Why Are More Petitionary-Prayers Helpful?
November 27, 2010 — 17:40

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 30

This post doesn’t come out of extensive research but just a wondering about petitionary prayer. Consider the following two scenarios:
1) When Percy learns of his wife Sally’s sickness, he says a prayer for her. However, when he hears from the doctor that this sickness is life-threatening, he calls his relatives and church community, asking them to also pray for her healing.
2) Hermione says a prayer for her friend’s well-being. However, Hermione desires more than anything else for her daughter’s well-being in college. She goes to bed every night, asking God for this.
From what I know, many religious communities find the actions in (1) and (2) to be commonplace, normal, and even rational. (We see an analogy to persistent prayer in Jesus’ parable of the woman asking the judge for justice, and we see communal prayer all throughout Acts and the epistles.) But I wonder why, exactly, more petitionary prayers are supposed to be helpful. Here are some possibilities:


a) Praying itself is virtue-building. Hence, you grow in virtue when you pray more, and others grow when they pray more. (It also grows you closer to God. Furthermore, it can grow the community closer together. I include all this under (a).)
b) When we come to God with prayer, it is a time when we are more open to God speaking to us. Hence, in asking more, there is greater chance that God will speak (either to us or the community) and we can receive guidance on what to do.
c) In praying, we end up surrendering the situations we are concerned about to God’s sovereignty and will.
d) More prayer increases the objective probability that God will answer affirmatively.
All of (a) through (c) might be true. However, (b) and (c) don’t seem to call for petitionary prayer. We might as well drop the petitionary prayer and instead pray prayers of surrender or prayers for guidance. Regarding (a), people who pray this way certainly don’t think that virtue building is the only thing going on. Percy and Hermione certainly don’t think that all they’re doing is building virtue in themselves or their church. (“My wife is sick. This is a great chance for other people to grow in virtue when they pray for her!”)
It seems that the activities in (1) and (2) are motivated by a belief in (d). But is (d) true? I wonder why it should be true. Why can’t God just hear the one prayer and let that be enough? If I want to request for something from a friend, I only need to ask them once. Asking twice is only justified by the fact that they might not have heard me or need to be reminded, things that don’t apply to God. Calling other friends to ask that friend the same thing seems unnecessary once the friend has heard from me directly. So, if God hears the request once, isn’t that enough? Why should more requests make a difference to the probability of God’s answering affirmatively?

Comments:
  • Dan

    Just some various remarks. Would not the considerations you raise against d) also imply that the probability that God will grant a request (i.e., that which is requested) is not even increased by *any* prayer? With God, we do not even have to ask once for him to know.
    I wonder if one could make a more plausible claim than d); that more prayer increases the epistemic probability of a desired answer. This would account for its being rational (relative to the end of acquiring what is requested) to pray more, without one’s assuming that such prayer is really affecting objective probability (and I have worries about how to even understand objective probability in these cases).
    It’s already morally obligatory to regularly devote time to prayer. But how is one to use such time? One natural way is to spend time making petitions. So it’s quite natural to pray for something X over and over; not because one can justify praying repeatedly for X per se (much less, justify the claim that such repetition increases the probability that God will answer), but because one is obligated to pray over and over and – incidentally – X is repeatedly a natural candidate on such occasions.
    We’re commanded in Scripture to make our requests known to God.

    November 27, 2010 — 22:01
  • Alex

    Percy and Hermione are being rational in light of the fact that Scripture seems to teach that petitionary prayer is especially efficacious when it is “offered in faith” and is offered by “a _righteous_ man.” James 5:15-16 reads: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
    Since the prayer of a righteous person is especially powerful and effective, Percy should ask his church friends to pray for Sally because some of his church friends are probably more righteous than Percy is.
    Since the prayer offered in faith is especially effective, Hermione ought to pray each day. This is because Hermione should recognize that her faith (like many Christians’ faith) varies over time, perhaps even day to day. So, her ability to offer prayer in faith varies from day to day. So, she should pray every day; this way, she’ll manage to offer a prayer for her friend’s well-being on one of her good faith days.
    Maybe the questions arise: why should the effectiveness of prayer depend on how righteous the person praying is, and why should the effectiveness of prayer depend on whether the prayer is offered in faith? I’m not sure of the answers.
    -Alex

    November 28, 2010 — 0:55
  • Consider the passage where a woman touches Jesus and is healed. Perhaps some might see this to reveal a propensity interpretation of probability with respect to God’s affecting a situation. Instead of direct personal agency, this is more akin to a divine-power-dispensing machine that responds to human prayer (with some limiting parameters).
    That might be an accurate description of some wealth and prosperity theology, or at least how it comes across in practice. One need only “claim it” with the right amount of faith in order for God to respond accordingly with blessings. God already desires that you are blessed, you merely have to tap into the divine-power-dispensing machine.

