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Can prayer determine the will of God?

Results of surveys and experience.
The importance of assessing God's will.

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Americans' prayer life:

Most adults in the U.S. and Canada say that they pray to their deity or deities. In 1999-MAY, the Gallup Organization at Princeton NJ reported the results of a number of public opinion polls taken between 1991 and 1995. They concluded that for American adults:

bullet9 out of 10 say that the do pray. Among them, about:
bullet 75% pray daily.
bullet 15% pray at least weekly
bullet 6% pray infrequently.
bullet Most say that they pray to a Supreme Being; only 1% pray to other options supplied by the polling agency: "a transcendent or cosmic force, to the 'inner self,' or to the 'god within.' " 1

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Beliefs about the effectiveness of prayer:

Beliefs differ:

bullet

There are countless anecdotal stories of individuals who are totally convinced that prayer works.  According to the Gallup report cited above, most of those who pray:

"... report experiencing a deep sense of peace and the strong presence of God through prayer."

They often say that they:

"... have received an answer to specific prayer requests. Still others say they have gained a deeper insight into some biblical truth, and that they have been inspired or led by God to perform some specific action." 1

The vast majority of those who pray:

"... seek guidance [from God] for decisions" 1

that are before them. Teleministers frequently mention that God has spoken directly to them in prayer; so do many individual believers. Clergy often recommend that their members pray to God to find out his will on all significant matters.


bullet

On the other hand, some liberal theologians believe that prayer is useless when a person is trying to assess the will of God. Garry Williams reported in the Dallas Morning News that Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion:

"...discusses how people who hold different views of Jesus should understand their differences. He argues that they do not have the voice of God to tell them which beliefs are right. They have their own differing visions of Christ, but Christ himself is silent." 2

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Observations:

If prayer is effective and reliable, then many conflicts that arise in life would be easily settled. A few examples are:

bulletOver the almost 23 years of this web site's existence, we have have received many dozens of Emails from Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christian couples, whose marriages are headed for "the rocks." Both prayed separately to determine whether God wished that they:
bullet Stay together and try harder to make their marriage work, or
bullet Separate and perhaps divorce in the future. They often believe that they received opposite responses.
bulletWithin Christianity, there are countless disputes over theology. For example:
bullet

Conservative Christians often view the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a heretical "cult" -- many feel that the LDS church is not even Christian. Meanwhile, Mormons generally regard their faith group as the only accurate reconstruction of the early Christian movement. Many Mormons regard other contemporary Christian denominations as having deviated from primitive Christianity and from the teachings of Jesus. Obviously, either one or neither of these two groups could be correct.


bulletEven within a single wing of Christianity, there are many conflicts about religious belief. The Zondervan Publishing House has produced a Counterpoints series of books. Each book considers a single topic, and allows three to five leading Evangelical Christians to discuss their opposing beliefs about that topic. Some of the topics discussed are:
bullet Who will be saved and who will be lost.

bullet The rapture.

bullet The meaning of the book of Revelation.

bullet End of the world scenarios: Premillennialism Postmillennialism and Amillennialism.

bullet If, and under what conditions, is divorce and later remarriage biblically allowable?

bullet The nature of Hell.

bullet Creation and evolution.
bulletSimilar disagreements can be seen within debates over the role of women:
bullet The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is composed of sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, devout, knowledgeable, born-again Evangelical believers. They promote very separate roles for men and women -- roles that they feel are God-given and fixed. They consider women and men as being of equal value and importance, but advocate that women not be in any position of authority over any man or have a position of equal power to their husband in the family. They are able to support this position with numerous quotations from the Bible. 3

bullet The Council on Biblical Equality is also composed of many sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, devout, and knowledgeable Evangelicals. They promote an equal status for men and women, with no reserved roles for either gender. They also support their beliefs with numerous biblical quotations. 4

Each group sincerely, devoutly, prayerfully believes that they are representing the true Biblical message on the roles of men and women. From their literature, it is obvious that both feel that God is on their side. Yet only one, at most, can be holding the correct view.


bulletBack in 2003, the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was almost evenly divided on the question of ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians in committed relationships:

bullet Conservatives in the denomination generally believed that the Bible condemns all homosexual activity as sinful, even if it occurs within a devoted, committed, loving, and permanent relationship. The concept of lowering ordination standards to allow ministers who engage in such sinful behavior was repugnant to them.
bullet Liberals in the church generally believed that homosexuality is a normal, natural, fixed, and morally neutral orientation for a minority of humans. They accept committed same-sex civil unions and relationships as equivalent to marriage. They supported ordination of sexually-active homosexuals, and regard it to be a human rights issue.

