The Commonness of Retroactive Prayer

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Suppose I'm driving down the road, and my son wakes up after sleeping for a while. He really needs to go to the bathroom, and he's likely to go in his pants if we don't find a bathroom really soon. Suppose I'm also in an unfamiliar area with exits that are quite far apart. I don't remember when the last exit was. What might I do? Well, I might pray that the next exit is soon. What would it take for the next exit to be soon?

The most likely way for God to answer such a prayer positively would not involve miraculous transportation of our vehicle to a place near the next exit or miraculous creation of an exit near our current location. It would involve God's orchestration of events such that his awakening and need to use the bathroom would have happened at a point when we were nearing an exit. The prayer is thus retroactive, though it seems not to be on the surface. The same thing can be true of someone asking God for a parking spot to be available upon arrival at a full-looking lot or a prayer that a medical diagnosis will turn up a less severe condition than one might have thought it would turn up (while still being a true diagnosis). People pray like this all the time. I've given three examples. It shouldn't be too hard to think of more.

This means there's a kind of prayer that people engage in fairly frequently that is a sort of disguised retroactive prayer. I've argued previously that retroactive prayer makes perfect sense as long as God has perfect foreknowledge, and this post isn't to repeat what's already in that post. It just hadn't occurred to me that prayers like this are retroactive. Retroactive prayer is much more common than I'd thought.

13 Comments

While you have given good examples of retroactive prayer, I cannot help but think that these examples to be more of trivializing prayer as well as the character of God. I may be way off base, but is possible that it is more likely a result of misplaced notions of the nature and purpose of prayer, as well as misunderstandings of the nature and character of God, that such kinds of prayers are prevalent than that they are examples of retroactive prayer.

I don't know why it should be as trivializing prayer. It strikes me as constantly leaning on God...even on the (supposed) small things.

My major point here was the commonness of retroactive prayer, as I indicated in the title. I'm not going to endorse or critique any of these examples. Even if you think of these as trivial things to pray for, it's pretty clear to me that most people who pray are praying more for this sort of thing than for things that are less trivial. It's easy to give examples with less trivial things, e.g. with someone's coming to salvation, which might easily involve some of their past being a certain way.

I have a different question about this sort of thing than whether these prayers make sense. (By the way: you might have just prayed that the boy holds it long enough to get to the next exit.) Do these prayers have the effect people making them typically think (or seem to think)? Suppose that after your prayer the next exit comes mercifully soon. Is the thing to think that God orchestrated things such that the boy's waking up and need to use the bathroom would have happened at a point when you were nearing an exit? That God heard this prayer and said, "Yeah, that's a good idea. I wish I'd thought of that." Or even, "Hmmm. Ok, why not?" It's a different issue, having to do with one's views about God's sovereignty, I guess, or something like that. I'm not questioning whether these (or any) prayers are effectual; I'm questioning whether they have the effect people typically think. If they don't, then there isn't really ever a need for God to retroactively change the past.

Kyle, I'm not sure what you're getting at about changing the past. It doesn't make any sense to speak of changing the past. If it did happen, then it happened. You can't change it. If it didn't happen, then there's nothing to change. God can orchestrate events such that they will correspond with a prayer he foreknows. That's all I'm talking about. Changing the past can only involve contradictions. I'm not sure if that clears up all the issues you raise, but it's certainly a misunderstanding of what I'm saying that I think needed to be cleared up.

As for your suggestions, my point wasn't that there aren't ways God could work miracles to allow a kid to hold in a full bladder for a half hour longer than would be physically possible normally. It's that it would take that sort of miracle, and most people believe God can answer prayers without doing that sort of miracle, and they expect these prayers to be answered by coming upon an exit soon.

When people of a Reformed persuasion do initiative evangelism and pray that God would lead them to talk to people he's been working in, it assumes that God would have already brought people prepared for responding to the gospel to the immediate vicinity and that God would have done it as a result of the foreknown prayer.

I hope you're not serious about the "Yeah, that's a good idea. I wish I'd thought of that." Or even, "Hmmm. Ok, why not?" options. It's not a view of God that the biblical texts would tolerate, anyway. It makes much more sense to explain it in terms of God genuinely answering the prayer.