    November 28, 2010 — 7:27
  • Ross Parker

    This is a subject I’ve thought about a good deal over the last year. Thanks for the post! Here’s another reason that more petitionary prayers are helpful.
    ** Each time one begins to be anxious about a person’s situation, one can instead pray for the person. **
    Here I have in mind St. Paul’s admonition in Phil 4:6 to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
    The reason that I pray more in some situations than in others is because I am often, as a matter of course, concerned about certain situations more than others. I have a daughter who has a heart condition, and I find myself thinking about her situation often throughout the day. Instead of worrying, I pray for her. And when I ask my family and friends to pray for her, I’m also implicitly asking them to pray instead of worry.
    Dan, in response to your comments in your first paragraph, I think that there could be an objective difference between (1) God’s willingness to answer a request made and him and (2) his acting in a situation where he knows there is a need but no petition has been made. Perhaps there are situations where it would be good for God not to miraculously intervene, and good for him to intervene. It seems plausible to think that in a situation like this he could make his intervention contingent upon prayer. (This, of course, depends on your understanding of providence.)

    November 28, 2010 — 8:51
  • Another option is that prayer is not merely asking God to do x, but is also a way of co-laboring with God for the sake of the desired outcome. The idea is that God may not answer in the way we’d like if we make a request known once, but wants to accomplish certain ends together with us, via the work of prayer. A recent paper by Nicholas Smith and Andrew Yip, Religious Studies 46(2010):395-410 is relevant to this (“Partnership with God: a partial solution to the problem of petitionary prayer”).

    November 28, 2010 — 9:02
  • The idea of repeated prayer used to seem absurd to me — as if one didn’t have enough faith. After all, the Centurion and the Syro-Phonecian woman only had to ask once. Planning to ask more than once seemed tantamount to planning to have limited faith.
    However, Luke 18:1-7 addresses this issue directly. Luke 11:5-12 is also relevant.
    To Alex’s point about James 5, I was just reading Hoekema’s “Saved by Grace” today, and he stresses the fact that James is talking about the “elders” of the church. Presumably, prayer isn’t about sheer number of people petitioning, nor about sheer number of petitions by an individual, but instead about prayers of people who are already attuned to God’s will, and who will pray for what God willed anyway?

    November 28, 2010 — 23:25
  • christian

    andrew,
    you should read dan howard-snyder’s recent paper on petitionary prayer. it’s here:
    http://faculty.wwu.edu/howardd/papersandbooks.html

    November 29, 2010 — 0:31
  • Robert Allen

    “If I want to request for something from a friend, I only need to ask them once. Asking twice is only justified by the fact that they might not have heard me or need to be reminded, things that don’t apply to God. Calling other friends to ask that friend the same thing seems unnecessary once the friend has heard from me directly. So, if God hears the request once, isn’t that enough?”
    Others pleading on your behalf makes sense for 2 reasons:
    1) It conveys a sense of urgency, giving the would be benefactor to know ‘he’s pulling out all stops here’. Think of Zacchaeus climbing that tree. Such a person is opening himself to the reception of God’s grace
    2) It makes the potential benefactor realize that many others would benefit from the granting of the request, most importantly, in the case of petitionary prayer, by being made acutely aware of God’s providence. More bang for the buck, so to speak.

    November 29, 2010 — 9:42
  • Dan

    Ross,

    Dan, in response to your comments in your first paragraph, I think that there could be an objective difference between (1) God’s willingness to answer a request made and him and (2) his acting in a situation where he knows there is a need but no petition has been made. Perhaps there are situations where it would be good for God not to miraculously intervene, and good for him to intervene. It seems plausible to think that in a situation like this he could make his intervention contingent upon prayer. (This, of course, depends on your understanding of providence.)

