God Says Yes, No, or Maybe Later?

Today, Young Mom wrote about how much more capable of caring for her children’s sleeping trouble since she has stopped expecting God to step in and put them back to sleep. This made me think about my upbringing, and about my parents’ approach to prayer, including with regards to issues of healing.

My parents always prayed for healing when we were sick, and they believed that God could and did heal. However, they also gave us medicine. They didn’t simply count on God to heal us. And thank goodness, because children have died while their parents have held off medical care and waited for divine healing! Yet it strikes me that my parents’ belief in divine healing is set up in such a way that its existence can never be disproved or even tested. Let me explain.

When my siblings were sick and took a turn for the better, my parents thanked God for healing (even when they had used medicine). And yet, when my siblings were sick and took a turn for the worse, my parents didn’t see that as proof that God wasn’t answering their prayers, but rather as evidence that God had answered their prayer for healing, he had simply said no. This deserves some background.

When I was a little girl, I wondered why God frequently seemed to not listen, or to ignore my requests. After all, the Bible promises that:

Mark 16:17-18 – And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Matthew 17:20 – He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Luke 17:5 – He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

I wondered, then, why my prayers often went unanswered, seemingly unheard. The Bible said that if I only had enough faith, I could literally move mountains. I worried that my faith was not strong enough, since I could not do this (and I did try – you all might have been trying out Harry Potter spells but at the same age I was trying to use faith to move mountains).

When I asked my parents about this, they told me that when we pray God sometimes answers “yes,” sometimes “no,” and sometimes “maybe later.” In other words, when I prayed, regardless of the outcome, God was answering my prayer. This strikes me as incredibly convenient.

For example, let’s imagine there is a drought and my parents pray for rain. If it rains, God is answering their prayer! If it doesn’t rain, God is answering their prayer! If it rains in a few days, God is answering their prayer! Do you see what I’m saying? There is no way to determine if there is actually any action of God taking place at all, and there is no way to disprove whether God is acting or not. Furthermore, because he sometimes says yes and sometimes says no, God’s answering prayer is essentially meaningless.

I wondered, as a child, what the point of prayer was if God was just going to do whatever he wanted to anyway, regardless of whether we asked. My parents told me that prayer was about keeping up communication with God, rather than simply about asking for things. It was about forming a relationship. And yet, God did want us to ask for things we wanted or needed. Bud didn’t he already know what we wanted or needed, even before we asked, since he was all knowing? I asked. My parents told me that yes, he did, but he still liked to hear us ask. Sort of like a parent who knows what his five year old needs but still wants to hear him ask for it.

And yet, prayer could have a real effect. For example, if a great many people prayed, they could change God’s mind. And sometimes, even one person could make this difference.

Exodus 32:11-14 - 11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

For this reason, my parents said, it was truly important to pray, whether it was for the end of a genocide or for political change. We were commanded to pray. Our prayers did make a difference. I am afraid to say that this still didn’t make sense to me. The idea of God “changing his mind” made no sense to me. After all, how can God “change his mind” if he already knows the future?

In the end, I prayed first to form a relationship with Jesus and second because in many situations that was the only thing I could do. I am convinced that that is one reason that prayer is so popular. When you hear of a horrible tragedy or when a loved one is sick, it is comforting to be able to pray and think you’re making a difference. Except that (a) God might say no and (b) he already knows the future and that future is already laid out and (c) it makes no sense for God to change his mind. Some might say that perhaps the future he knows is contingent on our prayers – in other words, he knows that we will pray and because of that he knows that he will relent. But I’m sorry, when you get to that point my mind gets twisted up with all the time travelling aspects. Also, that becomes very deterministic – it seems to eliminate free will somehow. Okay, now my brain hurts.

