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On prayer

June 10, 2010

Philosophically, petitionary prayer is problematic.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem for a lot of people (millions in fact) but it is for me because I am, at heart, a philosopher.

I should clarify what I mean I suppose. The problem centers around the question that if God knows our situations, wants the best for us and is capable of ensuring that, how can petitionary prayer (pray that asks for something) be useful?

  • You can’t draw the attention of an all-knowing God to something he doesn’t know about.
  • If God has the knowledge of what is ‘best’ and the power to make it happen and the desire that it should, why doesn’t it happen regardless of our asking for it?
  • In some cases at least, petitionary prayer would seem to be asking God to change his mind* either about what is best or about how to go about achieving what is best. Can an all-knowing (and presumably therefore always correct) being change his mind?

But I know, because I’ve experienced it, that petitionary prayer works. It’s one of the lessons I’m learning out here. To ask more. Not just for big things like confirmation that I should be here for the whole year and for the money to fund it! But for little things too, things that might seem petty or transient, like for access to a car over the two-week Christmas break, so I wasn’t stranded unable to do anything, or somewhere affordable to stay when I went to Cape Town. All these things have been provided ‘out of the blue’ – after, and I believe as a direct result of, prayer.

For me this raises many questions about the nature of God, the nature of knowledge (the sort of knowledge that God has), the nature of ‘correctness’ and God’s planning, and the nature of free will and the way in which God acts in the world.

I don’t have many answers yet but I’d like to know what you think.

*(for which there is Biblical precedent, which also
raises a lot of questions about the nature of God)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2010 2:15 pm

    1 Kings 8:28
    Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O LORD my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer, which thy servant prayeth before thee to day:

    In a book he wrote on prayer Charles H. Spurgeon said that,

    “Prayer is lifting up our desires to God and hoping that they’re His as well”

    Perhaps prayer can be best understood in the context of a parent/child relationship.

    How much can a parent help a child who is in rebellion?

    Not much, and although it breaks His heart to watch the child suffer He’s focused on what is best for them in the eternal.

    But how much will He bless the child who is walking in His ways and in whom He is pleased?

    Far more than we can ever conceive!

    Malachi 3:10
    Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

    • oneredsock permalink
      June 12, 2010 10:04 pm

      Hi,
      Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time out to comment.

      “Prayer is lifting up our desires to God and hoping that they’re His as well”

      While I think this is an important aspect of prayer, but I also find it problematic – if it’s God’s will as well, then why is it with-held until requested? And what (if anything) does that tell us about the nature of God?

      If we’re to accept the parent/child analogy, I can understand that certain things might be withheld for a later ‘greater’ benefit – but does God punish rebellion also? Or does with-holding blessings count as a punishment? And what about when the consequences of rebellion imapct on other people? How do their prayers for relief impact on God’s decision to act (or not act)?

      • June 12, 2010 11:22 pm

        ” if it’s God’s will as well, then why is it with-held until requested? ”

        It’s not withheld, our agreeing with God in prayer about anything is an act of availing ourselves to the service of His purpose.

        Jesus said…”Not my will Father, but thine be done”

        “And what (if anything) does that tell us about the nature of God? ”

        That He is Sovereign, and that it’s His plans and purpose that will go forward.

        “does God punish rebellion also? Or does with-holding blessings count as a punishment?”

        No! It’s US who punish ourselves by being in rebellion, by being in a position of being unable to receive the blessing God has for us!

        “what about when the consequences of rebellion imapct on other people? How do their prayers for relief impact on God’s decision to act (or not act)?”

        That’s Gods call, but as a perfect parent God’s not going to condone anyone’s rebellion. If anything I’d think he’d turn up the heat in order to have the effect He’s after…(ask Jonah)

        These are simply my belief’s about Who God is and my observations as to how He has, and continues, to deal with me!

