Prayer changes things

One of the unfortunate side effects of reformed theology is that the view that prayer is actually able to induce change (from God of course) is often sacrificed due to a poor understanding of predestination. Often prayer is portrayed in reformed theology as something we do in order to “get attuned to God” and it is often taught that prayer can’t possibly change anything (that would be heretical and arrogant don’t cha know?). I’m not sure what “get attuned to God” really means for reformed folk, especially since most proponents of this view also hold to a view of God’s sovereignty which results in a belief that all things are causally determined. However I do know that prayer does, in fact, change things.

Here’s the biblical evidence for such a notion (though it seems to me that such a notion ought to go without saying):

In 2 Kings 20 Hezikiah’s prayed and God added 15 years to his life (he was certainly going to die, or else we have issues with God telling a lie). Many reformed (or pseudo-reformed) theologians like to point out that the resulting 15 years were disastrous for Hezikiah and they go on to extrapolate from that that Hezikiah ought not to have prayed for those additional 15 years. From this they like to further say that this passage serves as a warning to us not to ask for more than what God has given/provided.

Sadly, their conclusions simply don’t hold water. Even though it is true that Hezikiah’s apparently lost his mind in the extra years he was given, the fact remains that 1. God told him in no uncertain terms that he would surely die 2. Hezikiah prayed and 3. God heard Hezikiah’s request and added 15 more years to his life. To say Hezikiah’s prayer was not the catalyst in God’s granting the additional years is to say that God lied when he initially told Hezikiah that he was about to die.

Further, in Exodus 32:1-14, God tells Moses that he has had enough of the Hebrew people and is planning to wipe them out and start over through Moses. This passage is often glossed over in most sermons but it raises some very interesting questions. Either God is lying (not just bluffing, but outright lying) since we know that such drastic actions were never taken, or else the pleading and intercessions of Moses were actually effective in causing God to change His mind in space and time. This actually takes on even more meaning when we factor in the fact that his pleadings and intercessions were arch-typical for Christ’s pleadings and intercessions for us. Therefore, the only viable means of preserving God’s integrity in this passage in my estimation is to accept that there was a point in time where God did indeed plan on wiping out the nation of Israel and that through the pleading of Moses, God “changed his mind” and did not do what he said he would do. Does this mean God’s plans are not predetermined? Hardly, but that is a topic for another time.

In closing; Given these two examples in Scripture alone (though more could certainly be given) along with Jesus’s statement that we “have not because we ask not” (Matthew 7:7), not to mention a host of related verses, I believe we are justified in the belief that it is logically possible for God to change his mind as well as events and circumstances without changing his plan.

In short; Prayer indeed changes things.

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33 responses to “Prayer changes things

  1. Hi, Wes! Found your blog a few days ago when I decided to take the plunge from the simple foreknowledge view to the Molinist's view, which you've posted on a few times. I would guess that you are a Molinist as well. Just wanted to say hi and tell you I'm reading.

  2. How about an empirical test? You can quote the bible; but non-christians, like myself, do not believe it to be accurate. So, sure, the bible says prayer is effective. Actual observations seem to say that it is not.

    • That is a very curious sentiment. Since miracles are, by definition, supernatural events caused by free causal agents it seems that your requirement for empiricism is an attempt to mix two categories (natural vs. supernatural).

      I'm curious, 1. what makes you think that miracles are regular and repeatable events that you or anyone else could control and 2. what experiment would you think could empirically prove that miracles occurred?

      In the end, I am willing to bet that your disbelief in miracles has absolutely nothing to do with any evidence or lack thereof but rather your disbelief in miracles is due to your a-priori assumption of philosophical naturalism.

      Simply put, if you don't accept the existence of the supernatural there is no way you'll ever accept the existence of supernatural events.

      • "Since miracles are, by definition, supernatural events caused by free causal agents it seems that your requirement for empiricism is an attempt to mix two categories (natural vs. supernatural)."

        Prayer is an action within the natural world. You assert that it has an effect on the natural world (through a supernatural intermediary.) The question of whether prayer is effective should be testable independently of assumptions of what makes it effective or ineffective. As an analogy, if I can turn the lights off in a room by saying "lights off," it doesn't matter whether this is accomplished through a voice sensor or an obedient ghost. The proposition is tested by my saying "lights off" and seeing whether the lights do, in fact, turn off.

