Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why Does God Answer Some Prayers and Not Others?

In the latest student Apologetics post Rahel Ward asks why God answers certain prayers and not others. While recognising that there is a mystery to prayer she argues that the best way to understand prayer is to walk closely with God.

"The question I am about to present, was put to me by my non-Christian friend Evelyne, who was visiting from Switzerland a few weeks ago. After having “dragged” her to three services on Sunday, we started talking about God and Christianity around a coffee on Monday. Amongst many other questions, this one stood out and even intrigued me. She asked "Why does God answer certain prayers but not others?" One of the pastors she heard speaking was telling his story of how, many years ago, after just having come over to Australia from New Zealand, he and his wife did not have any money left for food or petrol. After praying for three days, a car pulled up and gave them a whole boot full of groceries and two weeks' worth of petrol money. This story obviously got her thinking. Why would God answer this prayer but not, for example answer the prayer of a starving child in Africa for food?

Previous conversations I have had with her and the question itself show that the following points are givens and therefore not subject to debate. However, the way I will enter into dialogue with her about this specific question is by re-establishing the following basics.

Firstly, Evelyne believes there is a God – the way Christians portray him. This rules out having to argue for the existence of God. Secondly, Evelyne considers the Bible to be a valid text, even though she has not necessarily read it. It can therefore be used as support for arguments. Thirdly, she believes that this God answers prayers. This implies a theistic belief system, which according to Richard Dawkins' definition is belief "in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation...the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives and punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even are thinking of doing them).” Prayer as Stanley Grenz puts it, is “the cry to God for the kingdom – the in-breaking of the reign of God to meet the needs of the present.” Having set the scene, this is how I would continue the dialogue with the emphasis on the question presented.

Scripture clearly reveals a God who is more than interested and willing to answer one’s prayer. Countless times the reader is encouraged to bring his or her petition to God for it to be answered. Here are some examples: “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” (Jeremiah 33:3)
“Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.” (Psalm 37:3-5). “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8). “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)

As one can see, these scriptures leave little doubt that God would want to answer prayers. However, there seem to be certain ways one ought to pray. For example one is to pray:

According to His will - “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.”(1 John 5:14)

With a pure attitude - “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart”. (Psalm 37:4)

Without ceasing - “...pray without ceasing...” (1 Thess. 5:17) and “...praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit...” (Ephesians 6:18)

These verses show that there is a certain way one ought to pray. However, God is not limited to respond only to prayers prayed in a certain way; quite the contrary is true. In agreement with Rosalind Rinker, I suggest that God does answer every prayer. The issue does not lay with God but rather with the person praying the prayer and having a preconceived perception or expectation of how God should answer his or her prayer. Rinker puts it this way “God is greater by far than any idea or concept man could possibly conceive in his little mortal mind."

Besides what I’ve just stated, here are a few reasons why God might not seem to answer certain prayers. They might be hindered by some obstacle. Maybe a Christian on the other side of the world is not obeying God to sponsor a child in Africa and therefore, this child’s prayer for a meal can not be answered, due to the disobedience of others. Prayers might be delayed. This is simply because God will answer our prayers in his way and time and not ours. We might not yet be ready for what we are asking and have to learn a lesson first. God’s way of answering may be different to what we would imagine it to be. If asking for patience, God might just send an annoying person your way to teach you patience.

I suggest that the key to understanding how God answers prayers is to follow him and grow closer to his heart which then leads to greater understanding of his will for one's life. However, there will always remain mystery concerning God’s ways – simply because “God is God" and we are ‘just' his creation. While this is generally a satisfactory conclusion for a Christian it does not always hold the same weight for a non-Christian who is looking for physical evidence. Isaiah 55:9 concludes well for us: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Christian Basis for Science

In the latest Booth College Apologetics student presentation, Patsy Shadbolt engages with a co-worker about the relationship between Christian faith and science.

