If there’s a God, why doesn’t he answer our prayers?

May 18th, 2020 in 6Reasons. Tags: , , , , , , ,
Praying for healing

This page in brief ….

On this page I examine the obvious fact that not all prayers to God are answered in a way that is hoped for.

If there’s a God, should we expect him to answer our prayers? Sometimes? All the time? If he doesn’t, is this because he’s not there? So I consider:

  • whether any prayers are answered,
  • whether God promises to answer prayers, and
  • whether the whole idea of God needing our prayers to change his choices is a sensible one.

I conclude that this is an argument worth considering, but there are reasonable responses. Whether those responses are enough to negate the argument is up to you to decide.

A pretty simple argument

Critics of religion have a simple argument. People pray, sometimes in desperate need. Their religion tells them God cares, but their prayers aren’t answered, except occasionally, by coincidence.

So surely the most obvious conclusion is that there’s no God to answer the prayers?

Clarifying the argument

I think there are actually 4 slightly different arguments here. Let’s look at them a little closer.

1. Prayers don’t work

Many scientific (medical) studies have been conducted into the effectiveness of prayer and it is argued that the results show that prayer doesn’t work.

  • when some people are prayed for and others are not, there is no difference in the results, and
  • in hospitals, atheists, agnostics and people of different faiths all recover at the same rates.

So, the sceptics say, this ought to be enough to prove the point.

2. Jesus’ claims

Jesus said:

  • “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)
  • “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13)

Maybe some prayers are answered, but not all of them. So the argument is this: Jesus hasn’t kept his promises, so christianity isn’t true.

3. Prayer is an illogical concept

In Christian, Muslim and Jewish belief, God is all-powerful and knows everything. So why does he need us to tell him what he already knows and has the power to do?

And if he is loving, why would he need to be prompted to do good? Why would asking him lead to any different outcomes?

4. God doesn’t act to prevent pain

There is much pain and suffering in the world. Some people suffer unspeakably. They pray, but get no relief. Surely, the sceptics say, this shows God can’t be there?

A christian response

My first response is to admit honestly that I wonder about unanswered prayer too. I cannot understand some things about prayer. But I believe these four objections are not as strong as might first appear. Let’s look at them more closely.

1. Prayers don’t work?

The claims made in this form of the argument are simply not true. Scientific studies DON’T show that prayer doesn’t work.

The situation is more complex than that.

Many studies show that religious belief and practices are beneficial for physical and mental health (see Faith and wellbeing). But showing that prayer is effective is not so easy.

There are at least a hundred studies on the medical effects of prayer. I have found 21 individual studies and 5 reviews of about a hundred other studies (it is hard to be exact, because some studies have been reviewed more than once). In these studies some patients in hospitals are prayed for and some are not, and the recovery rates compared.

These studies have been about 2:1 in favour of a small but definite positive impact. However there are reasons to question this conclusion.

  • The methodology of many of the studies has been criticised.
  • The most comprehensive study (the one usually quoted by sceptics) showed no beneficial effect.
  • Even when the studies show a positive benefit from prayer, it is hard to be sure of the mechanism.
  • It is impossible to demonstrate that God was, or was not, responsible for any improvement.

So it is realistically impossible to draw a definite conclusion. The matter isn’t yet resolved.

This isn’t entirely surprising, for the studies weren’t designed to prove whether God exists. They were generally designed to test the efficacy of prayer and other practices as medical therapies. They were designed to answer a question like Does prayer prove useful often enough to be worth using in treatment? The question of whether God is active, or not, is beyond the scope of these studies.

The question we want to ask here is more like Is there any evidence that God at least sometimes heals? That question requires a different study design.

There is a bunch of other studies that have been done to answer this question. They examine unusual and unexplained recoveries from serious illness after prayer, and assess whether a natural explanation is likely.

I have examined as many of these studies as I can find, and have found there is good evidence of unexplained recovery after prayer.

So I conclude that this form of the argument claims to much, and cannot be sustained. There is actually plausible evidence that God does sometimes answer prayer.

2. Jesus’ claims

This seems to me to be a more substantial objection. After all, the statements are there in the Bible, and it does seem that the promises aren’t fulfilled.

A common christian response is: “God always answers prayer but sometimes his answer is no, or not yet”. This may be true, but it doesn’t explain why Jesus promises we will get what we ask for.

