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The Power of Prayer Doubted Again

Image by vjack via Flickr

Image by vjack via Flickr

It looks like the atheists have done it again–misunderstood the power of prayer. Vjack of Atheist Revolution and Daniel Florian of Unreasonable Faith have both written recently on this topic.

I guess they both see prayer as a magic gumball machine where the person pops in a quarter and gets a supernatural answer to his or her wish. But that’s not what prayer is at all. Prayer is a vehicle to offer yourself into God’s service, a two-way communication tool between you and God. It is a way to help yourself accept God’s will.

Make no mistake–prayer is powerful if used properly and understood properly. I’ve addressed the topic at some lengthe here and J.P. Holding has addressed the same topic here. Both of us conclude that prayer is not a magical thing that will automatically grant you anything that you wish for.

When are atheists going to stop assuming that the Bible teaches that you can get everything taht you want through prayer? And more than that, when are they going to think that they’ve proven something that no Christian knows when they point out that you can’t get everything you want in prayer?

What do you get out of prayer? Nothing that you want, but everything that you need.

Image via Unreasonable Faith

Image via Unreasonable Faith

I should note that I’ve also addressed the charges of why Christians have health insurance and visit the doctor here.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on February 20, 2009, in Apologetics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. “When are atheists going to stop assuming that the Bible teaches that you can get everything taht you want through prayer?”

    Perhaps when you expunge the following two verses from all Bibles on earth.

    Matthew 21:22 “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”

    John 14:13 “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

    “What do you get out of prayer? Nothing that you want, but everything that you need.” That doesn’t sound like the “whatsoever ye shall ask” that Jesus talks about above now does it?

    • Holding addresses those verses in his essay to which I linked in the post.

      Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. So, denying our selfish impulses in our prayer life sounds exactly like Jesus. If you read the other promises of prayer, which I outline in my own essay on prayer, one can only conclude that we receive what we need rather than what we want.

      • Is praying for all blindness to end and nobody to ever be born blind again selfish? No. I guess you’ll just say that one is too big for an Almighty and all-loving God to do. Yet, Jesus says “whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” so he ought to do it. He didn’t say “whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, UNLESS ITS JUST TOO BIG…”, right?

  2. Marcion, if you notice the verse in John 14 has a qualifier: “that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

    Praying to God, “Gimme a million dollars so I can be rich!” or “let my enemies get cancer and die” feeds only a person’s selfish motives, not glorifying God.

    I admit determining what to pray that would glorfy God through Jesus is not clearly defined nor easily discernable because we only see a tiny portion of the overall picture, and we don’t know if what we pray would or would not result in God glorified due to what we don’t see. Therefore it is prayed “not my will, but yours, God”. We do “see through a glass darkly”.

    Furthermore, praying for things to reverse certain finalities such as “don’t let my mother get old and don’t let her die” isn’t going to happen because God already said “if you eat of the fruit from the tree of life you shall surely die.” We are all going to die and it will not be reversed. In the vast majority of cases God lets the chips fall where they may and let things run their natural course: aging, birth defects, disease, natural disasters, and so forth.

    Have I had prayer answered? Yes, but it could also easily be attributed to coincidence. For example, I was driving home after a 9-hour day at work, and I had another hour to go to get home. It was near dusk and raining so hard I could not see but about 3 ft. in front of my car. The windows were fogged up so I had the defroster on high heat as that is all that would work to keep the window clear along with taking off a sock to wipe the windshield too. The sock was sweaty so it did not help much just smeared the condensation around.

    I was exhausted. My hands were sweaty and I was so tired I was fading out, starting to fall asleep at the wheel because the situation was draining my last reserves. I was gripping the wheel so tight my hands became numb, and they involuntarily loosened and began to slip off the wheel. Frantically I rolled the windows down hoping fresh air and rainwater would jolt me awake but to no avail. I couldn’t pull over because I was in the mountains with only a tiny median and there were cars on my bumper. To brake and try to pull over would cause a collision.

    So I prayed: “God, this is becoming too much. Please help me lest I drive off the mountain to my death.”

    Within a minute, as I topped the next mountain the rain suddenly stopped and the sun beamed out. I was joyful and I thanked and praised God with a loud voice. This energized me, and the stress of the storm was gone so I got home safely.

