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The Everyday Mystery of Answered Prayer

The Everyday Mystery of Answered Prayer

A Public Lecture by John B. Lloyd at the St Mary's Centre Annual Symposium on Practical Theology, Noddfa, Penmaenmawr.
18 September 2018


Petitionary prayer is a foundational and ubiquitous part of practical theology. Although such prayer can be immature or selfish, it is also a key component of mature discipleship. Moreover, those who pray in faith frequently experience what they can only interpret as direct and sometimes astonishing answers to their prayers.
Theologians, philosophers and scientists struggle with issues concerning God's interaction with the physical world. The regularity of natural processes, which makes them (so helpfully) predictable and accessible to scientific enquiry, is often understood as God having given the creation a real autonomy. If this is so, is it possible for God also to intervene specifically, either unprompted or in response to prayer? Some say no: any apparent efficacy of prayer can only be an effect on the one who prays. Others find this explanation inadequate and contrary to their experience.

These questions will be considered in the light of the undeniable ability of human beings to change the course of events in the natural world.


Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix (Lion, 2001)
Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God (IVP, 2015)
John Polkinghorne, One World (SPCK, 1986)
John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Fortress Press, 1996)
Andrew Steane, Faithful to Science (Oxford University Press, 2014)
Keith Ward, Divine Action, 2nd edition (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007)
Keith Ward, Holding Fast to God (SPCK, 1982)
David Wilkinson, When I Pray What Does God Do? (Lion Hudson, 2015)

No, my title is not a misprint: I do mean answered prayer. Unanswered prayer is a mystery too, and one that many Christian apologists have sought to understand. That is therefore rather well-worn territory.

So my subject is asking prayer: petition and intercession. (In this talk I shall use the word petition to cover both.)

The Experience of Answered Prayer

Prayer is a key feature of Christian discipleship, and petition is a major component of this prayer. We habitually pray about troublesome aspects of our life and of the lives of our loved ones. We ask God to act, step in, intervene, whether by healing, giving discernment and wisdom, or altering circumstances.

Such praying can be immature. Our requests can be selfish or unwise, and are therefore unlikely to be granted by a loving God. If we ask for an egg, God will certainly not offer us a scorpion; but neither will God give us a scorpion if we should unwittingly ask for one. Mature believers know all this, and know too that God will sometimes deny a seemingly reasonable request. Why? Simply because God knows best. God's ways are higher than ours. Or expressed in more modern language, God sees a bigger picture than we do. Maturity also recognizes that our prayer can never manipulate God. There is no infallible protocol that will ensure we get what we ask for.

However, discerning and well-taught Christians also pray earnestly for God's intervention. Very occasionally we may pray for a miracle, but more usually I am asking God to change things in my everyday situations or in those of others. I bring to God the problems and dilemmas I face, very often ones for which i cannot envisage a solution. We say, and we sincerely mean: Your will be done.

More often than not we are startled by what happens. Circumstances change in ways we had not imagined; the furniture of our lives is subtly rearranged, and the way ahead is clearer. Thanks be to God. Usually no miracle is involved, no laws of nature are broken. But we believe God has intervened.

What are the features of this prayer and what are features of the answers? First, the issues are very personal. And in the grand scheme of things, trivial, though they may be very important to us. Secondly these prayers arise from a companionship model of discipleship. They imply an intimacy with God. And the answers? They are oblique. My prayer request was how can I make progress with this seemingly insoluble problem? God's answer: you won't need to. God acted while my back was turned.

We cannot prove that God acted, of course. It could always be coincidence. But coincidence is irrelevant if no prayer was made. If it was, coincidence feels a feeble conclusion.

The Biblical Witness

The Old Testament is full of entreaties to God to act, to help and rescue his people. And the God of the Hebrew scripture is one who acts in response to prayer: I prayed and you answered. Sometimes the psalmist complains bitterly that God has not answered his prayer. But here too the clear hope was that he would. Often the prayer is for miraculous intervention with mighty works and outstretched arm, but not always. God's intervention is a constant theme of the Psalms, where it often forms the basis for a call to praise and trust.

