Why randomised controlled trials on prayer cannot show whether God exists
I think that there are things obviously that are hindrances to prayer. And there are things that will get prayer answered more readily. But it is a mistake when we start thinking about prayer in a mechanistic fashion, as if we’re just apply a particular formula and the formula then must accomplish its particular end. Because prayer is not a machine-working kind of thing.
We can’t use science to answer questions about the nature of prayer because prayer is not a natural process that is determined by certain prior events. Prayer is the act of one willing agent making a request of another willing Agent and that second willing Agent may choose to answer, or He may choose not to. It doesn’t mean that we can’t find out some patterns that relate to the personality of the agents involved to predict how they might respond, but willing agents are not machines and because they are not machines, or as Gordon Stein put it ‘Pavlovian dogs’, they are not going to necessarily respond in particular ways. And that of course is the problem of prayer. It’s the problem of relationships. The choices are related to their characters and their personalities. The more that we find out then about the personality of God and the kinds of things that are important to Him and that matter to Him, the more we will be able to pray in a way that He will respond. Not mechanistically, but understanding His personality.
Now, I will underscore that you can use science in a looser sense, the methods of scientific testing to test what we can see and experience to infer an unseen reality. So one could argue in that way that you can test God scientifically, if we understand what we mean by that, in the same way that we might use scientific techniques in a law lab, in a law trial for example, to infer from these things that we can test, human actions that we can no longer see. Personal actions that we can’t get at.
What is prayer?
Prayer is essentially a conversation between us and God. Prayer is listening, talking, watching and waiting in the company of our Father. To seek his priorities for our needs, and the needs of those around us and of our world, we come as God’s child to our Father in heaven through Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit
1. Don’t live selfishly
2. God’s timing
3. God speaks in different ways
4. Many times in the Bible when prayer was unanswered, such as King David praying for his son to live; Moses, Job, Jonah and Elijah all praying that they would die; Jesus’ disciples praying for deliverance; Paul praying for the removal of his ‘thorn in the flesh’. God did not answer their requests, and we learn a lot from watching how they coped and how God always brought good out of those often desperate situations.
Liturgy – ready-made prayer vs own words
1. Keeps me in touch with “sound doctrine
2. Reminds me “what things I ought to ask”
1. Circumstance specific
Ultimately, words are in any case secondary. They are only an anchor. Or, shall I say, they are the movements of a conductor’s baton: not the music. They serve to canalise the worship or penitence or petition which might without them–such are our minds–spread into wide and shallow puddles. It does not matter very much who first put them together.