Saturday, January 26, 2008

Q4H: Unrestricted prayer power?

My wife Amy and I have had some interesting discussions as of late regarding certain beliefs held by some friends of ours about some of the more supernatural aspects of Christianity. I'll not go into all those things in this post, but one axiom, if you will, of those beliefs leaves me with some questions. The axiom is simply this: if you ask anything in Jesus' name, believing that you'll receive it, you'll get it. That's all there is to it.

The reading schedule that I and others are using to read through the Bible in its entirety this year employs the following pattern: weekdays take us sequentially through the Old Testament (minus Psalms) and with a sprinkle of Proverbs; Saturdays through the New Testament (with more Proverbs); and Sunday through Psalms. So today's reading had us in Matthew, and coincidentally covered two different instances of Jesus stating this very axiom. In Matthew 18:19-20, he says, "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them." And then later in Matthew 21:22, Jesus tells his disciples (who are wondering how it was that he was able to cause a fig tree to instantly wither), "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." Presumably, it is on these promises that many stand when they seek to perform Jesus-like signs and wonders (faith healing, exorcism, etc.). And why not? As written, those are some serious promises! But as presented by our gospel authors, are they, in fact, complete and true? Shouldn't there be a clause in there that limits the promise to only those things that align with God's will? For some folks, no.

I recall a conversation I had about this with one of our friends who claimed this promise as-is without the "will of God" qualifier. And many folks do, believing that they can actually bend the will of God through prayer. I'm skeptical about such a seemingly wide open promise, though, and my skepticism actually began to turn into a bit of anger. I was compelled to ask why, if so many people believed exactly as she did — that anything asked for in Jesus' name would be granted to those that believe — no one had stepped up to organize a group prayer to end hunger and famine and war worldwide once and for all time. I mean, shame on anyone who lays claim to power of that magnitude and fails to use it to do good! Unfortunately I can't remember her response now. Perhaps her "out" was that the askers don't meet the faith requirement of the promise — that they don't really think these worldwide problems can end.

This actually runs right alongside some of the statements made recently by Michael Shermer — the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine — who was curious about the apparent limitations of miracles. In a recent debate with Dinesh D'Souza, and referring to soldiers returning from war today missing arms and legs, he asks (as you can see at about 5 minutes into this video clip), "Why does nobody pray for them to grow a new limb? Why can't God grow a new limb? A salamander can do it! Surely the creator of the universe can do it."

Again, maybe we just lack the faith to get it done. Or maybe God has decided that these days He'd prefer to do only the second class of miracles described by Dinesh later in the debate — using natural means, but driving them in ways they wouldn't naturally go themselves, to accomplish the supernatural. Or, given the staggering improbability that all the physical laws and forces and constants and such would turn out just right to support our Universe and our life in it, perhaps everything we know is just one giant miracle. Maybe those who need "to see it to believe it" are just out of luck, as the seeing requires belief.

Or maybe my friend has tunnel-vision, and is ignoring other Scriptures which indicate that there is a must-comply-with-God's-will clause. We read in I John 5:14-15 that "if we ask anything according to [God's] will, He hears us." The Lord's Prayer (or Model Prayer) even demonstrates humility to God's will with the phrase "[God's] will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Finally, we can examine Jesus' own prayer life. Could there be a more faith-filled, more believing, more humble, more likely-to-bend-God's-will person than Jesus Christ? And yet what was his prayer in his time of greatest need? Luke 22:42 records Jesus as praying just prior to his arrest and crucifixion, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

1 comment:

  1. It's a beautiful hypothesis, and I would love for it to be true. But it's also unfalsifiable (which is different from being true): if someone were to pray for something with what she thinks is great sincerity, and that thing were not to come true, she and her friends could say to themselves "Ah, well, clearly that just means her faith was not complete enough!"

    Thus there's always an out, a hypothesis-preserving way to explain a negative result. This puts the whole idea beyond the realm of human investigation, I think. You either believe it or you don't, but there's no way to ever prove it false or true.