Why bother with prayer?

As I shared previously, my wife’s recovery from her cardiac arrest has been amazing and reflection-inducing. Hundreds of us (even some complete strangers) prayed for her full recovery. All indications are that she will fully recover despite the odds against her on several fronts. Indeed several of the staff have openly called her situation a miracle; an answer to prayer.

But not everybody gets what they pray for. When we spent a few days in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at the hospital we saw, first hand, the sobering reality that not all stories have happy endings. We saw two families say goodbye to loved ones, and two more families that appeared to be on the brink of farewells. While we rejoiced, many others on that unit mourned and openly wept.

I’m pretty sure many of those families prayed like we did. God said yes to Denise. God said no to them.

Some time ago I was called on to speak at a church where the pastor and his family had recently buried their child; roughly a year and a half old. She was born with serious health issues and they were told that she would only live a few weeks or months, but she lasted a year and a half. Despite what the doctors told them I’m sure prayers were offered for some kind of miracle that would give her a long life and health.

But God said no.

Indeed countless other examples of human tragedy could easily be offered up. Perhaps you even have such a story. An abusive or unfaithful spouse that you pray will change their ways. Employment that is so desperately needed yet never to be found. Health problems. Relational breakdowns. Let’s get really morbid and consider murders, genocides, torture, modern-day sexual slavery, aborted babies, serial killers, terrorists and so much more. We pray for a different world. We beg. We plead. We get on our knees and weep in the hope that God will fix everything. Or if not everything, at least our specific situation.

But God says no.

Let this hit a little closer to home for a minute. Denise’s dad died of heart complications when she was roughly 2 years old. As an interesting sub-plot on this entire drama of our lives the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit that Denise was being treated on is the exact same unit her dad was initially treated on. I am certain that countless prayers were offered up for his return to health over the course of time that his life slowly slipped away. In fact, when he died he was roughly the same age that Denise, his daughter, is now. He left behind a wife and two kids with another on the way. Denise would have left behind a husband and two kids. Many people begged God for his life as they begged for Denise’s life.

But God said no. What are we to make of that?

The mystery of why God allows the world to remain in its imperfect state, and why he sometimes answers our prayers in ways we that we desperately wish he would not have answered them are serious questions and worth wrestling with. But that is not the subject I want to take a look at today. I want to consider why we pray when we know that God will not always answer our prayers in the way we would prefer. I want to consider it by way of analogy.

When Denise was found unconscious by her co-workers they called 9-1-1 and were told to begin CPR. Suppose they knew the statistics associated with cardiac arrests. When a person has a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital the odds of their recovery, even if given all the best treatment, is roughly 5-7%. That’s only about 1 in 20 people who will recover from a cardiac arrest if you give them CPR until the paramedics arrive with a defibrillator (as in Denise’s case). 19 times out of 20 they will die anyway, no matter how much effort you put in, how sincere you are in your efforts or how perfect your technique is.

Those are some pretty lousy odds. Given those odds of success would a reasonable person who sees somebody with a cardiac arrest just shrug their shoulders and walk by with the mindset, “oh well, CPR almost certainly wouldn’t have helped them?” Even in the face of discouragingly low odds of success people begin CPR anyway; at least those with half an ounce of humanity in them do. We do so because we know that, even if CPR fails, there is at least a chance of success and if CPR is not administered then death 100% certain. The only hope for recovery in the face of a cardiac arrest is CPR and a defibrillator, even if that hope is a faint and distant hope. So we begin CPR because we are focused on the hope, not on the likelihood of success.

Should we not approach God in a similar manner? We ask God for a miracle because we know he is the only one capable of providing the miracle we ask for, whether he chooses to provide it or not. Even though we are aware that he might say “no” to our plea, and even if the odds of him saying “yes” are astonishingly low, we ought to ask anyway. We ought to ask with all the sincerity, dedication and effort that Denise’s co-workers put into the CPR they gave her. They did not do CPR because they knew it would work, they did CPR because they knew it was the only action that could possibly work. They didn’t know it would work, they hoped it might work. Similarly we pray with the greatest sincerity and dedication, and we boldly ask for the greatest and most shocking possible outcome, not because we know ahead of time that God will provide a miracle, but because if there is going to be a miracle it will come from him. We hope in him whether he answers or not.

CPR is just a physical act performed on a physical body. It has no will or consciousness. It neither knows the victim nor cares about them. God, on the other hand, is personal. He has a will. He understands and loves the person lying unconscious on the ground. As the Bible reminds us, God is a loving father who delights to give us what we ask for (Matthew 7:7-11). Though he will not always give us what we pray for – sometimes he has a bigger picture in mind that precludes this particular miracle or that one – it is his preference to give us a long and fulfilled life with which to honour and serve him. It is his preference to surprise us with the miraculous. If we have hope enough to attempt the impersonal and merely physical act of CPR, given the incredibly low odds of success, why would we not ask our conscious, personal and loving God to intervene in our situations with the most glorious and astonishing of miracles? How much more powerful is he than mere CPR?