"I work with a 30 year old Community Outreach Worker, whose background is in science. I have known her for five years and for the past seven months we have shared an office. We speak about a lot of things, mainly her work and what she is doing with the women and families she works with. The following are questions she typed up for me especially for this presentation. Captain Karen, the Chaplain, has given her a variety of books and I have given her an NIV Bible, with a daily devotion ‘Everyday with Jesus,’ and invited her to attend church with me at Christmas. She opted to go to her local Anglican Service. She applied to go on a three day Partially Silent Retreat with other employees, turning up to every session with the expectation that she had to get everything she could out of the time, but coming away feeling exhausted. I pray everyday about her but sometimes I feel that I am failing miserably. I resign myself to the fact that it is God, through His Holy Spirit who will do the prompting I just need to live out my love of Christ before her and God will do the rest. He has already begun. Here are the questions she supplied:

My questions that prevent me from fully accepting God into my life:

I really need proof. I have a science background and I find it very hard to change how I perceive the world. I am fact-based, I believe in evolution and Darwinism - survival of the fittest.

I WANT to believe that there is life after death but find it hard when I see that most literature is based around animal instincts, behaviours, the differences between animals and humans and how it can be explained through science. I believe that human beings came from apes until we learnt to use our (opposable) thumb to make tools after standing upright and walking on two legs instead of our four limbs.

I really want to believe. I see how spiritual Christians are and the majority are giving and loving. That’s why I keep trying, even though I find it exhausting and frustrating. Why can’t God show himself to those that find it hard to rely soley on faith?

I find it difficult to believe that someone came back from the dead. I have read a few books and I just can’t get it. I love the values of Christianity, I just find religion hard.

I would like to reply to her questions in the form of a letter.

Dear ______,

In reading your questions I first just want to express my excitement that you 'want to believe.’ I'd like to try to respond to your questions by quoting material from Nicky Gumbel's book Is God a Delusion: What is the Evidence? London: Alpha Interactual, 2008.

"For a long time Christianity and scientific study have been allies, not opponents. It was the belief that one God created the world that led scientists to expect a world that was ordered, intelligible, rational and uniform. History shows that religion was the driving force behind science. If you believe that God created the universe, then by investigating the world in a scientific way, you discover more about God through the revelation of himself in creation.

The following is a list of some of the most prominent [believing] scientists of the past. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) laid the foundations for modern astronomy and the scientific revolution by suggesting, on mathematical grounds, that the earth travelled around the sun. He held office in the Polish Church as a Canon of Frauenburg Cathedral and described God as ‘the best and most orderly workman of all’. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the mathematician, physicist and astronomer was the founder of modern mechanics and experimental physics. He argued that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Although persecuted by the church, he was a devout Catholic and once said, ‘There are two big books, the book of nature and the book of super nature, the Bible’. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a brilliant early astronomer and mathematician. He was also a deeply sincere Lutheran and said that he was ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who was a Christian, is renowned as one of the forerunners of the modern chemistry and gave his name to ‘Boyle’s Law’. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, wrote theological as well as scientific books and he regarded his theological books as more important. He felt that no sciences were better attested than the religion of the Bible. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) Austrian botanist whose research into the laws of heredity formed the basis of the modern science of genetics, was a priest, a monk and the Abbott of a monastery, where he did much of his research. Joseph Lister (1927-1912) Pioneered antiseptic surgery, which saved thousands of lives, throughout his life believed himself to be directed by God. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) The Scottish physicist, best known for his formulation of electro-magnetic theory, is often ranked with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein for the [importance of] his contribution to science. All these people were scientists who held strong Christian beliefs.

In 1916, researchers in the USA asked biologists, physicists and mathematicians whether they believed in a God who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. About 40% answered yes. The same survey was carried out in 1997, with the same result. Francis Collins, a scientist who is a Christian, led a team of over two thousand scientists to determine the three billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. At the 2007 National Prayer Breakfast where Collins was a guest speaker he ended his talk by inviting those attending to sing the following song with him.

Praise the source of faith and learning
That has sparked and stoked the mind
With a passion for discerning
How the world has been designed.

Let the sense of wonder flowing
from the wonders we survey
Keep our faith forever growing
and renew our need to pray.

God of wisdom, we acknowledge
That our science and our art
And the breadth of human knowledge
Only partial truth impart.

Far beyond our calculation
Lies a depth we cannot sound
Where your purpose for creation
And the pulse of life are found
As two currents in a river
Fight each other’s undertow
Till converging they deliver
One coherent steady flow;

Blend, oh God, our faith and learning
Till they carve a steady course.
Till they join as one, returning
Praise and thanks to You, their source.