        May God Bless You and the work of your ministry!
        Jeff

  2. Steve permalink
    June 10, 2010 5:18 pm

    “But I know, because I’ve experienced it, that petitionary prayer works. It’s one of the lessons I’m learning out here. To ask more. Not just for big things like confirmation that I should be here for the whole year and for the money to fund it! But for little things too, things that might seem petty or transient, like for access to a car over the two-week Christmas break, so I wasn’t stranded unable to do anything, or somewhere affordable to stay when I went to Cape Town. All these things have been provided ‘out of the blue’ – after, and I believe as a direct result of, prayer.”

    Oh dear.
    You know very well that correlation does not imply causation. What you have here are a couple of anecdotal accounts of supposed correlation that you have interpreted as being evidence for the power of petitionary prayer. However, there is nothing beyond your judgement of these events occurring to suggest that they have any causal relationship with prayer. What you have done is that you think you’ve found correlation and you have interpreted this as causation. But there is no reason to link to a petitionary prayer as a cause any more than there would be to the phases of the moon or the pattern of the buzzing of the fly that lives in your larder. In order to establish this, you’d need to test the counterfactual case, which you can’t do in these examples, and which you haven’t done in a wider sense.
    Perhaps you might make more headway if you claimed that these acts had no other possible antecedents – i.e. that they could only have occurred if they were miracles (opening another can of worms, but we’ll discuss that some other time). However, certainly they are not impossible events, requiring divine intervention, but merely unlikely events that worked out happily for you. These do not require remarkable explanations, and any such explanation you choose to give it is just overdetermination. Highly unlikely things happen all the time to atheists and believers alike, simply because lots of things happen. Some ‘good’, some ‘bad’ (which, it itself, is an interpretation). Without any counterfactual proof that the petitionary prayer was a necessary condition for the occurence of the even, you have nothing. But your problems are about to get worse, as not only do all anecdotal accounts lack the counterfactual possibilities that might help to show casual relation, there is a secondary and even tertiary application of interpretation acting before the evidence for simple correlation might be established – i.e. that you are priming yourself continually through you beliefs to favour supernatural causes and ignore the more mundane possibilities; and only in retrospective interpretation do you come to believe that petitionary prayer was covariant. Add to this the notion that the act of prayer is itself an act of psychological focus – if you like, a meditation upon the very thing you crave, likely to enable your mind to pick up significances here and there where it might not otherwise have done – and I’m afraid this belief you have regarding the power of petitionary prayer to effect reality in any significant way is revealed as precisely that – a belief held by you – and nothing more.
    Essentially, I’m not sure that you can even properly establish correlation, but even if you could, this would not provide you with a sufficient condition to claim causation.

    • Mary permalink
      June 13, 2010 9:19 pm

      Steve – while I find your comments very interesting it seems to me that they are also the result of a belief system no matter how “scientific” your comments make it seem.

  3. Mary permalink
    June 13, 2010 9:13 pm

    I don’t think petitionary prayer is as much about God as it is about us. We need to recognise our need and accept that we need His help – that we should stop trying to live in our own strength.

  4. tonyexdruid permalink
    June 14, 2010 1:12 am

    Hey!!

    I guess the important thing to realise here is that we both KNOW that prayer works! We HAVE experienced it. We HAVE faith. And THAT is all that matters in the end.
    Don’t be put off by those who think they can explain it away by other means, eager to draw people away from their belief in God and prayer.

    Hey thats why you, and me, and every other Christian is different. We know Him! but always understanding Him will never be possible!

    Loving your blog my friend, especially the previous one about ‘do it!’