Presbyterians on both sides are thoughtful, sincere, dedicated, devout, intelligent and committed to their faith and church. Yet they seemed unable to resolve this issue.

Members of the Episcopal Church, USA, the United Methodist Church and may other denominations have shared this conflict.

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The importance of accurately assessing the will of God:

When a person prays, believes that they have assessed the will of God on some matter, and acts on the information that they believed that they have received from God, the results can be life changing for a person, a family, or sometimes even for hundreds of thousands of people. One incredibly sad occurrence was discussed by Ewen MacAskill, who -- writing in The Guardian -- said:

"George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. ..."

Mr Bush revealed the extent of his religious fervour when he met a Palestinian delegation during the Israeli-Palestinian summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, four months after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One of the delegates, Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time, said:

"President Bush said to all of us: 'I am driven with a mission from God'. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."

Mr Bush went on: "And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East'. And, by God, I'm gonna do it." 5

Former President George Bush's decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, were largely a response to the earlier attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by a small group of terrorists on 2001-SEP-11. Most of them came from Saudi Arabia. A 2014 study found that the death toll from the Iraqi war reached 500,000. 6 If the invasion had not happened, and dictator Saddam Hussein had continued his dictatorship, the death toll might well have been hundreds of thousands fewer.

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A test of the effectiveness of prayer:

If prayer to assess the will of God were truly effective, then all of the above conflicts could be very easily resolved. One could simply assemble the thoughtful, devout believers with diverse beliefs, ask them to pray, and determine the will of God. God's answer would then the same for all of the believers.

By following this method:

bullet A couples in a troubled marriage would be able to determine whether God wished them to separate or to continue in efforts to remain together.
bullet Believers would be able to determine which, if any, Christian denomination(s) out of the approximately 30,000 Christian denominations, sects and faith groups in the world represent the true church. The other denominations could then change their beliefs or close down.
bullet Church schisms would never occur. Debates could be settled before conflicts rose to the point where a denominational split was inevitable.
bullet There would be no need for Zondervan, and other publishers, to sell books which explain conflicting biblically-based beliefs among Evangelical Christian leaders, because all would hold the same beliefs. 

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Results of prayer:

When couples pray for God's wishes about their marriage, each spouse is usually certain that they received a response from God. However, when they compared notes, they often found that God's messages conflict. One spouse reports that God wants them to stay together; the other believes that God wants them to separate.

In such matters as:
bullet Which is the "true" Christian denomination,
bullet The role of women in the church and family,
bullet Theological debates, and
bullet God's wishes concerning equal rights for the LGBT community, etc.,

it is apparent that Christians on both sides of various issues feel that they are receiving communications from God; but the messages conflict.

Thus, conflicts in families, within denominations, and between denominations continue. Disagreements cannot be resolved. One is led to suspect that devout, thoughtful believers may not be able to assess the will of God. One has to look for alternative explanations. Two might be:
bullet Believers are unable to get a meaningful response from God during prayer. They are generating answers within their own minds, and deluding themselves into believing that the messages come from God, or
bullet Believers obtain conflicting messages during prayer, presumably from different sources.

This throws great doubt on the use of prayer as a method of assessing the will of God.

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References used:

  1. George Gallup, Jr., "Poll releases: As nation observes National Day of Prayer, 9 in 10 pray -- 3 in 4 daily," 1999-MAY-6, at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr990506.asp Unfortunately, the Gallup Organization now restricts public access to its historical data base. It is now only available to subscribers to the Gallup Organization's "Tuesday's Briefing."
  2. Garry Williams, "Garry Williams: Archbishop's theology not orthodox. Author says differences not restricted to sexual ethics as frequently reported," Dallas News, at:  http://www.dallasnews.com/religion/
  3. Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood maintains a web site which promotes defined roles for men and women. See: http://www.cbmw.org 
  4. Christians for Biblical Equality has a home page promoting non-discrimination on the basis of gender . See:  http://www.cbeinternational.org
  5. Ewen MacAskill, "George Bush: 'God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq'," The Guardian, 2005-OCT-07, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
  6. Kerry Sheridan, "Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start of U.S.-Led Invasion, New Study Says," 2014-JAN-23, at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/

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Site navigation:

Home page > Science vs. religion > God's will > here

 Home page > Christianity > Christian history, etcPrayer > God's will > here

or Home page > Religious Information > PracticesPrayer > God's will > here

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Copyright 2000 to 2018, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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