Prayer should be the intersection between the natural and the supernatural. This is a critical discussion comparing and contrasting the promises of prayer in the bible, our expectations and our observations. I use the first person, using myself, or my former Christian persona as an example.
Here were my presumptions:
- The Bible is the revealed word of God through a collection of mostly anecdotes. The only evidence I have for that is tradition and the belief of the majority of others in my community of believers and also the precautionary principle as demonstrated by Pascals Wager.
- I am told that prayers work by a large community, and have anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Also the anecdotal evidence supports what the Bible says about prayer. The bible says the following about prayer.
A. * 2 Chronicles 7:14 "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
B. * Psalm 145:18,19 "The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him. He will also hear their cry and save them."
C. * Proverbs 15:8b "…The prayer of the upright is His delight."
D. * Isaiah 45:11 "Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel…ask of Me of things to come concerning My sons; and concerning the work of My hands, you command Me."
E. * Isaiah 65:24 "It shall come to pass that before they call I will answer; and while they are still speaking I will hear."
F. * Jeremiah 33:3 "Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know."
G. * Mark 11:24 "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them."
H. * John 14:13,14 "And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name I will do it."
I. * John 15:7 "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it shall be done for you."
J. * John 16:23,24 "…Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you…ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."
K. * Romans 8:26 "Likewise the Spirit also helps our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."
L. * 1 Peter 3:12 "For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to his prayers."
M. * 1 John 5:14,15 "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him."
Anecdotal evidence is regarded as weak and defeasible.
In the list above, of which may not be all inclusive, only A, B, G, H, I, L and M have qualifiers that could justify an unanswered prayer. It would seem that all the bases are covered.
- A. conditions are "humble themselves and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways".
- B. conditions are "He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him".
- G. conditions are "believe that you receive them".
- H. conditions are "whatever you ask in My [Jesus] name", which is an added qualifier, different from the old testament.
- I. conditions are "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you".
- L. conditions are " righteous".
- M. conditions are "according to his will".
I would like to point out that there is no comprehensive list anywhere in the bible that talks about the conditions of prayer. I think that is an oversight that I would not expect if the Holy Spirit was responsible for the text through the ages.
So what is the point of prayer?
I think it is the method that god provided to us to interact with him. It is a point of intersection between the natural and the supernatural. It would seem to be a good place for a test. And if it is meant as the method that god provided to interact with us, I think that I could reasonably expect god to want to participate. Since he knows how we think, he would know that this would give us confidence about our relationship. Relationships are more successful when we know we can trust our partner. And in fact, unless I am remembering wrong, our relationship with Jesus is supposed to be the perfect example of a marriage. Since this is the case we should be able to show that intercessory prayer works. However in at least ten studies, it didn't (Power of Prayer, American Heart Journal). If the testing method is alleged to be faulty, then I think it is the responsibility of Christians to set up a double blind test with the participation of non Christian experts with a protocol that is agreeable to everyone to show that prayers work.
So lets say that Christians set up a test as described above and that out of 1000 studies, some numbers of prayer work. And in the control group, the same thing happens. The results are inconclusive. This seems to be the typical outcome in scientific prayer studies (suspect or not). In the control group, some reasons this could be are the test protocol is invalid or has been compromised, god was skewing the odds for some reason, or that chance is just as effective as prayer. If we assume that god is skewing the odds for the reason that he won't permit us to test him, that would seem to mean that it is impossible to test prayer and the only reliable way of knowing that prayer works is to maintain the sanctity of the intent and look at the personal interaction. We could keep our own prayer log. But in this case, we can expect god would know and once again skew the odds. Therefore we can't use any empirical method to test prayer. But since it seems to work sometimes, it is evidence of a miracle. And the investigation into the odds of how likely it would be to turn out the same way to due to chance is given no thought.
Empirical studies have shown that the following are likely to be true, and sufficient to use as presumptions in research.
- People are naturally terrible at estimating probability.
- People are naturally terrible at perceiving and interpreting probabilistic data.
- People "remember the hits and forget the misses"
- People like stories and are willing to give the teller of the story the benefit of the doubt about the truth of it.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it comes from someone they like.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it is believed by the larger group.
- People will change their evidence based viewpoint if it contradicts the viewpoint of the group.
- People overestimate the degree of belief in others.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it fits with what they already believe or want to believe.
- People are likely to use the precautionary principle as illustrated by Pascals Wager in minimizing risk.
These schemes of reasoning are detailed in the books such as the ones I have read "How We Know What Isn't So" by Thomas Gilovich, and to a smaller degree Daniel OKeefe's "Theories of Persuasion" and Robert Cialdini's "Influence". Cialdinis "six weapons of influence" depend on a couple of them. These are common patterns of reasoning that can be identified and predicted. In fact they are used effectively in Politics and Advertising and they explain the persistence of the existence of the "rumor mill".
There is a concept called "Negative Evidence", "Negative evidence is the absence of evidence that might reasonably be expected to be found were the issue in question true" (Freeley, 113). There is another concept known as "Ockhams Razor". Ockhams Razor states that when given the choice of options for an explanation, the one that is less complicated or depends on less variables is more likely to be correct. Using the data contained in the books listed above and my personal experience with prayer, I think a simpler hypothesis to explain prayer is that it is a myth.
So lets stipulate for a minute that I am an amateur and that reading a few biased books doesn't mean anything with regards to the truth of the lord. With this stipulation in place I would like some expert to explain my recent experience.
My 86 year old grandmother was a model of righteousness in her church community. Without getting into it here, only condition M fits her circumstances, it which case it was gods will that she die a slow, painful and humiliating death from cancer in the face. The intercessory prayer of her church community had no noticeable effect. This is the personal prayer experience of a community of presumably righteous Christians. This is the way I predicted it would happen based on probability. Why not answer the prayers and let her die in her sleep and get around the suffering?
I have no reason to believe in supernatural factors with regards to my prayers or "my walk with god". And I assert that no one else does either. If they do, I'd like to see them because a world with a loving god in it manipulating things for the better is something that I would be interested in.
American Heart Journal. Intercessory Prayer.
"anecdotal evidence." Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 2007. Answers.com 11 Mar. 2007.
Freeley, Austin J. 1993. Argumentation and Debate: Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision Making 8th ed. Wadsworth Publishing Company
Cialdini, Robert. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. Boston. Allyn and Bacon.
Gilovich, Thomas. 1991. How We Know What Isn't So. New York. The Free Press: A division of Macmillan, Inc.
"Ockham's razor." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com 11 Mar. 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/occam-s-razor
Okeefe, Daniel J. 1990. Persuasion Theory and Research. Newbury Park, California. Sage Publications.
Power of Prayer. New York Times.