    Best wishes, from TC

  5. Steve permalink
    June 15, 2010 12:34 pm

    Mary (and Tony) – “science” (which I don’t even mention) isn’t my concern here. And any belief system I have is irrelevant. At issue is whether-or-not we can have a strong enough case for instances of petitionary prayer to need to consider the difficulties that Oneredsock elucidated in her opening statement. If there are clear cases, then petitionary prayer is subject to these problems, and they can be considered seriously. However, if there is no compelling reason why we should think that petitionary prayers have been answered, the problems don’t even arise. It is not a question of faith or lack thereof (at least it shouldn’t be). Having faith that there is a God does not mean that you have to take everything at face value just because it happens to be related to religious experience, just as any kind of belief system doesn’t mean that you have to just go with whatever anyone claims about it. As you mentioned science, I’ll use that as an analogy just this once (I generally dislike doing this as it seems to suppose that science and religion are somehow opposed or separate, which I don’t think is true at all) – just because someone happens to believe that the world is warming up due to man-made carbon dioxide doesn’t mean that they have to defend every paper published that gives that result. If the experiments and calculations performed were faulty, then they are right to criticise them.
    Presumably, given that there are a very large number of possible religious practices (from the fairly cheerful party atmosphere of modern ‘evangelical’ churches where people commonly pass out in some sort of rapture, or the pleasant chanting of Buddhists, through the rather bizarre – speaking in tongues, for example – to the outright awful practices of inquisitorial torture or Aztec sacrificial rituals), we have some way of delineating useful practices from ineffective ones. That we might hold to a few particular practices rather than any of the others is at least partially due to a belief that they have some sort of effect (it’s a necessary, rather than sufficient condition); that something happens. It’s inappropriate to treat any important subject with the lack of discipline and seriousness that merely states ‘well, it’s just a matter of opinion’ or ‘well, it just feels right’. I might well feel that I have less chance of having a car accident if, before I ender the vehicle, I unlock and re-lock the door five times then run around it thrice widdershins. Just because I feel that these practices are effective doesn’t mean they are, and it would be quite peculiar of me to insist that they do simply because I have a feeling about it, or that faith in the God means that it has to be right. In truth, faith in God, or lack thereof, make no difference at all in this case. Any reasonable person would ask how the practices help to keep me safe, and if no mundane reason could be found, they’d at least ask for some sort of inquiry as to whether-or-not there was an effect on the safety not just of my driving (I could quite easily be influenced by my own dispositions on the subject) but of driving in general. If it was the case that no discernible effect was found, then presumably I’m wasting my time (time that might be better spent, say, checking my brakes…). If there was, it would be worth telling others that they should adopt the practice, for the sake of road safety. And it doesn’t matter whether-or-not I believe that I have a relationship with God that makes my analysis correct – if I can’t give you any kind account of how what I’m doing is actually doing anything, my explanation is irrelevant. There’s nothing that even requires my explanation.[Just for reference – if anyone does ever find me doing that, please, please, please send me to the doctor. My OCD is playing up again.] I’m not appealing to ‘science’ here, just rigour and examination. I’m just trying to establish whether-or-not something has actually happened, and, unfortunately, anecdotes about things that might well have worked out as they did anyway just aren’t enough. It shouldn’t be enough for anyone – regardless of faith. Faith isn’t about leaping to support a practice just because that person happens to have the same faith as you. If anything, taking your own faith to task on these issues is exactly the kind of thing all people of faith should be doing, to better understand it. The value of faith is in understanding, not in conveniently appealing to mysterious forces as often as possible.
    I’m not saying that a thing such a petitionary prayer isn’t possible – I’m saying that merely feeling that there is a connection between A and B doesn’t mean that there is one. Before we can even discuss whether-or-not the answering of petitionary prayers is compatible with certain notions about the nature of God. Essentially – before there is any need to discuss the consequences of what’s happened, we have to first be happy that something has happened.

  6. oneredsock permalink
    June 16, 2010 2:48 pm

    Hi Steve, Mary and Tony – great to see you here and thank you very much for taking the time to comment.

    @Tony, My friend! It’s so good to see you here! Been a long time (I guess that’s what happens when you move to a different continent🙂

    “We know Him! but always understanding Him will never be possible!”