Back to the topic of healing. My mother once prayed over one of my brothers, who was very ill with a stomach flu, commanding the demons who were afflicting him to leave. He vomited and felt better. She shared the story over and over again, explaining that when she rebuked the demons afflicting my brother, they left him, causing him to vomit in the process. First, the reality is that when people have stomach flues, they sometimes throw up, and then they generally feel better. This is medical fact, not rocket science. Secondly, if my brother had not vomited or felt better, had his stomach ache only grown worse or held steady, my mother wouldn’t have seen this as an unanswered prayer at all. It would have just been God saying “no.”

There was a time when my dad made a weighty decision by laying out a “fleece” before God. He told God that if a certain person said one thing, then he would do what he was thinking about doing, but if that certain person said the opposite, he would understand that as God telling him not to do it. This certain person said the first thing, so my dad went ahead and made the weighty decision based on it, interpreting it as God telling him what to do. Following my father’s lead, when I was in college, I made an important financial decision based on the fact that it was snowing when I woke up one morning. That’s right, I told God that if it was snowing when I woke up, I would make one decision, and if it wasn’t, I would make the opposite. I woke up and looked at the window, and behold! Snow! With that message from God, I made my financial decision.

Now when I think about this I am slightly horrified. Imagine if you told God that you would quit your job if the macaroni was on sale the next time you visited the supermarket. It will be either on sale or not, so regardless, God answers. God can’t NOT answer in a situation like this. I have to ask: how is this different than flipping a coin? It’s not.

Realizing all of this was a step on my path toward letting go of Christianity. I realized that because God might say either yes or no prayer was essentially meaningless. Furthermore, I realized that what I saw was no different from what I would see if there was nothing out there at all – some people got sicker and some got better, sometimes it snowed in the morning and other times it didn’t. There was no difference. I realized that God could not possibly let me down, because the belief system was set up such that he couldn’t – there was no obligation for him to answer my prayer, or indeed, do anything. There was no part of my relationship and beliefs that could not simply be made up and all in my head.

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Red Town, Blue Town
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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

    I tried to move mountains, too! HahaI asked the same questions, too, about what was the point of prayer if God already planned the outcome and might say no anyway. My mom was also big on the "fleece" idea, though I can't remember how many momentous decisions she made on that basis.Anyway, good post. This resonated with me. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11557037093560947882 Anne — QuicksilverQueen.com

    I didn't try moving mountains but I tried cleaning my bedroom that way xD I thought if I believed hard enough that it would be done…and I envisioned a perfectly clean room as the proof of my belief…that it would be done. When it wasn't, I was really disappointed.My dad did a few of those "fleece" things too.

  • http://quietpanther.wordpress.com/ quietpanther

    God can't NOT answer in a situation like this. I have to ask: how is this different than flipping a coin? It's not.Ugh … reminds me of something that happened during my wife's journey away from her cultic/fundie/patriarchal family:I looked over the verses dad read to me, and yeah, those specific verses sure made a great case that I had to stay there. I was still really undecided though…it was killing me to be there, but I was deathly afraid of going to hell (which they said would happen if I left). So I got these little pieces of paper, and wrote “dad” on one, and “Scottie” on the other. I folded them up, shook them in my hand, and drew the one closest to me. Well, I happened to draw “dad” three times in a row. Unconvinced, I flipped a coin…the first was to go, but then the next three were to stay. I’d never had a coin so consistent. So I told them it was a sign, and I was going to stay.http://www.quicksilverqueen.com/2011/07/my-indpendence-day-part-2/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "…let's imagine there is a drought and my parents pray for rain. If it rains, God is answering their prayer! If it doesn't rain, God is answering their prayer! If it rains in a few days, God is answering their prayer! Do you see what I'm saying?" ~ Libby AnneYes, I totally get what you're saying. Being a former believer and being raised around Christianity, I think that I can say with near certainty that Christians simply want a "God" who never fails them. After all, if it appeared that "God" is failing us over and over, that means less and less reason to hang on to the "relationship", or heaven forbid, that there might not be any "God" there in the first place. With "God", there are "good" reasons for good things, but oddly, there are "good" reasons for bad things. Huh?

