Suppose you are walking along a beach and you come across these lines scrawled in the sand:
Our vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires and more slow
What would you think?
- That you had received a message from God
- That some human had been musing on Andrew Marvell’s poetry
- That some random process of wind and sea and sand crabs had accidentally produced marks resembling words
Certainly, it is possible to believe any of these. Yet I think most people would assume that the lines had been written by some human agent.
Now suppose you investigated and found that no one had visited that stretch of beach for days. Suppose you were able to show beyond doubt that the lines could not have been written by a human being. Then what would you believe? If the lines had to have been written by a non-human agent, which is more likely: God or nature?
I confess I don’t know. As a theist, I’m not even sure that a distinction between the two is significant. (In other words, if I were able to witness the words being formed by wind and sea and sand crabs, I don’t think I would find it any less supernatural.) I think I would cling to the notion that a human agent must be involved. After all, why would God quote Marvell?
For many people prayer is a what you do when the situation is out of your control. If you can’t stop your child from using drugs or you can’t seem to get out from under a mountain of debt or you can’t seem to attract the admiration of that cute girl in your history class, then you go to God and ask for help. You may just ask, or if you are really desperate, you may try bargaining. “I’ll never tell another lie if I can just have this one thing”—as if you could somehow benefit God by not sinning. Behind these kinds of prayers lurks a misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer and what God is like.
If God really is all that Christians have claimed: all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present; then prayer as an attempt to manipulate him makes no sense. How can you or I expect to alter the Unalterable? Can our petitions move God to consider circumstances he didn’t know about? Can we appeal to his compassion on the basis of his ignorance? Ridiculous! “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt 6:8) So why pray?
If prayer has no effect on God, what good is it?
Troops going into battle take a radio with them so they can maintain contact with their headquarters. They don’t use the radio to plead with their commander to stop the war and get them out of the battle. They don’t try to change their commander’s objectives at all. Instead they use the radio to get detailed instructions on how to pursue the commander’s objectives and to request whatever they need to press the battle forward. If they are low on ammunition, they ask for more. If they have captured a town, they wait to learn what their next objective should be. The radio was not given to them for their comfort or so they could listen to their favorite shows. It is not designed to further their pursuits at all but to help win the war.
Prayer is like the combat radio. If we approach it as a means to our own ends, it will disappoint us. But if we abandon our own ends and pray unceasingly for God’s will to be done in this world, then we will not only see miracles, we will do them.