    That’s true – and I find I have to keep reminding myself of it – if God is God – the extraordinary Being we posit God to be – then it’s highly unlikely we can fully understand the nature, reasoning, knowledge, abilities, etc of God. It’s like expecting a fish to understand those attributes in Stephen Hawking, Didier Drogba and Maya Angelou – only more so.

    @Steve, Yes. You’re quite right, correlation does not imply causation.

    “Without any counterfactual proof that the petitionary prayer was a necessary condition for the occurrence of the event, you have nothing.”

    This is not helped by the claim that no appropriate prayer goes unanswered – an appropriate prayer being one that is in line with God’s will. This seems like a ridiculous qualification for a prayer, since if the event for which one asks is in line with God’s will surely it should happen regardless of one’s request.

    Perhaps this qualification is there because, as Mary suggests, “petitionary prayer is [not necessarily] as much about God as it is about us… [and] our need [to] accept that we need His help – that we should stop trying to live in our own strength.”

    I understand this, but again, it makes me wonder about the natures of God, human beings and our (according to Christianity at least, personal) relationship. Here I am, being a fish again.

    However, the qualification also allows for the believer to claim that any apparently unanswered prayer was simply not in line with God’s will. This feels like a cheap get-out clause and it’s one with which I have long struggled.

    I have felt the improvements in my life when I stop worrying about things and hand them over to God in prayer, but I’m not sure, on further reflection, that this is actually petitionary prayer. A surrendering of events and outcomes to God’s will is not the same as saying “If You want me to stay here for the next 5 months, please give me the rest of the money I need to finance it.” (Again with the get out clause: no money = no will for me to stay?)

    “I’m not sure that you can even properly establish correlation, but even if you could, this would not provide you with a sufficient condition to claim causation.”

    I agree, proof of correlation is problematic, but for the moment I am slightly less concerned with this than with the problems raised by causation. As you say, the fact that many people believe there is correlation (and causation) doesn’t make them right – feelings prove little, and that’s something else I’m going to have to go away and think about. But that same belief leads those who hold it to act in certain ways, and to exhort others to do likewise. Whilst we’ll never get to a position of universal agreement on the efficacy of prayer, I would like to explore the issues it raises, particularly where the theory behind the prayer would appear to offer information about the nature of God that is not wholly consistent with the stated understanding.

    May I suggest we approach from a different angle? If we can say x, y and z about God, then what does that mean for a, b and c? I know this exposes the issue of whether one can indeed say x, y or z about God, but if we’re to move the discussion beyond the first question (which is almost necessarily ‘does God exist?’) then I think this approach might be helpful.

    I would also like to restate point number 2, since it might be more accurate to say:
    “If God has the knowledge of what is ‘best’ and the power to make it happen, it’s happening cannot be contingent on our asking for it to happen, but rather on God’s will for it to happen.”

  7. oneredsock permalink
    June 16, 2010 3:29 pm

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your latest comment. The aspect of prayer that I’m finding problematic is the petitionary element – the notion that we could/should ask God for specific things and they will be granted as a result of our having asked. The implication being that if we had not asked, they would not have happened.

    It might be that this inference is incorrect, that the event would happen even if we didn’t ask for it, but what then is the point of our asking?

    “Jesus said… “Not my will Father, but thine be done”.” I don’t take this to be a prayer of petition (maybe I’m wrong in that) but more of an affirmation of submission.

    Your comment, “as a perfect parent God’s not going to condone anyone’s rebellion” intrigues me. I’m not a parent, but I would hope there would be some rebellion in any children I have (I know – be careful what you wish for!). It is through that ‘rebellion’, the examination and rejection of our parents’ beliefs, that we come to establish our own identities and progress. Not every belief held is rejected, but imagine if Copernicus and Galileo had never rebelled against their parents’ beliefs!

    ps Thanks for the blessing! I hope so to!

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