Recently, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about prayer. Some of its core concepts don't seem to jive with Christianity's other core concepts, and I want to explore those contradictions below. However, before we get into my central question for those that regularly engage in prayer and believe in its power, I want to get clear on the topic of just how ironclad God's will really is.
The first order of business is to ensure we're on the same page about a key detail. Do you believe that God’s will is mutable? Do you think any force in this universe can alter God’s will? It is my understanding that most Christians would answer this question, “No.”, e.g. — God’s will is immutable, and beyond influence.
For instance, as a kid in Sunday school, I remember hearing grand claims to the tune of, “God knows every hair on your head. He knows how many will fall out tomorrow, and how many will grow back.” This is obviously an incredible level of specificity, unlikely to be spelled out in the Bible verbatim, but was (and still is) repeated often enough to make me assume it a reasonable conclusion given the text.
If my understanding of the above is correct, my follow-up question for the prayers among us is:
It seems that the certainty of tomorrow, from God’s perspective, makes requests for prayer from his human followers contradictory at best. Can the future, which is said to be completely spelled out according to God’s will, be altered by silent requests from closed-eyed humans?
For example, let’s say that you come down with the flu. Naturally, the first response for a Christian is to pray and ask for God’s healing. However, given the above, it would seem that God has already made up his mind on exactly how long you should be sick. Could a desperate prayer really alter the agenda and persuade him to shave off a few days?
Let’s take this a step further. Let’s say that after a day of earnest prayer, your symptoms linger. Most Christians would assume this a sign that God’s will was not to heal you at that time. God has a plan for you, and this absolves him of failing to answer your prayers for restored health. Though simply mean at first glance, maybe your illness will keep you from attending an event, thus thwarting a car accident on the way, or something of the like. Such a benefit-of-the-doubt mindset from Christians toward God dispels most tough questions about "unanswered prayers".
But here’s the crux: Given that you have prayed for health, and those prayers seem to have gone unanswered, presumably for a good reason humans simply cannot understand, this would seem to mean that any subsequent doctor’s visit is in direct conflict with the accepted understanding of God’s will for you.
I say again:
If a Christian comes down with the flu which, if left untreated, will naturally run its course over 6 days, and their prayers for healing fall on deaf ears, does taking Tamiflu to shorten the illness to just 2.5 days thwart, or align with, God’s plan?
A few possible answers to this question come to mind, so let’s think them through.
This assertion bestows at least one positive effect on its believers — defaulting to action. Such a Christian feeling the flu’s onset will not hesitate to seek a doctor’s council and take their prescribed medicine. The pill will likely go down with a quick prayer for God to guide the medicine to victory, and the flu will be shortened to 2.5 days.
However, God’s motives here become extremely hazy. Sure, maybe the car accident this flu steered you clear of was only on day one, so your illness needn’t continue past that. But if so, can we think of no better way to achieve this end than bestowing between 2.5 and 6 days of fever on a hapless Christian?
Additionally, why require the person to “help themselves” at all? If shortened illness is in the cards anyway, but only attainable when paired with self-help, God would seem to be oddly invested in creating doctor’s visits for doctor’s visits’ sake.
If a sudden flu causes me to clear my calendar and thus avoid some unforeseen danger, in an immutable world, there was no unforeseen danger. If the future is set in stone, I’m simply going to get sick tomorrow, not take to the roads to meet my friends for dinner, and thus not read any text messages while driving, and thus not get into a car accident.
I liken God to an author, and the world to his novel. This seems to be a reasonable analogy, given an author’s absolute power over the contents of their novel. Imagine an author, while planning out their novel’s plot, decides that a character is walking down the sidewalk toward an interview for what would ultimately become a bad job — employment that the character, looking back on from a future date, would rather never have had. However, the author then decides that a sprained ankle along the way will slow them down, thus making them late to the interview, thus preventing them from ever attaining the toxic employment. The author feels clever for steering their character away from such a draining waste of time and energy, and high-fives themselves for taking care of their character.
The author’s pleasure with themselves is oddly placed, however, because there never was any toxic employment. The novel will only exist in one way (barring endless fan fiction!), and that way was never going to entail the ill-fated job. The author didn’t spare the character anything, readers won’t have the slightest hint of what was narrowly avoided, and in truth, the author did nothing but grant a sprained ankle for no reason.
This is a tricky concept, but returning to my flu and car accident, God has abjectly not spared me from anything. The hypothetical car accident is one of an infinite number of equally possible outcomes my dinner with friends could have produced. Just as likely was meeting a single friend-of-a-friend that I would later date, and eventually marry, but now will never know. Additionally, I could have found a hair in my soup and enjoyed a free meal on the house. However, in a world spelled out by God’s immutable plan, none of those were ever going to happen. Only one thing was going to happen — the flu, because that’s the only thing God wrote into his novel.
Unlike the belief of God helping those who help themselves, which at least defaults a Christian to action, this particular belief bestows no identifiable benefit. Additionally, it is also at complete odds with an immutable future.
To even consider this reality, where my prayer or lack thereof dictates the length of my flu, or the result of my job interview, or any other endeavor, is to entertain a universe where tomorrow is unknown to God. This must be so, of course, since if God knows how and when I will pray, then he would also presumably know his reactions to that prayer, and thus we’re quickly back to an immutable future.
For my prayers to have any ability to “unlock” God’s plan for me, God must be just as curious about tomorrow’s weather, stock prices, and human scalp activity as any of us.
The obvious conclusion of this theory — that such a God is not all-powerful — should go without stating. Thus, I assume most conventional Christians must reject this theory of prayer “unlocking” an optimal future.
If God is all-powerful, God knows tomorrow. If God knows tomorrow, our prayers cannot change it. But if our prayers can change tomorrow, God must either not know about our prayers, or he already knows how they will affect tomorrow.
Put another way, if God is all-powerful, then he has 100% of the power, leaving none for us. If our prayer has an ability to influence the flow of time and events, then we have some of the power, reducing his to sub-100%.
God cannot both be all-powerful and have granted some power to our prayers. Both things simply cannot be true.
Most Christians pray. This is a simple fact, repeatedly justified by the Bible’s contents. Again and again, verses relay God’s apparent command to Christians to regularly bow knee and head in prayer, to thank God for providence and to ask for it again tomorrow.
However, in thinking about prayer’s place in an immutable universe, I am left feeling like the system’s creators — be they divine or terrestrial — failed to think it all the way through. If those creators were divine, it would seem clear that something was lost in the translation. And if the creators were terrestrial, well, I don’t hold the imaginings of 1st century men in very high regard, so inconsistencies suddenly become the expectation instead of a source of mystery. In either scenario, prayer is relegated to rather thin ice.
I hold no allusions that this post will single-handedly tear Christian readers away from their tradition of prayer. However, I would ask of you one thing: next time you bow your knee and head to talk to God, consider your words from his perspective. Consider how difficult a task he must have both adhering to his universal plan and granting your wishes.
If you find peace somewhere amid this apparent controversy, I’d love to hear about it. Everyone — prayers and non-prayers alike — are welcome to state their case in the comments below!