Seth Andrews, more commonly known as The Thinking Atheist, is one of my favourite youtube personalities. Today on the TTA Facebook page, he shared the story of a fellow called Sean. Seth had received an email from Sean, whose house had recently burnt down. Despite losing his cherished collection of books (along with just about everything else), Sean was excited that Seth’s upcoming book, Deconverted, would be the first in his new library when he rebuilt his house. After Sean’s email was made public, dozens and dozens of TTA fans wrote to offer Sean their moral and financial support. Sean’s response to this show of comradeship can also be found on the TTA Facebook page. The thing that struck me most about Sean’s response to this outpouring of good will was the last paragraph:
We were not looking for anything, and it wouldn’t feel right to take anything. We lost things, just things, books, clothes, furniture and such, there are many others who need food and shelter and water, I honestly would feel bad taking anything when others need so much more. But thank you.. Every last one of you. The fire may have taken possessions, but this overwhelming feeling of love and support that you have filled us with is something that can never be taken.
I share this story for two reasons. Apart from just enjoying the opportunity to share a nice moment of people wanting to help out a comrade in need, the story also reminded me of a couple of recent conversations I had on my own Facebook page on the topic of prayer. It all began when I posted the following picture:
Just so it’s absolutely clear, I don’t mind that the well-meaning folk at the Chaplains Office of my university had offered to pray for students during their exams. I’m sure these people pray for all kinds of important things, like an end to poverty, cruelty, famine, disease, and the like. But it got me thinking about two questions.
1. What does it mean for a Christian to say that God has answered a prayer like this?
On any given day, there must be millions of requests put to God. Suppose you could see the entire list of items God had been asked for today. There would be countless requests from westerners for things like: a sunny day for a picnic; finding lost car keys; getting a raise at work; finding a better job; getting a good deal on a new car; getting over the flu in time for the holidays. There would also be numerous pleas from people in poor countries: an end to drought; an end to slavery; escaping deadly diseases; the ability to feed one’s children. All Christians I know believe that God is powerful enough to grant any or all of these requests.
So what does it mean to say that God helped you pass your exam? I’ll tell you what it means. It means that you believe God carefully considered the list of all requests made of him, and chose to allow thousands of children starve to death instead of feeding them, chose to allow thousands of people to die of malaria instead of curing them, chose to allow thousands of children to be raped instead of protecting them, chose to allow thousands of people to remain in slavery instead of freeing them, yet chose to intervene to give you an extra 2% on an exam you wouldn’t have otherwise passed instead of letting you learn a hard but important lesson about hard work.
Now I’m the first person to say you should be happy about the good things in life. But the step from here to ascribing divine agency behind your good fortune is far more sinister than most believers tend to think.
2. Is it moral to pray for something like this?
I think Sean’s response to the TTA community was wonderful, and I’d like to think I’d react in the same way. I really hope I’d say something like:
Thanks for your offer of support, but there are others that need your help far more than I. If you were willing to send me $100, then please instead send $100 to Doctors Without Borders or Unicef, or another charity of your choice.
Why don’t Christians pray like this too? If you can think of something you’d like God to do for you, like help you pass an exam, why not pray along the lines of:
God, I could really use some help in my exam. But if you would consider helping me pass it, yet not help a child in Africa get the food they need to survive another day, could you instead change your plans and help that child instead of me?
If the testimonies of my friends are anything to go by, God apparently answers millions of prayers every day, as evidenced by rich westerners finding their phone chargers, getting to the airport in time for their flights, and getting promotions at work: things that non-believers also seem to enjoy in equal measure. But if all these people prayed prayers like the one above, then surely we’d see some pretty powerful evidence of prayer, wouldn’t we? The hungry would be miraculously fed, the sick would be miraculously healed, the slaves would be miraculously set free! Surely God would want to to do this, wouldn’t he??
I borrowed (with permission) the title of this post from a fellow blogger, Thinkaroo, who wrote a piece a while back on the same topic. Please feel free to check it out if you’d like, or also the extensive series she wrote on The Problem of Prayer.