Thursday, September 07, 2006

Answers to Prayer

Over the summer, I've had some pretty cool answers to prayer. For example, I knew that I needed to sell my house, and that it would take about 6 weeks to get all the legal faffing sorted after selling it. This gave me two weeks to sell it. I prayed about it. How long did it take to sell? Two weeks.

I needed to pass my driving test. There was a small problem. I didn't really think I was ready. My instructor didn't think I was ready. And I was taking the test in a ridiculously heavy rainstorm, it having been dry through all my lessons. I'd prayed about it. I passed.

The question is this: Why am I so reluctant, when talking to non-Christians, to say that these are direct answers to prayer?

If I wanted to blame other people, the obvious people to blame would be those nutcases who say "If you send me £20, I will post you a cloth I've blown my nose on and prayed over, and it will make you better" or the many fake or psychosomatic accounts of healing. I'm not saying there aren't genuine healings out there - I'm pretty sure there are. But the dodgy ones give the whole area a bad name.

Another group I might try to blame is the people who ascribe every little thing to answered prayer. "The bill at the shop came to £5.73, and you'll never guess how much change I had in my purse. It was a real answer to prayer - I didn't have to use that ten pound note." The issue here isn't triviality - I'm sure that God does care about every little detail of our lives and is quite capable of making sure we have the exact change - it's pointlessness and high probability of coincidence. Even making naive assumptions about money, you'd expect to have enough change not to go into the next pound up at least 50% of the time, and the chance of having the exact change is only around 1 in 100 - you'd expect it to happen once every few weeks. So claiming it's a direct act of God (in a way that it isn't if you'd had 10p over), when there's no real purpose to it and it didn't actually help you much is silly. It makes people think that "God" is just the name that you give to coincidences.

The pointlessness thing is also important. God is not a slot-machine God. We don't pray and then get whatever we pray for. God is the all-powerful, all-wise creator of the universe. He doesn't exist merely to give us whatever we want. God's purpose is glorifying his name. The point of prayer is largely to submit ourselves to God and to rely on him for everything we need in following him. That's partly why I'm sure that me passing my driving test and selling my house were in response to prayer. Realisitically, those things needed to happen when they did so that I can go on this course to train to be a minister in the C of E. I'm pretty sure that's exactly what God wants me to be doing, so he will make sure that it happens.

So why do I find it difficult to tell non-Christians that it's answered prayer? Is it because stuff like I've discussed above has so messed up their conception of prayer that they think they understand it but really don't? Is it because I'm somehow embarrassed? Is it because I don't want to get into an argument about why God never answered their prayers for a pony (or whatever)? Probably a bit of all of them.


Anonymous said...

The reason I don't believe prayer works is, uh, yeah, a little thing called coincidence. Plus the human tendency to attribute what they see as the positive outcomes to "answered prayers" while the negative outcomes are ascribed to "God had other plans for me" or "the time wasn't right" or any number of other rationalizations. The fact is that if you keep careful track of the "results" for any extended time it turns out about what you'd expect simply by chance. As for things that you have control over, such as driving tests - well, you DO have control over the outcome all by your own self.

And also, the fact that millions of children under the age of 5 die of starvation-related causes every year kind of makes me not believe in prayer. I have a little trouble envisioning a loving powerful deity who answers your prayer to pass a driving test but who lets thousands of children die needlessly every day.

I know, I know, they just didn't "believe" hard enough, or in exactly the right way or something along those lines.

Oh, and you'll notice how prayer never results in actual demonstrable miracles, despite the claims in the Bible. Like, mountains moving, or people regrowing amputated limbs. The results are always, always, always things that could have happened naturally.

John said...

I know, I know, they just didn't "believe" hard enough, or in exactly the right way or something along those lines.

That, right there, is one of the horrible, rubbish lines that gets spread around, and that makes me think I didn't write my piece clearly enough. Prayer is not about us getting God to do stuff for us. God is God - the all-powerful creator of the universe. He doesn't exist to serve us.

Anonymous said...

In which case, why do you maintain that on the day you passed your driving test, god allowed thousands of children to die of starvation related causes?

You really think god couldn't pay attention to those children? No, he's omniscient, so he could surely multitask. So they deserved it somehow? Or what? It's all mankind's fault? Well, yes, it is, but then what good is god if his manifestations take the form of getting you your driving license while allowing millions of innocent children to die every year.

The problem from evil DOES disprove the existence of a loving omnipotent god.

Anonymous said...

And you never answered why God never heals amputees?

John said...

I've made a (somewhat hasty) start at answering the "problem of evil" here.

The amputees question will come up in my series on miracles - answering it does need a bit more shared ground than there is at the moment in terms of establishing what miracles are and what the Christian expectation of them is.

Part 1 of the series is here, though it's mostly a technical word-study of how the words translated "miracle" are used in the Bible.

Daniel Hill said...

"The bill at the shop came to £5.73, and you'll never guess how much change I had in my purse. It was a real answer to prayer - I didn't have to use that ten-pound note."

I think you're too harsh on the person that says this, Custard. We not only know that God is capable of looking after the small things, but we know that he does work all things for the good of those that love him (Romans 8:28, in one translation anyway). `All things' here surely includes change, and, if God has got the person to pray about it, and has also got them the change that he had got them to pray for, surely it's most reasonable to say that this is an answer to prayer?

John said...

I don't doubt that God can do it, or that he would if there was need. My point was that it wasn't really much more convenient at all for the person to be able to pay in coins.

How does that glorify God more than normal? Especially if it only happens 1 time in 100.

Daniel Hill said...

If the very hairs of our head are numbered (Luke 12:7) then I'm sure God can and does fix our change for us if it is at all helpful. He fixes everything anyway and everything he does in our lives is for our good: we shouldn't depise even small graces.

John said...

Let me try to make this very clear.

Should we thank God for it, if it means something to us? Absolutely.

Should we go telling other people that it encouraged us, if it did? Yes.

Should we go claiming that it was a specific answer to prayer (especially if it was not - I've never known people pray specifically for that)? Probably not.

Should we use the 1 in 100 case , happening that one time out of 100, as evidence for God's continued care for us? No - by using a poor argument we make God look stupid. We can use it of evidence of our gratitude to God in everything, but shouldn't claim it was more than his normal providential care unless it was in response to a specific need or specific prayer.

Daniel Hill said...

Custard, you write:
"Should we go claiming that it was a specific answer to prayer (especially if it was not - I've never known people pray specifically for that)"
Of course, I agree that we shouldn't if it wasn't. But I was assuming that you were talking about prayer that had actually been made when you wrote in the initial post:
"Another group I might try to blame is the people who ascribe every little thing to answered prayer."
I had assumed that these people were actually praying. My comment was this: if somebody has actually prayed and God has actually done what was being asked for in the prayer then it is quite reasonable to say that God answered the prayer. This goes for big things and small things alike, and I think it's fine to pray about the small things as well as the big things. I also agree that this shouldn't be used as evidence or an argument, but then I wasn't talking about that, just about thanking God for answered prayer and encouraging others along those lines.

John said...

I think we're pretty much agreed.

I guess there's also a seperate thing here as to what we should pray, but that can wait for another time.