        • Let me clairify something I fear is a misconception here. Prayer in itself doesn't change anything. Rather prayer is a means of communication that traverses the natural to the supernatural. Specifically, when a Christian prays they are petitioning God to effect some sort of change in the natural realm. Thus prayer, in this sense, relies wholly on the free descision to intervene by a free and independant causal agent. So I hope you understand why your whole notion that prayer "should be testable independently of assumptions of what makes it effective or ineffective" strikes me as one of the most ill-informed statements I've ever heard.

          Likewise your analogy of lights being turned on and off displays a stunning lack of understanding of the issue at hand.

          You see, God is not like a light bulb. God is a free, independent, causal agent. None of those are true in reference to a light bulb. The only way your analogy would make any sense at all would be if God were like a force such as electricity. While there are many who view God in this fashion, unfortunately even some Christians, the reality is that such is not and never has been the view of Jews/Christians when it comes to God.

          • "Let me clairify something I fear is a misconception here. Prayer in itself doesn't change anything."

            This seems to contradict your main post which says "prayer changes things."

            "You see, God is not like a light bulb."

            No, he would be more like the ghost.

            "So I hope you understand why your whole notion that prayer 'should be testable independently of assumptions of what makes it effective or ineffective' strikes me as one of the most ill-informed statements I've ever heard."

            From here it looks like it's because you know that prayer is ineffective but want to say it is effective. If your god simply does what he feels like, regardless of your petitions, prayer is ineffective. If prayer does influence his behavior over the natural world, that should be detectable.

          • "This seems to contradict your main post which says "prayer changes things.""

            Only if ou have a very poor understanding of the subject at hand. Also, your response to my offer of clairification makes me wonder whether you really care to understand the subject at all or whether you are content to remain in your ignorance of the subject.

            "From here it looks like it's because you know that prayer is ineffective but want to say it is effective."

            *sigh* yes thats EXACTLY why I have attempted to enlighten you above. By your willful and arrogant ignorance displayed with this comment I am forced to conclude that I am dangerously close to throwing my pearls before swine as it were with you.

            "If your god simply does what he feels like, regardless of your petitions, prayer is ineffective."

            So, to paraphrase, your measure of effictiveness in a relationship is whether you always get your way or not. Nice.

            "If prayer does influence his behavior over the natural world, that should be detectable."

            PLEASE substantiate this statement. Otherwise I hope you realize this is a completely bare assertion not grounded in much of anything and wholly without any warrant of any kind. In other words, you're simply making stuff up.

          • "PLEASE substantiate this statement. Otherwise I hope you realize this is a completely bare assertion "

            It is self-evident. Effects within the natural world are detectable. For example, if christians got sick less often than non-christians, that would be detectable. My "bare assertion" is simply that we should be able to see things if they are visible and right in front of us.

            "So, to [create a straw-man,] your measure of effictiveness in a relationship is whether you always get your way or not. Nice."

            No, my measure of the effectiveness of an activity (like prayer) is whether the results of engaging in that activity differ from the results of doing nothing.

            "I am forced to conclude that I am dangerously close to throwing my pearls before swine as it were with you."

            My experience is that christians use that phrase to avoid discussions with people who will actually examine their claims to determine whether they are true or not. That may even have been its original intent. Perhaps it was a type of code telling christians to look for the suckers or easy marks.

          • God never made a normative statement to the effect of "those that follow me will be less sick or fortunate than those who do not". So to make a criteria based on a normative situation that was not promised is to setup a straw man.

            No, your bare assertion that is still unsubstantiated is that you still seem to think that miracles are regular, repeatable, and producible upon demand. That view is wholly foreign to what we, as Christians, understand Scripture to teach.

            The problem with your criteria is that you somehow think that God is obligated to answer in the affirmative each and every prayer. In other words, you get your way. Sorry, that straw man is made of flesh and bone though it doesn't walk very well.

            I would love for you to examine my claims. However I have this curious requirement that you actually know what you are talking about and actually care about attaining a view of truth (which means actually listening to what I say). As far as I can tell you fail to meet these criteria. In other words, your attitude seems to be "please don't confuse me with the facts."

            Tell me, without making a category mistake, is there anything that would persuade you in this conversation that prayer does result in (though is not in itself the causal agent responsible for enacting) a change in the natural realm.

          • "The problem with your criteria is that you somehow think that God is obligated to answer in the affirmative each and every prayer."

            No, I think that prayer is ineffective.

            "…you still seem to think that miracles are regular, repeatable, and producible upon demand."

            No, but prayer is repeatable. If it actualy effected miracles (even some of the time) then they would be reproducible. The alleged effect of prayer would be measurable if it existed.

            "Tell me … is there anything that would persuade you in this conversation that prayer does result in (though is not in itself the causal agent responsible for enacting) a change in the natural realm."

