The following is a question from the Reasonable Faith site:
Dear Dr. Craig,
I have recently moved on from Christianity to agnosticism, but I regularly check out your Q and A section as much of the content there is more sensible and thought provoking than the kind of thing I hear from a lot of Evangelicals.
So I figured that if there even is a satisfactory answer to my enquiry, you’d know about it.
My question is this: what is the point of prayer? Here prayer is defined as an attempt to communicate with God.
God either can read our thoughts or he cannot. If he can read our thoughts, there is surely no need to try to transmit or broadcast them to him as he already knows what they are. If he cannot read our thoughts, then any thought-based effort to contact him is futile. It doesn’t matter what type of prayer it is (e.g. petition, thanksgiving, repentance), there is no point in making any effort to send it up to him.
Of course, Christianity generally holds that God is omniscient and therefore able to read our thoughts, so the first of these scenarios would be the applicable one. The characteristic of omniscience makes the concept of prayer all the more redundant as it means God already knows any information that might be communicated to him, and exactly what the best thing is to do about it, so prayer could not in any way influence his decisions.
I am well aware that the Bible commands us to pray in numerous instances, but in the light of this argument this strikes me as an incredibly arbitrary thing for a good God to command, and thus makes the reliability of the Bible all the more questionable to me.
Currently it seems to me that the idea of prayer is most sensibly explained as an addictive placebo that gives people a greater sense of control over their circumstances than they actually have.
But just maybe there’s something crucial I’ve missed, and if so I would be grateful if you could point out what that might be.
Joe, United Kingdom
Read WLC’s answer at: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-is-the-point-of-prayer
Below is my answer.
I’m glad that you’re still thinking about Christianity. That shows that God is still working in your life!
I will attempt to answer your question by making a few points. Please note that since your question is an internal critique of the Christian worldview, my answer will include liberal use of Scripture to make my case:
God wants us to pray to Him
You say “I am well aware that the Bible commands us to pray in numerous instances”. You are correct – the Bible says:
Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
But the fact of the matter is that, yes, God commands us to pray, but He also wants to hear from His children. The book of Isaiah says “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD” (Is. 1:18). The Bible describes our relationship with God as that of a little child to a father (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). It says we are members of God’s household (Eph. 2:19). That’s a good analogy, because most of us can relate to an earthly father and what our relationship with him is like. Our earthly fathers were not perfect, but we all have a sense of how they’re supposed to act.
You say “If he can read our thoughts, there is surely no need to try to transmit or broadcast them to him as he already knows what they are”. Jesus even says God knows what we need before we ask Him:
Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. (Matt. 6:8b)
And He promises to meet all our needs:
And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:19)
But think about this… In a similar way that we know that a human father often knows what his child wants, but nevertheless, he wants her to ask him for it, God knows what we want and need, but still wants us to ask Him for it. The child stares at the cookie jar and starts to walk towards it. The father knows she wants a cookie. He plans to give her a cookie – IF SHE ASKS FOR IT. He still wants her to ask for it, even though he knows that she wants it and plans to give it to her. A human father does not want to just give a child something she wants with no opportunity to communicate with her. The human father knows what she wants, but he desires to have a relationship (fellowship) with her. He loves her and enjoys her company. He wants her to love not only the gift, but also the Giver.
Prayer can change God’s course of action
You say “prayer could not in any way influence his decisions”. The Bible does say God does not change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8). That does not, however, mean that God does not have conditions established upon which He may change His actions. In fact, the Old Testament explains a conditional statement where God will act in a certain way depending on our actions:
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 will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chron. 7:14)
Notice the “if/then” logic in that statement from God… If His people do 4 things:
- humble themselves
- seek His face
- turn from their wicked ways
Then and only then will He promise to do the following 3 things:
- Hear from heaven
- Forgive their sin
- Heal their land
So, at least in that situation, God is making it clear that we human beings can influence His decisions and course of action. In several other places, the Bible records that prayer actually did influence God’s decisions. Here are several examples:
They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'” Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:7-14)
In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the LORD. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.‘” (2 Kings 20:1-6)
So, it is clear that the Bible is reporting that prayer can influence the decisions and actions of God. The half-brother of Jesus, James, writes:
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16b)
However, that does not mean that prayer always changes God’s course of actions. One notable example is Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives on the night of His arrest:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:42-44)
Now, I’m sure that you’re aware that Jesus was praying here that He wouldn’t have to undergo the suffering and excruciating death on the cross (“this cup”) that was shortly to come. But it is clear that His prayer was answered with no, because He was ultimately beaten, mocked, scorned and crucified. So, if God the Father can say no to God the Son, we have evidence that although a “righteous man” is praying, God may still answer no. The book of Acts tells us that all of this happened according to God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, because God had His plan, which was ultimately the best plan. As Peter tells the crowd on the day of Pentecost:
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:22-24)
God even hears the prayers of people who don’t yet know His Son:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:1-8)
This centurion did not know Jesus. When Simon Peter came to his house, he told the centurion about the salvation that was available through faith in Jesus (Acts 10:23-48).
So, based on the record of the Scriptures, we can safely conclude that prayer does sometimes change God’s course of action. There is even extra-biblical evidence that prayers are answered. See the 2 volume set “Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts” by Craig Keener (http://www.amazon.com/Miracles-Credibility-New-Testament-Accounts/dp/0801039525/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1448460264&sr=1-1).
Prayer changes the person praying
Finally, prayer is something that is good for the person praying. When you pray to God and trust that He is hearing you and has your best interests in mind, just this act of praying can reduce or eliminate your anxieties. The psalmist says:
Cast your cares on the LORD and He will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall. (Psalms 55:22)
And the Apostle Paul writes:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28)
I’ve personally experienced great healing by praying for those who mistreat me. This also seems to be supported scientifically:
- Prayer Improves self-control
- Prayer makes you nicer
- Prayer makes you more forgiving
- Prayer increases trust
- Prayer offsets the negative health effects of stress
(For more specifics on these 5 points, see the article 5 Scientifically Supported Benefits of Prayer – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201406/5-scientifically-supported-benefits-prayer)