Don’t you hate it when an everyday English word doesn’t mean what you’d like it to mean? Just change it! Take a look at a Christian approach to redefining “prayer.”
What do you do when your preferred definition of an important religious word clashes with reality—a fundamental word like miracle, prayer, faith, or good? A popular Christian tactic is to dilute the definition so that they can still use the words, but this tactic has consequences.
How do prayers work?
Evangelical blogger John Mark Reynolds wrote “Prayers amid Hurricane Harvey” a few days after that hurricane hit Houston, Texas in August 2017. He writes of being huddled (with his family, I presume) in an interior closet in his house. They were doing what they could to stay safe from Harvey, which made landfall in Texas as a category 4 hurricane. It killed 106 in the U.S. and is second to hurricane Katrina as the costliest U.S. natural disaster ($141 billion).
How did he respond to this frightening experience? He begins, “Prayer is the best action one can take in a storm” but soon admits, “We prayed to be spared this test, but God said ‘no.’ ”
God said no? Did Odin say no, too? Why pray to God if Odin (or even a jug of milk) delivers the same results? And if you say that praying to God produces better results, show us. Give us evidence.
Here’s where wishful thinking about prayer gets tripped up by reality. Instead of getting what you pray for, which is what Jesus promised, and instead of prayer at least improving the probability of getting what you need, prayer must be redefined. Prayer is now asking for something and then reframing the result so that God looks good whether you got what you asked for or not. Apparently, God is sensitive. He must be treated like a baby.
We see more rationalization when he says:
Hurricane Harvey came despite our prayers—and that is good. It is good for us to ask, and God helps as He can.
God helps as he can? There’s some limit to what he can do? This world is the best that he can produce, and he would have done a better job if he could have? I must have a higher estimation of what omnipotence can do.
We asked that the storm would pass over us.
Do you ask that for every hurricane? Or only the ones that hit the United States? Or only the ones that hit you? Who does the disaster hit if God nudges it to avoid you (and can you live with that)?
Taking a step back, what’s prayer (even this watered-down version) good for? You aren’t telling God something he doesn’t already know, and you can’t be so arrogant as to ask God to change his perfect plan for you. Prayer doesn’t work as advertised.
God can’t lose
Reynolds rationalizes why God would allow a hurricane Harvey.
[God] is all powerful, but He is also good. He will not do a superficial good for us today at the cost of greater evil tomorrow…. If He who can does not, it must be better so.
This is an empty and meaningless claim. Without evidence, are we supposed to accept that Harvey was a net good? Give us examples of what might have offset the cost of $141 billion and 106 lives.
Here again, I have a higher estimation of what omnipotence can do. A hurricane was as surgical as God could be? He needed to destroy something, but he couldn’t do it precisely with magic and avoid the collateral damage of a category 4 hurricane?
Sure, a god might exist who used a hurricane for a good that we can’t yet understand, but why imagine this? Where’s the evidence? Why is this anything more than a rationalization to help Christians maintain their unevidenced beliefs?
Don’t give us a hypothetical. Support your claim with a specific situation where God allowed (or caused) harm to prevent a worse harm later. Can’t do it? Then you’re making the Hypothetical God Fallacy.
To squarely address the Problem of Evil—why an omnipotent and good god would allow so much evil in the world—the first step is admitting that God does indeed look terrible. Natural disasters, childhood diseases, cancer, and all the rest would not happen on the watch of a good god.
(I investigate this in more depth in “4 Steps Christians Must Take Before Responding to the Problem of Evil.”)
God continues to be a solution looking for a problem. It’s a hypothesis that complicates the picture while answering nothing better than the naturalistic explanation, that nature is a mindless force and sometimes people get hurt.
I want to give Reynolds the benefit of the doubt—surely he acknowledges the value of prayer in the here and now. Is that what he’s focusing on?
Not really. He says, “This is not just a meditation technique” as he doubles down on prayer as an actual conversation with an actual person who actually delivers. But, of course, any error is his, not God’s: “Just as I can misunderstand any person, I can and do misunderstand what God is saying, but still, He is there and is not silent.”
“He is there and is not silent”? Then he’s about as invisible and mute as you could be without actually being nonexistent.
Does the dictionary say what you think?
He moves on, only to trip over yet another common English word.
Government may fail me. Community may be sundered and cold waves wash over me, but God never fails.
Government is what provided the hospitals, rescued people in peril, and got the power back on. When you compare government and God, you’re right that only one came through for you, but it wasn’t God. If you say that the government help was imperfect, I’m sure you’re right, but God’s help was nonexistent. God “never fails” only if you carelessly redefine words to suit the moment.
Let’s return to that quote—government may fail, but God never fails—to see if that word is used consistently. What would “government fail” mean? Presumably it means that incompetence might get in the way of a prompt response, shortsightedness years ago might have postponed necessary infrastructure maintenance, and so on. You expect the government to do something, but then it’s not there for you.
Isn’t that exactly what God does? The Bible promises that prayer works, but where is God when disaster strikes? Didn’t he fail you in being indistinguishable from nothing? Remember that this isn’t a human-caused disaster such as murder. Nothing could be more an act of God than a hurricane.
Is even the word fail a problem word that you must redefine? What does it say about your fragile worldview that you must redefine so many words to maintain your beliefs?
Inspiration for the Bible?
Reynolds concludes with this optimistic line: “Thank God prayer works.” And, sure, prayer “works” if you redefine away definitions that get in your way. “Answered prayer” no longer means what you’d think it means. Whatever happens is now “answered prayer.”
It’s like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where 2 + 2 = 5, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. God knows all that you do, which parallels “Big Brother is watching you.” Christianity has also embraced thoughtcrime, where every private thought is known to God and lustful thoughts are adultery (see Matthew 5:21–28).
By giving itself permission to redefine troublesome words, Christianity has added doublethink to the list of Nineteen Eighty-Four parallels.
I’ve responded to John Mark Reynolds several other times:
- “Would God Want You to Tell a Gunman, “Yes, I’m a Christian”?”
- “Stalin Was a Mass Murderer (And I’m Not Too Sure About Myself)”
- “Don’t Vote for Atheists—They Like to Kill People!”
Think of the one thing you would do
to improve the world if you were God.
Now realize that he hasn’t done it.
— seen on the internet