    Some could say “You reached the edge of the raincloud; God did nothing –it was just a coincidence you prayed right when you were leaving the storm edge.”

    Maybe, but I attribute it to God, and I glorified God and I still do to this day even though it has been 11 years since that time. I still remember the good thing God did for me that day in the stormy mountains, that I lived and did not crash.

    • “Marcion, if you notice the verse in John 14 has a qualifier: “that the Father may be glorified in the Son.””

      He clearly predicates the glorifying of the Father not on our praying for something glorifying but on the Father’s “yes” answer to the prayer. Read it again “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what you pray, Jesus will do it because giving a “Yes” answer to prayer glorifies the Father. Notice it is HE not ME that is supposed to glorify the Father. He, Jesus, will do “whatsoever” I pray, and in doing so HE (not me) will glorify the Father.

      “Praying to God, “Gimme a million dollars so I can be rich!” or “let my enemies get cancer and die” feeds only a person’s selfish motives, not glorifying God.”

      David prayed for the destruction of his enemies constantly. Elijah prayed for fire to come down and consume his enemies, and the Father did it too. But even so, what if you prayed for some crippled child to be miraculously healed and God didn’t do it–is it because your prayer wasn’t selfless enough? Come on!

      • David prayed for the destruction of his enemies constantly.

        And his enemies were deserving of destruction for they were trying to destroy him. If someone is trying to kill you, and you are innocent and not deserving of it, then it is reasonable to ask God to remove your enemies. Praying out of spite and hatred is different than asking God to remove those trying to destroy you.

        Elijah prayed for fire to come down and consume his enemies, and the Father did it too.

        Elijah was a prophet of God –an ememy of the prophet was an enemy of God. Elijah asked fire to destroy his enemies because they were trying to kill him. It wasn’t a spiteful, hateful prayer.

        But even so, what if you prayed for some crippled child to be miraculously healed and God didn’t do it–is it because your prayer wasn’t selfless enough? Come on!

        First of all, I am convinced that God allows “nature” to run its course, such as defects in genetic code or random fate to occur, for God has already declared that because of sin we are fallen from a perfect state, and that we will die.

        That said, it is assumed a crippled child is innocent. Certainly so. But we do not know all the circumstances as to why God would not heal a crippled child if asked. Could it be that being crippled was the only way that person would learn humility and not become a hateful, prideful, arrogant person bring harm and misery to many, if not millions?

        Could it be God will use that handicap to encourage others, to tell others “Hey, you can overcome limitations!” We don’t know the future of that crippled child. I know it sounds harsh: keeping a child crippled is for its own best interests but that may very well be the case.

        It is similar to what some sheperds do in breaking a lamb’s leg to keep it from straying to its death. We just don’t know all the extenuating circumstances why God doesn’t heal everybody or do everything we ask.

        Finally, some prayers we pray may not be answered in our lifetime but afterwards.

    • Since you mention the tree incident (although you get the name of the tree wrong) I just want to ask, can you explain why God didn’t want Adam and Eve to know right and wrong but Satan did want them to know it? God threatened them with death if they eat from the tree that gives the knowledge of good and evil. Its only because Satan “tricked” them that we know good and evil. God didn’t want us to know. Why? What were his plans for the human race, exactly? It couldn’t truly be Godlikeness, since that appears to be why he didn’t want them to eat the fruit “Behold they have become like one of Us…Now lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever….” Also the image of God can’t be knowing good and evil (as some assert) since God created them without that knowledge and held it back from them on penalty of death! The story of the fall is very weird. When analyzed closely, God and Satan seem to trade places.

      • can you explain why God didn’t want Adam and Eve to know right and wrong but Satan did want them to know it?

        Since I was not there and Genesis only gives skimpy details, I can only speculate about why God put the tree of Knowledge of Good/Evil there in the first place, why he did not

        want them to have a knowledge of evil (because they would then do evil and have to be destroyed?) I don’t know why, really. The bible does not say.

        The one thing God cannot do is make someone love him. If someone had a button to push which resulted in “make this person love me” and when you push it then that

        person “loved you” but only because you programmed that person to do so, is that really love? I would say not. Therefore, in order for God to have one of his creations love

        him, he would have to allow the choice of free will. I can only guess at this, but God’s words may very well have been “If you love me, do not eat from the tree of

        knowledge of Good and Evil –you’ll die. I love you. Do not eat from that tree. You will die. YOU WILL DIE.”

