More Problems with Prayer

My last post took a very narrow example of petitionary prayer as presenting a possible problem for an understanding of providence and foreknowledge called Molinism. I’m still trying to wrap my cranium around Molinism, but as I understand it, one of the alleged advantages of this view is that it makes more sense of the rationale behind petitionary prayer than, say, Calvinism. Moreover, it does so while maintaining a strong view of divine providence unlike, say, Open Theism. For my part, I don’t see how any of these views really helps.

One of the first aspects of Christian practice I lost my grip on back when I was an earnest, young Christian was petitionary prayer. First, there was the seeming ineffectiveness of it. I don’t want to go into this in detail here. Suffice it to say that no empirical study so far has shown any advantage to prayer in medical contexts. Some have argued that one can’t really study prayer with a double blind test, because we can’t assume that those in the control group aren’t being prayed for. Also, such studies assume that God will participate in the study. Let’s assume that someone in the control group is being prayed for, unbeknownst to the study’s designers. Are we supposed to assume that God will say, “Sorry, can’t help. I have to protect the integrity of this study!” Perhaps there is something to this point.

However, most of my evidence as a young man came from experience rather than scientific studies. I would notice that prayer was often ineffectual, i.e. the event prayed for did not occur. This also seemed to be more or less acknowledged by the faithful at my church, at least to the point that they felt the need to offer rationalizations for this fact. Most of these rationalizations appealed to the will of God. Perhaps the prayer requests were not in line with the will of God, perhaps we had not correctly perceived the will of God, etc. But this seemed to sap most of the rationale out of the very concept of prayer. If God is going to do what God wills anyways, why bother to pray? Some of the faithful would say things like “prayer is a matter of disciplining your own will so that it aligns with the will of God.” The idea seemed to be that while prayer didn’t effect outcomes, it was beneficial to the person doing the praying. It enabled us to be ‘co-laborers’ with God in accomplishing his purposes. However, from a practical standpoint, isn’t part of the purpose of prayer to effect outcomes? What does it look like in practice to pray for someone who is sick if one ascribes to this divine blueprint theology? One presumably prays for the person to recover, assuming that it’s God’s will. Perhaps one might believe that even though the sickness is part of the divine plan, God’s ultimate plan is to heal the person and thus bring greater glory to God. But in such cases, one is still essentially praying for an outcome that is, in effect, foreordained. God has either willed that the person recover or not. If God has willed it, it may appear that he has acted in ‘response’ to prayer, but this appearance is largely illusory.

This problem is perhaps especially acute in Calvinist theology. In Calvinism, God creates and providentially orders the world in a completely unconstrained way. Everything that happens does so for God’s glory. This includes the Fall, sin, and the Atonement. Calvinism implies compatibilism with respect to finite human wills. Although we are culpable for sin because we freely (in a compatibilist sense) desire it, ultimately, it was God’s will to have sin enter the world. The Fall is a fortunate event — felix culpa — insofar as the glory of God is magnified through the act of Redemption. I’ve tried to describe this view as sympathetically as possible. I hope the reader can see that there are serious problems for theodicy upon a Calvinist interpretation. Nevertheless, I don’t want to stray too far from the main point, which is that on Calvinism, God’s will is completely unconstrained by finite wills. Prayer in this context, doesn’t make much sense to me because there is no chance of any finite human will changing God’s will or beseeching him to act any differently than he has planned. The best we can do is bring our will into submission to the will of God. Any outcome that seems to result as a ‘response’ to prayer is just the synchronicity of our willing the same outcome as God. It is not the case that we have positively effected God’s will or the outcome that has been predestined. As such, it seems that so-called ‘answers’ to prayer are illusory.

It’s sometimes suggested that Molinism can solve this problem. In Molinism, God also exercises a great deal of providential control over the world, but his providential control is constrained by the free actions of finite persons and even the counter-factuals of those free choices. In other words, God selects among the possible worlds the best one to actualize, but he is constrained — he cannot create just any world he wants — by the free actions of creatures. God even knows — through ‘middle knowledge’ — what free creatures would do in other possible worlds, or counter-factual situations. This is supposed to give the Molinist an advantage with respect to the problem of evil: God could not guarantee that free creatures would not sin, and therefore that kind of world was not available for God to create. For all we know, every possible world containing free creatures also contains evil. This contrasts with the Calvinist view, which seems to suggest that had God wanted to, God could have created a world without evil. However, he chose to create a world containing both sin and redemption in order to maximize his glory. Again, we’ll have to set aside this issue and return to the subject of prayer. The alleged advantage of Molinism in this context is that it allows God to providentially order the world in such a way that he genuinely acts some of the time in response to prayer. God knows, for example, whether a prayer will be offered or not, and can in some cases providentially arrange to act as a result of the prayer being offered. On this view, God’s will can be moved by finite human wills. However, it still seems as though saying that a human will moved God to respond to prayer gets the explanation backwards. After all, God has providentially ordered the world such that the prayer will be offered and that he will answer it. God, in choosing to actualize this particular world, has already in effect decided what the outcome will be. For all of its fancy theological footwork, I’m not convinced that Molinism solves the practical problem of petitionary prayer any better than Calvinism.