    I can agree with this. I wasn’t intending to suggest that God’s granting that which is requested is not importantly dependent, in some cases, on a request’s being made, but that the reasons given in the opening post against (d) would seem to imply that such a request’s being made is not relevant. (So we might have a reductio against the considerations against (d)). Adapting what you say here, one might say there are some things requested such that God’s granting them is contingent on a certain “quality” or “quantity” of petitionary prayer (such that (d), or something like it, may be true).

    November 29, 2010 — 10:01
  • David Warwick

    “Maybe the questions arise: why should the effectiveness of prayer depend on how righteous the person praying is, and why should the effectiveness of prayer depend on whether the prayer is offered in faith?”
    I understand that this is a theoretical discussion about how prayer might work. But don’t we need to take a step back? ‘The effectiveness of prayer’ here is synonymous with prayer’s value as medical treatment. And that is purely a scientific claim, one for medical statisticians.
    Patients in irreligious Scandinavian countries with universal healthcare have better outcomes than patients in African countries with universal church attendance but no hospitals. And that’s glib, certainly, but it’s also TRUE and if prayer works, why is that so?
    Study after study in developed countries demonstrate that prayer isn’t effective medicine. That is to say that whatever other value prayer might have, any effect it has purely on medical outcomes is statistically negligible and impossible to reproduce.
    ‘Righteousness’ is a metric that can’t be measured, neither can ‘faith’. What has been done, though, is that the same group of worshippers has prayed for different patients – presumably they are just as righteous and faithful and sincere and in touch with God when they pray for patient A as for patient B. There’s no evidence of prayers from large groups, repeated prayers from the same individual, prayers with the patient’s knowledge, prayers without the patient’s knowledge, the number of people praying and so on having any effect.
    Prayer may have some other value. Surely, though, any discussion of why certain types of prayers might be more ‘effective’ than others has to concentrate on their actual effectiveness?

    November 29, 2010 — 14:19
  • David Warwick

    “God already desires that you are blessed, you merely have to tap into the divine-power-dispensing machine.”
    “Another option is that prayer is not merely asking God to do x, but is also a way of co-laboring with God for the sake of the desired outcome.”
    Two posts, both talking about the same idea of ‘co-labor’, and both using the same word: ‘desire’. But one talks in terms of God’s desire, the other is the desire of person who prays. Both desires have to coincide for the divine power to be dispensed.
    But if you need to ‘co labor’, then the implication would be that God never gets his desire without someone happening to pray for it. He desires to help the patient, but no one prayed, so lacking ‘co labor’ His hands are tied. Which seems absurd even before we get into the realm of empirical evidence and actual medical outcomes.
    God, surely, can (must?) enact his desires without need for co-labor. Prayer can’t change God’s desire, so it can only be effective when it coincides with God’s desire. Or, in other words, God will enact his desire, prayer or not.

    November 29, 2010 — 14:41
  • David Warwick

    ‘one might say there are some things requested such that God’s granting them is contingent on a certain “quality” or “quantity” of petitionary prayer’
    There would, in that case, have to be a set of outcomes which God *could* actualize, but doesn’t *have* to. In the case of a medical condition that either kills you or is completely cured, there would be three sets of people:
    1. Patients God desires to die.
    2. Patients God desires to live.
    3. Patients where God will assess the quality/quantity of prayers before reaching a decision.
    We can’t know which category a given patient falls under.
    In that example, it would make sense to pray for someone, on the off-chance they’re in category (3), and on the off-chance that you’re praying right. But wouldn’t affect the outcome if they were (1) or (2).
    The corollary would be that a (3) who was prayed for badly would die, even though it was potentially God’s desire for that patient to live. That, essentially, if you pray wrong, you’ll kill the patient.

    November 29, 2010 — 14:52
  • Alex

    David,
    You said that “Study after study in developed countries demonstrate that prayer isn’t effective medicine.” I’m totally ignorant of these kind of studies. Would you be able to point me to some good ones?
    Thanks!

    November 29, 2010 — 16:00
  • David,
    I don’t agree with the claim you make regarding the implication that “God never gets his desire without someone happening to pray for it.”
    It is possible that in some cases God acts on His own to accomplish what he desires, but in other cases only acts on the condition that someone co-labors with him via prayer. I don’t see why God could not desire a particular outcome be gained in a particular way. This does not seem absurd.