The problem really isn’t that God doesn’t always grant people’s prayer wishes. Granting some prayers would be evil. Other times people might pray for opposite things, and God couldn’t logically do both. Other times people’s requests may be selfish, trivial or plain silly.

So most of us have no problem that God doesn’t answer these prayers. The difficulty is that Jesus seems to promise more than is sensible.

My only understanding of this is to note that Jesus’ promises about prayer generally come with conditions:

“if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22)
“believe that you have received it” (Mark 11:24)
“ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified” (John 14:13)
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you” (John 15:7)

So we need to ask ourselves, what did Jesus mean by these conditions. What does it mean to ask in his name? Is faith and belief something we can manufacture? What does it mean for his words to remain in us? Will what we ask for glorify God?

I don’t know the answers to all those questions. But it does make me think that Jesus never intended us to think that we would receive whatever we asked for.

So I can agree that Jesus seems to promise more than we experience. But I don’t think it is so clearcut that we can say this so certainly that it becomes a reason to disbelieve in him, or even more so disbelieve in God.

3. Prayer is an illogical concept?

The argument seems strong.

If God knows everything,
if he is all-powerful,
and if he loves us,
then why would he need us to remind him to act,
and why would he wait for us to ask before he did good?

So prayer is illogical.

But there is a good answer.

God is indeed all-powerful. But he has chosen to limit his power on earth, by giving the human race autonomy.

We get to choose. And we are free, generally, to choose things that God would not choose. Or to choose what God would want us to do. If we want.

So we can choose to ask God to act. And sometimes he agrees with us, and acts.

So prayer isn’t illogical. It may not be true, but it makes sense within a world where human beings have free choice and the ability to change things.

4. God doesn’t act to prevent pain?

This is indeed a telling argument. But it isn’t so much based on unanswered prayer as on God permitting evil.

I have addressed this as a separate question, in Do suffering and evil prove there’s no God?.

So is this an argument against God?

Clearly there is an argument here. But how strong is it?

You’ll have to judge for yourself, but it seems to me that for each form of the argument there is an answer. These answers may not completely meet the challenge of the arguments, but they go a long way.

Some further reading

Photo Credit: NEFATRON via Compfight cc.

10 Comments

  1. If there’s a God, why doesn’t he answer our prayers?

    when did god say he opened an office accepting prayers?

    did you see an ad in the local newspaper?

    secondly, did god say he speaks english? if yes, where did he learn it from?

    there are 1000s of languages past and present and the subtle differences are very difficult to distinguish even for native well educated speakers.

    you think god has nothing better to do than learn all those languages and listen to continuous religious drivel?

    and what for? he never plans to intervene anyway. So?

    either god is an idiot, or people who claim such, are idiots.
    and i don’t think god is an idiot.

  2. Hi pwd,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. May I suggest you read this post again, for I answer a couple of your questions in it. Then maybe we could discuss? Thanks.

  3. Gods ways are not our ways. Hebrews :You must first believe He is( or God is) and that he is a rewarder of those who DILIGENTLY seek Him. Daniel: Those who know their God will do great things. Genesis: Jacob ( the doubter) wrestled with an ( Angel) I’m not going to let go until I get the blessing. ( my words). Proverbs: The previous possession of a man is diligence. The Lord says if you seek me with all your heart you will find me.

  4. Hi there! I would like to say that at your second point, Jesus’claims, God answers prayers prayed in line with His will. In John 15 where Jesus promises that whatever we ask in His name we will receive, in the Amplified Bible, between brackets it says “according to His will”. This makes sense to me. If you pray and ask God for a marriage to break up so that you can marry the partner yourself and you ask in Jesus’ name He is definitely not going to answer that. It is a silly example but I guess you get my point :). As you said we often ask for selfish stupid things. Also, sometimes certain events and circumstances needs to fall in place for God to answer our prayers, so we have to patiently wait for answers. We want answers instantly and if it doesn’t happen fast enough for us we dismiss it as unanswered prayer. Very often for me, God answered my prayer very differently than I expected Him to answer and as a result I nearly missed the fact that something was an answer to prayer. On your 3d point, prayer is an illogical concept, I would say that the main reason for prayer is relationship. Even though God knows everything He wants us to communicate with Him because communication is how we build relationship. And relationship with God is why we were saved in the first place. Just my 2c worth 🙂

  5. Hi there,

    Thanks for your well thought out blog post. I can appreciate the answers you’ve presented here. Yes, this is not a clear cut issue, but I think that we can certainly create experiments that can better help us understand the efficacy of prayer and the limits of God’s influence here in the world – whether self imposed or because he doesn’t exist. A key factor that is raised in the Hospital studies is essentially, does prayer work at a rate higher than pure chance to enable healings. As you know there are various biases and limitations to these sorts of studies. One such limitation is that in some cases. The subjects are religious and have people praying for them irrespective of the group that they are in.