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Young Mom

    Yes! (Do I start like every comment here that way?)My Dad often bragged about how his "fleece" before the Lord was answered in this situation or that. I too have noticed that when I've blogged about prayer I get a ton of commenters who defend God by saying that he HAS answered prayer, just not always yes, and like you said, it makes the idea of prayer and a listening God irrefutable in that way of thinking, it's like everyone has to come up with endless ways to justify his existence, I'm having a harder and harder time doing it.

  • Exrelayman

    Fleece is what the pastor does to the flock (among other things).

  • Anonymous

    I would like to calmly object to the idea that people explain prayer the way they do because they are trying to "justify the existence of God" as Young Mom inferred in her comment above. Real faith does exist and the faithful pray because they truly believe in God and in prayer. The fact that their explanations seem lame or lacking should be considered evidence that people believe based on faith and spirituality, and that the supporting explanations are very much a secondary matter, an after thought if you will. Arguing with the logic of the explanations is only going to be impressive to someone who is ready and willing to doubt their faith based on other grounds, usually (ime) personal disappointment that leads to a loss of hope. Also this line "my parents' belief in divine healing is set up in such a way that its existence can never be disproved or even tested," makes my head hurt. A belief in divine healing that is set up in such a way that it *can* be disproved or tested is not a belief in divine healing at all– it's more of a skeptical sort of admission of possibility. No faith, spirituality, trust, or hope required. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that believers aren't necessarily stupid, they simply believe for reasons other than the ones you all are attacking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Anonymous: "Arguing with the logic of the explanations is only going to be impressive to someone who is ready and willing to doubt their faith based on other grounds, usually (ime) personal disappointment that leads to a loss of hope." I disagree. First, to point out, I'm not trying to "deconvert" anyone, just to share my own thoughts and journey. If you don't like it, you don't have to read it. Second, plenty of people are willing to "doubt their faith" for reasons totally separate from "personal disappointment that leads to a loss of hope." I was willing to doubt my faith because I was interested in truth, and the only way we can find truth is to question everything we believe to see that it really holds up. People who accept faith just because their parents taught it to them, without ever questioning it or thinking it through for themselves, make me sad. Second, you seem to be saying that faith should be completely separate from evidence. Well okay, but then, how do you ever know it's *correct*? You don't! You believe it because…you just believe it! You are joined by billions of people across the globe in dozens of different religions. I'm sorry, I can't go there. I would rather have reasons for what I believe and test my beliefs. Otherwise, I have no way to know whether they are true or not.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding that second point, I was thinking about this just yesterday so I *had* to comment again even though I'm not trying to start a debate in the comment section. I won't be replying again after this unless you want to take the talk to email. But anyway. Assuming for a moment that the position that Christianity is really all about a personal relationship with Christ/God is correct, then the way to come to know the truth of it is not solely from detached philosophical or logical analysis of it's claims, but through the experience of the relationship itself. If this is the case, then perhaps what God would do, for the potential believer, is to create the conditions under which the development of trust becomes possible, by revealing enough of Himself to someone that they then have a choice whether to turn back or go forward. This is just how relationships work. To form one, initially you have to choose to trust, and it's a choice that in every case requires courage and involves a certain amount of risk. However, the potential benefits of trusting (in any relationship) are enormous and the potential losses may be tremendous. It's enough to make anyone hesitate but eventually you make the leap or you don't. I think the relationship between a therapist and patient can serve as an analogy to what I'm trying to express here, incidentally. I know this has strayed a little from the topic of the original post. Sorry for derailing. . .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Anonymous: "I guess what I'm trying to say here is that believers aren't necessarily stupid, they simply believe for reasons other than the ones you all are attacking." I don't think any of us have called believers "stupid." I and many of the commenters here have been there ourselves, and some of the commenters themselves are still believers. I also never inferred that anyone believes because of prayer. Rather, my post discusses my exerience with prayer growing up, the questions I had about it, and my current views. Furthermore, I have to say that your entire argument seems to be based on assuming the truth of Christianity – i.e. people believe because of faith. As you seem to be using the term, and I think your use is fairly accurate, faith is believing in things you can't see and have no evidence for. Faith strikes me as a very, very bad thing, with utterly no virtues at all. Faith in this sense essentially means turning off your brain. No thank you, you can keep your "faith"!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "No faith, spirituality, trust, or hope required."Not all mutually inclusive. One can have "trust" and "hope" without a need for "faith" or "spirituality". If one rules out "divine healing", they can still trust the medical experts and they can still hope that the ill get well. Trust is built on a demonstrable track-record. This is what sets it apart from "faith".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    Man, this matches the stance towards prayer when I was a child so incredibly well. I definitely remember being told, on not a few occasions, that faith literally could move mountains. I don't actually remember trying it, though. I think, maybe, there was a part of me that didn't believe it. Though that part was buried very deep down, if it was there at all, so that I didn't question anything about Christianity seriously until I was 21.I found it a bit curious that when I stopped believing, it was actually quite a while before I stopped praying. I had gotten so into the habit about praying over every little thing that I would very frequently catch myself praying and ask, "Why am I doing this again?"