Petition is endorsed and positively encouraged in the New Testament. In Luke 11, in response to the disciples' request to teach them to pray, Jesus imagined a man approaching his neighbour with an urgent need. Initially reluctant, the latter was persuaded to respond and act by the man's persistence. Jesus followed his parable with an assurance that God will always respond positively to his disciples' prayers. The New Testament letters contain myriad references to petitionary prayer. James is explicit: the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.

The Bible is also full of claims that God can act unprompted. Many miraculous events are thus attributed to the action of God, but there are also many examples of God's actions in the world that have no necessary miraculous element. This is a constant theme of the psalms. In Psalm 104, for example, God's activity is seen in pre-history and in presently observed nature. God made the sun and the moon (19). The mountains and valleys are where they are because God appointed it so (8); God causes the grass to grow (14) and God planted the cedar trees (16). And delightfully, the hungry lion cubs seek their food from God, roaring (praying?) as they hunt their prey (21). A New Testament parallel sees God feeding the birds and dressing the flowers.

What is affirmed poetically in the Psalms is affirmed conceptually in the New Testament. Colossians and Hebrews see the Son of God as the agent of creation and the one who - in the present tense - continually sustains the created world and holds it in being.

God's continuing involvement in nature is of course where theism parts company with deism. God is not a creator who made the world and then left it to its destiny. The world only continues to exist because of God's continuous holding it in being.

So what is the problem?

Some recent Christian writers suppose that this holding-in-being is now God's only mode of interaction with the world. If this is the case, any efficacy that petitionary prayer may have is solely an effect on the person praying. In other words, I may change as a result of my prayer, perhaps even becoming the agent of my request being granted.

Most of those who have written on this topic are distinguished scientists who are also convinced and practising Christians. I want now to give you an introduction to their thinking.

Denis Alexander (biologist)

In 2001 Alexander published Rebuilding the Matrix, an acclaimed and impressively wide-ranging account of the relationship between science and faith. In a chapter that begins with sharp criticism of the Christian creationist movement, he summarizes what he describes as a 'mainstream theistic view of creation' He describes traditional theism and contemporary biology as 'mutually supportive partners'.

The foundation of this theistic view is that God is both transcendent and immanent in relation to the creation, and Alexander adduces copious Biblical support for both aspects. I mentioned Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1 just now. These texts are central for Alexander and the other authors I shall mention. In Colossians, Paul claims that 'all things hold together' in Christ (Colossians 1: 17). And the writer to the Hebrews writes; that God 'sustains all things by his powerful word' (Hebrews 1:3). Alexander writes this: 'the modern tendency to look for God at the boundaries of our present knowledge is quite alien to biblical thought', adding: 'the Bible knows no God of the gaps'.

Alexander's focus on the regular functioning of the natural world leads him to discuss possible models of how God constantly sustains it. But he seems cautious about the possibility of God's intervening in response to prayer or to achieve a particular outcome. The psalms he quotes are about the physical and biological worlds, not those that recount the deeds of a God who intervenes on behalf of God's people. He does write about miracles, historical and contemporary, and accepts their role in the Christian story, but does not seem sure about their importance. I notice that prayer doesn't feature in the book's Subject Index.

Andrew Steane (physicist)

In his 2014 Faithful to Science, subtitled The Role of Science in Religion, Steane writes about the harmony between science and Christian faith. He considers that 'science has shown that miracles are much less common than people thought, and the natural world is much more marvellous that people thought'. But then he intriguingly continues: 'I am not about to say that God never introduces significant new twists -- miracles, nor am I about to deny that God can act as a player within, not
just a supporter of, the rules of the world'. Quoting William Temple's statement that when I pray, coincidences happen, he says it is possible that 'the Holy Spirit acts to bring about juxtapositions that are natural in the sense of not breaking any physical law'. However Steane is unsure whether God does this.