The last option is Open Theism. On this view, God doesn’t know the future with certainty because the future is not available to be known, even to an omniscient being. There are a lot of metaphysical assumption lurking here, but I will have to let those pass. According to Open Theism, God takes a genuine risk in creating the world. Open Theism is, again, thought to make better sense of the problem of evil because one can straightforwardly appeal to the free will defense without having to worry about the consequences of God’s foreknowledge or predestination. It also allegedly makes better sense of the practice of prayer because God can genuinely act to effect outcomes in response to the pleas of finite creatures. However, Open Theism, in reacting to Calvinism and (to a lesser extent) Molinism, may go too far in the other direction. For Open Theists, God does not have total control over the future. God, we are told, will prevail in the end, but his will is, at least sometimes, overly constrained by the will of finite creatures. Such a God may be less able to effect a positive outcome than a God who exercises more providential control over the world. For practical purposes, then, one needs some assurance of God’s control over the future before one can place trust in God or have confidence in the efficacy of prayer. So, I’m not sure Open Theism succeeds either.

P.S. One may wonder why a non-theist like me is interested in this subject. As I say in the post, I was once a Christian and I still think about many of the philosophical and theological problems that occupied me as a Christian. Part of the purpose of this blog is to process the reasons I no longer believe. Because prayer is such a central practice for Christians (and other theists), it’s one of the first issues I began to think about seriously. Ironically, my study of the theology of prayer undermined my rationale for the practice of prayer. Pretty soon, I wasn’t putting any stock in the efficacy of prayer to effect the outcome of events. I no longer believed in prayer. In other words, I became a practical atheist. This was arguably a first step in my journey toward a more fully articulated philosophical atheism. Perhaps I’ll post more by way of memoir in the future. I’m still trying to find the ‘tone’ of this blog. Early on, I tried some posts in a more editorial style, but I don’t think that’s my strong suit. I’ll probably continue to mainly write essay-style posts in future, but some variety might be nice. I welcome thoughts from readers — all three of you 😉 — on what you’d like to see in future.



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5 responses to “More Problems with Prayer

  1. Hello Dude Ex Machina,

    I am holding a Reformed view(which includes Calvinism) but do not see the problem with prayer.

    1. I believe there is nothing called unanswered prayers. I moved from Arminianism to Reformed as I understood that God is in Heaven and does what He pleases. God is a free agent, and his sovereign(not desired) will is always done. He answers all prayers, the problem is, we expect Him to answer according to our will. If Jesus on Earth, as God-man, got a no/silent when asking for another possible way than the Cross in his last prayer, what make me think that God will answers my prayer as I will. We simply do not like a no or a silent. If God heals, He heals, if He does not, He does not, it is His own choice. Only the god of our own making will do as we ask him to.

    2. If God foreordained P, then He does also foreordain the means to which P is achieved namely p. Thus if God foreordained that John will be healed, then He also foreordained John to pray as a means to his healing. So I believe, Ex Machina, if God foreordained P, then p is necessary and make senses thus not an illusion.

    I believe Dude Ex Machina you ought to understand Calvinism position, the the so call “TULIP” from its original source(Canons of Dort) and its context. I discover that many Christians(me included when I were Arminian) and non-Christians fail to understand the fives responses to Arminians in their right contextual ground.

    Thank you for a wonderful provocative and brilliant post.


    • Thanks for the comment and kind words about the post. I’ve been processing my thoughts on this question for a while but my view is still ‘a work in progress.’ Obviously, I think the simplest explanation for the ineffectiveness of prayer is the non-existence of God. But the point I was trying to press in the post is that given certain theological assumptions, it’s problematic to talk about ‘answers to prayer’ or ‘prayer working’ etc. In other words, people who pray usually assume that they are, in a very practical sense, effecting an outcome. My point is simply, given a sophisticated enough theology, I don’t see how that’s possible.

      I also have some Reformed theology in my background (educated at a Christian liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition). I tried my best to describe it accurately and sympathetically, but I’m open to correction if I’ve made a mistake. The Calvinist view is, from my perspective problematic. I think you’re right to say that on Calvinism God’s will is always done and so prayers that are, in effect, not in line with God’s will are ‘answered’ with a ‘no.’ In my experience, this is of little pastoral help to people who have lost loved ones and struggle to understand how God’s will could possibly be good.

