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« Not Neutral | Main | Investigating Bart Ehrman’s Top Ten Troublesome Bible Verses »

February 21, 2013


'When we pray about something, God will do something in that situation He would not have done if we hadn’t prayed.'

Is God a vending machine?

"Is God a vending machine?"

Of course not, however, prayer does have an affect that otherwise would not occur.

A vending machine produces a predictable and necessary result - put coin in, receive goodie. Prayer doesn't quite work that way.

Darth Dutch

Jesus promises that every time we pray, God will answer. He will either do exactly what we ask, or something even better, which he would not have done had we not prayed.

So when I pray for God to heal my daughter with leukemia and she dies, that is better?

I struggle with prayer and needed this post. Thanks Amy.

ALG--Since we don't know what potentially unpleasant things life had in store for your daughter, it might very well be better. We know only the smallest part of things. God sees the end from the beginning.

Tom, that's pure speculation without merit. As a parent, I can unequivocally say that having my daughter die of cancer is not better than having alive and cured of cancer.

I've never heard of Steve Fuller, but that is a bizarre dichotomy he presents for the outcome of prayer: either we get what we ask for or we get something better. There's certainly no reason to believe that is so, and it takes a significant amount of effort to twist it out of that particular verse.

One of the best sermons I ever heard of prayer was by Brian Borgman. Check this out:

Wow! All you guys can control God's providence! That's amazing!

Peter, according to that sermon I linked to, our praying is part of God's providence.

Hi Sam.

I believe God answers prayer.
My problem is God not acting because I HAVEN'T prayed.

In other words, Amy's comment makes God's providence reliant on our prayers, whereas praying for something doesn't.

There's a fundamental difference.


I don't have a problem with what Amy said, and I don't think it makes God's providence reliant on our prayers. Let me explain.

Check out Isaiah 37. In verses 15-20, Hezekiah prays that God will deliver him from the Assyrians.

Then, in 21-22, the prophet Amoz delivers a message to Amoz from God, saying, "Because you have prayed to Me about Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken against him..."

Then, in verses 22-35, it explains what God is going to do to Assyria as a result of Hezekiah's prayer.

But then look what it says in verse 26: "Have you not heard? Long ago I did it. From ancient times I planned it."

So, all these things God was going to do to Assyria, he had planned long before Hezekiah prayed. Yet, it says in verse 21 that he did those things because Hezekiah prayed.

It seems to me that Hezekiah's prayer was also part of God's providence. God decreed from ancient times that Hezekiah would pray that prayer and that he would answer that prayer. So God was fully in control of the whole thing.

So I don't think that God answering every prayer entails that we control God's providence. On the contrary, God's providence entails that he controls our prayers.

Woops! Typo.

"Then, in 21-22, the prophet Amoz delivers a message to Amoz from God..."

Supposed to be:

"Then, in 21-22, the prophet Amoz delivers a message to Hezekiah from God..."

So I don't think that God answering every prayer entails that we control God's providence. On the contrary, God's providence entails that he controls our prayers.

So God has decided to control me such that he will decree that I pray to him in order for him to do something that he wouldn't have done if he hadn't decreed that I pray to him? But then he couldn't have done what he wasn't going to do if I hadn't prayed to him because he had already decreed that I was going to pray to him?

Calvinism is such a twisted logical mess that it's a wonder anyone can actually swallow this stuff whole and then regurgitate it as the gospel truth.

Ok, I read the original post yesterday and I have thought about it ever since. Here is where I have landed: This is just my interpretation as a result of trying to sink into the love of the Father outside of the systematic religiocity.
I believe God knows well ahead of time what we will pray and when. I think in His devine providence all things are done according to his will and our prayers do not sway His actions. I think it is the opposite. When we pray according to His will it is us being moved into His devine providence, not us, through prayer adjusting God's action.

I agree with you Sam: Hezekiah has a healthy view of providence.

But, that's where my agreement stops, and I agree with AJG's comments on the rest.