About miracles Steane is ambivalent. Defining them as events that break the laws of nature, he demands 'world-shattering credentials', but then he goes on to say: 'Just don't make your world so impregnable that nothing could shatter it'.

Steane points out that 'the world is not the deterministic clockwork mechanism it was once supposed to be' and that there is in theory enough inbuilt flexibility for God to act. He is referring here to the developments in physics in the twentieth century, specifically quantum theory and chaos theory, that introduce an element of intrinsic uncertainty into our understanding of the workings of the world. But he is not convinced that this factor has much relevance to the issue of God's possible intervention.

Autonomy and Kenosis

The key issue for these writers is the observable regularity of nature. This predictability, codified as scientific laws, is the basis of the whole scientific enterprise. And, even more importantly, our ability to predict what will happen makes purposeful human life possible. It seems inescapable that God has given the created world an autonomy. And not just an apparent autonomy: a real one. God is not constantly making unpredictable things happen.

This has led several writers to make a link with the NT notion of kenosis, the relinquishment by the Son of God of his former glory and power, when he became a human man. Perhaps that incarnational kenosis parallels a kenosis intrinsic in the act of creation. Perhaps God's hands are tied, so that God cannot both grant autonomy to the creation and also intervene.

Towards Intervention: Other Influential Voices

I want now to introduce some contemporary writers who are dissatisfied with an understanding that limits God's mode of interaction with the creation to the continuous sustaining-in-being and some rare spectacular miracles.

John Polkinghorne (physicist, priest and theologian)

Polkinghorne has published a series of books on the interface between science and the Christian faith. In an early work (1986), One World, he considers the ways in which God may interact with the world, including the possibility of intervention: "the specific exercise of his will to achieve a particular end". He admits that he cannot explain the link between God's choosing to act and the physical change that results, but is not unduly concerned at this.
If we do not understand how we ourselves interact with the physical world (though we feel certain that we do and we do not treat ourselves as if we were robots) then it is scarcely surprising that we do not understand how God might do so either.
I shall return to this observation presently.

Ten years later, in The Faith of a Physicist, Polkinghorne states clearly his belief in '(human) freedom to do some act and the freedom not to do it'; 'When we face a decision, we face a genuine choice; hence our intuition of moral responsibility'. To deny this 'flies in the face of our direct experience', specifically 'our inability to live other than as people endowed with free agency and reason'.

Polkinghorne also identifies an 'implicit deism' in much writing on science and religion. He writes that these authors 'eagerly embrace the general concept' of continuous creation, 'as providing a welcome theistic gloss on evolutionary history, but they are reluctant to acknowledge any actual divine activity within it'. They 'recoil from any notion of particular divine agency and restrict God's role to that of simply holding his world in being'. Why do they do this? Polkinghorne identifies two reasons: 'a (mistaken) view that modern science will permit us nothing more, and a desire to absolve God from any possibility of responsibility for specific happenings', particularly human evil, natural disasters and disease.

Keith Ward (philosopher)

In his Divine Action Ward aims to provide 'a defense of a strongly supernaturalist idea of a God who ... answers prayers and performs miracles'. In a wide-ranging discussion he explains why God's direct action in the world is limited: constant interference would make the world radically unpredictable and therefore uncongenial for planned human agency. But God has made it possible for 'human persons to find their true fulfilment in relation to the infinite God'. Prayer is 'the full and proper form of personal relationship to God. It will involve adoration and gratitude, repentance and trust, and also requests that God should act to enable God's purposes to be realized more fully'. Ward is confident that 'prayer will always make a difference to the world. It will sometimes make precisely the difference we desire'. Or God may use our prayers 'for good in ways we have not considered. Ward states: 'intercessory prayer is an important part of a fully personal relationship with God, adding trenchantly 'Scepticism about it grows in proportion to scepticism about the possibility of a real personal relationship with God'.

