A reader, whose comments had prompted my post on Unanswered Prayer, emailed me these comments (which I’ve lightly edited) in response to it:
Thanks for putting together this thoughtful article. My original concern was directed at the position you took in your previous blog (Ethical Musings; What is prayer?), namely that petitionary prayer is generally meaningless.
I take it from your comments below that you hold this to be true in regards to those things that can be provided through social means. I think this introduces an unnatural wedge between what God does and the means God uses. If we ask God to give us our daily bread, it's quite possible that God will do so through human instrument.
As to the question about Christians who starve or become martyrs for their faith, I think it should be noted that Jesus' statement that "you have not because you ask not" is likely a general statement with regard to the efficacy of petitionary prayer. His statement need not mean either that God never permits those who ask for their daily portion to lack necessities or some lack those necessities because they have not asked. It may be that God occasionally permits some of God's children to lack necessities because God's bigger purpose trumps our petitions.
I've found C.S. Lewis thoughts on the matter from his short essay "Work and Prayer" from "God in the Dock" helpful (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Work and Prayer).
I think you are right about the tendency of Christians to conceptualize God as a heavenly vending machine. I think Jesus' words, "you have not because you ask not," were intended to advocate a posture of dependence on the Creator and not to make us think that God will grant every desire simply if we pray hard enough for it.
My intent is not to drive “an unnatural wedge between what God does and the means that God uses.” Because I reject the idea that God is omnipotent, God simply cannot do some things, e.g., supernaturally provide food to the hungry. The only means that God has to feed the hungry is to motivate humans to act.
Lewis’ essay is interesting. He defends the traditional view of God's omnipotence while affirming that sometimes God works directly and other times God works through human agency. I agree. My disagreement with Lewis is that he fails to recognize the limits that God's creative act inherently imposed on God.
Christians, rightly adhering to our tradition and Jesus’ teachings, pray the Lord's Prayer, for the sick, and other petitionary prayers. However, these prayers (the “lower” form of prayer, according to Lewis) are effectual for the same reason as prayer that seeks communion with God (the “higher” form of prayer, according to Lewis). That is, prayer opens people to the moving of the Spirit and potentially connects us to others. When I pray for bread, God may move me to share from my abundance with those who have no bread. When the hungry pray for bread, God may use their prayer, a form of spiritual energy, to ignite within those who have abundance, to share with people who have none.
Obviously, God may move in ways that no human understands. But my analysis of petitionary prayer is an attempt to understand the mystery, to describe the moving of the holy infinite in finite terms. Unanswered prayer remains a huge obstacle for many modern people accepting the idea of God. Their objection appears cogent: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow so much suffering in the world? Why would a just God allow the innocent (people who are hungry because of war or famine, e.g.) to suffer because of the selfishness of the scandalously affluent? Large-scale suffering – such as we observe in genocide, the Holocaust, famines, etc. – makes those questions even more poignant.
Prayer is central to the spiritual life. But’s let be honest and recognize that God is not a heavenly vending machine but the light that brings life abundant, empowering God’s children to live, to love, to be merciful, and to bring justice and good news to others.