From the first post:
As long as I've been a believing Christian, I've been troubled by a certain attitude towards prayer in general and towards the miraculous/mysterious in particular that is illustrated in these petitions. Before I converted, I knew folks who would drive around a parking lot praying to find a good parking space, folks who would pray for "miraculous" cures for some specific case of "incurable" cancer, folks who would pray for their favorite team to win a sporting event, folks who would pray for world peace. Some of these petitions seem to be rather evidently better than others as petitions go, at least if we are to judge such things on the basis of their more universal appeal and benefit to the common good, but in a certain sense they are all the same: they all ask God to do something for us that we would like to have done right away and that we cannot accomplish on our own. To the extent that some of them seem beyond the reach of natural processes, such as the healing of what looks to be an incurable cancer, to have such prayers "answered" in a certain way would seem "miraculous", and given that God's omnipotence is beyond our understanding, such "answers" to prayer would also seem "mysterious".I find myself a bit divided in reading this. Being the sort of Christian that I am, this is very much the sort of way I tend to think about prayer. Certainly, I think that this explanation of "unanswered" prayers is more sound than any other that I run into. And yet, I'm not sure that I can actually agree that God doesn't "work that way".
This attitude towards prayer, that is, prayer as a means to obtaining something tangible in this way, is obviously a very naive notion, but it is fairly widespread. I don't think there's anything that can be done about this attitude, but I think it is mistaken. It seems fairly clear to me that God does not, as they say, "work that way". Folks who adopt this attitude towards prayer, however, get a little riled up if you suggest such a thing....
My own view is that the purpose of prayer is not to bring about a satisfaction of material desire in the first place. Its purpose is to satisfy a different sort of desire, namely, the desire for closeness to God. It seems to me that the happiness one experiences, when one obtains satisfaction of material desire, is in itself merely an image of the much greater happiness that we experience when we have friendship with God, just as the pain that we experience in this life is an image of the pain that is sin, i.e., separation from God. All sickness, disease, and death have fully naturalistic explanations, of course, but that does not mean that in the greater ontology that goes beyond mere materialism they are not also signs of something else. The Christian must always be on the lookout for the deeper meaning that is shot through all of material reality, because the Christian is not a materialist: he does not believe that material reality is all that there is, even though it is all that we have access to via the senses.... So the Christian cannot view prayer as a mere means of rearranging the material furniture of his earthly existence, since that furniture is nothing but a sign of something else and is, in itself, utterly meaningless. If I pray for anything at all, whether it is a parking place or a cure for cancer, what I ought really to be praying for is friendship with God. If I have cancer, I may well be dying. Both the cancer and the process of dying are fully materialistic processes, when viewed from one perspective; but viewed from the Christian perspective they are also signs of sinfulness. Not of some specific, unconfessed sin that I bear on my conscience, mind you, but of the general separation that exists between man and God as a consequence of the Fall. Thanks to Christ, that separation has been healed, but strictly by the grace of God, not in virtue of anything that we have done that deserves a treat or a reward from God in the form of a material answer to a prayer for material comfort.
Instead, God answers prayer by drawing us closer to him. In this sense, I would say, not that God answers every prayer but the answer is sometimes 'no', but I would say rather that God answers every prayer and the answer is always 'yes', even though we may sometimes fail to see the answer, because, like the woman at the well, we don't always know what we're asking for. If I continue to die of cancer, in spite of prayers that I be saved, it is not because God "has other plans" for me. He is, in fact, answering my prayer by loving me and the faith that I display in him by uttering the prayer in the first place.
I've generally found it hard to pray for miracles, for the simple reason that I find it very hard to expect them. And yet we have many cases of miraculous answers to prayer which the Church does find "worthy of belief". One is certainly not required to believe in such things, and yet the Church clearly holds the material fulfillment of prayer to be something that can and does happen.
That, of course, leaves us with difficult questions -- questions that annoy me because they do not seem to submit well to rational analysis. Why should some people be healed in a seemingly miraculous fashion and others not? I don't know, and I'm not sure that there's any point in trying to come up with an explanation. (The explanations I've heard, as Dr. Carson points out, are not good.)
Certainly, there are attitudes towards prayer of petition that bother me, or seem rather silly, and there are some specific prayers that have always just struck me as odd, perhaps because I think too much. My grandmother used to add after any other prayer, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we love you, save souls." This formulation always bothered me, because it seemed to imply that if we didn't love them, they might not be inclined to save souls, and because if the will is truly free to accept or reject God, I'm not sure how someone else intervenes and saves ones.
Perhaps God deals with different people at different levels. Those of us who seek for reason certainly find it, perhaps those who seek for miracles, and actually believe them likely, are the ones who get them.