Monday, January 17, 2011

On Prayer and Reasons for Unbelief

I've been reading a book I purchased at TCX (Campus Crusade's winter conference): Timothy Keller's The Reason for God. Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church highly secular New York City, where he comes into contact with thousands of skeptics and has necessarily built up a good deal of apologetics experience. In the first half of the book he addresses some common reasons for unbelief (Christianity's claim to have the truth is arrogant, science disproves God, the existence of Hell...), and in the second he gives some reasons to believe in God. It's a good strategy, and Keller argues simply but effectively. Definitely a good book to give to skeptics.

But I got really into apologetics a few years ago, when I was starting to get really into my faith, or at least think about it a lot. I bought books by authors like Lee Strobel and Norman Geisler. As I learned the answers to seemingly every question skeptics could raise, I thought I had all the answers. Just let me at those nonbelievers! But of course, really being a good apologist takes more than book knowledge: it takes wisdom, compassion, and experience (all traits that Tim Keller seems to be blessed with). Many of the arguments Keller gives in the first part of the book were familiar to me, which reminded me that I still wasn't getting a complete picture of the reasons people keep for unbelief. Maybe at heart they're as simple as the ones Keller brings up, but just like Christian faith they have become the foundation for someone's life and worldview, concealed behind countless justifications and rationalizations.

The point of all this rambling is that I decided to see what actual skeptics are saying to try to improve my apologetics further. I found a website for ex-Christians that I plan on looking more into. The first page I visited was a "logical proof that God does not exist"--the frequent failure of prayer. There are various things I could say about  the argument, but I wanted to comment on the motivation behind it--an expectation that if God exists, he will give us whatever we pray for. (Sounds sort of like what I uncovered on summer project!) It takes Biblical promises that God answers prayer and turns them into the assumption that God is a cosmic vending machine that turns the currency of prayer into whatever we want. If we don't get it, then we didn't pray enough.

Take a closer look at this assumption. If God is powerful enough to control the universe, perform miracles, and know our thoughts, why should He make himself so easily manipulable by our prayers? Might He know more about the situation we're praying about than we do? At the core of this view is the belief that we know better than God and that our plans are more important than His, so of course He should give us whatever we pray for.

But God is bigger than that. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Thank goodness! Imagine a world where God answered every prayer! (If you've seen Bruce Almighty, you have an idea) That's not to say our prayers don't have power--we are told that they do. (James 5:16) But their power isn't as simple as put-prayer-in, get-miracles-out--we have to trust God to answer prayer in His way, on His schedule. That's what I think prayer is, above all--deliberately entrusting our troubles and questions to God, as well as just talking to Him. If we go into prayer expecting to get stuff out of it, we miss the point entirely.

I also read a testimony (if the word is applicable here) from a man who was born into what from his description I would definitely call a cult, was shuffled between churches in his childhood, and found his religious curiosity stifled and his questions about God unanswered. He was constantly told he wasn't old enough. Bad experiences with bad Christians raised more questions that went unanswered, and he became an atheist in college.

This is a tragedy. How can someone like this come to believe if his attempts to learn about God are constantly frustrated, and he equates Christianity with fanaticism and closed-mindedness? I wonder if he ever really heard the gospel?

I suspect that a great deal of skeptics are like this--their reasons for unbelief aren't intellectual but emotional, and deeply personal. They are disgusted with what they've seen of Christianity--perhaps rightly so--and just aren't interested. As they grow into whatever faith they instead choose (we all put our faith in something), they might develop intellectual justifications for their beliefs, but these aren't the real reason for it.

This is all just my rampant speculation. I wonder if I just gave a good description of many skeptics. Anyway, the fact that people are falling away from faith because of experiences like this should be a wakeup call to the church. Of course no one is going to find Christianity attractive if they don't see Christ in us. I don't blame them. I suspect that the God that many, many skeptics don't believe in bears little resemblance to the God I do believe in. If only they knew Him!

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