I remember several years ago when my wife and I left the United Pentecostal Church. It all began when we started to question some of the church’s core doctrines. On the surface, the UPC had an array of dogmas that seemed to be firmly rooted in Scripture. However, once we saw that these dogmas were based upon a poor hermeneutic method, the tower toppled very quickly. One question or observation led to another, which led to another, and so on, until all of a sudden we found ourselves disagreeing with virtually every aspect of what the UPC believed. It was a life-changing experience, and so it was with my move from the Christian faith into Agnosticism.
In early 2017, I began to question practices and doctrines that no longer made sense. One of these was prayer, certainly a core Christian practice. I didn’t understand the need for prayer, given the fact that the Christian God was (supposedly) sovereign. He was going to do what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, no matter what we humans said or thought. Now, some of you may be thinking, “What about free will? What about prayer changing the mind of God?” In order to answer that question properly, I need to take a moment to explain the will of man and the sovereignty of God according to two different Christian factions. There are those who believe in the complete sovereignty of God in all things, or Calvinists (named after the theologian John Calvin, who lived in the 1500s), and those who believe in the free will of man, or Arminians (named after the theologian Jacobus Arminius of roughly the same era). And, as always, there are variations in between.
Regardless of which camp one may fall in, prayer presents a problem. If we believe God is sovereign in all things, and all things have been fore-ordained or predestined, then there is no prayer that one could pray that would affect the mind of God or the outcome of a situation. To put it another way, if it is God’s will for your loved one to die of cancer, it will happen. There is nothing you can do to prevent it or to change it once it begins to take place (why God would do this is another discussion for another day). Calvinism is, in a sense, fatalism.
On the other hand, if we believe God grants us free will, and that our prayers can change his mind, then that, too, presents its own problems. First of all, if God has a perfect plan for someone’s life (and wouldn’t it have to be perfect if he created it?), and he allows said plan to be changed by prayer, is the resulting plan more perfect than the first? Whether one answers yes or no is irrelevant; in either case, it means that one of the plans God created wasn’t as good as the other, and therefore, not perfect. Additionally, how is it even possible for an unchanging God (Numbers 23:19, Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17) to change his mind? How can he be persuaded through prayer?
Another difficulty with prayer is that most Christians consider their prayers heard and answered, regardless of the outcome of a situation. If someone prays for a healing and gets it, then God must have healed her. If another person prays for a healing of the same malady, yet isn’t healed, then God must have wanted her to suffer graciously and learn a lesson. Or perhaps God wanted to heal her, but couldn’t, because of her lack of faith, sin in her life, etc. This “believe-regardless-of-the-outcome” approach masks the objective truth: that prayers simply aren’t effective.
Kenneth Daniels, in his excellent book, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary, acknowledged this dilemma:
If something unusually favorable happens to us, and if we have asked God for such a blessing prior to its occurrence, we become convinced it is an answer to prayer, the result of divine intervention. If our requests are not granted, it must not have been God’s will, and we more readily allow these experiences to slip from our minds than the positive ones. This approach allows us to “count the hits” and “discount the misses,” so to speak. Such a selective memory will lead to the conviction that God is active in our life and that he responds to our prayers (p. 281).
If I could summarize my nearly forty years of praying, it would certainly be “counting the hits and discounting the misses.” It is my belief that, if people are honest with themselves, they would say the same. Prayer may make someone feel better, but it doesn’t actually help anyone. In fact, I would argue it does the opposite. It allows men to believe they have contributed to a problem – helping the homeless, for example – instead of actually doing something to alleviate it.