What Amy seems to be saying - pretty clearly to my mind - is God will not act if she doesn't pray, and that's a VERY different issue, because it's implying she controls God's Providence.

The implication is that, if Amy doesn't pray, then - in the leukaemia example - the girl will die, but if Amy prays, she'll live.

In other words it seems to me, Amy holds the girl's life in her hands, and not God. What if Amy forgets or doesn't use the correct words?

It sounds very like superstition, to me.

Peter, I'm not at all implying I control God's providence. I'm saying that prayer is the means God uses in working in this world. He acts when I pray in ways He doesn't act when I don't pray. All of this is under God's providence

The alternative is to say that our prayers play no part in God's plan at all—that whether we pray or not, God works in exactly the same way. That's not what I see in the Bible (as Sam pointed out above). As James 4:2 says, we have not because we ask not.

Superstition would be saying that if I say certain prayers, certain things will happen, but that's not what I'm saying at all, nor is that what the quote is saying. God works when we pray because that brings Him glory and makes His actions more clear to others, not because we've manipulated Him into working (see Do Our Prayers Make a Difference?).

Peter, I'm not at all implying I control God's providence. I'm saying that prayer is the means God uses in working in this world. He acts when I pray in ways He doesn't act when I don't pray. All of this is under God's providence

Does God know what he is going to do before I pray? If so, then isn't he constrained by his own foreknowledge particularly if he foreordained me to pray? If my prayer causes God to act in a way he didn't expect then am I not directing God? If not, then what's the point of prayer? Is it just a mental exercise to keep my mind focused on God? Was James just wrong?

Thanks for replying, Amy.

But, based on the same Chapter from James, I'd say...

God works in the way he's planned to work from all Eternity. We do not affect that, yet...

Prayer is making an act of love to the Father and thereby aligning my will with his.
He wants my heart, my soul, my faith. He wants me pliant to his Will. Prayer changes me. Prayer is my yes to God, and so I see nothing against his Providence however much it doesn't accord with my worldview.

We intercede for others when we find our heart bleeding for them. We enter into their suffering as Christ enters into ours. We are given the grace to become Christ to them.

Persistence in prayer is a sign of faith and reliance on our Father, irrespective of outcome. This is only possible because true prayer is the Spirit praying, but we have to allow him to do so:

"You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you."

James 4.3-10

Let's try a thought experiment:

A: I prayed for something
B: It did not happen

Therefore what I hear from many fellow Christians is:
C: 'God doesn't love me', 'I didn't pray in the right way', 'I didn't pray enough'.

In other words, going back to the vending machine - I didn't put enough or the right coins in. Prayer doesn't 'work' unless we get it right.

Now try:
A: I didn't pray for something...

...But I can't go any further.
Because if I didn't pray for something I can't tell what it was I didn't pray for and so whether it happened or not.

The question then is whether God requires/prayer relies on me vocalising mentally or orally a state of affairs correctly for the 'success' of the prayer, however embryonic.
That puts a grave responsibility on us to get it right, or else 'Garbage in, garbage out'.

To me, that seems to make prayer totally conditional.

Thank you for this.

The belief in omniscience is not unique to Calvinists...all orthodox Christians believe in Divine Omniscience (though some Christians would point out that calling it foreknowledge is a bit of a misnomer...there's nothing fore about it. God is present to all moments in time.)

The supposed problem with omniscience depends on the idea that no one has control over the past. But since the past (together with omniscience), logically implies all the facts about the present, no one has control over the present.

The reason omniscience is supposed to make the past imply the present is that omniscience is thought to include the claim that God has beliefs in the past that cannot be mistaken. It is those past beliefs that imply the present.

There are logically adequate replies to this problem. The most obvious one being the one presented by Boethius...who first expressed the problem in The Consolations of Philosophy. It is hinted at in the 'misnomer' remark I made above.

God does not have past beliefs about the present. To God, everything is eternally present because His existence does not depend on time. As such, even if there were no possibility of affecting the past, there would be no argument from omniscience against human or Divine freedom. For the same reason, there is no argument against human or divine freedom from God's providence or nay other Divine attribute.

