For Christians, prayer can be an inexplicable paradox.
I’m sure it’s even worse for nonbelievers. I found a question about prayer by “Snakeystew” (SS) in the Reasonable Faith Forums. Even though this was posted back in 2009, none of the answers in the thread were satisfying to me. Here’s my attempt in answering the challenge.
The Fate of Twins and Prayer
Our friend SS begins with a story:
“Two men are lying in the hospital, both with the same disease and both with the same amount of time left to live. Being twins, these two men are prayed for by the same loved ones with the same amount of feeling and sincerity. One of the men survives and makes a full recovery. The other man dies in abject pain and misery.
Straight away a question comes to mind: Why did God answer the prayer with regards to one of the men but ignore the prayer for the other man?”
SS explains that the usual Christian response is that it wasn’t God’s will for both twins to recover. SS is clearly not satisfied with that response:
“But here is the problem with the standard answer: It makes prayer completely redundant. You pray to God to save your mother from her debilitating illness. You could pray all day, every day for the next million years but if it isn’t God’s will then it’ll never happen – regardless to your efforts. If on the other hand it is God’s will, then it would happen regardless to ever praying for it to happen. If it’s God’s will that your mother survives, that her time to go to heaven has not yet come, then she’ll survive.”
Is SS right? Does God’s will make prayer meaningless?
Why God Says No
First, let’s examine the biblical data on why God doesn’t answer certain prayers. I’m sure there are more reasons in Scripture, but these are a good start. (For more on the topic of unanswered prayer, view my blog here).
1. We Ask with Wrong Motives
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).
2. We Ask in Doubt
“The one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6b-7).
3. We are Living in Sin
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
4. We Love Something More than God
“These men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?” (Ezekiel 14:3).
5. We Aren’t Remaining in Jesus
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
And probably to the disappointment of SS:
6. We Don’t Pray According to God’s Will
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).
The group that prayed for each of the twins wouldn’t fall into categories 1-5 since prayers for one twin were answered. This leaves the reality that SS wanted to avoid: it must not have been God’s will for both twins to survive. That’s hard to swallow, I get it.
But this doesn’t mean that prayer is pointless altogether.
Prayer Makes A Difference
For the sake of argument, let’s say that prayer doesn’t have any impact on the thing we are asking God to do. Nevertheless, it still has an impact on the person praying. It allows the believer to grow closer to God, to learn about what God desires from him, and so on.
However, my main rebuttal to SS is this: prayer still makes a difference.
My personal view is that God does certain things precisely because we ask Him. In other words, certain things wouldn’t happen if we didn’t pray for them. For example, it could be the case that both twins would’ve died if the group didn’t pray for either of them. We just don’t know.
Scripture has plenty of stories where prayer made a significant difference in this world. Here are two of my favorites.
Hezekiah was a king of Judah who became very sick with a terminal illness. The prophet Isaiah came to him and said, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover” (Isaiah 38:1).
So Hezekiah realized his fate and got his house in order. Not exactly. Instead, Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and begged God for more time on earth. God’s response: “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life” (Isaiah 38:6). Prayer makes a difference.
The Israelites pushed God too far this time. While Moses was in God’s presence, the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf of their own creation. God told Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:9).
So Moses realized their fate and left God alone. Not exactly. Instead, Moses begged God to spare His people. God’s response: “The Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (32:14). Prayer makes a difference.
In the end, God’s will doesn’t make prayer meaningless because prayer changes us and makes a real difference in this world. Even though we aren’t in a position to know why God doesn’t answer certain prayers, followers of Christ trust that God ultimately knows best. If you are still out there SS, I hope this helps and know that I’m sincerely praying for you.