God Says Yes, No, or Maybe Later?

God Says Yes, No, or Maybe Later? August 31, 2011

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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