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Results of surveys and experience

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Americans' prayer life:

Most adults in the U.S. and Canada pray to their God. 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 pray. Among those who do pray, about:
bullet75% pray daily.
bullet15% pray at least weekly
bullet6% pray infrequently
bulletMost pray to a Supreme Being; only 1% pray to "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:

bulletThere 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.
bulletOn 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 from life:

Many conflicts arise in life that might be settled through prayer. A few examples are:

bulletWe have have received 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:
bulletStay together and try harder to make their marriage work, or
bulletSeparate and perhaps divorce in the future.
bulletWithin Christianity, there are countless disputes over theology. For example:
bulletConservative 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, only a maximum of one 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:
bulletWho will be saved and who will be lost.
bulletThe rapture.
bulletThe meaning of the book of Revelation.
bulletEnd of the world scenarios: Premillennialism Postmillennialism and Amillennialism.
bulletWhen (and if) divorce and remarriage is biblically allowable.
bulletThe nature of Hell.
bulletCreation and evolution.
bulletSimilar disagreements can be seen within debates over the role of women:
bulletThe Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is composed of thoughtful, intelligent, devout, knowledgeable born-again Evangelical believers. They promote very separate roles for men and women - roles that they feel are God-given. 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
bulletThe Council on Biblical Equality is composed of other 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.

bulletThe membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is almost evenly divided on the question of ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians in committed relationships:
bulletConservatives in the denomination generally believe that the Bible condemns all homosexual activity as sinful, even if it occurs within a devoted, committed, loving, permanent relationship. The concept of lowering ordination standards to allow ministers who engage in such sinful behavior is repugnant to them.
bulletLiberals in the church generally believe 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 view homosexual ordination as a human rights issue.

Presbyterians on both sides are thoughtful, sincere, dedicated, devout, intelligent and committed to their faith and church. Yet they seem unable to resolve this issue. Members of the Episcopal Church, USA and United Methodist Church share this conflict.

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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. The true answer would then be obvious to all.

By following this method:

bulletIndividual couples in troubled marriages would be able to determine whether God wished them to separate or to continue in efforts to remain together.
bulletBelievers would be able to determine which, if any, Christian denomination(s) out of the approximately 1,200 Christian faith groups in North America represent the true church. The other approximately 1,199 denominations could then close down.
bulletChurch schisms would never occur. Debates could be settled before conflicts rose to the point where a denominational split was inevitable.
bulletThere 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:
bulletWhich is the "true" Christian denomination,
bulletThe role of women in the church and family,
bulletTheological debates, and
bulletGod's wishes concerning homosexual orientation, 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:
bulletBelievers 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
bulletBelievers 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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  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 

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Copyright © 2000 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2003-JAN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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