Friday, December 18, 2009

Prayer and Baby Jesus

Law professor Ann Althouse blogs today about prayer, specifically commenting on (a) a mother who tweeted to followers to pray for her son who had fallen into the pool and later died, and (b) a couple of contestants on Survivor who had "prayed" to God for victory in some stupid game involving coconuts.

They started praying to God for victory. Like God should pay attention to whether coconuts are falling. I know Jesus said that God pays attention to every sparrow that falls, but he said nothing about coconuts. Or who wins on "Survivor." . . .
Why would God help you win games? And, for that matter, why would God save a dying boy based on whether he had someone who knew he was dying and thought prayer might help? Why wouldn't He be irritated that you imagine him making decisions like that?

With respect to the Survivor contestants, and a comment that "God answers every prayer - it’s just that sometimes we don't like the answer," I responded:

Regarding inappropriate "prayer" by idiots who cause scandal by their coconut idiocy while claiming to be Christian --

Notwithstanding the widespread assertion that God listens to and answers every prayer, but sometimes says "no" -- actually, sometimes He does pay no attention. God is under no obligation to listen to or answer a "prayer" that borders on being blasphemous by being so improper and inappropriate. Consider what happened when Herod effectively prayed that Jesus perform tricks for him --

"When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see Him. From what he had heard about Him, he hoped to see Him perform some miracle. He plied Him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer." -- Luke 23:8-9

Jesus, that is, God, gave Herod the attention he deserved -- none.

Even when the person praying is doing so respectfully, humbly, and in good faith, God sometimes purposely does not answer. In the case of one making a good faith prayer, He may listen, but He might not respond, at least not right away. We have only to look at not a few of the great saints who have experienced the "dark night of the soul" to understand this. Sometimes, God will withdraw. You may call out, "God? Are you there?" And receive nothing but silence in return. It does not mean that God has abandoned you. Sometimes, He will withdraw so that you might go looking for Him.

With respect to the mother whose son tragically died, and in response to the bigger question in the comments as to the efficacy of prayer, "Where does prayer fit in? Can God change things on the fly?" I responded:

Regarding prayer for the life or health, etc., of another person --

No, prayer has no effect, and
Yes, prayer does have an effect.

(1) On the one hand, God is going to do what He is going to do, such that He does not change His mind, but that is because, being eternal, He has already done it. God exists outside of time, so that whatever might happen in our future has already happened for Him. All of human time is in God's present. One consequence of that is that Jesus was not simply crucified 2000 years ago, rather, He is perpetually hanging on the Cross. Another consequence is that He knows what will happen because it has already happened.

Moreover, God being perfect, does not make mistakes. To change one's mind is to say, to some extent that one was wrong before.

So, in these senses, prayer does not lead to God to do something, like save someone's life, if He was not going to already do it.

(2) On the other hand, prayer does have an effect because God made us as social beings, He made us to exist, not in isolation, not in individualistic solitude, but in communion -- in communion not only with Him, but if each of us is one with Him, we are necessarily one with each other. Although God, and God alone, provides us salvation (in Christ), and although He is all-powerful, dependent upon none, He has chosen to need the assistance of humanity to accomplish the work of salvation. God has chosen not to do it all by Himself -- He wants our help. He wants us to participate in saving others by, among other things, praying for them, which has the transcendent effect of joining all the faithful together as one in communion with God.

Indeed, in these days before Christmas, we see that God has very much chosen to need the help and participation of humanity in saving others. We see this in the very fact that He depended upon Mary for His very life, and depended upon her and Joseph to raise Jesus.

In like way, God, that is to say, Jesus Christ, needs our help as well. The Jesus who saves by the Cross and Resurrection is always the Baby Jesus as well. The Baby Jesus who requires us to help Him.

Prayer for other people helps Him. Not because He needs our help, but because He wants our help. He wants that help, He wants us to love one another and care about the welfare of one another.

So, yes, pray for others.


UPDATE (8 p.m.)

