Interesting question from a reasonable skeptic

Interesting question from a reasonable skeptic July 26, 2012

He writes:

Please help me understand something. If someone isn’t healed, that, just like a healing, is God’s will–I presume I have the correct? So why would anyone pray for healing when that could well be contrary to God’s will?

I could better understand a prayer that said , “God, thy will be done,” a prayer that didn’t specify an outcome, because we can’t know which outcome is consistent with God’s will in any particular case.

Because a relationship between person makes room for persons to freely express their needs, wants, and desires. So Jesus commands (note the paradox of that) that we freely express our petitions (“Give us this day our daily bread”). “Daily bread” is shorthand for “everything we need”. One thing we need is healing. Sometimes the need is for physical healing and such healing is given. However, physical healings–even resurrections in Lazarus’ case–are only tokens pointing to the real action, which is spiritual healing. Lazarus died again eventually. All physical healing will end in physical death, just as all bestowals of daily bread end in hunger again. That’s because this life is passing and is, by its nature, not going to last. But this life is sacramental and points beyond itself. So we ask, not always sure how God will answer (one answer is “no”, but not all answers are “no”). If the request is contrary to God’s will, then the answer will be “no”. But part of the process of prayer is discerning that will. Mary got a “no” to her petition for more wine at Cana, but she persisted (as, by the way, Jesus mysteriously urges us to do) and the answer turned out to be not merely a “yes” but a spectacular yes that not only consisted of the water made wine but (much more importantly) of the inauguration of Jesus’ messianic mission (which was the real subtext of her petition all along).

The Church makes bold to say that *every* request for healing will *always* be answered by Jesus (that’s why there is a sacrament of anointing). She is not foolishly saying that physical healing will always occur (though you could flag down almost any priest and probably here some lulu stories). But some sort of healing is always available through the sacrament. We are a species in need of all kinds of healing, but the principle healing we need is spiritual and a sacrament is a guarantee from God that he means to supply it. It just may not be the healing we think we need.

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  • quasimodo

    love your answer, Mark

  • Liz

    I second that, quasimodo! Thanks for that great response, Mark! And thanks to this reasonable skeptic for the question!

  • Laura B.

    He may not realize that many of us pray for healing (of assorted kinds) and other prayers for great needs, and *also* end that selfsame prayer with, “…but THY will be done.”

    As it needs to be.

  • Matthew

    Mark I think it is necessary to emphasize also the conditional nature of certain events. There is no reason that God, from all eternity could not decree the following: “If enough rosaries are said for this intention it will be so if not then not.” I am reminded of children’s books from 20yrs ago or so in which the reader could make choices at the end of each chapter. The auther still established the parameters but the reader could really choose.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      I always wanted to write a ‘Choose-Your-Own-Ending’ book that always ended the same way no matter what your choices. I just lack the ability.

      • Matthew

        For a great film treatment of the concept watch “Sliding Doors” starring Gwenyth Paltrow. Good film and thought-provoking

  • Marthe Lépine

    I remember a comment by a pastor, who I think was Pentecostal (I used to attend ecumenical prayer groups) explain that God’s response could be “Yes”, “No”, or “Later”. And looking back on my life some 35 years later, I can clearly see some answers that did come “later”…

  • Developing Matthew’s answer a little bit: God sometimes wills to heal someone because of our prayer. He gives us the dignity of being a secondary but very real spiritual cause of their healing.

    Just like, if I rescue someone from drowning, God has answered his prayer and saved him from drowning but also and at the same time given me the grace of being the real secondary cause of his salvation. And why shouldn’t I want that?

    Do you know how awesome it is when God answers your prayer for someone you love? You pray for a miracle for someone, and it actually happens? You feel closer to God and to the person for whom you’ve been praying. When God answers your prayer for someone’s healing, it means that he didn’t just will that person should be healed, he willed that that person should be healed because of your prayer. The dignity of being a real (both spiritual and physical) cause of goodness in the universe is one of God’s greatest gifts to his creation.

    • Matthew

      Yes, Jon, what is the world coming to when a good Dominican-trained layman like Mr. Shea cannot expatiate on the four causes!!!

  • Paul

    Mark, you flatter me when you call me “reasonable,” I try to be that way as much as I can, I hope your characterization is not totally underserved.

