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Prayer: Explaining the Unexplainable

unaswered prayer

Over the course of 50 years in the Christian church, I prayed many prayers — tens of thousands of prayers, to be exact. I publicly testified before fellow Christians that God had answered my prayers.  I had experiences that, at the time, defied explanation. Everywhere I looked, I saw God. When I deconverted, one of the first things I did was give a careful accounting of the prayers I uttered and what God’s response to them. (Please see  A Few Thoughts on a Lifetime of Praying to the Christian God) I concluded:

  • The overwhelming majority of my prayers went unanswered.
  • Those few prayers that I considered answered by God were, in fact, answered, not by God, but by and through human instrumentation.

I was left with a few experiences that I couldn’t rationally explain. One story comes to mind and I will share it here. One night, Harold Miller, a member of the church I was pastoring at the time, and I were driving down Route 22 east of Sego, Ohio on our way to touch base with a family who recently visited the church. As we neared Fultonham, a small community which sat on a ridge above Route 22, I noticed a car barreling down the hill towards the highway. Having no time to stop or change direction, I screamed at Harold, warning him of the impending crash, and prepared to be broadsided. Yet, at the moment the crash should have occurred nothing happened. Both of us thought God had lifted the car above ours, safely protecting us from serious injury or death.

Did God actually pick the car up so it would avoid hitting us? Of course not. Is this really a beyond rational explanation event? Not really. Perhaps my perception was wrong. Perhaps the car wasn’t traveling as fast as I thought it was. While this story is difficult to explain, like some of the contradictions in the Bible, there are reasonable explanations for what happened.

As a Christian, I was taught that God answering prayer was a simple matter of me praying and God hearing and answering my petition. I believed that God answered every prayer one of three ways. God said:

  • Yes, and what I was praying for came to pass
  • No, and what I was praying for did not come to pass
  • Not now, and what I was praying for was added to my long-term begging God list

But Bruce, the Evangelical says, I have prayed prayers that I KNOW God answered! How do you KNOW God answered your prayers? Just because Christians utter petitions that subsequently come to pass doesn’t mean that it is God answering prayers. If Christians could ever divorce themselves from faith and look at things from a skeptical and rational perspective, I think they would find out that most God-answered prayers are anything but.

Virtually every answered prayer can be attributed to human instrumentality or luck (right place, right time). Year ago, I often prayed for God to bless me financially. As a young father with two children, money was always tight. One night, my father-in-law and I  were traveling on a rural Licking County road on our way to visit a church member. While driving down the road we came upon a box. I immediately stopped and got out of the car to investigate. In the box were numerous recently skinned fur pelts. I quickly scooped up the box and we took the pelts to a nearby taxidermist. While I do not remember the exact amount of money we received, it was substantial. See? God answered my prayer!

Polly is a shift coördinator for a local manufacturing concern. She has worked there for 17 years.  During her tenure, she has never missed a day of work. Not one. Polly is a diligent worker, a great example of the Puritan work ethic.  Her work reviews are always at the top of the scale, reflecting Polly’s value to the company. In the years that the company has given raises, Polly has always received the maximum allowable raise.

When we were Christians, we both would pray that she would receive a good raise, and sure enough “God” answered our prayers. But, was it really God who answered our prayers and orchestrated Polly’s raises? Or are her raises attributable to Polly’s perfect attendance and work ethic? Shouldn’t credit be given to whom credit is due? It is Polly, not God, who did the work necessary to warrant a raise. How about now? Neither of us prays, and even if we did it is likely that God’s prayer hot line to our house has been disconnected. Since Polly’s deconversion in 2008, the monetary amount of her raises have increased significantly. Couldn’t it just as easily be argued that becoming a nonbeliever and not praying resulted in these raises?