Ward helpfully points out that God's actions in the world are not all miraculous: no scientific laws are broken. He writes: 'Normal Divine agency works within the possibilities inherent in the physical structure'. But the one who has prayed sees the link with the prayer offered, even if no one else knows about it. Elsewhere Ward argues that: 'God leaves human freedom intact by refusing to act in predictable usable ways. For this reason a personal God must act in hidden or ambiguously interpretable ways'.

Ward is not shy about defending the possibility of miracle. However, Miracles, events that lie 'outside the possibilities of the structure...must be rare'.

David Wilkinson (astrophysicist and theologian)

Wilkinson, in common with many other writers, sees God as the 'moment by moment sustainer of the physical laws' that give the universe regularities, allowing us to do science. However he considers that some writers have so stressed the autonomy of creation that 'God has been given no freedom at all within that creation for particular acts. God is unable to do anything apart from sit back and watch'. Wilkinson insists that 'God must be ultimately free to work in unusual ways'. He does not know how this is possible, although like Steane and Polkinghorne, he points out that modern theoretical physics is more flexible than 'Newton's clockwork universe'. This flexibility 'may not provide easy gaps into which one can insert the intervention of God, but they do demolish the kind of universe which was thought to rule out the specific actions of God in the physical world'.

Wilkinson also discusses the view that petitionary prayer is effective, not by God's resultant intervention but by a change in the one praying, who perhaps becomes the vehicle for actualizing the outcome prayed for. Wilkinson grants the truth of this effect of prayer, but judges it is not enough. 'Prayer certainly is about a fundamental encounter with God which changes a human person. And it is certainly one way that God responds to prayer by using changed human beings to be partners in building the kingdom. But there is more to it than just this.' A beneficial change in myself is not what I am praying for, and feels like an inadequate and disappointing response. I want God to take action.

Intervention in Ordinary -- A Synthesis
The principal burden of my paper tonight is to take up the argument that, given the undeniable reality of everyday intervention by human beings in the workings of the world, it is perverse to claim that the Creator cannot do the same.

I stand here. Unprompted, I walk across the room and switch off the light. I am not forced to do so; I was not asked to. I choose to. This is my decision leading to my action. This freedom to act is real: I can effect change. Without any laws of nature being broken, my mind can imagine taking a desired action and I can put my will into achieving it. Things happen that would not have happened were it not for my acted-out wish. In this case the electric meter records a decrease in power supplied.

Human beings know that their choices, and the actions that flow from them, make a difference. All purposeful human life presupposes this. However, philosophers and scientists have a hard time understanding these everyday mysteries. In a universe where every event is caused by preceding events, how can human will insert itself into the causal chain? As we've seen, the implications of quantum and chaos theory have recently introduced some flexibility into the logical impasse, and doubtless subsequent developments will in time result in a fuller understanding. But what is clear is that 'mind-over-matter' happens all the time, with lesser or greater consequences.

If that is so, we surely cannot reasonably deny that creator God can similarly intervene, either self-motivated or in response to human petition. John Polkinghorne and Keith Ward articulated this argument clearly, but its compelling force seems not to have been fully recognized.

If God can intervene in everyday life, an important subsidiary question arises: does God so intervene?

Is Intervention Incompatible with Creation's Autonomy?

Let us return to the notion of kenosis. The question then becomes: was this creation-kenosis a full-blown kenosis, a total hand-over, leaving God unable to intervene? Perhaps not. Consider the incarnational kenosis. Was this complete? No it wasn't. Jesus the man retained and often displayed divine characteristics. Is a model of qualified, partial kenosis perhaps worth considering? God gives his creation its autonomy, but retains the option to intervene.