In almost every area of life, faith is an essential part of knowledge, and science itself is a venture of faith. On the alleged conflict between evolution and the biblical account of Creation, Professor Stephen Hawking (pictured), one of the most brilliant scientists of this generation pointed out that any physical theory is only provisional, in the sense that it is only an hypothesis. There are different interpretations of Genesis held by sincere Christians. Some Christians believe in a literal six-day creation, other Christians interpret Genesis 1 differently. They point out that the Hebrew word for ‘day’ (yom) has many different meanings, even within Scripture. Since the sun did not appear until day four, the writer probably did not mean literal 24 hour days. The word yom can mean ‘a long period of time’. Therefore it is not in conflict with the scientific view of the vast age of the universe, nor is it in conflict with the gradual evolution in which God not only started the process, but also worked within it to produce a system that culminated in human life.

The main point of Genesis 1 is not to answer the questions ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ (the scientific questions) but to answer the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘Who?’ (the theological questions). The Bible is not primarily a scientific book, but a theological one. It offers a personal explanation more than a scientific one. The scientific explanation does not prove or disprove the personal one, but is complementary. Even Stephen Hawking has admitted that ‘science may solve the problem of how the universe began, but it cannot answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist?

Dr John Lennox uses this illustration: 'Suppose I wheel in the most magnificent cake ever seen and I had in front of me various fellows of every academic and learned society in the world and I picked the top people and I tell them to analyse the cake for me. So out steps the world famous nutritionist and he talks about the balance of the various foods that for this cake. Then the leading bio-chemist analyses the cake at the bio-chemical level. Then the chemist says, ‘Well, yes, of course, but now we need to get down to the electrons and the protons and the quarks’. And last of all the stage is occupied by the mathematician. And he says, ‘Ultimately you need to understand the fundamental equations governing the motion of all the electrons and protons in this cake’. And they finish and it is a magnificent analysis of the cake. And then I turn round to them and I say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve just got one more question for you. Tell me why the cake was made.’ And there in front of them stands Aunt Matilda who made the cake. It is only when the person who made the cake is prepared to disclose why she has made it that they will ever understand why. No amount of scientific analysis, however exhaustive and detailed, can answer that question.

Stephen J. Gould wrote: Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it, we simply can’t comment on it as scientists… Darwin himself was agnostic. The great American botanist Asa Gray was a devout Christian. Charles D. Walcott was an equally firm Christian. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs and equally compatible with atheism.

Francis Collins writes that, ‘There is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in God' and concludes that, ‘Those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking that position. Evolution won’t do it.’ Albert Einstein said, ‘A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist.’

As I said, I am not an expert when it comes to answering science and evolution questions, but I think writers such as Nicky Gumbel, Alister McGrath and C. S. Lewis can help you to consider the questions you have, and bring you to a place where you will be able to weigh up the evidence and enable you to make a decision for Christ.

Your friend Patsy.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Use of Religious Experience as an Apologetic Method

Our second Booth College student Apologetics post is from Neil Young, a retired Salvation Army officer. He demonstrates how the appeal to one's own religious experience can be utilised in the place of "rational proofs." His response to his neighbour also shows the value of genuine respect for one's conversation partners.

"A new family arrived in our small little cul-de-sac. Later in the week they came for an evening meal at our invitation. Their remarks were very courteous but he said that it was obvious that we were Christians because of the Bible texts on the wall and added that he hoped it would not disturb us to learn that they were confirmed atheists. He had read parts of Dawkins' book The God Delusion and this carried their judgment. They had no trouble with any church but just could not accept that there was any God out there. I was happy for him to quietly state his reasons and waited respectfully to hear all he had to say. He hoped our different life’s beliefs would not endanger our friendship. I assured him that this was no problem. He said that they had been through some serious trouble in the past but they had come to terms with that with their own resources and were now very happy and contented with life. Their family life was happy and they had many close personal friends and observed good moral standards in their home. They had achieved this balance without any reliance on a god and did not see any need to. They could comfortably manage on their own. To them religion was irrelevant. Then he went on to say that what turned them off religion was the fact that most of the world’s problems were caused by religion of one sort or another, internationally, nationally and in personal relationships. The world could be a much better place if people left religious conflicts out of their lives and accepted people regardless of their colour, race or beliefs. They also could not accept that there was a God because of the intense suffering that there was in the world and if there was a creator god, either he did not care or he just was not interested or he was powerless to do anything about it.

