When Prayer Fails

Dave Schmeltzer’s book Not the Religious Type has many examples of what he calls “napkin stories” (i.e., short enough to write on a napkin), brief anecdotes from people who claim to have experienced miraculous events in their lives when they trusted in God. Here’s a typical one:

I found out that my aunt and uncle’s marriage was unraveling due to an affair. I fasted and prayed for them. After thirty-eight days, I was contacted by my uncle. He was about to sign a lease on an apartment to move in with his lover. Before he could sign, he felt an almost audible voice in his head say “stop.” He went back to my aunt and started to see how their marriage could be saved. She found a way to forgive him.

I’ve observed in the past that evangelical religious belief is sustained by a kind of natural selection among ideas. Stories and personal testimonies that fit neatly into Christian narrative prototypes – stories that resonate with what Christians already believe – stir interest and excitement among believers who hear them, are repeated and passed on from person to person, and soon become common in the apologetic literature. But stories that can’t be fitted into these templates don’t draw interest or excitement from believers, are not repeated or passed on, and tend to be forgotten. Because of this tendency to count the hits and forget the misses, Christians uneducated in critical thinking tend to believe that answers to prayer are common.

But if you look at all the evidence, a different picture emerges. We hear stories about faithful Christians who are stricken ill, pray for healing, and then recover; we hear stories about evangelists who founded a ministry and saw it flourish and grow; we hear stories about nonbelievers who pray for God to reveal himself and then mysteriously receive aid from a helpful Christian stranger at just the right time. However, unless you’re looking for them specifically, you probably don’t hear stories about Christians who are stricken ill, pray for healing, and then die. You don’t hear stories about churches and ministries that fail to attract members and fall apart, despite the hard work of their founders. You don’t hear stories about nonbelievers who pray to God to reveal himself and then nothing out of the ordinary happens. It’s not that these stories never get written – they do, and I’ll give some examples – it’s just that they don’t take root and spread through the Christian community like the other kind.

In this post, I’ll try to counteract that tendency by presenting some stories of when prayer fails. The first two examples are from Philip Yancey’s book The Jesus I Never Knew:

One terrible week two people called me on successive days to talk about one of my books. The first, a youth pastor in Colorado, had just learned his wife and baby daughter were dying of AIDS. “How can I possibly talk to my youth group about a loving God after what has happened to me?” he asked. The next day I heard from a blind man who, several months before, had invited a recovering drug addict into his home as an act of mercy. Recently he had discovered that the recovering addict was carrying on an affair with his wife, under his own roof. “Why is God punishing me for trying to serve him?” he asked. Just then he ran out of quarters, the phone went dead, and I never heard from the man again. [p.159-160]

Even the “answers to prayer” confused me. Sometimes, after all, parking places did not open up and fountain pens stayed lost. Sometimes church people lost their jobs. Sometimes they died. A great shadow darkened my own life: my father had died of polio just after my first birthday, despite a round-the-clock prayer vigil involving hundreds of dedicated Christians. Where was God then? [p.165]

Or this tragic story of a young mother dying of cancer, who prayed with a hospital chaplain that God would give her the time to finish a needlepoint project she was making for her children:

I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

Or Paul Barnes, former pastor of a 2,000-member evangelical megachurch, who resigned after admitting that he was homosexual:

“I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy… I can’t tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away.”

Or this sad story of an injured man, unable to afford a doctor, who waited months on end for a miracle until he died:

“He read his Bible daily, he spent his full focus on God,” said Webb. “And he was literally waiting and praying for a Job miracle. If anybody knows the Bible and knows Job, he really and fully believed that God was going to heal him just like he did Job, because he said he couldn’t think of a better testimony to go out and to tell people.”

And Dave Schmeltzer himself, though he repeatedly claims to be happy and blessed, admits that his life too has times of depression and darkness:

“…it’s not as though my life is consistently such a powerful case for connection with this super-duper God. For someone who talks as much as I do about joy… why is it that a few times over the years I’ve mentioned to my wife that I feel as if my life has been squeezed out of me like water from a sponge, like I relate to Woody Allen’s working title for Annie Hall (Anhedonia – the clinical inability to feel joy).”

This quote highlights an important point that shows how miracle stories get started. Every life, regardless of which religion you belong to or whether you believe in God, has its high points and low points. Every person experiences both favorable and unfavorable coincidences. Evangelicals are doing nothing more clever than giving God the credit for the good times, while ignoring or downplaying the bad ones – save for the rare glimpses of honesty like the ones cited above.

But whatever theological embellishments that evangelicals put on them, these ups and downs happen to everyone. Atheists, too, experience them; the only difference is that we recognize them for what they are, the inevitable working of chance, and don’t claim them as evidence of some supernatural creature’s favor or disfavor. And atheists, too, experience the same kind of favorable coincidences that Christians unhesitatingly ascribe to miracles; again, the difference is that we recognize that occasional striking coincidences are bound to happen in the course of any normal life.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.