Though perhaps not always expressed well, Calvinist and Lutheran ideas about human bondage are based on the idea of human slavery to sin not Divine Providence.

Now, in this whole scheme, the following claims can easily all be true:

1. God would not have done X, had I not prayed that He do X.

2. I would not have prayed that God do X had God not chosen, planned and believed that I would pray that He do X.

3. God would not have done X, had God not chosen, planned and believed that I would pray that He do X.

4. God chose, planned and believed that I would pray that He do X.

I think that for many X, 1-4 are true.

God answers our present prayers from the beginning of time. Those prayers are initiated through our own free will agency, though god has always known what they would be. This concept incorporates temporal dynamics that are way beyond human capacity to understand, which should cause us to appreciate all the more that which is god's greatness. I suspect that one would have to have the mind of god to understand its mystery.

Hi Wisdom Lover,
You say, 'Though perhaps not always expressed well, Calvinist and Lutheran ideas about human bondage are based on the idea of human slavery to sin not Divine Providence.'

Can you say some more about that, please, as I'm not a Calvinist, and I thought 'Double Predestination' meant that people were predestined to Hell from all eternity so even before they had any chance of acting upon their will and therefore to sin, so I've probably misunderstood it.

Any clarification welcome!

Hi, WL:

You also say, 'God would not have done X, had I not prayed that He do X.'

Maybe I'm not being clear, but what I'm asking is that we seem to have no way of knowing what 'X' is, to not pray for it - or even to pray for it - for that matter, unless God specifically, and personally, reveals his will to us, and that smacks of presumption or at least hearing voices in our head.

Let's say we're on a bus, and thinking nothing in particular, but God wants us to pray about 'X' (say 'X' is some starving little girl in Nigeria I don't know), how is that possible? I won't, and can't, pray for her.

All we can react to are concrete, existential circumstances - being 'moved' by compassion - as Christ was.

Therefore, X is always something I sense, and isn't that sense, that compassion, the spirit praying, and he simply doesn't require my vocal formulae, verbal or mental, but it's simply an expression of the Divine Charity expressing itself within me?

In other words, my will co-operating, or united with, the grace of God's Divine will is real prayer, not some 'incantations' I feel I ought to vocalise, and if I don't, someone'll die or suffer some calamity or win the Lottery - and maybe that was God's will? - Or are we God's moral guardians? In other words, because I think the lottery's wrong, God will never want that as an outcome? Or if they win, it must be the devil?

That's hubris, not prayer, isn't it? Yet I hear this prayer 'logic' daily, as I do the vending machine view...

AJG Says; "Calvinism is such a twisted logical mess that it's a wonder anyone can actually swallow this stuff whole and then regurgitate it as the gospel truth."

What if Calvinism is the truth and you actually hate God, choosing to pray to an idol god of your or someone's own making?


I'm actually a Lutheran, not a Calvinist, so any answer I give on double predestination is probably best seen a the answer of a sympathetic, but unconvinced, outsider.

But the point seems to be this. The bondage of the will is not metaphysical, but moral. Place Grape Nuts and Froot Loops in front of a typical child and you can say with near certainty which will get eaten. It's not that the child lacks the metaphysical freedom to eat the grape's just that he loves sugar too much.

We're like that except that we're more willfully in love with sin than any child is with sugar. So that's why we cannot seek God. It has nothing to do with whether we are predestined for heaven or hell.

Logically, there is only one maximal-consistent set of propositions that contains only true members. And God knows, and chooses, which it will be. So metaphysically everything is predestined to be just the way it is. Though as with foreknowledge, pre-destination is a bit of a misnomer. There's really nothing pre about it. God, as independent of time, is neither before, nor after any moment, but eternally present to all of them.