One Bible story that has been very relevant to me during this entire episode has been the story of David losing his son (2 Samuel 12:1-23). In this story David is told that God is going to kill his son and also the reason why; David’s sin. Despite knowing God’s plan, and despite knowing the reason behind God’s plan, David prays with far more dedication and sincerity than I would dare guess that any of us have ever prayed in our lives. When we pray we do not know what God’s plans are. When David prayed he did know God’s plans and he begged God to change his plans. In David’s case God went ahead with his plans and gave David “no” for an answer. But what has always struck me about that story is David’s dedication to asking God anyway, knowing full well that his request is almost 100% guaranteed to be declined. He didn’t just ask, he starved himself for a week and lay in the dirt as a sign of his recognition of his place before God and his sinful nature.

How many of us would pray like that when we do not know God’s plan, never mind when we are praying that God would change his plans? David puts me to shame, no question about it!

Furthermore, when God did finalize his “no” David did not curse him or walk away from the Faith; he went up to the temple and worshipped. I doubt he was singing glad songs about how God always makes him happy (we have too many songs like that these days!) but he approached God with an attitude of profound worship nonetheless. Do we have so much integrity that our Faith will stand firm even if God does not give us everything we want and ask for? Will we continue to worship God when he refuses to play Santa Claus? Or will we take the approach of Job’s wife, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)

I am humbled and delighted that hundreds of people (I am not exaggerating; it was hundreds) asked God for a miracle for Denise. Though I am painfully aware that he does often say “no” he decided to say “yes” this time. Even if many people live with disappointment when God answers “no” (my wife’s family being one of them when Denise’s dad died many years ago) surely we can celebrate when he does say “yes” and surely we ought to ask for a miracle even when he will almost certainly say “no.” David prayed for “yes” when he was told ahead of time that God would say “no.” We should be so bold! We ask, not because we are confident that he will give us what we want, but because if there is going to be a miracle he’s the only means by which it could happen.

When we pray, go big or go home!

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
This entry was posted in General Apologetics, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Why bother with prayer?

  1. Brad Huebert says:

    Well put, brother. Well put. Great analogy, transparently written.

  2. Chris Enns says:

    Wow, great thoughts there, Paul. I really like that clear explanation of why we should pray. Why God says yes to some prayers and no to others will always be a mystery to us until we can ask Him in person, but we need to pray to Him regardless and trust in His divine plan. I’ve never had a problem understanding why God allows bad things to happen (i.e. the whole skeptics’ debate about the problem of evil) but the thing that has always challenged my faith and understanding of God is why He chooses to allow some bad things to happen but stops or heals others. Why does He choose this level of intervention in the world and not a different one, and what implications does that have for us as believers? I’m sure your experience right now with Denise’s cardiac arrest and recovery will continue to give you new insights or wonder into that issue.

    • Paul Buller says:

      I’m heading back to the hospital soon so this will be short. The questions you bring up are good questions, fair questions and questions that more Christians should spend time staring at, head on. When life is all good it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that God wants the best for us, personally, all the time. We need to carefully think through a Theology of Suffering. I hope more Christians will do just that.

  3. donsevers says:

    If prayer helps you in any way at all, do it, but there are some inescapable facts about it:

    God either can’t or won’t help us more than he does. There are no other options.

    If we accept any treatment from God and still say he is loving, then ‘loving’ means nothing.

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/don-severs/prayer-works-but-only-as-well-as-not-praying/449647719004

    • Paul Buller says:

      As I mentioned before, I’m heading back to the hospital in a minute so this will be brief. There’s a goldmine of discussion topics at your link, and I hope other readers will take you up on those points at your Facebook link, but I’ll just address what you’ve written here.

      I think you are right to comment that if we blindly accept any treatment as loving then the very concept of “loving” becomes meaningless. It would be like an abused wife who claims that her husband really does love her. I can accept your point. I wonder, though, if you can accept that there may be times and occasions when trouble, suffering, and hardship can serve a greater good in our broken world? Sometimes that greater good might be for an individual and sometimes for society as a whole. Furthermore, that greater good can apply to this world and/or the world to come.

