Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, December 02, 2005

Problems of Prayer

Problems of Prayer
Edited 3/3/08

There are some problems presented regarding prayer that are sometimes given. In the first place - 'Does God change his mind to answer prayer?' A problem often given to philosophy of religion students. The second is the hurt from unanswered prayer, and whether we can explain the apparently similar sufferings of those who pray and those who do not. I will analyse these issues as best I can and present a solution here.

In regard to the first problem, God is omniscient (in addition God is timeless which can also present problems to a God changing his mind.) If God is omniscient he knows the entire future and thus would never need to change his mind about anything - as nothing can surprise him. But if he never changes his mind then it doesn't matter if we pray or not. Thus in the final analysis, prayer would seem to be useless.

The flaw in this argument is that it is not necessarily the case that God needs to change his mind for prayer to be useful. And the reason for this is in analysis of the concept of 'possible worlds'. Let us say that for a possible world, a God exists in it who foresees everything in it. Suppose in that world a person suffers a hurt and prays to God about it. Now, in this world from the very conception of God's thoughts God knew that this person would hurt and pray to him, therefore he has it fixed in his mind to help that person at the appropriate time. No problems here so far.

However let us say in another world a person suffers a hurt and does not pray to God about it. God, not being the type of God to interfere without prayer, foresees these events from his timeless being and thus does not act to help this individual. In this world, God foresaw from the very beginning this person would suffer harm but decided to do nothing because the person didn't pray. So in this world, God does nothing to help a person and does not change his mind.

However if both these possible worlds are the result of a free choice by the individual in question - to pray or not to pray then prayer must have an effect. Because in both possible worlds split by that person's choice, the existence of divine aid is strictly dependent on whether he decided to pray.

The answer how is in the idea that God's actions are contingent on the events in our world. But for God's actions to be contingent on events in a possible world in no sense requires the idea of God changing his mind. God can eternally foresee the future and thus eternally make up his mind on events in that future - hence a future with or without prayer can be differentiated. With prayer, God foresees and decides to act, without prayer, God foresees and decides not to act. Therefore properly said the problem is dissolved, because it is in no way necessary for prayer to have an effect to have God change his mind.

Now there is another objection to this notion of prayer and God changing his mind that is different from that one. This objection is that if God is good and impartial, which all Christians firmly believe, then we would not need to ask God in prayer for anything, because he would already do what he could to answer it without needing to be asked. This is supported somewhat in the Lords Prayer:

6:7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 6:8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

The answer is of course - if God is omniscient we wouldn't need to prayer, he is good and will answer our prayers even if we do not pray. But more controversially, one could even say that God is indiscriminate in doing good in the world. For example, take this verse:

5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 5:45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 5:46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 5:47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

If God is being self-consistent here, we must say that God must do good to both righteous and unrighteous, Christian and non-Christian. So in fact the result we have here is that, first of all God helps people without asking, and secondly the God helps everyone without asking.

Well, for philosophical reasons also we should believe this. A good man, if he sees that I am in pain will, if there is some obvious antidote do what he can to help me. A good God would foresee our pain and do what he could to answer any prayer we could conceivably ask. Therefore it is quite obvious that we have profound philosophical reasons for believing God would want to help everyone and help people without asking, indiscriminately.

Now of course, this leads into the problem of evil. But as Christians we don't think that there is a problem of evil, because we believe there is some kind of theodicy. A total explanation for evil in our world. And a theodicy would of course entail that there must be some evil in our world for a greater good. So Christians believe that there is some evil that must be and cannot be answered in prayer because God has a greater good in keeping it.

The point is that let us say that, first of all, God helps everyone even without asking, and that secondly there is some necessary evil in the world. Well surprisingly, the result is that if there is such a world, we could not tell that world from a world in which there was no God. And this is because, if there is a world where God helps everyone indiscriminately and there is some evil that must be, then what we would observe would be a world where there is some evil that indiscriminately hurts people, good and bad, righteous and unrighteous. This world is very much like ours. And of course, if there was no God then the same would entail, but there would of course, be far more evil as there would be no theodicy. But we can't actually tell what world we live in - because we can't tell what evil is being eliminated by God via prayer or his own goodness. We can't tell if the amount of evil in our world is similar to a world with or without theodicy because we have no alternative world to compare it with - we only have this one. Therefore I can conclude that there is no hypothesis that explains the situation in our world better than the hypothesis of a God who indiscriminately helps people and has a theodicy for evil.

Now the pastoral theme becomes apparent - which is that if our prayer has no effect then we needn't worry. If the world I am describing is correct, then God is good enough to answer the prayers of everyone, even those who do not pray, so we can't measure our prayers versus those of others. And secondly God helps everyone therefore everyone would seem to suffer the same. And thirdly there is some necessary evil in the world which explains why we suffer what we do. This hopefully relieves some tension from unanswered prayer.


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