How Does Prayer Work? And What Does that Say About God?

How Does Prayer Work? And What Does that Say About God? January 8, 2021

What’s the point of prayer? Why bother praying if God already knows?

Christian apologist Greg Koukl took skeptics’ questions on the Unbelievable? podcast (audio here @13:02). Let’s evaluate his response to a question about prayer.

The question could be interpreted several different ways.

  • What I think the caller was asking: What difference could asking make when the future is fixed? It doesn’t seem fixed to us, but there are no forks in the path ahead of us since God knows every future event. To God, events unfold as if he’s watching a play that he wrote. He knows every line. So what’s the point?
  • What I want to ask: Why bother praying since God already knows what you need? You’re obviously not informing him of anything. Shouldn’t he just do the right thing for you, regardless of whether you pray or not?
  • And then the question Koukl wanted to answer: Is there a constraint on human free will if God knows everything in advance?

Christian response to the puzzle of prayer

Koukl began by imagining a boss who has already decided that if a particular person asks for a raise, he’ll grant it. But if a raise makes business sense, why not just grant it without being asked? Koukl says that the asking requirement comes from the Bible: “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). In response to pushback from the caller, Koukl called the asking-for-a-raise example “a perfectly human illustration that matched every item exactly” and which makes perfect sense to us.

No, this is actually a poor parallel. In the first place, can Koukl possibly be saying that you don’t get things from God if you don’t ask, but you will get them if you do ask? I’d like to see a demonstration of that.

The Bible has a handful of claims about prayer’s efficacy. Some have no caveats—for example, “Ask and you will receive” from John 16:24—but this one cited by Koukl does. The next verse says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” But surely someone has asked with good motives. How many millions have prayed for world peace or a dramatic healing in someone?

How about this for a good motive: I will ask for a something mundane to appear (a candy bar or a glass of water) and do this demonstration repeatedly, in public, simply because this will shock millions of non-Christians to consider afresh the Christian claims.

But everyone knows that this won’t work. What does this tell us about the Bible’s claims about prayer?

Ordinary people have constraints, but God has none

A second reason this isn’t a good example is because a good boss should provide the raise if it’s the right thing to do and not put capricious obstacles (like asking) in the way of any employee getting what they deserve.

Third, money is in short supply in the typical company. It must be spent wisely. Not so with God—he can grant anything at no cost or effort.

Let’s fix these problems. Map God into the employer’s role, but now the employer adjusts everyone’s pay from his unlimited supply of money and perks to maximize productivity. If the janitor would be maximally productive with a salary of a million dollars per year, that just happens. There’s no haggling or negotiation, just happy, motivated, and hard-working employees.

Humans in a Skinner box?

Back in the real world, prayer is reinforced intermittently. Once in a great while it seems to deliver, which is that little push to convince the believer that it works (though it certainly doesn’t work in any way like “works” is normally used, like with a typical home appliance or car—y’know, reliably). We find this in pigeons who had behaviors reinforced intermittently in B. F. Skinner’s famous experiment. Prayer becomes nothing more than a slot machine.

What have we turned God into?

This is a tangent, but I think it’s an interesting one. Consider what Koukl’s god has become. God knows the future perfectly, including every request or need that he will respond to and what each response will be. If we look at God’s actions, we could reduce each one to a conditional cause-and-effect statement like this: “If person P requests R then grant it (or not), but if he doesn’t request it then grant it (or not).”

But the conditional part is unnecessary since God already knows whether P will make the request or not. So it becomes: “When person P requests R (or doesn’t), then give it (or not).” That is, God knows whether or not P will make the request, and he knows whether or not he will grant it.

But even this can be simplified to a simple timeline: “At time T1, do action A1; at time T2, do A2,” and so on. Give these instructions to a universal wish-granting machine, and that’s God. This God doesn’t react in real time to anything. Is this mindless and soulless God what Christians want? What does it say that God could be replaced with a machine? What have God’s love or worry or anger or any emotion become without the time component?

Like the poor parallel between God and the boss, God has become a poor parallel to a loving creator, father, or caregiver. And prayer becomes pointless.

More on how prayer works (or not):

Tweeted after a devastating 2013 tornado:
Beyoncé, Rihanna & Katy Perry
send prayers to #Oklahoma #PrayForOklahoma,
Tweeted in response by Ricky Gervais:
I feel like an idiot now . . .
I only sent money.

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/1/16.)

Image from University of Washington Neurobotics Lab (license CC BY 2.0)

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