Prayer as Polemic


Some time ago, when I was involved in apologetics, I shied away from mentioning my prayer life, for two major reasons. First, because it was all but nonexistent. My prayer life has never been the strongest part of my Christian walk, and it is something that I am working on. Second, because I didn't see any practical value in using it in defending the faith. In this post, I confess, I have changed my mind. I think that prayer does have some polemical value, and I believe that the biblical authors did, as well. In 1 Kings 8:59-60, King Solomon connects prayer (although possibly in an indirect way) with people seeing and knowing that Yahweh is God and that there is no other.

If we are going to recognize prayer as a type of polemic, it is important for us to understand what kind of argument we have. I would classify it as an argument from experience. If someone affirms that personal experience is valid for understanding truth, as in the way that the scientific method uses the experiences of the scientist who performs an experiment, then there is no reason not to accept a valid argument from prayer, since prayer is often based on personal experience. It may be objected at this point that the difference is that the experience of personal prayer is religious in nature, while experiences based on the scientific method are not. However, there is no reason to dismiss a religious or spiritual experience based solely on the idea that it is religious in nature. To assume that religious experiences are somehow invalid prior to looking at the evidence for said religious experiences is to simply assume what you are looking for in advance. It is to essentially argue in a circle. Therefore, I submit that the religious experience of answered prayer is just as valid as any other personal experience that one may have.

Let me give an example of a type of answer to prayer that I think can be used as a polemic. I recently had a friend who was hospitalized with COVID. While he was in the hospital, he essentially had a stroke, and was knocking on death's door. The medical diagnosis was not good, and I don't think anyone, including the doctors, ever expected him to make it through. To make a long story short, he was unconscious for some time, and could not eat or drink on his own. His wife asked us to start praying for him, which we did. As I write this, he is sitting in rehab after having recovered from the worst of his condition. The fact that all of the information told us that he would not make it makes the account of his recovery even more remarkable. This is by no means an isolated experience in my life. I can think of at least a dozen times when I asked for a very specific answer to a very specific prayer, and saw that very specific answer, or something eerily close to it. I think we would be better off leaving the nonspecific off of our polemical radar, but stick with the ones that required a very specific answer.

The obvious question that must be raised here regards those of other faiths that experience an answer to their prayer. I think that, in response to this, we must recognize the limitations of a prayer polemic on its own. It is also vital that we remember that no argument stands alone. In the same way that we can look at the extreme unlikelyhood of, for example, life arising by chance alone (which, by the way, is beyond astronomical), and conclude that this is not a viable solution the the answer of life's origins, so can we conclude that, when I pray to God through Jesus Christ and ask for a very specific prayer request to be answered in a very specific way, as opposed to another way, and I see that answered, it seems to me inherently more likely that my prayer was heard and answered than that I somehow managed to guess precisely how the future would unfold. I don't know the future, and I do know that much. I had no idea what would happen, but it still unfolded how we prayed it would.

This raises the question of what kind of Being would be necessary to answer prayers such as these. We would have to be dealing with a Being who could actually hear prayer and answer said prayers. That is, a Being who is able to act in the real world. Furthermore, since some answered prayers are beyond what a human being is capable of doing, such as when someone is healed miraculously from cancer after the doctors had given up, then such a Being must be able to act in the real world in ways that are not possible for human beings. In other words, the ability of such a Being to act in the real world must exceed a human being's ability to act in the real world. 

What about the person who objects that the prayer was not answered, simply because things would have turned out the same regardless of the prayer? To this objection I would simply respond that there is no way for that individual to know that this is the case. This objection is simply an assertion without evidence.

Finally, what about unanswered prayers? This objection is not a problem for the Christian, since the concept of God in the Christian tradition is of a Maximally Great Being. A Maximally Great Being is, by necessity, maximally good, and we should expect such a Being to withhold the answer that we want if it would be better or lead to more good overall if it were answered some other way. A religious system that does not hold to the existence of a Maximally Great Being would have trouble with this, but this does not pose a problem for the Christian conception of God.

I should emphasize again that this is an argument from experience rather than a deductive argument. What I am proposing is not based on deductive reasoning, but in essence boils down to an inference to the best explanation. The fact that highly specific responses to highly specific prayers do occur means that these responses must be explainable in some way. It is my view that the best explanation is that there is a Being who does, in fact, answer prayers. Furthermore, this Being is (based on this argument alone) more likely than not a Being like the Christian conception of God (as opposed to a generic theism or deism). Thus, I am perfectly justified, having seen my own prayers answered, in believing that the God that raised Jesus from the dead is the One who is answering my prayers.

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