    There’s still something that I can’t quite put my finger on about this issue, and hopefully I’ll have a few more questions soon, when I have a chance to think about it.

    • Mark Shea


  • Paul

    Maybe what I’m having problems with is this: it seems like prayer, as you describe is, is not – even in principle – capable of having anything that could disconfirm it. Allow me to explain.

    I could envision prayer working in such a way that, given one set of circumstances (how or what or to who or when, etc., etc., etc. we pray for), I could then show someone, “Look, prayer works in exactly the way I’ve described;” and, the flip side of that is that, given that same conception of what prayer is, that a different set of circumstances would allow someone else to say, “Well, prayer is certainly not working in the way you’ve laid out because of X, Y, and Z.” One way or the other, this vision of prayer would either fit what we see on the ground, or not, or only to some extent or not.

    But the conception of prayer that you describe doesn’t seem to be like this, at least as far as I can see. Is there any circumstance that you could lay out to me, concerning anything about prayer – how it’s done, why it’s done, when it’s done, whatever specific you could imagine- – such that, someone could legitimately say, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t fit how you described what prayer is, something must be wrong somewhere, either with what is being reported about prayer, or the conception of prayer that you described, or something else.”

    • Mark Shea

      I suspect you are right. Prayer does not seem to have been instituted for it apologetics value. No doubt for many folks, of course, it has contributed to faith (“It’s a miracle! An answer to prayer!”) But typically such moments depend, in part, on other factors already being in place. When Satan proposes prayer as an apologetics tool (“if you are the Son of God, ask that these stones become bread”) he is brusquely refused with among other things, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The Christian tradition is (maddeningly for the expermental mind) notoriously resistant to the proposition that God can be examined in a lab. So “prayer trials” with controls and subject and such like are a famous waste of time. God won’t play and if he won’t then we shall learning nothing by that route. That is probably one of the reasons St. Thomas never attempt to use answers prayer in his five demonstrations. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in answered prayer. Just means he doesn’t thing prayer is something you can prove from reason.

      I suspect, though I don’t know, that Thomas probably regards prayer as a matter of supernatural revelation, not of natural reason. If so, then like all other aspects of supernatural revelation, we are talking about something that *cannot* be proven by natural reason, nor disproven either. Thomas’ rule of thumb is that supernatural revelation cannot be proven from natural reason–You can’t figure out from natural reason that God is a Trinity or Scripture is inspired by the Holy Ghost or the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus or Christ was raised from the dead in a glorified body. But what you *can* do is answer all the objections that natural reason might have to these propositions. In short, Christianity really is a *faith*. But it is a faith that transcend, not contradicts, reason. If I am right, prayer is a thing like that. It’s can’t be proven, but all objections can be disproven.

      There are, of course, moments in Scripture that look an awful lot like “competitive prayer trials”: Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal for instead, when the prophet places a bar bet that God will light the sacrifice soaked in water and Baal can’t (“Hey! Maybe he’s asleep or taking a leak!” jeers Elijah.) That sort of experiment works if God complies with the prayer. But since he usually *doesn’t* comply all we can say is that we are faced with a choice between a) God chose not to show up or b) there is not God to show up. Without further information, there’s no reason to privilege b) over a).

      All that said, the Tradition does commend, if you will, experimental (in the sense of “experiencing” prayer. Jesus says that the one who does his will will know whether he comes from the Father. So among other things, the Church says, “If you are unsure whether Jesus is the Son of God, what could it hurt to try a) praying as he instructs us to do”, b) asking him for the gift of faith, c) looking at the basic arguments, not simply for the existence of God, but the deity of Jesus and d) trying your hand at doing the stuff Jesus says to do. That would, of course, entail reading the gospels and such to find out what that is, but it seems like a start.

      You note what’s happening here. Prayer is not being proposed as a “proof” of anything. Rather, it is proposed as simply a way of “stepping into the traffic”: getting into the normal practice of the covenant life Jesus is already engaged in with his Church. The confidence of the faith is that, as you do that, things start to get clear.

      Not sure if that scratches where you itch. What do you think?

  • Paul

    One other important point: because you laid out a conception of prayer that could be, in principle, shown to be inconsistent with the results of prayer, then, we could legitimately say, “This conception of prayer works because it fits what we see.” Of course, if it didn’t fit what we see, we’d say the opposite.