Two Problems with “The Power of Prayer”

For the record, I am so not an atheist nor a cynic! What I am is a guy who’s got the guts to tackle some of the hard topics of Christianity, with a view toward working them out faithfully, honestly, rationally, and responsibly!

Some are exuberant in declaring the “power of prayer”, but I think that the topic is famously oversimplified. So I wanted to make a short post pointing out the two main problems I see with this popular view:

  1. People don’t always get what they pray for. And I’m sorry I don’t know the stats! Just how often do they get what they pray for? 50% of the time? 90% of the time? 10%? I don’t know, but I know it’s not all the time! And this needs to be explained (honestly, rationally, and responsibly)—which means having a deep and wide-ranging discussion that brings in all manner of facts and principles. And yet this is exactly the kind of discussion that the ones promoting the “power of prayer” like this don’t seem to want to have. Some will say, of course, that the prayer was answered with a “no” or with a “later”—or something like that—but this means that the prayer was indeed powerless to bring about what you wanted, doesn’t it? So if nothing else, shouldn’t we at least be diligent enough to edit “Prayer is powerful!” to something more responsible like “Prayer may sometimes be powerful!”?
  2. When you get what you want, it’s very often that prayer wasn’t the ONLY thing going on. Yes, you were praying for the cancer to be cured, but were you not also going to extensive measures in treatment, and in reforming your diet and exercise, too? So, you were not relying solely on prayer, but also on these other things, including the skill of medical personnel. And while it’s great you got what you wanted, you’re really not in a spot to prove that prayer is what did it. It doesn’t prove it either way. That’s my point.
    Or yes, you got a job! But weren’t you also taking steps to find a job yourself? And this is not a proper scientific or logical basis from which to argue, “I know prayer works, because I prayed and I got what I wanted!” Yes, you prayed. And yes, you got better. But no, this does not constitute a valid proof that the prayer is the cause of you getting what you wanted.

So many will readily tell you they believe in the power of prayer, but what we really need to watch out for is when people are talking like this or that proves that prayer is working like they think it is. That’s when it becomes dishonest, irrational, and irresponsible—and especially to be doing that in the name of God!

And here’s a simple honesty test you can give yourself: When you’ve got what you prayed for, are you able to say something like this?:

“I don’t know if God did it, or if it happened some other way, but I’m so excited that I got the outcome I was wanting!”

I think that somehow we can get a little twisted in our church culture, where to say something like that quote just above just doesn’t sound good enough—where we develop some sort of internal need for it to be stronger—where we’re just dying to say it the way other people do—something more like this:

“I asked God to heal me, and he did!”

But the way I see it, if we know that we don’t know for sure, then it’s a sin to proclaim it like we do know for sure. And of all things to be honest about, I’d sure think that God should be one of them!

Well, what’s wrong with it, Jack?

Other than being intellectually dishonest, this kind of overstatement can actually discourage some people very deeply. They’re surrounded by many who constantly assure them about “the power of prayer”, so when they finally are in deep need, and go after it in fervent prayer, then what’s going to happen when they don’t get what they want? They knew they had faith, and yet it didn’t work. And sure enough, it won’t be long before some well-meaning believer tells them that they simply must not have had enough faith, or else, it would have worked out. Or worse, “Well, God’s probably not hearing your prayers because you’re in some unrepented sin.”

These are common hypotheses, and they might sound convincing as Bible-based ideas, but I want you to understand that the first idea here has not been proved to be a Bible-based idea. That is, the idea that prayer is going to be “powerful” whenever a believer employs it. Can you show me where the Bible promises such a thing to us today?

It’s tragic that so many will assume that they can show such a thing—just as they will assume that the one who didn’t get what he prayed for must either not have enough faith, or be in sin.

We can be so mindless!

So, as with so many of my posts, this one is a call to do some better thinking and to wrestle with this issue in an honest, rational, and responsible way that goes way deeper than mere assumptions and the adoption of hearsay and tradition and the memes we see everyday on social media. The Bible can handle being studied rigorously. You’re not going to break it! And the brain can handle it, even if it’s not used to it (unless you’ve trained yours that it can’t!—in which case, you need to retrain it!) And the truth can handle being questioned and worked out. So it seems one of the remaining questions is whether the individual believer has the will to be intellectually honest and diligent like this.

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