Volume 12 - Issue 1

Asking God

By Paul Helm

Christians are convinced that they ought to pray to God and that God brings about certain events becausepeople ask him to, even to the extent of doing what he has previously said he will not do, and so (apparently) changing his mind. The ‘because’ is puzzling, for it seems to follow from

God performed X because A asked him for X


If A had not asked for X God would not have performed X

and even

A forced God to perform X.

There are many other puzzles raised by petitionary prayer. Many have been worried because it seems that petitionary prayer is grasping and selfish and presupposes an inappropriate idea of God as a sugar-daddy. Others worry about why, if God could perform X without A asking him to (as he undoubtedly could), he sees fit to suspend the performing of X upon A’s request. That is, they are concerned about petitionary prayer as it relates to questions of theodicy. And there is also the more familiar question of how it is possible to know that a particular event that occurs is an ‘answer to prayer’. But we shall have quite sufficient to do to think about the ‘because’ and some of the problems that it raises, about what might be called the metaphysics of prayer.

The general approach to the metaphysics of petitionary prayer that I wish to suggest is that such praying is no more or less problematical as regards the relation between human action and divine action than any other action which a person may perform. Problems arise only because ‘prayer’ and other factors such as ‘science’ and ‘the will of God’ are thought about in too abstract a fashion.

Suppose A waters the newly planted seeds in his greenhouse and they spring to life. Then it is possible to say

God made the seeds sprout because A watered them


If A had not watered the seeds God would not have made them sprout.

(Here, of course, we are ruling out miracles, and the possibility of someone other than A watering the seeds, or of them receiving water accidentally, simply in order to concentrate on the relation between A’s action and God’s.)

This may seem to be a straightforward case. But suppose you are in the crowd cheering United to victory. Could you say

If I had not cheered, United would not have won?


God made United win because I cheered?

Or suppose you are driving on the motorway at a time when a crash occurs nearby, though you are not directly involved in it. Could you say

If I had not been on the motorway the crash would not have occurred?


God made the crash to occur because I was driving nearby?


What is the difference between the ‘because’ of prayer to God and of these other cases? Suppose, to begin with, that we take the view that the relation between the divine and the human wills is such that God ordains all that comes to pass including the free actions of human beings. And let us assume that the prayer in the example was a free human action. Then we can say that God has ordained the praying, and the answer to the prayer, just as he has ordained the action of watering the seed, and the sprouting of the seed.

In each case it is tempting to separate one event or action in the matrix of events and actions that we have described from all the others, and to speculate about it thus: ‘If A had not …, then God would not have …’. Such a temptation is particularly acute in the case of petitionary prayer. Suppose a person prays for success in his examinations, works hard at his revision, and passes. It is very tempting to suppose that the so-called petitionary prayer could not have had any real efficacy in that the person’s revision was itself causally sufficient for success. Perhaps the most we care to concede is that the effect of the praying is on the prayer, making him redouble his efforts. Or perhaps that his praying is a sign that he has redoubled his efforts.

Why are such attempts at prising apart one or another action or event from the matrix of events and actions to be resisted? Because if it is supposed that A had not prayed to God or watered the plants then the total matrix of events and actions is thereby changed, and a different matrix is introduced since the original situation did involve A praying or A watering. Whether the conditionals ‘If A had not prayed …’ (when in fact he did), or ‘If A had not watered …’ (when in fact he did), or ‘If A had not cheered …’ (when in fact he did) are worth discussing depends very largely upon how much general information there is about such cases and therefore how warranted we are in making generalizations about them. For instance, in the case of the watering of the seeds there is good inductive evidence for the proposition that seeds will not germinate without moisture, and so the conditional ‘If A had not watered the seeds they would not have germinated’ is pretty safe (assuming no miracles, and the intervention of no other waterers). But can the same be said about the examples of cheering United and driving on the motorway? And do we have enough general information about prayer to justify us saying, in each particular case, ‘If A had not prayed …’? Is it even proper to raise the question, proper not in the moral or spiritual sense but in the intellectual sense?