According to his limited knowledge of history it seemed to him that most, if not all wars over the centuries were over religious belief. So the world would be better off without any belief in a higher power when such divergent views caused people to go even to the extent of wiping out complete nations who thought differently. Further to this he could not see that there was any objective evidence, to believe that ‘there was anything out there’ at all. The world and people in it were just there. They were not there for any reason and when we died that was the end. Either both just happened to be there, or perhaps there was come kind of evolution that caused it to be like it was without anyone or anything causing it to happen. He also expressed the view that because we cannot account for so much in life, we invented an unknowable god in order to fill in the gaps. I made him quite comfortable and said that I could understand his reasoning because so much of what he said was true. I told him kindly that there was no easy way to believe in God through reasoning and logic. Regarding him not needing God, my answer to John’s question was best answered by reference to my own Christian life. For most of my earlier years I was a 'child of Christian parents’ (to use Dawkins' phrase) who insisted on my following their beliefs without question. I felt trapped. But throughout my teens I was (and remain) a questioning person. I did not believe in God. My attitude was that of so many great philosophers, who believed that you follow your own reasonings wherever that leads you to. Professor Flew, regarded as one of the world’s greatest thinkers followed this principle. But if I openly broke away from my home beliefs, as I wanted to, I would be treated as an ‘outsider.’ There were only insiders and outsiders and I would be harassed and excluded from normal family life. Dawkins makes a lot of this. That is control and I did not want to be controlled. Despite my inward rebellion I had an experience quite out of the ‘blue’. It was totally unexpected and to me without reason. It was like a ‘supra-natural’ invasion into my life by what I understood was God. This was not new to me simply because I had seen many, many other people entering into the same experience. I was in no sense a ‘disturbed person’ as Dawkins/Freud suggest. They claim that anyone who claims to have such experiences is emotionally sick. I was just a normal happy young man. This was a purely ‘subjective’ experience and not verifiable by any act of reasoning. Almost without my consent I was no longer a ‘child of Christian parents’ but a Christian myself. The verification of this subjective experience came as in harmony with genuine Christian beliefs and the experience of a vast number of other people. This gave my life a completely new and very happy new dimension. My life took a complete turn around. I gave up my career with all it prospects and entered a life of service to the world, not to force other people into what I had experienced but to let them know that such an experience was possible and deeply satisfying. This eventually led me into full time ministry and to Africa to love and help thousands of deprived young people, to give them an education so they would not have to spend their valuable lives ‘chipping in the maize fields’ Today many of those are professional people and some are happily devoting their lives to their fellow Africans, as they saw me do and so many others did. Previously my life’s ambition was to become rich and comfortable, but since that experience, all my life has been devoted to making the world a better place.

So my answer to the statment that we don’t need God is that many people feel they do not but they don’t realize what is out there for them. Consequently life becomes merely a self-centered thing without any other purpose than pleasing yourself. On the other hand if you have an experience of God you can live to a worthwhile purpose and do something about the enormous needs that are out there. You cannot reason your way into becoming a Christian as it is doubtful if there is sufficient objective evidence to prove that God exists. It has to be an experienced intervention of God into your life. You believe because you have experienced God yourself. John and his wife left more thoughtful people. I hope to convince them for their sake, not by argument but just by accepting and loving them."

Thanks for this thoughtful response Neil. Comments below are very welcome.

Is God Responsible for Evil?

I'm presently teaching a unit on Christian Apologetics in which my students are asked to "describe to the class an objection to the Christian faith that has been put to you by a non-Christian friend and describe how you will seek to enter into dialogue with that person using the skills you are gaining in this unit." I've been quite impressed with a number of the presentations so far and thought I'd post some of them here. Here is the first from Jon Mayne with thanks to Jon for permission to post it.

"I have a well educated professional friend who is an architect and an artist. We worked in the same organisation for some years and we have been on a couple of work missions in Papua New Guinea . John is intelligent, good company and decent, but he is not a believer, at least not as far as I am aware, certainly I am not aware of him ever having attended a church service. John likes few things better than to debate issues – music, history, art, life in general and especially when I am around, religion and faith. Usually we talk around issues and concepts often quite light heartedly but respectfully. Eventually however, we come to a place where he will say something like, 'Jon, if God made everything, he also made sin and evil, so how can he also condemn anyone as a sinner? You can’t have it both ways he either made everything or he didn’t and if that includes sin, then he is responsible not me.' In the past this has probably been where the discussion has stopped, at least for that occasion – from my perspective, probably because I really had little more that I could throw into the ring. We haven’t revisited the subject for some years - our lives have diverged over time and John has lived overseas for some years. I do believe however that the door is still open and that some day we will pick up this conversation.