Now, on another note, this question seems natural one to ask: Why did God choose to make just the maximal-consistent set of propositions true that He chose to make true. Why not a different set of propositions. Well, it seems possible, at least, that the reason God chose to make some maximal-consistent set of propositions true is precisely because it contains the following propositions:

  1. There is a starving girl in Nigeria, Abagbe
  2. God arranges that Peter come to know about Abagbe's plight through a series of television pleas made by Sally Struthers
  3. Peter finds himself strangely moved to pray for Abagbe.
  4. Peter prays for Abagbe
  5. God answers Peter's prayer by arranging that Abagbe's father Abassi get a lucrative job with a large oil company.
It could even be that in every other maximal consistent set of propositions most like the actually true set except that Peter did not pray for Abagbe, God did not arrange for Abassi to get a job and Abagbe died of hunger as a result.

But if that's how it goes, it doesn't seem that there's any tension at all between God's providence (and omniscience) and human freedom. You were perfectly free to pray or not pray for Abagbe. God chose this world to create, at least in part, because of what you choose to do in it.

Now, I'll let a well schooled Calvinist say exactly what double pre-destination comes to. We Lutherans sometimes call ourselves single pre-destinarians. I think a better expression would be that we believe in one-way bondage of the will, because pre-destination is not really what's at issue. You are not bound to do that freely because you love it. You are not bound to reject God. You do that because you hate Him. But you are bound to repent and to bend the knee to God. Your love of sin and hatred of God is so great, that God can only force you to be saved against your will. What we mean is basically this:

  1. If X goes to Hell, then it is entirely X's fault that X went to Hell....God is not morally responsible.
  2. If X goes to Heaven, then it is entirely to God's credit that X went to Heaven....X is not morally responsible.
The way that works is that we think that by nature, man offers only sin and resistance to God. If anyone is ever saved, it's because God battered down that sin and resistance.

AJG you said, "As a parent, I can unequivocally say that having my daughter die of cancer is not better than having alive and cured of cancer."

Rhetorically I agree with that statement.

Logically, I do not.

If I knew that on the day my daughter was cured of her leukemia she would be kidnapped, raped and butchered, assuming I could not intervene I would reluctantly assent in prayer to the former. Given this fallen world, a scenario like this is unfortunately not too far fetched.

I do not raise this issue lightly nor do I aim to be insensitive; I take your challenge in good faith. This is a tragic hypothetical to even begin to envision, and as the father of three young children, I find the topic gut-wrenching. However, logically one can envision a scenario where with perfect knowledge (that only God has) to ensure the most humane possible death, I would prefer my child die from leukemia, rather than live to suffer in unimaginable ways.

(continued below)

(continued from above)

The point is we don't have perfect knowledge -- God does. And in His world, he's told His followers how the story ends. So if I ever have to see my children go to the Lord before me, I can tell them with the full force of reason, emotion, compassion and hope that they will be in a place of unimaginable Joy where God's family will be joined again.

That's what applying reason and logic to the worldview espoused by Jesus -- which I am blessed by my Lord's grace to receive -- buys me. Thus, "unanswered" prayers for a leukemia cure may be a blessing in disguise.

Out of curiosity, to remain faithful to your postmodern, agnostic/atheistic worldview, what do you tell your daughter on her death bed? "Tough luck"? "Hope all is well on the other side -- whatever that means"? Or do you contradict your world view and tell her "comforting lies" -- what you believe to be made-up stories and fairy tales in an effort to comfort her?

Death is quite the stumbling block to faith isn't it? We humans know how to do everything right except when it comes to suffering. When we suffer, then God doesn't exist anymore. It’s easy to blame God when you suffer. But at what point will the finger get pointed back at man?

Just think, for years in Camp Lejeune people were dying from cancer. Family members undoubtedly prayed to God to save their lives. Most assuredly after the death of their loved ones people screamed to God why?!?!?! Years later they found out the water was contaminated. A simple lookup on the matter will show it was a man made problem. Childhood Leukemia can be linked to pesticides, pre-natal X –rays, paints and solvents. The latest cancer fear is the amount of radiation a child receives getting a CT scan. Do a simple Google search and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Perhaps the answer to our prayers doesn’t always come in a form you expect. But then again people will always find a reason to disbelieve in God regardless of the evidence presented and turn him into a joke Bill Maher would appreciate. I know my little blurb doesn’t go into the deeps of this post. But I feel it is relevant.

