareness of our utter dependence on God. If our needs were provided for automatically, we'd take it for granted. We'd become presumptuous. But because prayer is a conscious act, it forces us to be conscious of our neediness and vulnerability and reliance on God. 

And answered prayer is a great encouragement. We desperately needed something only God could supply, and God supplied our need! 

That explanation is fine as far as it goes, but does it run aground in the case of unanswered prayer? What happens when God makes the satisfaction of a desperate need conditional on prayer, but then refuses the request? Does the logic still work? 

In a paradoxical way, unanswered prayer makes us at least as acutely aware of our need for divine provision as answered prayer. If anything, it rubs it in. If we don't get what we ask for, the need goes unmet. We really needed something only God could provide, but he declined. So the need remains outstanding. And that's a painful way to experience our hopeless dependence on God. It was something only God could do, he refused, so we're at a loss. It hurts. The inconsolable disappointment. 

Rebuffed. No remedy. Nowhere else to go. No one else to turn to. No other resources to fall back on. That was our only chance.

So we're bereft. But to be bereft reminds us of what it's like to try to make it on our own without God. It's God or nothing. And sometimes we face divine abandonment. We feel deserted at the very time we most needed a sign or answer from God. Yet that's an excruciating reminder of how alone we are in the world, if we were truly in a godless universe. The effect can be spiritually alienating, but it is a way, albeit brutal, to drive the message home. If you don't have God you don't have anything. Because sometimes that's our experience, even as Christians. You wait for something that never happens. The window of opportunity closes. 

There's a certain tension in being a Christian apologist. A Christian apologist may find himself in the position of defending a God who's wounded him or wounded his loved ones. A Christian apologist is not shielded from adversity.

Sometimes life in a fallen world is like a concentration camp. Sometimes the camp is liberated. But sometimes death is the only escape. A shallow, unmarked grave facing this side of the world–with heaven on the other side. 


  1. Jim Elliot and the other missionaries probably prayed that the auca people wouldn't kill them.

    But 60 years later, we can see why that prayer wasn't answered.

    1. Yes, the long-range, retrospective view can dramatically change the significance of an event.