Monday, December 29, 2008

The Power of Prayer: Anecdotal Evidence

James 5:16b: The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Matthew 17:20: And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

The Bible makes a number of very bold claims about the power of faith and prayer. Personally, I have seen faith greater than a mustard seed and I haven't seen any mountains move. I suppose most people have shared this experience. In light of how clearly false a literal interpretation is, it's not much of a surprise that most Christians think the mountain moving part is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what?

With few exceptions, the power of prayer is seen only through cool stories of how God works, rather than in verifiable claims. For now, I will meet the stories on their own ground.

About a month ago, I was driving home from Maryland in the dark and in pouring rain. I'm not sure why (probably to earn macho points), but I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could make it all the way without stopping. Three hours later, I had made it to my exit, but it was raining so hard that I didn't see the exit ramp until right after I passed it, even though I knew it was coming. If there's a good way to turn around on the New Jersey Turnpike, I still don't know it. A sign could have been proclaiming “Miss your exit? Go here, stupid” and I still couldn't have seen it through the rain. Half an hour later, I stopped at a gas station to ask which way was up. They gave me go-until-you-see-Wawa-then-turn-right-and-go-down-that-road-for-a-while style directions. After driving down that road for “a while,” I was still lost.

In the style of a Christian stopping to pray, I stopped for about a minute to collect my thoughts and simmer down. An hour ago, I was 15 minutes from home – that's gone, don't dwell on that. Anger is irrational here – adrenaline will just get me killed, so let go. Viewed from the bigger picture of say, today, a lost hour or two isn't really that bad. Prayer was very intentionally left out – I didn't go through some facade of “just in case.” I apply Pascal's Wager to an honesty loving deity rather than a faith loving deity, so I don't pray.

I found another gas station, and stopped to buy a detailed road map and have the clerk point out where I was. But he had a better idea. Despite the fact that I was 14 miles from home, he lived less than two miles away from me. Not only that, his ride home had just canceled on him, and his shift ended in ten minutes. Needless to say, I was more than willing to give him a lift for free. Heck, I almost gave him a tip.

If I had been a Christian, this would have been among my more dramatic examples of an answered prayer. Thank you God for making his ride cancel on him, and for leading me to that exact gas station! God hears before we even ask!

But I didn't ask. So why should I be impressed when Christians tell similar stories about what happened when they did ask? Either God is a rewarder of sincere disbelief, or stuff like this just happens without any deity calling the shots.


  1. Hey Jeffrey, It was good to talk with you over Christmas. Your non-prayer anecdote is interesting. I’m not sure that you communicated anything significant about God and His ways except that good things happen to people who ask and who don’t ask. I wholeheartedly agree. The rain falls and the Sun shines on all without exception. The difference between you and one who prays is the disposition toward the Sovereign God. Your anecdote demonstrates your denial of your need for God; the truly human thing to do would be to confess an utter dependence on God for all things (life, breath, and everything). For example, all humans are dependent on God for life - whether they admit it or not. You may not pray that God will give you life tomorrow. I will pray that God will give us both life tomorrow. Tomorrow, if by God’s grace we continue to live, I will thank God, and you will not. Your lack of thankfulness will prove nothing about God except that He is merciful. He is a merciful God, and I am still praying that He will give you eyes to see.

    According to your paradigm, our encounter over Christmas was coincidental. According to a God-centered paradigm it was sovereign grace- grace to you and grace to me. I have been praying for God to show his supernatural power by gifting you with faith, and I will continue to pray.

    On another note; let me know when you start reading Wright’s series on Christian Origins, I was reading Part 1 of The Resurrection and the Son of God today, and I was thinking about you when Wright talks about the resurrection and history. I think Wright is a good example of a brilliant person who believes in the resurrection of Christ while staying fully committed to history and truth. I think each of his books (especially the third) will interest you greatly.

    Talk with you soon,


  2. Given external reasons to think that God exists and cares, it is reasonable to take a theistic perspective to things like this. I disagree not with your perspective given your prior conclusions, but only with the prior conclusions.

    A distinction needs to be drawn between "I see the work of God in stories like this" and "I believe in the work of God because of stories like this." I'm only answering the latter.

    Personally I don't think our meeting at Borders was a coincidence, because coincidences are improbable. I was there for two hours before I met you, and had already run into one other friend (he's a biblical studies major at Moody.) I normally run into one or several people when I spend that long in Borders - especially before Christmas. The people I know in KC combined with the kind of people who shop at Borders means I should expect to be meeting educated Christians.

    I would simply say that we met for no particular reason, at least other than an actual, tangible reason like we decided to go Christmas shopping at Borders on the same day.

    I'll be ordering The Resurrection of the Son of God later this week. I'm just waiting so that I'll beat it home.

  3. That's great. I would advise you to read at least parts I and II of Wright's first book in the series (The New Testament and the People of God) before you delve into the third; it lays out his epistemological foundation and his methodology. These pages form the groundwork for what Wright does in the whole series. I think you would be quite interested in what he has to say.

  4. Warning: the Wright trilogy actually convinced me that the resurrection didn't happen. The first crack in my formerly unshakable faith appeared as I was reading "The New Testament and the People of God" and Wright's historical account of how the world went to hell in a hand basket in the century following the resurrection. Absolutely nothing changed after the event that supposedly ushered in a new age. And then, what I gleaned from Wright's thesis for "The Resurrection of the Son of God" could be summarized by something like, "The ancient, pre-scientific, highly superstitious people believed the resurrection happened and were willing to die for that belief. So it must be true."

    I love the good bishop and I suppose I should thank him for opening my mind to rational thinking.