Thursday, January 18, 2018

Prayer is a way more difficult subject than Quantum Mechanics

Not long from now one of our elders is going to teach a Sunday School series on the subject of prayer. I look forward to his class. One reason is that he is a gifted teacher. Another reason is that I believe prayer is the most difficult of all biblical subjects (especially when you toss in a strong Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty.) Any teaching that improves my understanding of prayer is appreciated.  When I was teaching more theological topics, prayer was one topic that I would never even attempt.

I thought about this because I came across this post: 4 Reasons why God Isn’t Answering Your Prayers  from David Qaoud, a Reformed seminarian. The post is well-written and in my opinion theologically sound—and I’m sure Mr. Qaoud is heading for a productive life of ministry to the Kingdom. So probably it’s just me, but the post says just about everything that causes me to cringe when I read  about prayer. I don't mean this as a personal attack on Mr. Qaoud--everything just about anyone has ever written on prayer, even the biggest of big names, has left me unsatisfied. 

I do have to criticize one part of the post. It starts off with a familiar platitude that actually causes me to stifle a scream.

God answers every prayer – but he often says “no”.

What does that even mean? I will believe this to be a meaningful statement if anyone can explain a substantive difference between God not answering a prayer, and God answering “no”.

Let's take a look at the four reasons Mr. Qaoud provides.

1. You are not a Christian
Mr. Qaoud’s first of four reasons is that God doesn’t answer your prayer because you are not a Christian.  He then properly adds the nuance that, in reality, God might answer the prayers of an unbeliever. (And after all, we do encourage unbelievers to pray for repentance and faith, do we not?)  God, however, nowhere promises to answer their prayers.

Fair enough.  But since God does promise to answer the prayers of believers, this exacerbates the angst when a prayer goes unanswered, for it nibbles away at assurance. That’s not a flaw with Mr. Qaoud’s first reason—it’s just the way it is. It's another sign that nobody has a good theology of prayer--it's an enigma.

2. Because  your prayer doesn’t align with God’s will
To me this is as unhelpful as “God did answer, but He answered no.”And really, it's just a variation of the same theme. What is outside of God’s will is not going to happen, what is aligned with his will (his decretive will at least) is ordained. To me, this says: event E will occur or not occur independent and in spite of, not because of, your prayer. And you know what, I believe that to be the case, but I don’t find it a useful reason as to why my prayers are not answered.

3. Because your motives don’t align with God’s Ways
Here Mr. Qaoud invokes James’ epistle: 
You ask and do not receive, because you ask [c]with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:3). 
But this, again, is another variation on the same theme. My prayer isn’t answered, because my motives are impure. My motives are impure, so my prayer will not be answered. Just like with God’s will, (reason 2) while it is undoubtedly true, as a reason it fails to satisfy because it is tautological.

4. Because you’re not showing your wife honor and living with her in an understanding way.
Same horse, different color.

Let me summarize. You pray for a child to be cured. The child is not cured. The reasons are surely your fault. One or more of these gets God off the hook:
  1. You are not really a Christian
  2. Your prayer doesn’t align with God’s will
  3. You have impure motives
  4. You do not honor your spouse 

Rats. I want a coherent, self-consistent, non-tautological theology of prayer, consistent with my Calvinism, that doesn’t consist of reasons that read like loopholes or fine-print escape clauses.  I pray for such insight. I do not think I’ll ever find one on this side of the river.

For what it is worth, this is as far as I ever got on a personal theology on prayer:

Given what I believe about God’s sovereignty:
  • I pray because God, through his Word, commands me to pray.
  • I don’t expect my prayer will affect God’s actions.
  • It is a privilege to pray, to commune with God, to enter, boldly, the throne of grace. (And I need to remind myself of this regularly, because it often seems more of a burden than an unspeakable privilege.)
  • It is therapeutic, which might just be the humanistic spin on it being a means of grace.

That’s all I got, and I ain't got no more. And it has no answer for unanswered prayer—and I refuse to accept the dreaded “it was answered, but the answer was no.”


  1. Therapeutic is a very valid reason. We aren't God and don't have the capacity to carry the weight of our concerns, sorrow, etc. ourselves nor are we supposed to. Look at all the Psalms where the writer core dumps it all out.

  2. You might want to edit your title . . .

    Feel free to delete this comment.

    1. I type "that" and get "than" (and vice versa) 50% of the time. And I never catch it. Thanks!

    2. And That's me, not my son answering the comment. He, in fact, never misspells anything.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.