Appellate Prayer, Sovereignty, and Superstition
For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.
1 John 5:14
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.
With All of Our Hearts
We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.
First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.
The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”
Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3
[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.
1 Chronicles 16:11
Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.
That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need.
Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.
As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
With All of Our Minds
At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.
It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.
We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.
- Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
- Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
- Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.
That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”
Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayer. Reason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.
At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.
Between Heart and Mind
Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.
But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.