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Christians pray for physical and spiritual healings, justice for victims, racial and gender equality, food for the hungry, the spread of the gospel, and so on. The bigger the problem, the more many Christians think we should pray. I suspect that most would say that they pray for such things because they think it can, and does, make a difference. If we ask God to put a stop to horrendous evils and instances of suffering, God may hear our prayers and eliminate these hindrances to the advance of his kingdom.
Recently, at Fuller, David Basinger argued that this may not be. God may answer prayers for what might be called “discretionary goods,” those goods which may enrichened a person’s life in certain respects but are not absolutely required for her mental, physical, and spiritual health. But God probably does not answer prayer for “required goods”—goods that are necessary for a person to flourish mentally, physically, and spiritually. Accordingly, God may answer prayers for confidence before an exam, or he may grant someone a comfortable job, but it is likely that God isn’t in the business of answering prayers to end poverty or sex trafficking. Basinger’s reason for thinking this is that God’s perfect goodness would, absent some justify reason, always lead him to act to distribute required goods. Hence God would not wait for our prayers to act. If he sees sex trafficking or poverty as something that can now be eliminated without bringing undue harm to creation, God would do just that—whether or not we pray for it. Our prayers add nothing to the equation.
This is not to say, however, that we shouldn’t pray. Prayer has all kinds of positive effects on the individuals and churches that pray. But we shouldn’t expect our prayers to make a difference in the fight against horrendous evils and in the cause of the alleviation of intense sufferings.
I think Basinger is right to limit our expectations. It’s just a fact that God often leaves our prayer unanswered, and Basinger helps us see why this might be the case. However, I’m not convinced by Basinger’s argument. To see where I think Basinger’s argument goes wrong, I’ll need to state his argument (or a portion of it) a bit more precisely.
The key premise is the second. But I think that this premise is questionable in certain circumstances.
Consider a scenario where you are sick and the doctors say that you have only a few weeks to live. Let’s suppose that God has morally sufficient reason to allow you to die but also that he has morally sufficient reason to heal you. Add to this the supposition that your unbelieving daughter begins to fervently pray to the God she does not believe in to heal you. Finally, suppose that God knows that, given your daughter’s prayers, if he chooses to heal you this will lead your daughter to turn to the faith. (Or for our open theist friends we may suppose that God knows that this is highly likely given her current spiritual and existential state.)
In such a scenario, it seems that your daughter’s prayer provides God with a “scales-tripping” reason for healing you, which is a required good. Hence premise two from the above argument is false.
This scenario is, of course, the product of my imagination—I don’t know if God has ever been in such a situation. But then again, for all I know, God often finds himself situated such that prayers can act as scale-tippers. In which case, petitionary prayer does make a difference, even for required goods.
On the other hand, it may well be that our prayers for required goods only occasionally function as scale-tippers. If so, then perhaps God only occasionally has reason to respond positively to our requests for required goods. And maybe this explains why our prayers are so rarely answered. In that case, we shouldn’t stop petitioning God for required goods, but we should not presume that God will answer them. That’s up to God, who is the only one who knows how to evaluate the relevant goods.