There is every indication in the New Testament that its authors saw God as still active in the world in response to people's prayers. Furthermore Jesus presented God as Father, who gives good things to those who ask. Is this merely figurative, or does a responsive and generous father provide an authentic and reliable image for God? A human parent always responds to a child's request, but not always with exactly what was asked for. Our minds struggle to understand that the holy God of power and might is one and same as the God who notices the wounded sparrow and the poor widow, but we can rejoice and marvel at this mystery. As Dallas Willard puts it: "It is not inherently greater to be inflexible. God is not the Unmoved Mover, but rather the Most Moved Mover, the One who lives with us and whom we approach from within the community of prayerful love".

Recently two American theologians, John Sanders and Thomas Jay Oord, have explored this notion of kenosis in relation to God's relationship with the world God has created. They are largely although not completely In agreement. Oord defines kenosis as love that is self-giving and empowering-of-others. This love is 'an essential attribute of God's eternal nature'. 'God necessarily loves, but freely chooses how to love in each emerging moment'. God's other attributes, such as power, are secondary to love. Oord believes in miracles, seeing them as 'objective events in the world' and defining them as 'God's special action in relation to creation'. That sounds like intervention to me, although Oord himself dislikes that word because it 'unfortunately implies that God resides outside nature and its causality'. I don't personally see that implication, nor do I see the distinction from his own definition: God's special action in relation to creation.

Is an Intervening God an Embarrassment?

This question arises from considering the work of Christian authors who may accept the truth of the 'big' miracles, such as the resurrection of Jesus, but are sceptical about the smaller divine interventions that Christians pray for and experience. Reading their work, I sense they feel there is something morally superior, more fitting, about a hands-off God who gives full autonomy to the universe than a God who gives the universe a huge slice of autonomy, but retains a freedom to intervene.

Our feelings of fittingness concerning God's alleged actions arise quite properly from a concern for God's honour. I'd just say that, although neither illogical nor worthless, they cannot make a weighty epistemic contribution. We humans are unwise to be dogmatic: judging what is fitting for God to do is a risky business.

Does God hold back?

As we have seen, the observable regularity of nature is the basis of science, allowing recognition of the so-called laws of nature. The predictability of physical phenomena also makes purposeful human life possible. If God constantly intervened with the autonomy of the world, it would severely undermine human autonomy and therefore diminish the quality of human life, its creativity and responsibility.

God's potential interventions span a range from the spectacular miracle to the almost invisible 'coincidence'. It seems reasonable to predict that the frequency of particular interventions will be inversely related to their visibility. I suggest therefore that the everyday answers to prayer that ordinary believers experience are eminently believable.

Believing that God both hears and responds to our petitionary prayer returns us to the mainstream of Christian doctrine and practice. It will encourage us to be child-like, as Jesus taught his disciples to be. We can tell God what we want, and know with certainty that we will never be given a snake or a scorpion, even if we foolishly or unknowingly ask for one. And if our prayers for God to intervene are seemingly ignored, we should not see God as reluctant to come to our aid. The truth may often be that, as a loving parent sometimes chooses to hold back for the sake of the child's growth in maturity or greater good, so does God.

Thus, God often seems to answer our prayers by acting when our backs are turned, changing our circumstances in ways we never thought of. And in ways that make it impossible to prove that God has acted. It could always be coincidence. But as Einstein believed: Coincidence is how God preserves his anonymity.


Petition and intercession are the most basic modes of prayer. They are commonly also the most fervent. We plead with God to intervene in our lives and circumstances and those of others we know and love. When I sing, in that most poignant of hymns,

And then for those, our dearest and our best,
O do thine utmost for their souls' true weal;

I want God to act. The experience of believers through the ages is that God very often does so, in unexpected albeit unspectacular ways. I have tried to show that this belief is entirely plausible and in no sense needs explaining away.

Petition is no second-rate form of prayer, one that mature Christians should grow beyond. We never get beyond asking. It is a key element in the transformation-by-companionship that is God's longing and desire for us.

I introduced answered prayer as an everyday mystery. I am convinced it is also an everyday reality. But it remains a mystery: a rather glorious one.

Dr. John Lloyd is a retired academic and biochemist. He is an active Anglican layman in his local church in Staffordshire, England

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