So how would I begin to address afresh this major question? Although I doubt that I can convince John, (and is it really my job to do that?) at least I can talk in a little more of an informed way as a result of my recent studies. I might commence with some comments about God as revealed in the Old Testament, the God whom Richard Dawkins describes as 'that nasty and spiteful little Israelite God.' I don't think Dawkins has really spent much time reading the OT,certainly I doubt he has approached it in anything other than on the most literal level, but that's another issue. I would suggest to John that the Israelites initially understood God in terms of their cultural setting, they were a minor tribe among some powerful nations with gods who required appeasement and who led their people to victory if they were pleased with them and abandoned them at other times. Fickle gods who were hard to read and placate and who in some cases demanded human sacrifice. I would suggest that Jahweh's dealing with Israel progressively revealed a faithful forgiving God, one who would turn aside his anger, who blessed a repentant people repeatedly, and sought to protect them. A God who warned them of the perils of wilful disobedience but as Abraham discovered at Sodom and Gomorrah and Jonah at Nineveh, here was a God who would go to great lengths to stay his judgement. I would say that the OT was not however the final word on the nature of God but that it strongly suggested that there was more to come. I would say that if Yahweh had designed evil or even allowed it, he also provided a solution or salvation from it and this is seen most perfectly through the incarnation through which he redeems humanity by taking on himself the penalty of sin and evil, breaking its power and hold on humanity and promising an eschatological ultimate vanquishing of evil and a restoration of all creation(a totally opposite outcome to one in which we could hold him accountable for or careless in regard to the problem of evil).

Developing the theme of the incarnation I would describe how in the person of Jesus, God shared our humanity, being tempted and suffering in all things like us if you like but also suffering uniquely the full force of evil expressed against him. At this point I would drop into the conversation reference to such landmark thinkers as Augustine and describe how he believed that evil was not a separate creation or even a separate reality, arguing that evil was rather the absence of God or the privation of the good intended by God, essentially evil was an unfortunate by-product of the exercise of human freewill and can't be ranged as a charge against God. Furthermore, pursuing Augustine's argument, to expect that God should intervene to deflect or mitigate the unfolding repercussions of human freewill - the bad choices, deliberate evil, evil arising from inaction or dereliction or cowardice in the face of wrong, would in effect make us mere robots or puppets, without any personal identity or true capacity for free will. I would note that the existence of evil is not a statement against the existence or character of God, but rather, evil can be an instrument which can be turned to achieve God's good purposes. There is no difficulty in finding many contemporary examples of people, Christian and non Christian, who triumph over great adversity and whose struggles result in outcomes /discoveries which not only define them but often benefit communities or humankind generally even if only by being exemplars. However, one needs to be sensitive as to how this argument is pursued. I would be keen to make some reference to Martin Luther and recognise his implacability against impassibility, offering the fact that Luther, unlike many of his contemporaries, held that as Christ suffered in his humanity, so he suffered in his divinity.

Of course, I would not be surprised if he were to counter at this point with something like, “I expect you are about to introduce the idea of Process Theology and refer to Bonhoeffer and Moltmann et al arguing the concept of a suffering God. But to what length can you take the concept of a suffering God before you render that deity divinely compromised or even impotent?” I might then reply, “well you are not the first or last person I expect to ask that question and maybe we need to accept that this is a work in progress”. This would probably be a good time in the discussion to return again to comment further on the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. The thrust of his teaching and ministry I would suggest, is clearly in opposition to evil at every level. His actions in healing, restoring life, exorcising demons and forgiving sins, are inarguably anti-evil. And his dealing with people caught in sin or despised by others because of perceived sin, was completely compassionate. At the same times, his trenchant opposition to institutional wrong, hypocrisy by authorities or persons trying to pass judgement on others and the exploitation of others, or putting barriers up to frustrate people finding forgiveness or compassion from religion, is clearly recorded in the Gospels for anyone to read. There can be little ground to suggest that God in any sense is in league with or accommodating of evil."

Thanks to Jon Mayne for this thought provoking response. Comments are very welcome.


Share |