        The tree of knowledge of good and evil

        Apparently, because Adam & Eve had not eaten of this tree, they had no concept or knowledge of what was “good” or what was “evil”. Such words meant nothing to them,

        no more than the color blue is neither good nor evil. I guess all they knew is they existed and did things, and nothing they did was right or wrong. It could be said they were

        like children I suppose.

        But God gave a command: do not eat from this tree. To disobey God is wrong. Although they had not eaten from the tree, and did not know of Good or Evil, they did know

        that eating from the tree would result in their death, that is was a bad thing to do.

        Enter the serpent, which I do not believe is Satan:

        Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.

        From reading Genesis I have to conclude this sentient creature was one of the most intelligent of all the creatures God made, excepting humans. It was cunning, crafty, and

        clever, Now whether Satan entered this being to tempt Adam & Eve I don’t know. It can be inferred that this is so but it may be the serpent chose to mess around with Eve

        that day, was innocently toying with Eve, playing what it thought was a harmless trick. I really can only speculate.

        It may also be Eve was going around asking the serpent, “What is death? Will I really die if I eat from this tree? Look how cute the fruit is…have you ever eaten of it? Do you

        really think God knows what he’s talking about, I mean, I’m a woman and I really should know more than God…”

        We really don’t know the state of Eve’s mind and heart before she took of the fruit. It may be she had already made up her mind to disobey God and was looking for a reason

        to eat from that tree. The serpent, being subtil/subtle/subtile, perhaps saw the state of her mind and egged her on.

        At this point it would have been nice if Genesis had mentioned how long they had been in the Garden –10 years? 1,000? A million? It says “And all the days that Adam

        lived were nine hundred and thirty years but since he was eating of the tree of life, not dying, was he counting his years then or was it only afterwards when he knew his

        days were numbered? Anyways…

        IF it was Satan who entered the serpent to tempt Eve to eat of the fruit, then it was because Satan knew what would happen, that the creation would be cursed for their

        sake and they would be cursed and outcasts like himself. Satan’s act was a calculated, deliberate, malicious act.

        If not Satan then it was just a very clever beast that picked the wrong trick to play. God cursed the serpent afterwards:

        And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go,

        and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life

        In answer to your question, I can speculate that God did not want Adam and Eve to know Good and Evil because to know of evil –murder, theft, enslavement, abuse –the

        long list of misery caused by evil, was something God did not want to burden Adam and Eve with, knowing it would mar their happy bliss in that beautiful paradise.

        However, Adam and Eve, knowing what God had said chose to eat from that tree. They used their own free will to disobey God. Why God allowed it I have no idea, but

        perhaps it will result in a final lesson: When we are placed back in the garden, when the future inhabitants of the New Eden review the results of what happend by Adam *

        Eve’s disobedience, seeing the thousands of years of misery and woe which resulted from their act, the future Edenites when seeing the new Tree of Knowledge of Good and

        Evil will vehemently refuse to even look at the tree, let alone seek to eat or touch it.

        As they saying goes, the burned hand teaches best: as a child, when you put your hand on the stove burner and get burnt, you won’t do it again!

  3. Correction: “fruit from the tree of life” should have been read “fruit from the tree of knowledge of good & evil”.

  4. You say we misunderstand the Bible. But didn’t Jesus say those with even the LEAST amount of faith (that is, anything more than none) would be able to “move a mountain”? Didn’t people in the Bible heal people with prayer? Etc?

    So if prayer works, let me know when you get something supernatural out of it.

    • No. Jesus said, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt 17:20). Moving mountains was actually an ancient idiom for doing the impossible. He didn’t mean that we could literally move a mountain. It’s a figure of speech. As for “Nothing will be impossible for you,” we all know that that is an exaggeration as clear limits have been placed on prayer in the Bible, which I’ve discussed at length in my essay.

      But here is where context becomes important–the apostles were asking Jesus why they couldn’t cast a demon out. He was chastising them for their lack of faith, saying that if they had faith like the grain of the mustard seed, they could do the impossible. But they didn’t. Now if they didn’t have faith even as small as a mustard seed and they walked with the Lord, how could we who have never met Jesus have enough faith to do the impossible?