Moreover, to form a true estimate of the efficacy of Christian prayer, of its metaphysical difficulties and their solution, it is unwise to consider ‘prayer’ in the abstract, but to consider in the first place under what conditions petitionary prayer is warranted. This, for the Christian, can only be answered by a careful induction of the biblical data, but the results of that induction are vital. For if they show that there are certain prayers which, if asked sincerely, will always be answered, or sometimes be answered, or never be answered, then this is obviously relevant to resolving such questions as ‘Did God answer because I prayed?’. If there are situations in which prayer is both necessary and sufficient for the gaining of what is prayed for, then the answer must be ‘yes’. If prayer is neither necessary nor sufficient the answer must be ‘maybe’.

One important difference between praying to God and watering the seeds is that the prayer is a requestwhereas the watering is not. How otherwise similar the cases are depends upon how much is known about the request. Suppose, for example, that it is known that God will invariably grant such a request. Then the ‘because’ that follows the request and the ‘because’ that follows the watering approximate, for what the ‘because’ signals in each case is that given certain conditions—a uniform determination to make the request in the case of the prayer, and certain uniformities about plant growth in the other—the human action in each case (praying, watering) is sufficient for bringing about the result. When, on the other hand, it is not known that God will invariably grant the request, what the ‘because’ signals is that the request is causally necessary for bringing about the result, and only together with God’s (optional) answer are the two causally sufficient.

There is another kind of case. Besides the case where God has promised uniformly to answer certain prayers and the case where he has not, but has reserved to himself the right to answer or not as he sees fit, there may be cases where only prayer is efficacious, where God indicates that certain events will take place only if people pray.

Thus it is important not to split apart unwarrantably the matrix of events and actions within which petitionary prayer is set. The results of some splittings apart are clear. On the one hand if the prayer had not been offered what happened would not have happened. On the other extreme if the prayer had not been offered the ‘answer’ would have taken place anyway. But in the middle there is a class of cases which are not clear one way or the other.

So one ought to resist the temptation to compare the investigation of praying to investigation in the natural sciences. The natural sciences are so because of the repeatability of experimental situations and the possibility of establishing generalizations of timeless regularity. But in the case of prayer we are not dealing with one physical factor among many others in a set of physical equations, but with human actions and their significance in the one history of the universe, a history that by definition is not repeatable. In this history each matrix of events and actions that we choose to isolate for discussion is unique, and hence to ask what would have been the case if that unique matrix had been different is to ask a question that is unanswerable. God who ordained certain ends ordained also the means to accomplish those ends, and in some cases, in his wisdom, the means include people asking him to do certain things. He has so ordered the total matrix that he does some things because people ask him to, and if they had not asked, the conditions which are otherwise sufficient for the production of what is asked for would not have been provided.

In the words of the hymn writer Joseph Hart

Prayer was appointed to convey

The blessings God designs to give.

In Augustine’s words, ‘prayers are powerful to attain those things which He foreknows that He will give to such as pray for them’.

Summing up, assuming that all events, including prayers, are ordained by God, in those cases (if there are any) where there is no quasi-scientific regularity about prayer and the promised answer, where prayer is sufficient to secure what is prayed for, then the efficacy of petitionary prayer cannot be considered in abstraction from the total matrix of which the prayer forms a part and which is itself a segment of the unique history of the universe. And in this, praying is no different from many other human actions such as watering seeds or driving in traffic.


On the other hand, suppose one takes an ‘interventionist’ view of prayer. Then God has no plans whose outcome is fixed, or only some such plans. The rest of what happens is to be ‘filled in’ by the results of free human decisions, the outcome of which (perhaps) not even God knows before the events in question are due to take place. (Such a God would, presumably, have to exist in time since it is necessary that he be able to react to certain events, including petitionary prayers, upon learning about them.) Then perhaps God will react favourably or otherwise to such praying depending upon the cogency, persistence and sincerity of the praying. If people pray intelligently, fervently and long, then the ‘gap’ left in the future in order to allow for the functioning of autonomous human purposes will, as time goes on, increasingly take the shape that is required for such requests to be answered (allowing, as well, for the shape of other requests being made at the same time). If prayer is made with less intelligence, fervency and strength then the gap will come to have a shape which more or less corresponds to their requests, while if defective prayer or no prayer at all is offered the gap will come to have an altogether different shape, one that is incompatible with anything that could reasonably be said to correspond to their wishes.