    November 29, 2010 — 16:11
  • erik meade

    David,
    You say “Prayer can’t change God’s desire.”
    Why not? Isn’t it rather the point of such prayer to change God’s mind?
    Glib Sidebar *** To your admittedly glib comparison of health outcomes of Scandinavia to Africa, my glib response would point out that this suggests to me that God is more inclined to answer Lutheran prayers. Or maybe more inclined to answer the prayers when prayed by official state churches such as you find in Scandinavia. ***

    November 29, 2010 — 16:55
  • David Warwick,
    “He desires to help the patient, but no one prayed, so lacking ‘co labor’ His hands are tied. Which seems absurd even before we get into the realm of empirical evidence and actual medical outcomes.”
    I would suspect that the health and prosperity type Christians interpret James 4:2 in a way that is precisely what you call absurd – “You do not have because you do not ask.” Personally, I agree with you for other reasons. I was being a bit broad and haphazard in my first comment, more or less speculating about what other Christians might be thinking.

    November 29, 2010 — 18:12
  • David Warwick

    Here’s a news report with links to the most recent big study:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html

    November 29, 2010 — 20:08
  • More petitionary prayer from more sources would suggest a greater participation by the Body of Christ, which I would expect to be more, umm, efficacious.

    November 29, 2010 — 21:15
  • David Warwick

    “I don’t see why God could not desire a particular outcome be gained in a particular way.”
    “Isn’t it rather the point of such prayer to change God’s mind?”
    … at which point we hit the omniscience problem. God desires to save a life but only if certain conditions are met … and he knows they won’t be; someone prays to draw attention to something God already knows, and persuade him to change his perfectly-informed mind.

    November 30, 2010 — 6:03
  • Whenever x asks y for a good G, unless there is some relevant exclusionary reason, the request gives y a new reason to provide G, over and beyond the reasons y already had to provide G. Therefore, when a second person, x2, asks y for G, then y gets yet another new reason to provide G. And so on.
    Now, when a perfectly rational agent y gets a new unexcluded reason to A, then all other things being equal this increases the likelihood that y will A.
    Whether the increase should be measurable in studies is tricky. For instance, I suspect that a number of people regularly pray for “all those who have no one else to pray for them”. How God accounts such requests is complicated. Moreover, the our guardian angels and the saints in heaven pray for us. This means that there are a number of prayers that the studies cannot control for.

    November 30, 2010 — 9:01
  • David Warwick

    “Whenever x asks y for a good G, unless there is some relevant exclusionary reason, the request gives y a new reason to provide G, over and beyond the reasons y already had to provide G.”
    No it doesn’t. If a doctor has an abundant supply of pills, one of which he knows will instantly cure patient X and A says ‘you should give X one of those pills’, then B comes along and says ‘you should give X one of those pills’, it’s not a new or better reason, it’s the same good reason, restated. More to the point, the doctor already had all the information, capacity and good reason to act even before the first person came along.

    November 30, 2010 — 10:43
  • David Warwick

    “Whether the increase should be measurable in studies is tricky. For instance, I suspect that a number of people regularly pray for “all those who have no one else to pray for them”. How God accounts such requests is complicated. Moreover, the our guardian angels and the saints in heaven pray for us. This means that there are a number of prayers that the studies cannot control for.”
    In a life-or-death medical scenario, the process is very simple: the person praying believes that regardless of all other factors, by *them* praying, *they* increase the chances the patient will live, not die.
    A general prayer would have one of three effects: nothing; it affects everyone equally, so it can be discounted statistically; God takes the request at face value and it creates a rather counterproductive result:
    Assume there’s One True Religion with an omniscient, omnipotent God who hears prayers and can affect medical outcomes.
    Bob, a follower of the religion makes his prayer: ‘God, please help those with no one else to pray for them’. Meanwhile, in the same hospital, there are two patients with exactly the same condition: Richard, a confirmed atheist who has written many bestselling books on why God doesn’t exist and who, along with all his friends, despises the whole concept of God and prayer. There is no one to pray for him; Benedict, a devout lifelong follower of X. Benedict has friends who follow X, but the friends somehow neglect to pray for him.
    God assesses the situation and grants Bob’s wish: Richard had no one to pray for him, Benedict had people to pray for him but they didn’t. Richard lives, Benedict dies.