Christians will often point to the testimonies of those who were saved as proof for God answering prayer. You know the drill. Sister Lena is a member of First Baptist Church in Godland, Ohio. She’s been a member of the church for 50 years. Lena’s husband Bob is not a Christian. Every week, Lena and the church pray for Bob’s salvation. Week in, week out, the church prays that the bloodhound of heaven, the Holy Spirit, will track down Bob and save his soul. And sure enough, one day, after 40 years of praying, Bob is saved.  God answered Lena’s prayer, right? (Lost in the discussion will be the question of WHY God waited so long to save Bob.)

Years ago (everything is years ago now), when I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Mt Perry, Ohio, the church took to praying for the father of one of the church members. This man was a violent, oft-cursing heathen. We prayed, prayed, and prayed for this man, to no avail. Several times I went to his home and shared the gospel with him. Every time, he said, no thanks preacher, I have no need of God.

The man eventually came down with throat cancer. Surgeons removed parts of his esophagus, mouth glands, and vocal cords. He was unable to speak. A short time later he had a small stroke. The church continued to pray for this man, and one night I decided to share the gospel with him one more time. And this time, the man started crying, and when I asked him if he would like to be saved, he gutterally said YES! I led him to Jesus, and from the time forward he would occasionally attend church with his wife and grown children.  I vividly remember him crying every time he heard me preach (no jokes about my preaching bringing people to tears). I attributed his tears to his thankfulness for God saving him. Was his glorious conversion the answer to our prayers?

Not likely. I am more inclined to think that his conversion was the result of him facing, for the first time, his mortality. Having been raised in a culture where God is frequently called on in times of trouble, this man, having had radical cancer surgery and a stroke, likely wanted to make sure his house was in order before he died. But, what about the tears? Perhaps they were tears of regret. There’s nothing like a brush with death to focus our attention on how we have lived our lives. Perhaps he regretted his meanness. Perhaps he regretted treating his wife and children like slaves. Who hasn’t shed tears over past regrets, right?

After his “glorious” new birth, this man began displaying bizarre behavior. He began spending exorbitant amounts of money at auctions and yard sales, often bringing home junk of little value. When I couple this behavior with his getting saved, I am more inclined to think that his stroke altered his mind. Anyone who has been around stroke patients knows that behavioral changes are not uncommon.

A changed life is not proof for the existence of God or God answering prayer. A careful examination of salvation testimonies always reveal some sort of human influence. Transformed lives can always be traced back, to some degree or the other, to the work of the individual or others. While these transformations make for great stories of the supernatural power of God, they are, in every way, quite earthy.

I readily admit that there are mysteries which are, at this present moment, beyond explanation.  However, is God the answer for every unexplained mystery? Or is it better for us to admit that we don’t know and to continue probing, prodding, and asking questions until we do? Regardless, these mysteries are so few that suggesting that they are evidence for the Christian God is laughable. From my perspective, there is no evidence for the existence of personal, hands-on God of the Christian Bible.


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    Karen the rock whisperer

    My mother was an Old-School Catholic. In her theology, you didn’t bother God about minor, personal things. You prayed to various saints to help with finding lost objects, or achieving small gains, or whatnot. Mom was always losing things, so St. Anthony was a regular around our house, For big things (like family health and well-being, or the recovery of a friend from an illness, or your daughter getting pregnant over her objections) you prayed the Rosary, a series of scripted prayers based on bible verses. That way you got your prayers said exactly right. Why, those Protestants dared to just address God directly, and pray any old thing! What if he took offense at such forwardness, saying un-biblical prayers?

    And despite (or maybe because of) all that ritual hocus-pocus, my mother was certain that most of her prayers were answered positively. Except for the one about getting her unwilling daughter pregnant (I never did have children). Though I got the impression that in her last years, as friends and family were dying, she was starting to see through her own confirmation bias and begin to doubt. But for years, Team Saints were on her side, and as she often said “a sinner’s prayers are always answered”.