Objection
Jan: are you implying by what you say in comment number 2, that we are only to pray as an academic exercise? What's the point in praying for someone/something if there is no chance for the outcome we desire?
It almost seems as though you are introducing 'fate' into the mix. Doesn't our free will have anything to do with this besides prompting us to be 'good,' day to day? Again, why pray for something that has already been decided?


Response
No, prayer is not at all an academic exercise. God might do X only because we have prayed for X. However, being eternal, God already knows what happens before it happens. So, He knew not only what He was going to do, He already knew that we would pray for X. If we didn't pray for X, the God might not have done X, but He knows that too before we pray it. Either way, God already knowing what we are going to do before we do it doesn't detract from our free choice of the will.

A similar discussion was held at Commonweal some time back. As I said there:

If you pray for a sick person, does that move God to heal him or her, or is that something that He would have done anyway? Does prayer have any real effect on God?

Yes and no.

No. It does not have any real effect on what God is going to do in the sense that, being timeless, God already knows what He is going to do (from the human temporal perspective) and, indeed, has already done (from God’s out-of-time perspective). However, God not only knows what He is going to do before you pray for it, He also knows that you are going to make that prayer (or not). Thus –

Yes. God already knowing that you are going to make that prayer before He does what He is going to do does indeed have an effect on what does. If you do not make the prayer, as you might if reality were something other than what it is, which He would already know before you do not do it, then He might very well not do what He might have done had the prayer been made. With the prayer for the sick, which He already knows, He heals. However, if there were “an alternate reality” where the prayer is not made, He would not.

Being eternal and transcendent of time, so that everything that has ever happened and ever will happen in the human timeline is in God’s present, all of time being a singularity, the fact that He already knows and has already done it does not mean that what we have prayed for did not play a factor in whether it was done or not.

Whether God has in fact intervened in a given situation and altered what would have happened if He had not intervened is ultimately a matter of faith. It cannot be submitted to the scientific method. God cannot be put under the microscope. Either one believes that a healing was miraculous or he doesn’t. “All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.”

Consider the matter of grace.

Grace is a gift. But the gift of grace from God is not an action. It is a transaction. God does not unilaterally confer grace upon someone. That would be an imposition contrary to love.

Rather, for grace to be conferred, (1) you must ask God for it and, once offered, (2) you must accept the gift. If you don’t ask and you don’t accept, you ain’t getting it. It is a two-way street, a bi-lateral communication. Even if only in a de minimus manner, if that is all you are capable of at that time, you must ask or otherwise indicate your willingness to accept if offered.

There are conditions precedent to some of God’s actions. You must ask and/or accept before He will do it. It is not a case of God merely doing what He would have done anyway. Without your doing that condition precedent, He would not have done it, even if He does know what the ultimate outcome is before it happens. God already knew that Mary would say “yes,” but that does not mean that her “yes” was not required before the Holy Spirit would come upon her.

The real difficulty here, or rather, the root difficulty here, it seems to me, is not the matter of free will or the matter of God's will, but the mystery of the eternal God. In the area of prayer, we run smack dab into the mystery of eternity.

We live in linear time and space. On the other hand, God lives in eternity. For Him, time is not linear. Rather, for Him, all time is now. All time is one. He is not billions of years old, even though the universe is billions of years old. Rather, God is ever new.

It is much easier to comprehend Jesus, who entered into human history, who entered into human time. For Jesus, while He was on earth, there was a yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And He subjected Himself to the limitations of humanity. He could "change" His mind in the temporal sense. He could be surprised. At the "same time," when He wanted to, He could access His divinity so as to know what was going to happen before it happened, as He apparently did in the case of the betrayal by Judas. But even though He knew what Judas was going to do, still Judas had the free will to do it or to not do it.

Even if we were to take God out of the picture and look at it from a purely secular scientific perspective, temporal mechanics will end up hurting your head. We can grasp a little of it, and it might make a little bit of sense, but much of it we simply need to acknowledge and move on. Time is a mystery. Reality is a mystery. And God is the biggest mystery of all.

