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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 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 toward 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 them. 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). Years 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 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 manager for a local manufacturing concern. She has worked there for twenty-six years. During her tenure, she had never missed a day of work until her surgery for ulcerative colitis two years ago. 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 were her raises attributable to Polly’s perfect attendance and work ethic? Shouldn’t credit be given to whom credit is due? It was 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 hotline to our house has been disconnected. Since Polly’s deconversion in 2008, the monetary amount of her raises has 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 of God answering prayer. You know the drill. Sister Lena is a member of Frozen Chosen Baptist Church in Godland, Ohio. She’s been a member of the church for fifty 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 wretched soul. And sure enough, one day, after forty years of praying, Bob is gloriously 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 was eventually diagnosed 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 gutturally said YES! I led him to Jesus, and from that 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 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? Further, his tears could have had no connection to anything other than his stroke — the pseudobulbar affect.

After his “glorious” new birth, this man started 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 of the existence of God or God answering prayer. A careful examination of salvation testimonies always reveals 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 that are beyond explanation at this moment. However, is God the answer to 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 the personal, hands-on God of the Christian Bible.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I had some experiences I believed were answers to prayers. But, as you said, they were more often due to luck or changed circumstances. I would pray for $500, and look! We got an unexpected $500. But there was still a rational reason, maybe an insurance payment reimbursement we didn’t know we were getting? A bigger tax refund, halleluiah! Except that is due to a strict formula for taxes, and we paid too much.

    Do you know what homeopathy is? For a time nearly 20 years ago, I spent years studying homeopathy and trying to understand it, and took the “medicine” and administered it to myself and my family. For over 5 years, I had a handful of dramatic responses to the “medicine,” or so I thought. Of course if it actually worked I would’ve had much more than 3 or 4, with one of my children having ONE (in 5 years!).

    So homeopathy is about as efficacious as prayer: an occasional belief that either thing was working in certain circumstances, but no real proof. And I went from being a believer in quack medicine to using real medicine that gave me some pain relief. And prayer? I still occasionally pray, and feel comforted. But the last few years have blown my sense of internal peace out of whack, and I have to look at other things to feel comforted: my family, my friends, my hobbies and passions. I do still believe love is the most important thing, but I know love exists outside of any possible deity. Peace, you all!

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    What I learned about prayer was very powerful. I was taught that if you ask anything in Jesus’ name, and that if you believe, that God will grant your prayer request. I was also taught that God answers prayers in one of 3 ways – yes, no, wait awhile. But as a teen, I did believe that if I asked God for something, he would grant the prayer.

    So every day during ny teen years for several years, I asked for the same thing every day. I confessed sin. I searched my “heart” to make sure I truly believed. I prayed with different combinations of proper respect, contrition, praise, humility, and asking that if it was God’s will could he please answer my prayer. This went on for years without ever receiving what I asked for. After several years, I gave up.

    Sure, sometimes prayers seemed to be answered. I got accepted to the college I wanted to attend. Of course, I also had stellar grades, decent SAT and ACT scores, more recommendation letters than I needed (including 2 letters from professors for whom I worked in the summers) and good essays. I traveled safely without accidents. Sometimes I found excellent parking spaces. But I became skeptical of prayer. I started thinking that God didn’t answer many prayers of importance and that prayer was a crapshoot.

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    Like several of you, I was taught the same thing about the 3 ways God answers prayers (yes, no, or wait). During my wrestling with Christianity and deconversion, one source that helped me a lot was Evid3nc3’s excellent YouTube series. He pointed out that you could pray to a jug of milk… and either you’ll get what you asked for now, or you’ll get it later, or you won’t get it. There aren’t any other possible outcomes, whether a deity is involved or not.

    That was a real moment of revelation for me regarding prayer. Effectively what the yes/no/wait explanation does is make “answered prayer” unfalsifiable. With that formulation, there is no outcome that leads to the conclusion that “God didn’t answer my prayer”. Just because an argument is unfalsifiable does not prove it is false… but we should be very skeptical.

    Thanks for your posts Bruce!

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    Prayer has been the most painful thing for me to start letting go of. I know now that it’s been an outlet for fear and anxiety for me. Struggling to find new ways to deal and be in the world now. But I wouldn’t want to go back to organized religion.

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      Yes, this can be a very hard thing to work through. One thing Christian belief did for me was give me hope. After all, god cares and can help ue through this stuff, right? Gives us strength, blah blah.

      And I saw results that I attributed to god, ignoring that it was my actions that made these things happen. But as I recovered from the belief of christianity, I realized that I achieved all of the things in my life, and I, not Satan or god, was responsible for any bad decisions I made.and other bad things happen because they just happen.

      My choices, not god. My success, not gods. My hard work, not gods support. And it was always this way, even when I didn’t understand that.

      Even without some god entity, I can still have hope that my choices can improve my life and the world around me. I don’t have to hide behind a pretend god and just assume it’s controlling everything.

      There are still struggles, but life is immeasurably better without god being involved.

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Bruce Gerencser