    November 30, 2010 — 11:12
  • David Warwick

    “How God accounts such requests is complicated.”
    It’s unclear to us, it needn’t be complicated.

    November 30, 2010 — 12:45
  • “No it doesn’t. If a doctor has an abundant supply of pills, one of which he knows will instantly cure patient X and A says ‘you should give X one of those pills’, then B comes along and says ‘you should give X one of those pills’, it’s not a new or better reason, it’s the same good reason, restated. More to the point, the doctor already had all the information, capacity and good reason to act even before the first person came along.”
    The doctor may have a conclusive reason to give the patient the pill prior to the requests. But one can have a conclusive reason to do something, and yet gain an additional reason. For instance, suppose that in addition to the reasons resulting from his medical role, the doctor promised A that he would give A the pill. Then the promise gives the doctor an additional reason to give the pill. If he fails to give the pill, he goes against two conclusive reasons–one deriving from his medical role and one deriving from the promise.
    Somewhat similarly in the request case. Where A and B have requested that A get the pill, the doctor now has three reasons to give it: a medical reason, and two request-based reasons. The medical reason is conclusive. The request-based reasons aren’t conclusive–it is permissible to refuse requests–but even though they are not conclusive, they are nonetheless reasons.

    November 30, 2010 — 14:56
  • Andrew Moon

    I’m behind on grading, but I look forward to reading this discussion. Thanks for all the help everyone.
    Christian, the Howard-Snyder paper looks really good; I only got to take a skim. I liked the first couple of pages.
    David Warwick, maybe you should try reading that Howard-Snyder paper?

    November 30, 2010 — 22:00
  • Andrew Moon

    (To David, I was assuming you hadn’t read it when I commented earlier, and I hadn’t read your comments on this blog carefully. Anyway, it looks pretty good!)

    December 1, 2010 — 0:29
  • David Warwick

    “even though they are not conclusive, they are nonetheless reasons”
    But not all reasons are created equal. A trained doctor who learns of a sick patient in his hospital and has the resources and means to easily cure him, and consent to do so, without any other complicating factors, has reason *enough*.
    In purely human terms, a doctor doesn’t need the additional reason ‘one of his friends asked me nicely’, or ‘enough of his friends asked me nicely’. He also doesn’t need their ‘co labor’. We would, in fact, be horrified if a doctor did that. We’d be further horrified if we learned that even asking nicely isn’t always enough, he still might not intervene. But that he occasionally intervenes to save someone who didn’t ask nicely.

    December 1, 2010 — 7:33
  • David Warwick

    I’m working through the Snyder paper.
    The problem I’m having so far is that this is a discussion about the effectiveness of a medical treatment, essentially. Does prayer affect a medical outcome?
    The absolute worst way to decide that is anecdotally by talking to people for whom it worked. That’s true for any treatment. The people who had cancer and waved a crystal and their cancer went away make a big fuss about that, and infer a causal link. We don’t hear, by definition, about the people who try that and die.
    I think this needs to be a discussion of when prayer *doesn’t* work.
    We can all agree, I think, that prayer isn’t *sufficient*. There are tragic cases of devout parents refusing conventional medical treatment for easily treatable conditions in their children, and the children dying.
    Now, those parents are on a theologically sound footing. A benevolent God with the power to heal, implored to by a devout follower … it ought to be the perfect conditions for a divine cure.
    Clearly the devout parents are operating under a misunderstanding. But how far do we take that?

    December 1, 2010 — 10:20
  • “Now, those parents are on a theologically sound footing. A benevolent God with the power to heal, implored to by a devout follower … it ought to be the perfect conditions for a divine cure. ”
    One problem with this is that in any given instance, to judge whether or not the conditions are perfect will be very difficult. I might have the power to grant a wish of a child of mine, be implored to do so by that child, but nevertheless refrain from so doing because of other relevant considerations. So I’m not sure the parents who deny medical treatment are on a sound theological footing. In fact, I’m pretty sure they aren’t.

    December 1, 2010 — 12:10
  • Andrew Moon

    Thanks for all the feedback, discussion, and references everybody! I’ve read most of the comments and found them to be helpful. Unfortunately, I don’t have much to add.

    December 4, 2010 — 13:27