Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Philosophies of Prayer

Philosophies of Prayer


My life is full of people who pray.  And when they pray, the things they pray for tend to vary, as does the response when what they’re praying for either happens or doesn’t happen.  There doesn’t seem to be a consistent philosophy of what prayer is, who it’s for, and the expectation from the recipient.  These are a few of the philosophies of prayer that I can deduct from various people in my life.  I’d love to hear your philosophy of prayer in the comments.  (To be clear – my questions about prayer are because I’m genuinely curious about these ideas, not because I’m mocking the idea of prayer)

The most common philosophy of prayer that I deduct from people is that God is able to intervene in human lives, and depending on what is said during the prayer, or how many people pray for it, God will choose to intervene or not to intervene.  People with this philosophy express urgency about prayer, often forwarding messages through prayer chains, or taking comfort if they know a whole bunch of people are praying at the same time.  “God, please heal Samantha, as she has cancer.  Let the doctors do a good job, and help her family to be comforted.”  This philosophy seems to assume that the outcome of Samantha’s cancer is undetermined, and God, as prayer recipient, will give an answer in the form of Samantha’s life or death, the success or failure of the doctors, and the emotional well-being of the family.  To those with this view, I ask: In your opinion, is God inside or outside of time?  If God is inside of time, what does that say about God’s omniscience?  If God is outside of time, is it consistent to believe that your prayers matter, as the outcome is presumably occurring simultaneously with the sickness?  Should the patient die, should it really be believed that God’s will includes senseless things like cancer, or dead children, or war?  What does it say about God that your prayers may or may not change God’s mind?  What does it say about God if the quantity of prayers make a difference in the outcome?

A different theory I heard preached recently is that God cannot intervene in human events, but can provide comfort and express empathy to people as they go through their experiences.  In this philosophy, because of human free will, people determine the outcome of human events, with God present as a handcuffed companion.  God is there to mourn with you, but she can’t intervene the way one might hope.  To those with this view, I ask: If God wants to do something (say, prevent a terrible crime), but can’t because of human free will, what does this say about God’s omnipotence?  Is asking for comfort also asking for God to intervene, which this philosophy says can’t be done?  How does the philosophy of a non-intervening God related to a potential afterlife? (I'm assuming that this person believes in human free will because it allows people to choose salvation in some way).

The last philosophy of prayer says that prayer is for the human, not for God.  Life is either pre-written (because God knows everything that will happen), or if you’re a deist, God isn’t involved with humanity at all now that life has been put in motion.  For these people, the expression of prayer helps them on an emotional level, without the expectation that anyone is coming to help them.  For these people, I ask: what is the difference between prayer and meditation?  What is different about praying compared to a conversation with a close friend?

What’s your philosophy of prayer?


  1. I don't believe in libertarian free will and subscribe to God's absolute sovereignty (which I believe follows directly from omniscience, omnipotence, having a will, and having a willingness to intervene).

    I'm part of the third camp. Here's a post I wrote recently describing what this view means for a Christian:


    These three things are part of his sovereign plan:

    * God wants us to express ourselves to him for therapeutic and self-reflective reasons.

    * God wills to reveal himself and his power to us in a personal and intimate way.

    * He also wills to compel us toward some actions over others.

    Establishing a pattern of prayer in people is a great way to hit these three birds with one stone.

    * Appellate prayer helps us clarify and reorder the hierarchy of our desires, to figure out what we want, versus what we need, and what we want verses what the Kingdom requires. In this sense, it is extremely effective emotional and intellectual therapy.

    * Appellate prayer is the medium through which we set "checkpoints" to look for God's interaction with us in our lives.

    * Appellate prayer is "covenantal," in that we give to God (glory, honor, praise, sacrifice, obedience) and he gives to us. This pattern is encouraging and motivating.

    Appellate prayer is efficacious insofar as, when addressed, it is correlated with a preordained effect. God uses this to communicate and correct. God often speaks in terms of hypotheticals -- "If you do A, then I'll react X, but if you do B, then I'll react Y" -- which while containing counterfactuals (i.e., non-grounded in the real world; obviously only one specific reaction will come about) are nonetheless motivating for humans. This stimulates us not only to obedience, but to ask for things, which sets those aforementioned "checkpoints" when searching for God, which God employs to personally reveal himself.

