What changed my mind about intercessory prayer

This week I found out my car needs new brakes. New brakes – front and rear – cost about $800. I don’t have $800 (well, I do, but I’d have to take it from the Future House fund, and I really didn’t want to do that).

But then I checked the mail, and found a refund check from Colorado State for $9900 – money left over from the loan I took out expecting to have to pay out of state tuition again, before my petition for residency was approved.

Long story short, I was able to buy new brakes. And another bag of prescription cat food for my cat with food allergies. And pay rent.

If I posted this story on Facebook and concluded with “God is so good!” I’m sure it would have easily gained 50 or more “likes.” But I’m not going to do that.

A friend of mine who writes for Patheos shared this photo recently, and it’s haunted me ever since.


I’ve seen the photo before, but the caption from the Bible with it is especially gutting. I have no idea what to say to people as hungry as that child was, as far as God’s provision for their needs. The thing is, even without that check, I could have paid for the brakes out of my savings, and I wouldn’t have had to sacrifice a few meals to make up for it. At worst, Josh and I wouldn’t be able to have Date Night at a nice restaurant (read: Buffalo Wild Wings or Texas Roadhouse) for a while. Well, more likely, we’d have to extend our lease for another few months and Josh would take more shifts at work until we could afford a down payment for a home and still have money left over to eat and stuff.

The point is, of all people with needs, I could have gone without that check. The timing of it is coincidental, yes – but I’m not “needy” in the truest sense of the word. Honestly, I’d feel guilty claiming God’s blessed me for something that is rather trivial in the grand scheme of things.

It’s for this reason that my beliefs about intercessory prayer are changing. When I see God helping people who already have more than most, I get skeptical. The photo of that starving child does not jive with my idea of a loving God, because I can’t reconcile a loving God who favors the privileged (I also don’t believe that self-protective prayers are biblical, but that’s another post). When I think of the verse quoted in the picture, I imagine – though I could be completely wrong – that it refers to the resources on earth that humans need to survive: edible plants and animals, clean water, tools for building shelter and healing diseases. The problem is humans who don’t want to share those things.

I can’t help but agree with the blogger who wrote this:

The minute you broadcast that good fortune as divine blessing…you are convinced at some deep level of God’s special favor.  In proclaiming this good fortune, you are also calling into question the status of everyone else.  When you celebrate even the most amazing occurrences – successfully overcoming cancer, surviving a tornado, or a sudden and unexpected financial windfall – you are suggesting those who are dying of cancer, killed in the tornado or poor and destitute are less favored by God.  Your prayers were answered, but not theirs.

This is exactly how I felt reading posts on Facebook praising God for healing someone’s cancer after my father died. My faith was already struggling, and while the authors of such posts probably think they are being encouraging, they’re not. At least not to me. They mean well, sure – but ultimately these sentiments are just not helpful for people who didn’t get a “yes” to their prayers.

It’s more comforting for me to accept that we live in a fallen world in which shit happens to the just and unjust alike. Sometimes we understand the reasons – bad genes, poor decisions – but often times we don’t. I find greater hope in redeeming tragedies than seeking to prevent them. If I’m ever killed in a tragic, unexpected accident, I hope my organs can go to a child who needs them, so at least the tragedy will mean something to another family. That’s different than saying I had to die so another child could live, but I think God is in the business of redemption. Making beauty out of broken things.


6 thoughts on “What changed my mind about intercessory prayer

  1. I hope you don’t mind if I add an addendum to my comment.

    Like Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis was an atheist in his young adulthood. That was common in among intellectuals, like Lewis and Joy, of the World War I generation, though Lewis’s atheism preceded his war experiences. Lewis chronicled his transition from nonbeliever to believer in a spiritual autobiography with a cheeky title: Surprised by Joy. To me it’s significant that Lewis and Joy Davidman disdained belief in their early lives, became believers in middle life and claimed to have experienced answered prayers in late life.

    All right, I’ll shut up now!


  2. I find the credibility of claims of successful intercessory prayer sometimes depends on the credibility of the claim-maker. A great example is among the most famous story tellers of the 20th Century: C.S. Lewis. He is the author of more than 30 books, including children’s and adult fantasy, science fiction, popular theology and professional literary criticism. As some know, late in life, he married Joy Davidman. Her background was significantly different than his, an Oxford professor from a relatively comfortable background, and was itself compelling. Born Jewish in New York City, Joy was an atheist as a young adult and joined the communist party. A poet, Joy won the Russell Loines Award for Poetry for “Letter to a Comrade.” Joy married Bill Gresham, a writer of pulp novels, and they had two boys. Gresham was an alcoholic, chronically unfaithful and occasionally violent. Against this desolate background, she and Gresham became believers; later Joy converted to Christianity but became increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage. Joy pursued Lewis because of his books, divorced Gresham and eventually married Lewis in a civil ceremony. The two weren’t together long before she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. A committed Christian, Lewis and a few of his friends prayed fervently for Joy. Lewis and Joy decided to have a Christian marriage ceremony in her hospital room because she was not expected to survive. Unexpectedly, the cancer disappeared. Her doctors were amazed. Lewis considered it a miracle. He and Joy had three happy years together, but the cancer returned. Joy’s story is depicted in the movie Shadowlands, but a lot of Lewis fans dislike the film because it attributes her cure to radiation treatment, rather than prayer. (I recognize the criticism but nevertheless think it’s a good movie.) Joy inspired four of Lewis’s books (Till We Have Faces, The Four Loves, Reflections on the Psalms and A Grief Observed, a heart-rending book Joy never knew). If you want to learn more about the relationship of Joy and Lewis and how prayer affected it, I recommend Lyle Dorsett’s book: A Love Observed: Joy Davidman’s Life & Marriage to C.S. Lewis.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve known a lot of people who found themselves first starting to question Christianity because of this exact topic. Believers belittle this questioning as us being upset we didn’t get ponies from Daddy Jesus when we demanded them, but it goes a lot deeper than that. They make a lot of claims, and those claims aren’t true. When we find out those claims aren’t true, then we get criticized for taking those claims seriously and trusting in promises that turned out to be false.


  4. Good post. Something I’d point out with regard to “poor decisions” is that, at every moment, every single person is doing his/her best. Sure, you or I might look at their situation and say, “Oh, s/he could have done this instead, or that” but in reality, the only real option open to that person is the one s/he took. Surely you have known someone well enough to predict what they’ll do in a given situation; perhaps others know you well enough to do the same. It’s not that you (or they) are perverse or twisted; it’s just that, given these circumstances, knowing your individual complement of desires, fears, preferences, etc., there may well be one option that simply suits you best. This is “determinism” in a nutshell, BTW. I’m sure there are many better explanations out there, but given that everything else in the universe appears to function deterministically (the movement of the planets, chemical reactions, physics, farming, etc.), why should we be so different?

    If it’s any help, the Bible suggests this in Psalm 139:16 – Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

    This gives us good reason to always give everyone else the benefit of the doubt – if they *could* be doing better, they *would* be.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for posting. This one was a bit hard to read, and I will need some time to fully digest it, but that isn’t a bad thing. I do have to admit that echoing in the back of my mind as I read were some of the ideas that have been floating around in my adult Sunday school class lately, namely the idea that those who pray for healing and don’t receive it either aren’t praying right, have unrepented sin in their lives, don’t have enough faithe, or whatever, and the idea that when we accept Jesus and are saved, we can become perfect human beings. While I’m sure there is some truth in both of those statements, as a whole, neither idea jives with me, and I don’t think either is scriptural.


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