            A controlled experiment that demonstrated this change. A statistically significant difference in the results between a control group (for which prayer is absent) and a prayer group (for which prayer is in full vigor.) At this point, I am inclined to believe that you will regard anything other than blind belief to be a "category mistake."

          • Your patience in this "discussion" is admirable, Pvblivs. I am through banging my head against this particular wall.

          • "No, I think that prayer is ineffective. "

            Is that something you are presupposing from the outset? From the way you are approaching this topic I am left wondering.

            "No, but prayer is repeatable."

            That makes about as much sense as if we were to call my repeated attempts to get you to understand what the logical fallacy of "category error" is and then expecting the mere fact of my repeating myself to accomplish their stated goals. Come on, we're talking about prayers to an independent being. Not magic. Though you may think prayers are no different than magic that doesn't make them so, it merely displays both your ignorance and intellectual bias.

            "The alleged effect of prayer would be measurable if it existed."

            In your world perhaps. However in the real world where we understand prayer to be to an independent being such assumptions are simply ludicrous. The only measure that can rightly be applied to miracles is a historical test because miracles are, by definition, not regular and repeatable events.

            "A controlled experiment that demonstrated this change."

            Do you hear that? My category error alarm just went off again.

            "A statistically significant difference in the results between a control group (for which prayer is absent) and a prayer group (for which prayer is in full vigor.)"

            Rubbish. Pure and simple rubbish. Only if you presuppose a view wherein the only things that count as true are empirically testable (an epistemological position that is, itself, unsustainable) can you make such a claim with a straight face. If you want to go down the road of presupposing empiricism as the exclusive and exhaustive test for truth then be my guest, but you'll need to go ahead and admit that you have absolutely no basis for counting any historical event as true since your epistemological system discounts the very notion of knowing historical events to be true at the outset.

            "At this point, I am inclined to believe that you will regard anything other than blind belief to be a "category mistake.""

            If you consider anything outside of empirasicm to be "blind faith" then sure. However in making this claim you are only displaying your woeful lack of understanding when it comes to epistemology and the categories of knowledge and tests thereof that can be applied in the pursuit of truth.

          • "That makes about as much sense as if we were to call my repeated attempts to get you to understand what the logical fallacy of 'category error' is and then expecting the mere fact of my repeating myself to accomplish their stated goals."

            This is an analogy we can use. You have repeatedly claimed that I have made a category error; but have not actually identified anything that fits the definition nor attempted to explain why you think it fits. This is an ineffective activity. It does not have the apparently desired effect of making me agree with you.

            "In your world perhaps. However in the real world where we understand prayer to be to an independent being such assumptions are simply ludicrous."

            Actually prayer would be petitioning the assumed independent being. But it can be likened to a suggestion box. A suggestion box might be there so that someone can act on the recommendations, or it might be there just for show. But the effective of placing a suggestion in the box can be measured.

          • I've mentioned before that a category error is made when you treat what is inherently a supernatural event (God's changing something in space and time) as if it were a repeatable natural event. You may, as you have stated before, discount the supernatural altogether but in doing so you can't then turn around and cast derision onto the notion that prayer (or rather God prompted through the act of praying to Him) can change things in space and time since sucn a notion would further entail a logical fallacy of circular reasoning wherein your conclusion that prayer does not change things is predicated on your rejection of the supernatural which is then reinforced by your notion that prayer somehow proves that supernatural events do not happen.

            "This is an ineffective activity. It does not have the apparently desired effect of making me agree with you."

            Perhaps I could argue more persuasively, however there is nothing I can say that can force you to change your mind (the desired effect). Since you are a free creature with a limited free will the only person who can change your mind is yourself.

            "But the effective of placing a suggestion in the box can be measured."

            Please elaborate because from my understanding the existence of a petition box wherein I do or do not get my petitions answered has no bearing on whether or no the one to whom my petitions are addressed exists and has received my petitions or not. However I would, by the way, submit that my petitions have been answered from the particular petition box we are talking about.

            So, with this analogy I must ask, are you saying that you've made entries into the petition box that you believe should have been answered?

          • "I've mentioned before that a category error is made when you treat what is inherently a supernatural event (God's changing something in space and time) as if it were a repeatable natural event."

            Except that I have done no such thing. I have stated nothing about your god's involvement or lack of same. Nor have I said that miracles cannot happen. If prayer were effective, it wouldn't matter whether it was due to an intelligent being responding to petitions or whether it was due to some cosmic vending machine. The effectiveness, though not the mechanism, would be observable.