On such a view of prayer, an extreme one no doubt but one which corresponds closely to some forms of popular piety, God’s stance towards human prayer is essentially a reactive one and prayer is more or less a force. Reactions to prayer are determined not even in part by purposes (declared or otherwise) which God might be supposed to have but solely by the nature and strength of the request being made (and all other requests). It is hard to see how such a view could be worked out consistently if God is required to determine the action of A in order to answer B’s prayer to God about A, but perhaps it could be. On this view God functions like a good-natured, old-fashioned switchboard operator who puts through calls or not depending upon which lines are engaged, and which are open, and how frequently and persistently attempts are made to call a particular extension number.

Given such a view, how is persistence in petitionary prayer different from persistence in any other activity where the outcome, the filling in of the gaps of an ‘open future’, is a function of the skill, determination and persistence of the agent?

Such an extreme case has been constructed not in order to recommend it but solely for the purposes of argument. In my view such an idea of prayer is more magical than biblical, denying as it does any purposes to God other than those of a mere prayer-answerer. But God clearly has other purposes, some at least of which lead him to deny answers to prayer.


It may be said that the views so far expressed do not properly take into account natural science and the modern understanding of physical nature. Take, for example, the familiar idea of praying for fine weather, or for rain during a drought. Suppose that on Thursday we pray for rain and it rains. Is it naïve, on either the ‘all things decreed’ or the ‘interventionist’ view, to suppose that it rains because rain has been prayed for, and that the prayer has been answered? Surely today’s atmospheric conditions were the outcome of yesterday’s (together with certain fixed laws) and so have come about in a way which can be satisfactorily explained in purely meteorological terms?

If one accepted this general picture of science and one were an ‘interventionist’ in one’s view of prayer then one would have to say that the only way in which prayer can be answered in such circumstances is by the occurrence of a miracle or miracles. If prayer had not been offered (and therefore not answered) it would not have rained. The rain was due to the direct intervention of God in physical nature brought about as a result of the petition. Such a view is certainly consistent but it has as one of its consequences that the number of miracles is much greater than is commonly thought, even by those who take this view of prayer. It is the implausibility of such a view that led Pope to write

Think we, like some weak prince, the Eternal Cause

Prone for his favourites to reverse his laws!

Shall burning Etna, if a sage requires,

Forget to thunder, and recall its fires?

On air and sea new motions be impressed,

O blameless Bethel, to relieve thy breast?

Should the loose mountain tremble from on high?

Shall gravitation cease if you go by?

Suppose, alternatively, that one took the ‘all-decreeing’ view of petitionary prayer. In the case of the prayer for rain one would have to say that God did not only ordain ‘from the beginning’ the meteorological sequence that included rain on Thursday, but that he also ordained that at least one phase of the sequence (the ‘rain on Thursday’ phase) was to follow prayer for rain on Thursday, and also that he ordained the rain because of the prayers.

So, it is inadvisable to consider the metaphysics of prayer in the abstract. For a theist who takes the ‘all things decreed’ view or an ‘interventionist’ view, natural science (considered as what explains what happens in terms of physical laws and conditions) is also an abstraction. From God’s standpoint nothing happens simplybecause science says it will (given the laws and conditions) but only because he says it will, and he uses physical regularities (which, because they are regular, can be usefully codified in terms of laws of nature) together with other factors including ‘the prayers of the saints’ in order to bring certain things about in answer to prayer. It is important to realize, therefore, that while it is perfectly possible to talk of ‘science’ and to discuss what makes good science, what the character of scientific laws is, and what constitutes a good experiment, nevertheless from the standpoint of the total flow of events viewed sub specie aeternitatis, ‘scientific facts’ or ‘scientific events’ represent abstractions which it is impossible to give an account of on their own but which we are able to consider in abstraction because, due to God’s faithfulness as expressed in nature, we are able to set up laboratories and to conduct controlled experiments.

Paul Helm

Paul Helm
University of London
London, UK