      • “Moving mountains was actually an ancient idiom for doing the impossible.”

        So how come we can’t do the impossible? You just made it even worse. And as for God not answering selfish prayers or murderous prayers, he sure was quick to answer Elijah’s call for fire from heaven to kill his enemies and for drought to starve out an entire nation. So, what’s the deal? This held up in the NT by the same man who accuses us of not praying correctly when we receive no answer (“Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” James 4:3) who says in James 5:17 “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.” Wasn’t Elias praying to consume it upon his lust for vengeance and blood? “No, he was trying to make the nation repent.” And it failed. It wasn’t the drought that made the nation repent, but rather the contest on Mt. Carmel where Elijah proved that Baal was a false god by the fact that Baal didn’t answer prayer. Whatever god failed to quickly answer the prayer to consume an altar with fire was proven false and his priests killed. If Elijah’s prayers are an example for today, why can’t we expect God to send fire down from heaven on command to prove he’s real and other gods are false??????????

      • Why is it so easy for me to understand that there are limits placed on prayer, and be okay with it; yet it is so difficult for you to understand this same concept? More to the point, why does God have to show himself to you in a dramatic or supernatural way when he has already done all of that stuff in the Bible, which is faithfully recorded by eyewitnesses and written so you will believe? Why does God have to make a special show just for you? The fullness of his revelation has come in Jesus Christ; if his death and resurrection isn’t enough for you to believe, I much doubt that anything will be. BTW, read my essay on prayer some time. It addresses many of the problems that you seem to have.

  5. Why can’t we expect God to prove his existence by miracles in answer to prayer like Elijah expected from the prophets of Baal in 1st Kings 18? If it is WRONG to expect God to prove his existence by miracles in answer to prayer, then Elijah acted unjustly in killing the prophets of Baal–how could he know for sure that Baal didn’t exist when Baal might have existed but simply chosen to not play along with the test?? Why couldn’t the prophets of Baal use the same excuse we do “Oh, that would be tempting God! That’s wrong! We can’t do that! God would not comply with such doubting tests.” Elijah did not give them that option, and when they cried at the top of their lungs to Baal and he didn’t immediately answer with fire from heaven, Elijah mocked them saying “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they believed so strongly that Baal was real that they CUT THEMSELVES in some sort of blood letting sacrifice attempt to arouse him to answer their prayers. But alas, Baal did not answer. Was it because he didn’t exist? Or was he just not interested in answering such a demand to prove himself by a miracle? Elijah interpreted it as meaning he did not exist. In short, if Elijah were around today and affiliated with Judaism, he would gather a bunch of Christian ministers to Mt. Carmel and make us call to Jesus and when Jesus doesn’t answer with fire from heaven, he would say “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And when doing whatever extra we might do in place of cutting ourselves (making the sign of the cross, pretending to speak in tongues, singing some gospel hymns, having communion, having Binny Hinn yell “fire on ya” or whatever) and still no answer, Elijah would then take out his sword and chop off our heads! Then, after we are dead, he would call on God as well, and also receive no answer, but say that he did. And we would not be able to dispute it, because we would already be dead. Or, he wouldn’t kill us first, but would douse his altar with water, pray to God, then sprinkle some of that powder that makes a fire when dropped in water (what is that, magnesium powder?) into the water, and claim that God sent fire from heaven for him. Because based on modern excuses for God’s lack of response to Elijah-like prayers, we have to believe that Elijah somehow started the fire himself and made it look like it came from heaven. And he did make a point to pour fire on the altar, didn’t he???

    • last sentence should read “And he did make a point to pour WATER on the altar, didn’t he???”

    • Missing my point. God has already done all of this stuff. It is faithfully recorded in the Bible. Why should he have to do it again just because you don’t believe him?

      • So, Baal hadn’t already done all this stuff in the cunieform or Akkadian writings of the Canaanites? He had indeed already done so. There’s a blog around here somewhere that even posts English translations of some of Baal’s miracles from such texts. So, I guess since all Baal’s miracles were wroten down we ought to believe he really did them. That proves it. How dare stupid faithless Elijah require Baal to prove himself by answering prayer when Baal had already proven himself in Baal’s scriptures. What incredulous jerk that Eijah was.

      • here’s an example some other interesting junk on the subject of Baal here

      • this is interesting as well, about a man named Elus

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