    I have a solution that could be attempted. If God is willing to be detected though an empirical study, then I propose we flip a coin. Or rather we flip it a thousand times asking God to make it that it only lands on heads. Please be assured that I am not being facetious here. This simple test will allow God to demonstrate the efficacy of prayer without all the complexities of dealing with humans. If God can be supplicated to agree to the initial condition that all coins are to land on heads then a hypothesis stating that “if I ask something in God’s name it will be granted and God’s name will be Glorified” as opposed to the null hypothesis “if I ask something in God’s name it won’t be granted and God’s name will be shamed” – similar to the situation in 1 Kings 18 where Baals failure to perform resulted in the warranted killing of all the prophets of Baal.

    I would love to carry out this experiment on my own but I’ve been told that I because I am not a believer (anymore), God won’t move for me.

  6. Hi William, thanks for commenting. Does that mean you don’t see any difficulty here?

    In this post I am considering the argument of sceptics who feel too many prayers are unanswered for them to believe in God. How would you answer them?

  7. G’day RaeS, thanks for sharing your ideas.

    “If God is willing to be detected though an empirical study, then I propose we flip a coin. “

    This is an interesting idea, but I don’t think it is a satisfactory experiment design. Certainly if it is successful, it might prove something. But if it isn’t successful, would that be because there was no God, or because he chose not to act in the way you ask? Who could say?

    I think that is the difficulty in experiments about God. If God exists, as I believe but you don’t, he is a personal being, and he has the ability to make choices. So we’d have to design an experiment that allows for that, which I’m doubtful we can do.

    By the way, I don’t think God won’t answer prayers because you’re an unbeliever. But maybe as an unbeliever you are less likely to ask God for something he is willing to give you.

    So it seems to me that answered prayer may be evidence of God, but unanswered prayer can hardly be evidence against his existence.

  8. HI UnkleE

    Thanks for getting back to me. I would actually appeal to the personal-being aspect to support my experiment.

    I grant that God could not want to do a thing. True, this makes it difficult to assert that he doesn’t exist. Though, with what we have on God people could certainly be justified in living as if he didn’t exist without consequence. I still do think these types of experiments can tell us a little about God’s character. Why are some prayers reported as answered and others not, is God behaving randomly, or is there a bigger picture here? Sure, it could be a picture that is incomprehensibly big, but could it be like the theory of gravity, -even incomplete the theory works at some level. The slightest of predictability in that regard, would support an argument that at least some aspect of God being predictable.

    In my conversations with believers, they have compared God to a parent or a spouse. The love and altruism in these relationships are unmistakable. The level of communication is also far more intimate than between two strangers. I could ask a spouse to do things for me that a stranger could not. With a spouse where there is genuine love, it would be fairly easy to convince them to rig a game of flip-a-coin in your favour. So, to what lengths would they go when the consequence would affect our entire lives? My point here is that love is a driver for predictable action – a request that is within a person’s power will disproportionately be met with a positive outcome; where there is love, even more so. Try asking your spouse/friend to turn on the light and see what kind of response you will get. I predict that the next time you ask will result in the light being turned on. That is sort of the idea here.

    On what basis would God refuse a request from someone that he loves? This I would think is a question worth exploring. It may be hard to determine, but we can certainly figure out 10 000 conditions where he would refuse a request consistently.

  9. Hi RaeS,

    I still think an experiment like you suggest doesn’t address the issue we are wanting to address, because while it would be conclusive if it worked, it would be inconclusive if there was no response. I think rather we need to consider the philosophical question.

    “On what basis would God refuse a request from someone that he loves?”

    I think this is a key question. And I think the answer is fairly clear. If God has purposes that are more important than always answering our prayers, or if he knows things we don’t know, then he may have good reasons for not doing what we ask. And I think he has at least one more important reason – giving human beings autonomy rather than doing everything for us.

    I think it is like a parent doesn’t always do what their child asks. You mention that friends or lovers will do as asked, but surely parents very often don’t. They have different goals and more wisdom.

    So I still wonder, as you do, but I feel those answers are the beginning of an answer.

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