Sunday, December 06, 2015

Discerning When God Has Answered Our Prayer

Foggy trees, Monroe County

A former student sent me this question about prayer:

"How do we know God is behind the things we ask God for that happen to us? It seems rather simple-minded to attribute everything to God just because we prayed for it."

My thoughts are:

  • Saying "God answered this prayer ________" has only inductive probability, not deductive certainty. This does not mean we have no claim to "know" that God answered our prayer. Most of what we know, we know without absolute certainty (anyone who has read Descartes' Meditations understands this).
  • We also must distinguish this from existential certainty. I may experience no doubt, while at the same time admitting that there is only inductive logical certainty. 
  • When I pray for X and X happens, it makes me think that God has answered my prayer. If, e.g., I pray for $100 to pay my electric bill lest I be kicked out of my apartment, and $100 unexpectedly arrives in the mail, then I will think "God answered my prayer for $100." Still, my certainty is only inductive. I have had many answers to prayer over the years like this, recording a number of them in my journals. 
  • X must be something in line with God's will and desire for us to claim "God answered my prayer for X." If, e.g., "X" = "evil," then the arrival of evil surely is not something that God is behind.
  • Our discernment about what God is and is not behind (re. our prayers) grows with increasing intimacy with God, and much praying. That is, an ongoing prayer-as-relationship-with-God is needed.
  • See Christian theistic philosopher (U of Southern Cal) Dallas Willard's Hearing God; U of Indiana prof Candy Brown's Testing Prayer
  • The best way to answer your question is by engaging in a life of prayer, and adding corporate discernment with a group of Jesus-followers who actually have prayer life. No one who lacks a praying life will be able to answer our initial question.