There are many things I would change about public perceptions of Christianity. One is the damaging perception that is held concerning the use of prayer.
On the one hand, so many critics assume that it is a good argument to ask why prayer does not immediately heal all diseases, prevent all accidents, ensure all successes, and grant all requests. We have replied that such expectations are not at all warranted by a contextual understanding of texts on prayer. (Link below.)
On the other hand, we have teachers and leaders urging testimonials about fulfilled prayer; we have (or had – I haven’t been watching this stuff!) Pat Robertson praying on the air and claiming some healing is instantly occurring as he prays; we have prayer being offered as the immediate action-solution when nothing else can be done.
In light of that, in one sense, one can hardly blame the critics for making such a big deal about prayer not being fulfilled: So many of our leading representatives act as though it is, that it is not surprising outsiders ask why God won’t stop an earthquake, or heal a cancer patient.
Making matters worse, we have representatives who boast of prayer being answered over trivial matters – such as success in finding lost car keys. I am not denying that God is quite capable of locating lost car keys, but chances are, we found the keys on our own because we searched thoroughly. I say this because the saying of a prayer is not sufficient evidence to establish a chain of cause and effect. It’s like the prophecy of Joseph Smith that South Carolina would instigate the Civil War – politicians of his day already knew that, so why give Smith credit for prophetic insight? But it remains: How can we unwind the dissonance of a God of Car Keys who won’t cure cancer?
There are standard contrivances for this, such as “it wasn’t God’s will to cure that cancer” which don’t help much; they only remove the dissonance a level further. And I’ll add as well that we have leaders who play this game with Satan, too, blaming him for every misfortune. My pet example of this is Joyce Meyer suggesting that Satan likes to ruin the good time you have at family barbeques. I don’t know – if I were a dispensationalist, and I thought Satan was still loose, even if he had millions of demons at his disposal to help, I would think they’d have better things to do than ruin a barbeque – like causing the death of a productive Christian leader, for example. Or an apologist.
Hmm. Maybe God hid my car keys because he knew Satan was trying to kill me in an accident.
This sort of theology is all over; some might even think of that Frank Peretti set of novels. I recall one scene from that where a group of demons was sending a vagrant to harass a woman in a car, having already ensured that her engine would not start. The lone angel, who was being beaten up by the demons, whispered in the woman’s heart to release the parking brake, so that she’d roll downhill and escape. I don’t recall that Peretti took his stories all that seriously, but apparently, many do.
But again – who can blame critics for pointing out that this God finds car keys but won’t cure cancer? The “it’s God’s will” response wears far too thin; even as a fan of counterfactual histories, I find it hard to imagine a way that it would be a better world without so many uncured cancers and so fewer lost car keys.
If I had my druthers, these teachers would change their tune to reflect a more contextualized understanding of prayer, and would also frame unanswered prayer within the paradigm of patronage and grace: As in Mark 6:5-6, the appeals of the ingrate are seldom if ever answered. Each of us who sins (am I missing anyone?) is an ingrate towards God on that account, and if anything, answered prayers should be reckoned an above and beyond grace we didn’t deserve. Finally, though it afflicts some for whom emotion is so strong that no rational appeal can penetrate it, I would point out that it is an ingratitude to ask God to come in and fix problems we caused ourselves – especially when we have already been given the intelligence, the tools, and the resources to prevent or fix them.
It won’t make for a high-sales of prayer, but it certainly will eliminate the dissonance.