Monday, April 29, 2013
Answering an Atheist Objection to Prayer.
The formula for the classic straw-man attack is twofold: start with a misunderstanding/misrepresentation of your opponent's position and then lay into that "straw-man" with everything you have.
And, as far as I'm concerned, no religious practice has been the object of more uncritical, simpleminded straw-man attacks than that of prayer.
A typical atheist attack on prayer goes something like this:
(P1.) -- The Bible says that if you pray for something with faith and sincerity, you'll receive whatever you ask for. (Matt. 7:7, 17:20, 18:19, 21:21; Mark 11:24; John 14:12-14; James 5:15-16)
(P2.) -- People pray with faith and sincerity for many things and yet do not receive them.
(P3.) -- Therefore, prayer according to the Bible does not work.
The conclusion follows logically from the premises, therefore if a Christian is to deny the conclusion (which we do) then we must show the invalidity of one of the premises.
The flaw of this argument is in ignoring the qualifications given in Scripture as to who can pray so as to get what they ask and and what kind prayers will be answered.
In his 1920's classic "The Power of Prayer", preacher Reuben Archer Torrey makes a biblical case for who can pray to God so as to have their prayers answered in the affirmative.
Firstly, God answers the prayers of those who keep his commandments:
If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. -- 1 John 3:20-22
Here John expounds on Jesus' words in John 14:12-14 and other places in the Gospels, explaining why the Christian has confidence in making his petitions known to God and having them answered with a "yes", going further in verse 23 to explain what exactly is the command of God:
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
As a rule, trusting in Jesus Christ and loving our neighbor are necessary components for receiving affirmative answers to prayer.
Secondly, focusing on the last part of the verse, Torrey notes that God answers the prayers of those who do what pleases him.
Christianity is not a rote system of detached obedience and as we live a life pleasing to God we have confidence before God in prayer.
Now this is likely to make some Christians squirm.
Are you saying that if I'm backslidden or struggling with sin that God won't answer my prayer??
Not at all.
Nor am I saying that you have to perform a certain amount of good deeds in order to get God to pay attention to you.
What I'm saying is that you cannot expect God to answer give you what you ask while you refuse to love your neighbor and do what is pleasing to him.
There are always exceptions to the rule, but my job is to preach the rule since only God knows the exceptions.
Furthermore, the first premise ignores what kind of prayers will be answered, namely, prayers that are according to God's will. (1 John 5:13-15; Psalm 37:4)
In addition, Torrey gives a list 8 of hindrances to prayer, all stemming from a lack of loving our brother and obeying God.
1. Wrong Motives in Prayer (1 John 5:13-15; James 4:1-4).
2. Sin in the Heart or Life (Isaiah 59:1-2; Psalm 66:18)
3. Idols in the Heart. (Ezekiel 14:1-3)
4. An Unforgiving Spirit (Mark 11:25-26)
5. Stinginess in Our Giving (Proverbs 21:13; Luke 6:38)
6. Wrong Treatment of Husband or Wife (1 Peter 3:7)
What are we to make of all this?
I want to again emphasize that I'm not saying that we have to be perfect in order to have our prayers answered.
But know as long as we persist in sin, we should not expect to receive what we ask for from God.
When ALL that the Bible has to say about prayer is brought into the discussion, we see that premise one of the deductive argument is overly simplistic and not totally accurate, thus rendering the argument invalid.
I say all of this to correct Christian misunderstandings of prayer as much as atheist ones.
The definition of prayer is not "asking God for something", but when we do ask, we who are walking with God have confidence that He will hear us.