Any “doctrine” that denies that God answers prayer is wrong

Longtime readers of my blog know that I have disagreed often and loudly with fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli on a variety of issues. As I’ve said before, it’s a credit to his skill as a writer and thinker that he gets under my skin the way he does.

Also to his credit, Rev. Micheli let me write a guest post on his blog last year voicing my disagreement with him.

I believe he’s wrong—and in an important way—in this heartbreaking recent post detailing his treatment for what he calls “stage-serious” cancer. He argues, in so many words—and granted there are many words—that because of his understanding of the doctrine of God’s immutability, God doesn’t actually answer petitionary prayer.

Here is my comment on his blog:

I commented on the Facebook UMC Clergy page to this post, as you know. I’m deeply sorry that you have “stage-serious” cancer. You have the moral high ground in every argument, because, after all, you’re the one who’s going through this trial—not us. Still, you continue to write about controversial ideas, and I’m granting you the dignity of believing that you’re asking for us to engage the argument.

Meanwhile, I have and will continue to pray for you. And when I pray for you, I’m praying with the belief that God will respond to my prayer and intervene to help you in some way, not by my own power but the power of Christ in whose name I pray. It breaks my heart to think that for the sake of a bad theological idea you imagine that God can’t respond to our prayers.

Yes, bad theological idea. I know you disagree… But surely I don’t have to cite to you all the scriptures in the New Testament alone that speak of the power of prayer and God’s desire to condescend to give us what we ask for—words from the lips of Jesus himself!

You said on Facebook that your interpretation of the doctrine of God’s immutability is very scriptural. Really? Only if we anthropomorphize nearly everything that the Bible says about God’s interactions with human beings. For example, God is “slow to anger,” the Bible says repeatedly. Well, no, not really. Because anger, alongside any emotion on God’s part—including compassion—would represent change. Every scripture related to God’s feeling something toward us, therefore, is wrong.

You say that if God actually does respond to our prayers then that would imply change on God’s part. Any change would represent, for you, an imperfection in God—what you (or David B. Hart) would say is “unrealized potential.” I can’t comprehend it. From my perspective, there are morally neutral changes. God can change in ways that don’t impinge on his his character, his loving nature, and his consistency in dealing with us. This is the understanding of God’s immutability that I understand and can reconcile with scripture.

I was put on the spot on Facebook to defend the idea that God really answers prayer—not from the Bible, whose answer is obvious, but from the Church Fathers and the Reformers. It was such a weird challenge that I felt unprepared to answer it. Had I missed something so obvious in seminary? Was it true that the Church Fathers and Reformers, however much they believed in immutability, accepted your understanding of the doctrine such that God doesn’t really answer prayer—doesn’t respond to us in any way?

Obviously they didn’t! At this very moment, I’m reading, for example, Tim Keller’s new book on prayer. Throughout the book, he’s in “conversation” with the works of three thinkers on the subject of prayer—Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. He quotes extensively from all three, all of whom, it’s clear, believed that God actually intervenes in our world to answer prayer. None of them believed that doing so threatened God’s immutability.

So why are they wrong?

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