Last week, we looked at some background of what prayer is (and is not), and what possible reasons God might have for not answering prayers the way we think they should be answered. This week, I’d like to continue with the 2nd and 3rd potential objections of skeptics that I mentioned last week: competing prayers and coincidence.
One might question how God can answer prayers when millions of people are praying for often-competing goals. For instance, what does God do when both sides of a battle are praying for victory? The issue there isn’t who’s side is God on, but who is on God’s side. God’s not going to violate His holiness to answer anyone’s prayers. James told the early church that they asked and did not receive because of their wrong motives [James 4:3] Matthew Henry expands on that in his commentary, saying, “When men ask of God prosperity, they often ask with wrong aims and intentions. If we thus seek the things of this world, it is just in God to deny them.” Selfish motives are often a cause of unanswered prayer. But what about sincerely offered and purely-motivated prayers that nevertheless require contradictory answers, like a couple praying for good weather for their wedding day while a local farmer prays for rain for his crops? This comes back to God’s omniscience and His sovereignty. He is the only one with perfect foreknowledge of how an answer to prayers would play out in the long run for each party asking for opposing results, and is therefore uniquely qualified to judge truly fairly between competing requests. Also, it is within His right as Creator to answer in the way He sees best, maybe a “yes” for one, maybe a “no”, maybe a “not yet.”
But what about people from different religions praying for opposing things? Does God answer Christians on Sundays, Muslims on Mondays, and so on? Does He pick the most sincere prayers from each religious group to answer? As politically incorrect as it is to say these days, this comes down to whether they are praying to the true God or not. All religions simply are not equal. As Jesus said, nobody comes to the Father but through Him.[John 14:6] In this case, there aren’t actually conflicting prayers, because the Christian’s prayers are directed to the true God, while the prayers of a follower of a false religion, however sincere they may be, are not.
A final objection to the legitimacy of prayer is that the skeptic might say that prayer doesn’t actually “work”, and that any appearances to the contrary are only coincidence. It is true that God often orchestrates natural events in such a way as to accomplish His will. And part of our growth as Christians is aligning our will with His. So our prayers that are aligned with His purposes are often fulfilled in ways that could be explained solely via natural events, however unlikely the chain of events may become. So, are we Christians being biased toward God and seeing divine intervention when there was none? That’s a fair question to ask. But we should distinguish between different types of causes first. For instance, we could say my sipping coffee was the result of hot water percolating through finely ground coffee into a cup. Or, we could say that it’s the result of my choice to fill the coffeemaker with water, put a filter in, fill it with coffee grounds, choose a cup, turn the machine on, and push the button. The coffee ingredients coming together in a certain way may describe the physical causes necessary for my invigorating caffeine intake, but just as critical is the agent (me) involved to start those physical events occurring, guide them, and sometimes intervene if they go off-course. To ignore the agent behind the physical causes is to not really answer how the final result came to be.
In fact, all of us instinctively recognize what Bill Dembki calls the “design inference”: when a result didn’t have to happen of necessity, and there appears to be a goal-oriented nature to the result that defies explanation by chance. We are justified then in supposing there to be an agent behind the events. Consider a more familiar example: a staple of American western movies is to have a scene where a cheating gambler is called out because the other players recognize his winning streak is not just the luck of the draw. Why does a fight break out over his “random” card selections? His supposedly randomly-dealt cards have had a suspiciously contrived appearance and a very non-random effect: repeatedly taking all of the other players’ money! It’s that aspect of recognizing events working toward a predefined goal, or an independent pattern, that often leads us (in hindsight) to recognize a design behind the events. In fact, an end goal and the ability to select between alternatives to achieve that goal are the two primary characteristics of any design. And design always requires a designer.
Many Christians have witnessed extraordinary chains of events in their lives that led them to accept that design inference, and look for the Designer behind the events, and devote their lives to Him. Whether it was in the form of answered prayers, or divine guidance and protection before they ever even knew enough to ask, they look back and recognize God’s hand in their lives. And through it all, regardless of whether our prayers are answered the way we wanted, we can trust that God’s way is ultimately the best way.