      Is that something you can accept, or would you hold to the belief that no suffering, no hardship, no difficulties could ever, even in theory, have a positive effect that was only possible through suffering, hardship and difficulty? I’m curious where you stand on that issue.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting; we love to hear from a diverse set of perspectives. I’m swamped these days so I may not be able to respond right away but I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  4. donsevers says:

    >we know he is the only one capable of providing the miracle we ask for

    This passage narrows it down a bit. If this is true, God can help us more than he does, so he just won’t for some reason. The problem now is this: God could help us AND accomplish whatever else he wants. There could never be a reason he would HAVE to not help us. He could accomplish any Greater Good and restart our hearts. He really could. There is no contradiction in it.

    It seems that to continue to feel love from a God who abandons us in our time of need is to be a willing victim of abuse. That kind of love is simply dependence. If God is real, we’re all screwed. We have to accept whatever treatment he hands out. And we must choose him over our neighbors.

    • Paul Buller says:

      I’m intrigued by your statement, “There could never be a reason he would HAVE to not help us.” To conclude this, it seems to me, you would have to have a perfect and exhaustive knowledge of God’s priorities and goals, a perfect and exhaustive knowledge of the hearts of all humans, and a perfect and exhaustive knowledge of all past, present, future states of affairs including all possible future states of affairs that might have been if things would have gone differently. The only being with such knowledge, though, would be God. Do you consider yourself God?

      • donsevers says:

        We don’t need perfect knowledge to know analytical statements like “All bachelors are unmarried.” If God is all-powerful, he can do any logically possible thing. It follows from definitions.

        Humans reduce suffering with Tylenol. If we can do it, God can do it. IF he can’t do it because of his nature, then he is constrained, a bystander God, weaker than a human. Moreover, if we say he is Good even in this constrained state, then Good means nothing.

      • donsevers says:

        We don’t need perfect knowledge to know that “All bachelors are unmarried.” We don’t have to look in every corner of the universe and check. It follows from definitions.

        Likewise, if God is all-powerful, he can do any logically possible thing. There is nothing logically impossible about reducing suffering. Humans do it with Tylenol.

        • Paul Buller says:

          Agreed, part of this is a matter of definitions. God can do all that is logically possible. I also agree that there is nothing logically impossible about reducing suffering. In fact, I can think of one very easy way to eliminate absolutely all suffering; eliminate the entire physical world including humanity. No humans = no suffering. Done. The problem, though, is we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We would lose suffering, I think we can all agree, but we would also lose something very good in the process. What you need to establish is that there is a possible world within which all the greatest possible goods associated with humanity (i.e. heroism) can be realized without even a hint of suffering. That is hardly a definitional issue so you cannot so easily brush it aside by claiming it is definitional or by just boldly declaring it can be done.

          • donsevers says:

            >What you need to establish is that there is a possible world within which all the greatest possible goods associated with humanity (i.e. heroism) can be realized without even a hint of suffering.

            No, I only aim to show that all that could be achieved with less suffering.

            God is strong and smart. He could do better.

          • donsevers says:

            I think you are discussing the Logical Problem of Evil and I’m discussing the Evidential Problem of Evil. It is not impossible that, given God’s aims, that the suffering we see is already at a minimum. But if that is the case, then forget intercessory prayer, moral progress or future contingency. We already live in the best of all possible worlds and any deviation from it would make it worse. When humans try to be nice by administering Tylenol or stopping bleeding, we’re only making things worse.

            It amounts to a fine-tuning argument for suffering. Every dying animal, every infant with a heart defect is a note in God’s symphony. But it’s the only symphony he could have written. This removes any notion of Goodness from God. He could not have acted any differently. He’s a mere force of nature, unfolding according to his nature, which he had no control over.

            • donsevers says:

              You can’t have it both ways. If you want God to be a free moral agent, you have to allow that he could have been kinder in the way he set up the world.

            • Paul Buller says:

              You assume that God’s plans do NOT include our freely made decision to pray. Being “smart and powerful” as you say, he would have foreseen that and accounted for it. Now you are the one limiting God’s knowledge and power.

  5. donsevers says:

    >or would you hold to the belief that no suffering, no hardship, no difficulties could ever, even in theory, have a positive effect that was only possible through suffering, hardship and difficulty?

    Of course suffering CAN be used to reach greater good. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether God COULD reach that greater good with less suffering than we observe. It seems unlikely that he could not.

    Choose your conception of God, then you can determine whether he would ever NEED to use suffering to reach a goal. Only a weak or constrained God would have to. As I understand it, Yahweh can do any logically possible thing that is consistent with his nature.

    Don

    • Paul Buller says:

      So you do not accept that certain positive effects can only come about through suffering? What about, for instance, the inspirational heroism and self-sacrifice of the firemen who saved my wife’s life? The firemen openly shared with me the emotional toil that comes with their job. They face death on an almost daily basis, yet they heroically face that horror for the benefit of others. If nothing ever went wrong, then humanity would never have the opportunity to act heroically. It is an unfortunate reality (so I have learned) that in cases of cardiac arrest many bystanders will not offer any assistance. They stand by, idly, while first responders jump in to the detriment of their own mental health. Such heroism is excellent and praiseworthy. Through adversity like this we get to clearly see the true character of people; some will stand by and not help, others dive in even if they risk their own lives and mental health. As but one example, the opportunity for heroism is a positive effect that is only possible through some kind of suffering.

