The Power of Prayer?
James 5:16b: The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
Matthew 17:20: And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”
One place where Christians engage in doublethink is through a love/hate relationship with the concept of believing that God will actually do something when they pray. On the one hand, believers are supposed to believe God does things. But on the other hand, it’s nice to be able to write off God’s no-shows as the product of kooky beliefs in a “vending machine” God. (This is often a euphemism for a God that is distinguishable from no God at all.)
Some Christians actually believe that if they pray for healing, God will answer with healing. A fairly extreme group supporting such faith in action is Unleavened Bread Ministries. They have a page full of cool stories of how God healed people.
The interesting thing about one of the families involved in this ministry, the Neumanns, is that the results of their faith are a matter of public record. Last spring, their 11-year-old daughter became extremely sick. Her parents prayed for her instead of taking her to see a doctor. What follows might have been the work of Satan. It might be a continuing test of their faith. What I do know is that Madeline Neumann died from a treatable form of diabetes while her parents petitioned an all-powerful, all-loving God for her healing. Her parents think she died because they didn’t have enough faith. I think she died because her parents had too much faith. Faith like this is a form of criminal negligence, or at least it should be.
A lawsuit is currently brewing to see if the parents are guilty of second-degree murder. The Neumanns’ defense is quite interesting. Their friends’ website states, “Before I give my case and point, let me say this: If we are going to judge this family — which we really have no right to do — we need to understand completely what the Bible states about healing and prayer. In short, the Bible states that we should trust God for healing and use prayer to achieve that goal.”
Don’t ask God why this happened. We know why. The Neumanns let their child die from a treatable condition because they completely, sincerely, and absolutely had faith in the love and power of their God. If God wanted her to live she would have lived, and if God didn’t why should they seek to oppose God’s will through medicine? We must understand how much sense this makes viewed through the lens of their religion. The problem was not that her parents didn’t care. The problem was not that they acted irrationally, given their worldview. Madeline Neumann died because her parents are people of childlike faith and consequently acted like children. Any religion that sees childlike faith as a good thing or believes that God will reward childlike faith should not be surprised by outcomes like this. Moderate religion lacks the language to properly express what went wrong – a culture with a healthy disrespect for faith is needed to combat tragedies like this.
There are two key places where the Neumann differ radically from mainstream evangelicals. Most obviously, they blamed the result on a lack of faith – this mistake has nothing to due with the Bible. Most of the book of Job is about refuting the idea that tragedies should automatically be blamed on sin. Plenty of differing evangelical beliefs come from differing picking-and-choosing, but the Neumanns are wrong here even if the Bible is true.
But while as a matter of fact, the Neumanns differ wildly from mainstream evangelicals by forgoing medical treatment, biblically speaking, it is not obvious why they are wrong. A case can be made for an alternative view, but it is hard to argue biblically that the Neumanns are necessarily wrong. What was wrong with trusting God with their actions rather than trusting the effectiveness of modern medicine? The Bible tells Christians to put their faith in God with much greater clarity than it tells Christians not to trust him for other things. While “do not test the Lord” is an explicit command, it was not the Neumanns’ goal to test God but only to trust that he would take care of them and to live in a way that is consistent with this belief. The fact that Madeline’s death did not cause them to call God a failure should be proof enough that they were not testing God and were not presuming to know the will of God but only living by faith in the way that they thought they should.
Among evangelicals, some form of the following catch-phrase is quite popular: “Prayer should be our first resource, not our last resort.” This is a convicting line for people whose first reaction to an accident is to call 911 first, and pray second. This is wrong! This is a sign of our weak faith! Forgive us Lord! But does prayer work? Adult Christians have such a hard time having childlike faith because they aren’t children, and that’s a good thing. They’ve seen too many prayers unanswered and too many colds successfully soothed with NyQuil to not use medicine as a first resource.
More “mature” approaches to prayer are to pray primarily in ways where if it did nothing at all, one would never know the difference. “God, be with person X during event Y,” “God help event X happen, if that’s your will,” or prayers whose explicit goal is to change the attitudes of the one who is praying. When faced with a “no” answer that is indistinguishable from no answer, one is to react as if that’s how it’s supposed to be. “Yes” is to be paraded about in glory of God. Are there more “yes” answers than would be expected at random? These questions are not supposed to be asked, because this would be testing God. This needs to be called what it is: fear of the possibility that prayer doesn’t really do anything. If it is biblical, it merely means that this fear of the truth is present in the Bible and not just in Christians. Consider this: if instead of telling us not to test God, the Bible just came out and said “Thou shalt not apply valid reasoning to the question of prayers’ effectiveness” how would Christians think differently about prayer?
Doctrines of prayer seem designed so that if prayer did nothing at all, people would never know the difference. And so prayer continues to do nothing at all, while people continue to be convinced that it is changing the world. I first heard about this story maybe two weeks before losing my faith. If people who think God works miracles all the time still don’t see that nothing is happening, how much more should I doubt the reality of God’s answers to “be with me when…” prayers?
Prayer’s true power should not be underestimated. The true power of prayer is its ability to blind people to its impotency as they believe all the way to second-degree murder. This power needs to be opposed.
(After writing this, I noticed a distinct but unintentional Sam Harris influence. I would like to thank him for The End of Faith.)