    The human perspective of prayer ("I ask for something, and this is novel and unexpected to God who, if he pleases, redirects his intended plan to accommodate") is employed very often by the Bible. It's very easy to think that this describes the "mechanics of prayer," as if a righteous person's prayer really contains some spiritual force that impacts God with a magnified wallop, and as if he responds to that novelty with something like, "O.M.S.! What a surprise!" That isn't the case. The human perspective of prayer describes the human perspective of prayer, contingent and hypothetical (in other words, deeply meaningful for entities with a large measure of ignorance, especially about the future). The actual "mechanics" of prayer are just like the "mechanics" of everything else: God's teleology is all-encompassing and each component of his plan is sovereignly pre-orchestrated.

  2. Mike McGeehon expounds: Sometimes, and excuse me if I offend people who read this, I feel like prayer is like facebook: it give you the illusion of doing good while not actually doing much. Feelings are great, and I'm happy to offer support and comfort and a shoulder and action. But I don't really offer my prayers much, because my personal philosophy of prayer is that it's more for our benefit, to make us feel like we have control. And the truth is, I think there is better places to put our energy. I've always felt that way, even when I was a believer in an omniscient God. If you believe God is in control, he is in control, and your prayer won't help much. But your casserole on the doorstep will. (Really great blog entry, by the way, Ryan. I'm super curious to see other people's responses).

  3. Ryan,

    I love the question and I think you ask it incisvely--it's extraordinarily hard to square what we do with what we believe, especially across different moments of our lives. Consistency when it comes to what we believe and do regarding prayer is, I think, difficult.

    I don't know that I'd divide the approaches up as you have. Your examples are helpful, and perhaps archetypal. But the details of each are not mutually exclusive, e.g. it could be that God can intervene in human affairs, but appears to do so only selectively (ie. something correctly called a miracle). And of course there are just other, more different options, such as the sovereigntist approach suggested above by Stan.

    I tend to think prayer is more for us than for God or for its efficacy in altering human affairs (at least insofar as that alteration doesn't depend on changes to our hearts). On the other hand, I don't think we can rule out miracles per se. Just in most actual cases. =)

    For me, this pushes me toward a somewhat paradoxical approach, as you've set it up (and I'll admit, it includes some internal tensions).

    1. I think God can do whatever God pleases, and so can intervene in the affairs of the world.
    2. But I think God granted us free will and a working, natural universe, and so I expect that the frequency of what would properly be called a miracle is very low.

    (And of course, a person with libertarian free will whose actions are directed by God is just like a square circle--it's not a thing). So God limits God's Self.

    3. I think prayer can be transformative for the one making the prayer and is primarily for this purpose.

    4. But I think for prayer to be maximally transformative, it is much more effective for you to actually believe God hears you, and that God's sovereignty is implicated in the affairs of the world - whether through the way God set it up and left it alone, through occasional tinkering, or through constant, sovereign supportive action.

    While you didn't say this about group three, I do think it's fair to say that many of those who subscribe to this view actually believe in a completely naturalistic universe and see religion as socially beneficial. And, while it's possible to practice religion while believing it is "true" in some exclusively symbolic, entirely naturalistic sense, I suspect it is much more difficult to access the transformative power of prayer (be it placebo or not) if you actually think you are talking to God and God is listening.

    Now, as to your point about meditation - I think it's just a different form of prayer (if it is religious meditation). It's not petitionary, and in fact, I suspect that this makes it superior. It's harder to do, and it may be less self-centered (depends, I guess), but basically, it's another medium for connecting more deeply to the rootedness to your self and God and larger truths that God can offer.

    And for true naturalist/religious person, even then, there may be an advantage to religious meditation over other forms. She might find it more meaningful, because it is situated in a larger practice of meaning for her - her spiritual practice. Or, she may just find it yet another way to access the part of her brain that religious and non-religious meditation accesses. In any case, it certainly doesn't hurt to do some deep breathing once in a while.

  4. I usually resist weighing in on discussions like this because most of the time all it does is give me a headache. However since you asked... I believe that there is a whole bunch of stuff going on in our lives around corners and under the floorboards. Things that we are not aware of but that connect everyone and everything together. Scientist postulate that there are at least ten dimensions but we are only aware of four. What is going on in the other six. How can they be only void and who can say that we do not exist in them. God is the sum of all Gods parts. When we pass we do not go back to God. How can we we, are already with God and God is with us wherever we go since we are a part of God's whole. Prayer serves to transfer coherent directed energy from one part of the whole to another. Sometimes it can help to change outcome sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the recipient is aware of its effects sometimes they are not. Prayer and meditation are variants on a theme. Prayer and meditation also very often benefit the person who who engages in their practice. I have felt its effects just as I feel better when I do it.

  5. Great discussions. Sometimes when we ask God to fix something, we are asking him to change the laws of nature.....and that doesn't sound right to me.