Hi WisdomLover.

'The Abagbe Case' is an example of what I was saying was necessary - that someone has to have some way of knowing about the situation, so I'm not sure how it's addressing the problem.

However, you say, 'Peter did not pray for Abagbe, God did not arrange for Abassi to get a job and Abagbe died of hunger as a result.'

Well, that sounds very like Amy's and your view of God - he will let people die because someone neglected to pray for them. I don't understand it, but it's obviously OK with your respective denominations, so who am I to knock it?

That's what makes Christianity so interesting. Calvinists believe one thing, Lutherans another, Baptists another, Episcopalians another, and we're all 100% Christian, so the differences don't matter. We can learn from all of them, and where they disagree realise both views are Christian within the broad views of so many denominations.


I don't think you understood my post.

I never said "Peter did not pray for Abagbe".

As for the general point that God allows evil things to happen, I'm not sure how you are seeing a special problem with prayer here.

As a matter of fact, evil things happen. God had sufficient power and knowledge to stop them. What's more, God doesn't like any of the evil things that happen.

Why, then, is there evil?

It seems to me pretty obvious that God is the only one who can see all ends. It is possible then, that the evils that occur are necessary evils, and God knows, though I don't know, why they are necessary.

I see where you're coming from, WL, but my issue is the fact that each one of us who is sincere in their own theological position seems to be able to impact upon God's providence from your position, doesn't it?

However, I believe God has a plan, I just trust it and don't try to influence it but understand it. Anything else is just me just talking to God as Father and about my concerns and listening. Probably lots of my fellow non-denominational Christians would disagree, but that's how it seems to me.

For example, when I go to prayer meetings many of the prayers for supplication sound like attempts to manipulate me emotionally, and often someone after the meeting will go forward and offer to help because it seems they were persuaded by the pray-er's plea. Would God have moved the same way if it had been prayed silently? If prayer works in the way most Christians talk about it, it should, shouldn't it? Amy doesn't mention this aspect, but whether a prayer is silent or vocal also has a huge impact on outcome, doesn't it, and what does that say about how prayer 'works'? Is God moving the person who responds to a prayer request or just made to feel guilty not doing so?

Stand to Reason is right about reason, and I love to learn from them, but when it comes to religion we can all choose our denominations, ways of praying, etc., that suit us, based on what reason best says to us, can't we? Reason makes you conclude Lutheranism's right, whilst X, from their reasoning, might think being a Baptist accords with reason and Scripture more than Episcopalianism, so it's true for them. They all have convincing arguments in their favour as far as I can see.


Whether you try to or not, you influence God's plan. God's plan comes down to the fact that He chose to create this world from among the infinite possibilities rather than some other. And He chose this world because of its differences from all those other worlds. And among those differences are the ways you act in this world.

Of course, like everything else Christians do, Christians prayer is defective. Some people praying aloud might be trying to manipulate those in earshot. Some people who pray silently in order to avoid such manipulation might be secretly congratulating themselves on their superior piety. And if you look searchingly enough, you will, as Kant says, come everywhere upon the dear self and find that it is its call, and not that of pure moral duty that we are heeding. Welcome to a world suffering under Sin.

With that said, be it voiced or silent, prideful or manipulative, it is all as God planned. Christ died for the Sin, and it is God's planned pleasure to both hear and answer the prayer.

On the issue of denominations, I would not go so far as to say that every sect has convincing arguments. They don't all convince me. But it is surely true that every sect has challenging arguments. This is, of course, compatible with the idea that not all of those arguments are good. Indeed, since in some cases different denominations champion different arguments that lead to contrary conclusions, they can't all be good. Careful consideration may even reveal which are good and which aren't. (And that's why Christians argue amongst themselves.)

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