      On your second point, I agree with your description and agree that p is necessary. But that’s what I was getting at when I said that ‘answers’ to prayer are illusory. I’ll admit that I wasn’t very clear in the original post, so I’ll take this opportunity to clarify what I meant. When I said that ‘answers’ to prayer are illusions I meant to say that, as far as I can tell, there is no causal connection between the prayer and the outcome. God foreordains both the prayer and the outcome after all. As such, the person praying seems causally irrelevant to the chain of events. Again, it seems to me that this goes against what most people think they are doing when they pray. I suspect most people think that by praying they are having a causal effect on the outcome. Maybe praying increases the probability of the desired outcome or something like that. In less philosophical, more practical terms, they think that asking God to do something in some sense moves God to do it, much in the same way that asking another person to do something might cause them to do it. But on Calvinism, it seems to me, this is not what’s going on. Maybe the common man’s understanding of what’s happening in prayer is wrong, but it seems to me that practically speaking, unless there is a causal relationship between prayer and events in the world, there’s very little rationale for prayer in the first place.

      To conclude, it seems likely to me that prayer is a remnant of a time when humans believed in finite gods that they could beseech to aid them in effecting a beneficial outcome. These gods could be propitiated or manipulated into doing the will of the person offering the prayer or ritual. When one is talking about an infinite God, however, this practice just doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. Once again, I appreciate your comment and welcome any further thoughts you might have.

      • I believe Ex Machina that many Christians form a god that fit their desires. A God who does what they want. But this is not the God found in the Bible.

        God of the Bible does what He pleases for His glory. I, as a Student of Theology and Philosophy, and a youth pastor will not create a god that gives false hope or help those who I care.

        The god you find in many churches is a rosy all loving God who desire his pets to be well kept. If Jesus, Paul and other Godly men suffered and were killed, were do we get the idea that God want all good now in this fallen world.

        If you read your Bible you will descover that Elisha died with illness, Paul prayed 3 times for his own healing and got “my grace is enough” a simple no, and Timothy with stomach problem, and the list goes on. Indeed there people who got heal but not all because God does what God does.

        We are in this problem because we have a wrong notion of God. The more I read early Church leaders, then Augustine, then Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edward, I discover that their God whom they were crazily passionate about is not the god in many seminars nor churches.

        Luther dying of sickness praised God, though because these giants got something correct: God is God and does according to his pleasure. He kill, he give life, he make deaf, mute and blind, yet give hearing, sound and sight, he hardens the heart of one, yet soften the other, he loves one before they are born, yet hate the other. He draw some to His Son for redemption, while he passover others. This is God who does accord to His will, not ours.

        All my problem vanish, when I put my emotion aside and think if it was possible that that is the God of the Bible, I slowly and painfully moved from Arminianism to Reform( which is so much more than TULIP)

        I know its hard to think of a God of Reformed theology, but once one is open to that, I see no problem with prayers.

        Thank again.


  2. This is almost comical and sad now, that I think about the these things in hind sight.

    I remember when I was teaching a Sunday School Class, a few months ago to ages 7-9, I asked them if they ever prayed for something, and it didn’t happen or it did not go the way you prayed. And everybody’s hand shot up. Without hesitation, these little people, who all have not. even experienced
    the full capacity of life, all know the ill feeling of being disappointed by their God, in that he did not answer there prayers.

    And the worst part, was when I asked them, why they think their prayers were not answered, they all knew the same old tired answers that have been repeated over and over. It was not God’s will. It was not part of his plan.

    And at such a young age, they have all been trained in the disappointment of God, and his excuses.

  3. Prayson: As a non-theist, I certainly agree that people create God in their own image! I’m not necessarily expecting a “rosy all loving God” who treats human beings as “pets.” I’m not accusing you of doing this, but it seems as though sometimes Christians seem to think that the atheist is demanding a hedonistic paradise and anything less than that is evidence that there is no God. Although some atheists may say this, I’m not one of them. I can appreciate that a meaningful life may require some adversity. This is why traditional pictures of heaven often seem boring. But there are certain goods that can be achieved at lesser cost than the horrible and seemingly gratuitous evils that we observe. For example, perhaps we need a certain amount of adversity to develop moral character, but not so much hardship that we become morally cynical. I realize we’re getting into the problem of evil, although I’d see unanswered prayer as part of that problem.

    thebiblereader: Yes, these rationalizations are widespread in churches. Having been raised in church I can relate to your Sunday school anecdote. Unfortunately, when those children get a little older they will experience even more disappointment and probably experience serious illness, injury, and death among those they care about. Then one has to wonder: if this is God’s plan, how can it possibly be good? I sometimes joke that it’s more respectful to say that God doesn’t exist than to say he exists, but he’s a horrible person! I don’t want to make light of the issue. I’m simply pointing out that there’s a lot less cognitive dissonance involved in saying there is no plan than trying to convince yourself, despite all appearances, that the plan is benevolent.

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