            "Please elaborate because from my understanding the existence of a petition box wherein I do or do not get my petitions answered has no bearing on whether or no the one to whom my petitions are addressed exists and has received my petitions or not."

            And I have made no claims on whether the intended recipient exists here. The only issue I have addressed is whether use of the suggestion box results in a change we can see. The evidence is that it does not.

            "So, with this analogy I must ask, are you saying that you've made entries into the petition box that you believe should have been answered?"

            That would also be subject to confirmation bias. I have read, and believe, that controlled experiments have been done and there was no observable difference in results for those that did and those that did not use the suggestion box. Now, maybe you think the tests never happened; or maybe you think they were rigged.

          • "I have stated nothing about your god's involvement or lack of same."
            But that's the problem. You see, the very notion of miracles presupposes a God to hear and potentially answer them. If you take God out of the equation then what you are left with is mere incantation of the occult variety which I have not nor ever will defend.

            "If prayer were effective, it wouldn't matter whether it was due to an intelligent being responding to petitions or whether it was due to some cosmic vending machine."
            Once again, you are treating this as though it were subject to regulative naturalistic laws wherein input A produces output B without fail or, at the least, in a regular and repeatable fashion. This is a clear example of your category error and yes, I will continue to repeat this point because I do not think it can be emphasized enough.

            "The effectiveness, though not the mechanism, would be observable."
            To a degree this is true, however you admitted elsewhere that you have a hard time with the one realm of knowledge where the detection of miracles is both warranted and probable. That is the area of historical observation. You see, once you discount historical knowledge then you also undercut the only realm capable of detecting miracles since, as we've already mentioned, miracles are not regular and repeatable in the verificationalist sense but rather one-time events actualized by a supernatural causal agent onto the natural world such that the only evidence of their having occurred would be through the testimony of witnesses.

            "I have read, and believe, that controlled experiments have been done and there was no observable difference in results for those that did and those that did not use the suggestion box. "
            So you are basing your opinion on the existence of miracles on others who have likewise made a category mistake?

            "Now, maybe you think the tests never happened; or maybe you think they were rigged."
            Oh I would maintain that they were rigged. They were rigged epistemologically in that God (the performer of miracles) is not a slot machine. Additionally to conclude based on "controlled experiments" that miracles do not or have never occurred is to commit a genetic fallacy. That is, even if the observations that miracles had not occurred during the observational period due to the "prayers" were true the conclusion that miracles do not occur would simply not follow. To make the argument logically valid you would need to add another hidden premise that we should expect all or most or even some prayers to result in what was prayed for and from my position I simply don't see that as true or warranted.

      • "In the end, I am willing to bet that your disbelief in miracles has absolutely nothing to do with any evidence or lack thereof but rather your disbelief in miracles is due to your a-priori assumption of philosophical naturalism.

        "Simply put, if you don't accept the existence of the supernatural there is no way you'll ever accept the existence of supernatural events. "

        You lose that bet. A word of advice. Don't try to tell me what I think. Nobody seems to be able to figure it out. Even on the assumption, which some people make, that the natural world is all there is, there are things beyond our perceptions. The supernatural, if it exists, is simply another thing beyond my perception. I am no more adverse to it than I am adverse to electrons, which I also cannot see. But claims about the unseen are only useful insofar as they make predictions about that which IS seen.

        • That is yet another curious bare assertion. What makes you think that the supernatural is not perceptible? Additionally, if it is beyond your perception, what reason or warrant would you have for believing it exists?

          • "Additionally, if it is beyond your perception, what reason or warrant would you have for believing it exists?"

            I neither believe nor disbelieve in the supernatural. I disbelieve in your god because he is described as interfering and I see no interference. There might be a god that observes, like a scientist observing lab rats; but there is no active interference (at least, none that I can see.) I believe the supernatural is imperceptible because when I ask for a demonstration of the supernatural, I get the cop-out of "read your bible."

          • Um, this was not a post wherein I was attempting to prove or provide evidence for the existence for God. To claim it was is to be highly intellectually dishonest.

            Also, science is not wholly neutral. Mostly because it is done by scientists who are not neutral in their disposition. To claim that science or scientists are is, again, highly intellectually dishonest (or simply ill-informed).

            Finally, pointing our your category mistake is hardly a cop-out and if you feel that it is then I seriously question your capacity for a sober and rational discussion on this subject.

          • "Um, this was not a post wherein I was attempting to prove or provide evidence for the existence for God. To claim it was is to be highly intellectually dishonest."

            Perhaps it would be. However, you claimed that I disbelieved in the supernatural. That is incorrect. I brought up your god (something in which I really do disbelieve) as a point of contrast, and because I think you might be confusing disbelief in that with disbelief in all things supernatural.

