My post Prayer? that I posted on Monday generated an interesting response from Robert Nielson, who is an atheist that recently left the Catholic tradition. I responded to his post, and then decided that it would be best for me to answer his questions in an actual blog post because my response became rather lengthy.
This is the comment I received:
Hey, I came here after you liked a post on my page, which seeing as I’m an Atheist, must have been a mistake. While, I’m here, can I asked a question about prayer? What is the point of it? If it is to talk to God, why doesn’t he answer? If it is to receive help, then why do so many needy people not get the help they need no matter how hard they pray? If God has a plan, why bother praying as he won’t change it? If God was or was not going to do something, how would pray change his mind?
Finally, how does god hear prayers?
I just want to initially clarify that I didn’t “like” his post by mistake. It was intentional, and you can read my response on his post.
Here is my response to his questions:
Thank you for the inquiry, Robert! I just replied to your post, explaining my reasons for “liking” it.
Here are some answers to your questions (I want to premise that I will not use Biblical Scripture to back up my “points”, as you probably do not acknowledge it as a source of authority). Please thoroughly read through my response so that my “point of view” is not misinterpreted:
1) What is the point of prayer?
I am first of all assuming you mean on an individual level.
I cannot speak for every Christian, and many people (including Theists/agnostics/mystics) pray on a daily basis without any Theological reasoning. The basic explanation for why I pray is that prayer literally brings me closer to God. This may be difficult for you to understand, but I can “feel” God and “hear” Him speak to me when I pray, which makes prayer seem “real” in a sense. Additionally, I have prayed for things and then seen them “answered” right away. I have seen people be healed of broken bones right before my eyes (although I must also say that TOO MANY Christians put emphasis on physical healing. Some Christians believe that physical healing can be brought to any one who has “enough faith” and who “prays hard enough”. I firmly do not support this belief system.)
There has been ONE (I emphasize this because it is a very very rare occasion) time when I was praying and God gave me a very clear vision of a close friend of mine sleeping with her boyfriend; I shrugged the image off for two days, until it bothered me so much that I called my friend, and it turned out that she had lost her virginity the same night I had the “picture” while I was praying. I understand why you may call this coincidence, but I have to acknowledge that there was some spiritual insight that came to me during that prayer hour.
Essentially, I have seen the effectiveness of prayer both personally and in those around me, and because of that I believe that prayer is tangibly important and relevant to daily life.
Please see my response to question # 4 for the rest of my response to this question.
2) If it is to talk to God, why doesn’t he answer?
My answer: God DOES answer. I have seen it/experienced it so many times. Again, my friends who don’t believe in God will tell me that it is “coincidence”, but I firmly believe that God has a hand in things when I see a prayer “answered”. I don’t, however, believe that God answers prayer in the way that WE (the person praying) necessarily want. EVERY HUMAN HAS FREE WILL AND CAN DO WHATEVER THE HELL THEY WANT, which means that, for example, God will not always “interfere” in an abusive relationship, because the abuser has a natural human “right” to abuse, if that makes sense. God did not create us to be robots, or drones. We are allowed to make bad decisions, to hurt people, to act on impulse, to waste our lives away, to be greedy and selfish, to hurt his creation. If we could not choose for ourselves, if we did not have free will, it would defeat the whole point of creating the world in the first place.
3) If it (prayer) is to receive help, then why do so many needy people not get the help they need no matter how hard they pray?
My answer: Prayer isn’t a magic spell, and isn’t supposed to be about “receiving help”. If everyone had their prayers answered (“dear Jesus, please help me get this promotion. I could really use the money.” or “dear Jesus, please make this guy fall in love with me.”), I honestly wouldn’t have much respect for God. He isn’t some servant-God looking to make our material life perfect/better, he is GOD.
I think another issue in Western spirituality is the “give-me” mentality, which actually goes completely against the Bible. Jesus/ God promises to provide for our spiritual needs, and to give us HOPE THROUGH PRAYER to persevere through the tough/trying/awful things that we will experience in this life. God never promises to deliver us from pain or suffering, he actually says very clearly, “In this life, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), and again in James 1:2 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds…” (sorry to quote the Bible, I know I said I wouldn’t).