Suffice to say, getting back to the main point -- Baby Jesus. God doesn't need our help, but He wants our help. He has chosen to depend upon us, including in the work of salvation. He has chosen to make this a group effort. Or, if you will, a family effort. The Almighty does not need our help, but He asks for it anyway. And if we do not provide that help, it isn't going to be done. That is one of the main points of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

If Mary didn't help God; if Mary didn't say "yes" and carry Jesus in her womb, and raise Him and teach Him and feed Him and clothe Him and shelter Him, the salvation of the world would have never come. God chose to need her. God chooses to need us. If we do not do things like pray, it might not get done. That God already knows what we will do and what He will do does not detract from that. We need to help. We need to pray.
.

8 comments:

jan said...

God is going to do what He is going to do, such that He does not change His mind

Maybe He doesn't change His mind, but are you implying by what you say in comment number 2, that we are only to pray as an academic exercise? What's the point in praying for someone/something if there is no chance for the outcome we desire? This makes no sense to me. And no, I'm not talking about trivial things, like sporting events.

(2) On the other hand, prayer does have an effect because God made us as social beings, He made us to exist, not in isolation, not in individualistic solitude, but in communion -- in communion not only with Him, but if each of us is one with Him, we are necessarily one with each other.

I don't see how this can be edifying for anyone - in fact, it almost seems as though you are introducing 'fate' into the mix. Doesn't our free will have anything to do with this besides prompting us to be 'good,' day to day? Again, why pray for something that has already been decided? What if you are praying your heart out for faith? What if you never find it? Some people never do, you know.


So, yes, pray for others.


So, why?

Flexo said...

I knew I had had this conversation before, but didn't know where. But I found it at Commonweal.

What I am saying is, yes, there is an efficacy to prayer -- it does have an affect on God . . . BUT, concepts of eternity and temporal mechanics will turn your head inside out trying to understand it, especially vis-a-vis causality and free will.

I'm going to bump this entire exchange up into the main post.

Flexo said...

What if you are praying your heart out for faith? What if you never find it? Some people never do, you know.

If one is praying their heart out for faith, isn't that an indication that they already have it (however nascent)?

God is not Allah, He does not give faith to some and purposely withhold faith from others. He grants the grace of faith to all who ask.

But faith and the will are tricky things. The seed of faith might be planted, but we still allow the world to intrude, we still allow our soil to be rocky and filled with weeds.

Besides, often times it is only a seed that is planted, not a full-grown tree of faith. It needs to grow and mature. If one demands, not merely faith, but understanding, of certitude from the very beginning, if one puts demands on faith, putting themselves before the truth, then they will have a hard time finding it because it will always be behind them.

On the other hand, if one merely accepts, if one merely "believes," then understanding will come, then that will lead to a deeper faith. Augustine put it this way -- “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” And like he also said, "God does not command what is impossible; but when He commands, He exhorts you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot do."

If you pray for the grace of faith, you will receive it. But if you do not seek that grace, if you do not "pray" for it by words, thoughts, desires, directly or indirectly, then you will not. Getting back to the main issue -- your prayer, or lack thereof, does affect what God is going to do.

jan said...

Your patience is commendable and considerate, especially since I wrote knee-jerk in response to this subject.

For the record, I would have offered the same arguments as you did, even if less efficiently or coherently. Sometimes it is necessary to practice some devil's advocacy to straighten out the thoughts - especially after one's mentor says the student should be tortured horribly for using a leaf blower.

I could have come up with a better example than one seeking faith if I had taken the time to think of one.

Flexo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flexo said...

Being a fan of Star Trek, you can appreciate how mind-bending time can be. On Lost, the last couple of seasons have explored the matter of time travel and free will (as well as a number of God themes). Best to simply go with the flow, I find.

Flexo said...

I did offer the alternative torture of using a rake.

By the way, sometimes this comment moderation thing can be a pain since one does not know a comment is posted unless one goes to look. But since I've been getting comment spam lately, I guess it's a good thing.

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