Ah, good. Answering retroactive prayer doesn't require retroactive work on God's part. I'm glad you're not committed to that weirdness and that I had misunderstood you.

But even if God genuinely answers the prayer in the way you suggest, by having already orchestrated events in response to a prayer he foreknew, we still might wonder what would motivate him to do that. If his doing this is genuinely a response to the prayer, in the sense that things wouldn't have been orchestrated in such a way as to make you come upon an exit soon had it not been for your praying, then I've given a couple reasons why he'd might do it: it's a really good idea, or because he's indifferent so why not? Of course, there are others: to be nicer, more merciful, etc., than he had originally planned on being to you. So I asked the question about whether praying for something to be the case (whether retroactively or prospectively) has the effect on God's decisions that people (I'm assuming) typically think because I think I might have a problem with all of these reasons.

Kyle, this sounds like a problem someone might raise about prayer in general. It has absolutely nothing to do with the retroactive element. You can raise the same questions if I pray that someone who is ill will get better soon. Suppose it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't prayed. Then what does this say about God's attitude toward it? One option is that it's a really good idea, and God didn't think of it. Another is that it's something God is ambivalent about, and this tipped the favor toward this item. Either option seems really bad. So you might conclude that prayer has no effect. Nothing about this has to do with the retroactive stuff. It's just an independent issue.

For the record, I think it's an appallingly bad argument. If compatibilism is correct, as most philosophers (as a matter of empirical fact) and the biblical authors (I would argue) hold, then the problem completely disappears. If God is utterly sovereign, even over free human choices, as compatibilists hold, then our praying it is also under God's sovereignty. The objection assumes that our prayer is something unforeseen and unintended by God. The biblical picture is rather that the prayer itself is also ordained by God yet a free action by the person who prays it. God's response to the prayer is both a response and a part of the original plan.

Now go back and consider retroactive prayer. I don't see how it should be any different from a prayer for something in the future that God acts in response to.

Right, that's why I said in my last comment, "whether retrospectively or prospectively." I had thought the problem arose for specifically retrospective prayer only when I had originally misread/misunderstood your initial post.

For the record, I agree with you about compatibilism. But it's also the case (as a matter of empirical fact) that most Christians don't. So it is a problem regarding prayer in general *for them*. I just wonder what they say about it. Does one have to be really insightful to get one's prayers answered? Really convincing? Lucky? Humble? Sincere? Again, I think all these are bad options, but there has to be some answer to the question if prayer has the effect that people typically think.

Sorry, though, to have steered your thread off topic.

Calvinists who aren't compatibilists say that prayer doesn't have any effect on what God will do but simply changes us, which is still sort of compatibilist on one level but not on the larger scale. I agree that prayer is a problem for Arminians. I know many Arminians who pray for people's salvation, and that at least raises questions about whether deep down they're truly Arminians. This would be a similar sort of problem.

It's interesting that open theists don't face such issues. I think that's supposed to be one of the motivations for open theism, though I think the pull of this issue is toward compatibilism rather than toward giving up the game altogether, which is what I see open theism doing both here and with respect to the problem of evil.

I forgot to mention that I think most people, Christians included, believe things that are inconsistent with a libertarian view of freedom. I don't think most people would affirm or deny compatibilism, because the issue hasn't occurred to them, but I think they're closer to compatibilism than to libertarianism, because libertarianism involves denying things most people assume in a way much like skepticism involves denying things most people assume, even if in both cases they haven't formulated the principle they assume in a way that it would conflict with skepticism or libertarianism.

cooincidence

a nice one, but still a happy accident

oooh

I like what kyle had to say about Calvinists.

I would really like to take a class on the phycology of prayer. I believe it works, but not because of "god."

If God is as the Bible reveals him, then there are no mere coincidences. I'm not discussing all the philosophical options. I'm discussing the biblical view of God.

Kyle's argument isn't against Calvinism. It's an argument against holding one version of Calvinism (the minority one, in my experience) together with a popular view of prayer. Standard Calvinism doesn't face that problem. I do think his argument creates problems for Arminians, however, as I said.

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