SO, I would actually argue that God doesn’t promises to answer our prayers regarding hunger and suffering, only that He will be our spiritual comfort and protector during those times. Paul and Peter and Jesus and the disciples did NOT lead easy lives (most of them lived in poverty and were martyred), and I would argue that it is shallow for a Christian to blame God for their circumstances. This is a difficult concept to grasp, especially when considering poverty, hunger, and disease, all things that people are usually born into. But again, should God make women “barren” to prevent children from being born into poverty? Should God magically prevent people from having sex? I don’t think so.
Which brings me to…
4. If God has a plan, why bother praying as he won’t change it? If God was or was not going to do something, how would praying change his mind?
This brings me to my most important point: THE CHURCH is the bride and representation of God, and it is the CHURCH’S job to take care of the broken and suffering people in the world. IS THE CHURCH DOING A GOOD JOB OF THIS? I would argue that the American evangelical church that I am apart of is TRYING VERY HARD to work on issues like hunger, human trafficking, and poverty; however, much like James Joyce said in his essays about the London poor, people need to be taught how to help themselves or their poverty, disease, and pain will continue; no matter how much food, money, shelter, or water the Church provides, it will never be enough if the people in question cannot learn how to generate food, medicine, and income on their own. That is why many churches are now funding projects that TEACH people in these situations how to help themselves and bring themselves out of their depravity. We teach Africans how to build wells and generate an income by distributing water, we teach women how to do accounting and start a business and how to ship their product all over the world to escape the sex trade, we teach trafficked prostitutes how to build a resume, we send doctors to Guatemala to train new medical practitioners, we build farms and train farmers, and we do all of these things while providing shelter, clothing, food, and spiritual counseling.
Is it a perfect solution? No. There are not enough Christians, not enough churches, to help everyone all at once. We can only help one person, one people group, at a time and there are A LOT of people/governments/groups who need help, and there is a LOT of money that needs to be raised in order to continue this effort.
That being said, I think that prayer is less of a “God had better answer me” mentality, and more of a “God-empowering-people mentality”. Like I said earlier, when I pray, I feel closer to God, I hear His voice, I am filled with His love, and I organically desire to help people/love my neighbor. Prayer is essentially the tool that inspires me to go out and change the world, to pay for a random person’s coffee, to give people hugs, to smile, to give money to organizations, to sit down with the homeless person on the street, to hold a teenager while she is crying about the dad who left her when she was young (I could go on). GOD USES PRAYER TO EMPOWER HIS PEOPLE TO SPREAD HIS LOVE TO THE CORNERS OF THE EARTH, and essentially, answer their prayers. His plan is to change the world, to make the world a better place, is through people. And people are connected to God and his message to love and help the world through prayer and intimacy with Him.
Sorry if I sound like I am preaching…I am just super passionate.
5. Finally, how does god hear prayers?
Because I am decidedly not quoting Scripture, I will have a very difficult time answering this question. I feel like I am answering “well, really, how does photosynthesis work?” or “how do you know gravity is real?” without referring to Isaac Newton. But I will try I can’t state my confidence that God hears my prayers without referring to the Bible, so I have to base this purely on my “feeling”, which I understand is subjective and somewhat emotionally related.
When a person enters into relationship with God, a connection is established, and a transformation of heart occurs. It’s like being awakened in a sense, and there is a direct line of “energy” (as my yoga friends would describe it) that runs from you (the pray-er) to the divine. It is this “energy” that is used to communicate, and we call that prayer.
When we pray, we trust that our prayer is being “received” by the Divine energy we are praying to. (I use the word “Divine” because there are many people who pray and believe that someone/something hears them who do not believe in the Christian Trinity).
Hopefully this response answers your questions Robert! Please feel free to comment below or message me. Also, if you feel like there are fallacies in my arguments, I am open to hearing your thoughts.