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    Thank you for this post and the archived post. The futility of prayer was the final straw that sent me into full-fledged atheism. I saw it as logically flawed: “God answers prayers.” “But this prayer wasn’t answered.” “Well, that’s not part of God’s plan.” If God has a plan, then what’s the point of praying to him?
    I understand that prayer gives comfort to people, just as meditation or exercise or eating an entire box of chocolates in one sitting. I also understand that it’s socially acceptable (and even encouraged!) to say “I’m praying for you” instead of “I’m thinking of you” or actually doing something concrete to help someone in need. And saying “I need your prayers” is an emotionally easier way to ask for help than saying “I’m feeling lost/sad/scared/drained and I want some support.” But I’m tired of prayer being used as the simplistic solution to all of life’s problems. I’m especially sensitive to it right now watching a friend’s child suffer through a devastating illness and hearing people say to her “we are praying for you,” as if they are actually accomplishing something by doing so.
    Thanks for all your good work on these and other issues. I really enjoy your perspective.

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    What’s the underlying philosophy of the way believers approach prayer anyhow?

    Whether it’s intercessionary or petitionary or whatever there is no point if the matter is analysed. God, from the beginning of time, has known exactly what is going to happen (including, of course, who will be saved), so praying can be of no use in swaying God; he’s already decided what will happen. And that includes knowing who, and why, and when every prayer ever uttered would be uttered. In any event, if God knows what everyone is thinking then, surely, prayer is superfluous; he already knows what you want.

    The only (I believe four in all) recognised studies involving the efficacy of prayer have suggested that prayer has no effect on matters greater than those determined by blind chance. Indeed one study suggested that it may actually be detrimental to prospects of recovery.

    Ultimately praying is of no use, other than to the person making the prayer. In effect it’s a way of persuading yourself you are providing something of benefit in a situation in which you can make no meaningful contribution whatever. If you can help then do it, but don’t waste your time on prayer.

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    I noticed early on in my faith life a habit that the Christians I associated with had. They’d pray some beautiful, awe inspiring prayer asking for supernatural, miraculous intervention and then finish up anticlimactically with, “But your will be done Lord.” I was like, why even say that? I learned it was the Christian cover your rear prayer clause. Well, God didn’t answer the prayer the way we asked because it wasn’t his will. So, if God’s will is always going to be done no matter what intercession is made on behalf of the person or situation, why are we praying exactly? I handled it by exorcising that phrase from my prayer life. But prayer is perplexing. I believed it was God’s will that led me to be the pastor of a little church for 3 1/2 years that was some of the most miserable times of my entire life. Then I believed God led me to resign. But I have to ask – really? Or was it all just me? And if it was God, what purpose did he have in putting me through a living hell that caused me depression problems, family problems, and work problems (I was bi-vocational).

    Then there is this one verse I cannot escape: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)

    So I made it a habit of always praying “in the name of Jesus.” Do I need to list how many unanswered prayers that has led to? But I always justified it in the past. Praying in his name only works if it is in his will you know? It’s like some cognitive dissonance thing you do to make it all make sense. So I think about this – the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. So I pray over and over and over and expect something to happen…then I’m off in the realm of insanity. I’m struggling through all of this, but I’m not really praying about it.

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    Lol, I just posted my comment on this one to the other blog about prayer. The one from the archives. Oh well, it had a bit about my first realization of the problems with prayer on it. God would be meddling with some things that perhaps would not necesarily be very ethical either…. which made me wonder a bit about the nature of prayer.

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      Oh dear, Melody, God made you comment on the other thread when perhaps etc…. God has punished me this way so many times…. or is that the Devil? Hell and tarnation, they both seem the same to me now!

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    Ha! Prayer: Unexplaining the (Perfectly) Explainable? (I know it isn’t proper English, but it popped into my head). I really want to believe in a deity of some kind and in prayer. But at the very least, I think the facts are that nothing statistically significant has occurred with prayer. That is something we all must face as a claim of any kind of theistic religion I suppose, though all I really know is Christianity, a smattering of Islam, and even less of Judaism. I know many people believe many different things, but I think the most successful people are pragmatic humanists at heart.

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Bruce Gerencser