      Indeed God is able to do that which is logically possible, and it is not logically possible, for instance, for a human to behave heroically without some element of danger and the very real possibility of risk and/or suffering. Therefore, in order to provide us with the opportunity to demonstrate and exercise our character, this world requires an element of danger. However, the danger is meaningless if it always just works out well in the end regardless of our efforts. Therefore I disagree with your assertion that the same good could be reached with less suffering. The good of heroism and self-sacrifice would be perfectly absent from a perfect world.

      Unless, of course, you think heroism is a bad thing.

      • donsevers says:

        I’m not claiming that no good can come from suffering. The issue is “does God need THIS MUCH suffering to reach his goals?”

        Your comments are full of ‘coulds’ and ‘cans’. If God is all-powerful, he would never HAVE to use suffering at all. You make God too small. Just because you can’t imagine a way God could put heroism in the world with less suffering does not mean he can’t do it. Besides, God is planning to eventually remove all pain in heaven. What is he waiting for? If he could bring all his faithful to heaven a second sooner and does not, he’s not as loving as he could be.

        >certain positive effects can only come about through suffering?

        Only? Give God some credit. He’s very clever. And if this were true, we’d all be chopping our arms and legs off to get the positive effects this guy talks about:

        http://www.lifewithoutlimbs.org/

        No, we avoid suffering whenever we can. When it happens anyway, we try to capitalize on it. Sure, we need to feel the burn to build muscle. But that’s only because our muscles evolved that way. IF God had ordained it, he could have made it possible for us to build muscle without the burn, or with less of it. He really could have. There is no contradiction in it.

        >If nothing ever went wrong, then humanity would never have the opportunity to act heroically. It is an unfortunate reality

        But we just don’t value heroism this much. When we do, it’s called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, where we create or allow a dangerous situation to unfold, then jump in to be the hero. This is sadistic and abusive.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnchausen_syndrome_by_proxy

        All these attempts to defend God rely on making him weak, constrained or not very smart. You can’t have it both ways. If God is all-powerful, he could have done better. Humans frequently improve the human condition. If we can do it, God could.

        • Paul Buller says:

          It’s fairly ironic that you point out that I include many “coulds” and “cans” but your replies seem stocked full of them. For instance you express the blind and unsubstantiated opinion that, “If God is all-powerful, he could have done better.” If you can demonstrate how a world without suffering could also include heroism I’m all ears, otherwise it’s just your unsubstantiated opinion being paraded as fact. You are welcome to hold your opinions, but in order for me to accept them I need more than just speculation that a better world is possible without any loss in the excellence that the human experience entails.

          • donsevers says:

            I addressed the heroism claim. It is sadistic to create unnecessary opportunities for heroism. Heroism is a response to an unwanted situation. By my values, a world where it was never needed would be better. I hope I never have to save my kids from a fire.

            Is your devotion to God based, even in part, on the fact that he creates opportunities for heroism?

          • donsevers says:

            But your point is well-taken. IF heroism was worthwhile, then God has done the right thing in creating a world where it is needed.

            At this point, we would have to ask if God was right in valuing heroism. Some values exclude others. For example, if we value heroism, we have to be willing to scare the daylights out of little kids.

            I don’t value heroism that much. I’d much rather not need it. God doesn’t need it. Really. There is no contradiction in it.

          • donsevers says:

            Finally, if you just trust that God knows what he’s doing, that there simply must be a good reason for making the world the way it is, then Christianity devolves into authoritarianism. If we follow mere power without holding God to some standard of good besides himself, then Good loses all meaning.

  6. Paul Buller says:

    Don,

    When you first commented you wrote, “If we accept any treatment from God and still say he is loving, then ‘loving’ means nothing.” When I said we had gone in a full circle it was because you wrote, “The problem here is that, if we say God is loving no matter what he does, then ‘loving’ has no meaning.” After hopping down several rabbit trails we ended up precisely where we started, a sure sign that we are talking past each other. Hence the futility of continuing.

    However, I am glad to see that you affirm that the moral virtue of heroism would be impossible in a world free of suffering. This entire subject is very difficult to tackle in comment boxes so I am already mulling another blog entry to really dive into it. I have several other subjects in the queue and am obviously dealing with family issues so I’m not sure when I’ll have time to address it. Still, thanks for raising the issues. Cheers.

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