            "Also, science is not wholly neutral. Mostly because it is done by scientists who are not neutral in their disposition. To claim that science or scientists are is, again, highly intellectually dishonest (or simply ill-informed)."

            But I have made no such claim. Indeed, I have offended people when I point out things that are passed off as science when they shouldn't be.

  3. "Finally, pointing our your category mistake is hardly a cop-out …"

    Whether or not you think my categorization of the supernatural as undetectable to be a mistake, the response I commonly get for my request for demonstration if it is observable ("read your bible") is a cop-out. A text can say anything. It is not evidence in and of itself. A trusted text (often used and accepted as evidence) is one that people trust to reflect actual observations. I do not trust the bible.

    • No, it is not that your categorization is a mistake. It is that you've made a logical error known as a "category mistake" (http://bit.ly/212acP)” target=”_blank”> http://bit.ly/212acP)” target=”_blank”>(http://bit.ly/212acP). Look it up, its not just that I don't like your arguement, what I'm trying to tell you is that your argument is invalid and incoherent. Additionally, you'll also notice that I never mentioned the Bible in this discussion, you did. Sure I mentioned it to help you clear up forr poor grasp of theology but if you refuse to read the Bible to understand what Christianity teaches then I am simply at a loss as to what you would (if anything) use to understand the faith you appear to despise (apparently with or without facts).

      Further you go on to say the Bible is not a trusted text. Based on what criteria? My guess is that your statement here is based not on facts but on your own philosophical bias.

      • "Further you go on to say the Bible is not a trusted text. Based on what criteria?"

        For this discussion, only one criterion is needed — the fact that I do not, in fact, trust the bible. When you try to convince me, or anyone else that doesn't believe the bible to be accurate, the bible is not a trusted text.

        "Additionally, you'll also notice that I never mentioned the Bible in this discussion, you did."

        You might want to check your main post. "In 2 Kings 20 Hezikiah’s prayed and God …," "Further, in Exodus 32:1-14, God tells Moses …," "…along with Jesus’s statement that we 'have not because we ask not' (Matthew 7:7.)" Your argument that prayer is effective is based entirely on the bible. You have produced no evidence of it outside of the bible.

      • "It is that you've made a logical error known as a 'category mistake'"

        I cannot find anything in my comments that could even be construed as a category mistake. Further, the claim of "category mistake" followed on the heels of my stating that the reason I regard the supernatural (if it exists) to be imperceptible is that I do not get evidence for it when I ask for it. I frequently get the response "read your bible" which I have identified as a cop-out.

      • You called it "pointing out [my] category mistake." I act on the assumption that you are trying to make a rational claim. The only thing that made sense was that you are regarding my categorization of the supernatural as imperceptible an error and those people saying "read your bible" are somehow pointing it out. If something exists and can be perceived, someone should be able to provide direct evidence of it.

        • It appears that you are attempting to move into the area of epistemology by your claim that the supernatural is imperceptible. I am curious to know, upon what basis do you stake your proposition that the supernatural, if it were to exist, would be imperceptible and therefore wholly unattainable through reason and logic?

          • I do not believe the supernatural would logically *have* to be imperceptible. I believe that it *is* imperceptible (impossible to detect through observation.)

          • If by observation you mean regular repeatable observation then I would agree. However is that your only test for truth? Surely you wouldn’t think this is a valid test to apply for historical events.

          • I have a certain level of mistrust over historical events. Oh, I know there exist historical events. But I can't test them. I have to make a judgement call to determine whether it is likely that an alleged historical event even is real, imagined, or deceptive. Perhaps what you want to say is that prayer once had an effect, but no longer.

          • Prayer, being merely communication wit the Almighty, is certainly a "one time event". Likewise, God's choosing to act in response to prayer is also a one-time event. One could make the case that the existence of life and the universe are regulative miracles (meaning regular and continually occurring) but what we are commonly referring to when talking about miracles are, in fact, one-time events which constitute a temporary suspension of natural events in accord to the creator of those natural events' wishes.

            You know, if you wanted to offer a more reasoned attack on the existence or effectiveness of miracles I suggest you find a copy of David Hume's Of Miracles (http://bit.ly/am1ry6)” target=”_blank”> http://bit.ly/am1ry6)” target=”_blank”>(http://bit.ly/am1ry6)

      • "but if you refuse to read the Bible to understand what Christianity teaches"

        A bit of clarification from my end is in order, it seems. I do not dispute that this is what christianity claims. I am not a christian and I do not believe christianity to be true.

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