  • Anonymous

    Nice post. I like your style–very calm and serene, yet definitely not wishy washy! And I value your experiences. You are an important voice, in general, and in our 'movement.' Good job; keep it up. Brad

  • Anonymous

    I've seen a disturbing trend among some brands of evangelical Christianity to claim that if you don't get what you're praying for, it's because you don't have enough faith. They've stolen the basics of "The Secret" and turned God into a genie with infinite wishes. These are also the "prosperity gospel" types who literally believe that God shows his favor by bestowing wealth.All things considered, I much prefer the worldview you describe here, where God doesn't grant our every prayer because he's got his own ideas. It's convenient, as you say, but it doesn't lead to a sense of entitlement, nor does it encourage people to look down on those suffering reverses as "not in God's good graces."

  • Anonymous

    While going thru my deconversion I was stumped by the fact that my Mom seemed to get answers to prayers. She would pray for a parking space and low and behold one would become available right near the entrance. People would say things like "Judy must be praying again". She had an impressive track record. So, I gave it a lot of thought and came up with the very simple fact that my Mother prays for EVERYTHING. If you pray for every single little thing and SOME of them happen then it's not the prayer it's coincidence. I started to pay closer attention and realized most of the time she didn't get what she was praying for (Lord cause the insurance adjuster to get here before noon so I don't have to wait around all day…he didn't show up until late afternoon the next day) FAIL. It's a game of chance, but, unfortunately she believes it wholeheartedly.

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in a home very similar to yours and everything you say sounds so "normal" even today I'm near 40 and have my own family. It's amazing how some things that my parents used to say to me come out so easily and I have to catch myself. I started questioning things while in HS and it took 15 or more years to make the jump and publicly say I am an atheist, I still can't completely shake everything.I just ran across this recently and thought you and your readers would enjoy.http://youtu.be/jk6ILZAaAMI

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07941425280564280124 bitwise

    Heh, I used the 'fleece test' approach to prayer a lot as a kid, too. Oddly enough, even in the most binary of tests, the answer seemed to always come up as 'maybe'. As in, if I had used 'Will it snow in the morning?' as the test, then maybe just a few flakes would fall (does that count as 'snowing'?) or it would snow at 11:45am (is that 'morning'?) or there would be record-breaking snow in Russia (was 'here' an implied component of the test?), etc. And yes, I tried the whole moving-mountains thing too. Although, with plate tectonics and fault lines and what-not, maybe the Rockies really have moved a little? (Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was the Rockies that I tried it on.) ;)