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How can we Tell if God Answers our Prayers?

Let’s begin our exploration of this question by remembering that all of the created world is a divine gift. Thus, we should be thankful for everything regardless of whether God did a second miracle (after the miracle of creation) to convey one of his products to us in an hour of need. So, we can always give thanks, because God has already provided everything. We call this creative act of God his general providence.

The likelihood that God specifically intervened to answer a prayer is directly proportional to the unlikelihood that the object of that prayer was resolved naturally.

But second, in the case of specific prayers, we sometimes find that they come to pass. Did God miraculously intervene to enable a positive answer to that prayer? Or was it just random luck? How can we tell? Here’s the general formula for assessing any such situation: the likelihood that God specifically (as opposed to providentially) intervened to answer a prayer is directly proportional to the unlikelihood that the object of that prayer was resolved naturally. So, if I am hungry and I pray to God for a meal, and then I go downtown and see a soup kitchen, is that a situation where God intervened? Well, the soup kitchen is there every week, and I just forgot about it. Plus, soup kitchens are pretty common. So, the likelihood that God did something miraculous to get me to the soup kitchen is pretty low. It’s possible, of course, but we aren’t assessing possibility but probability. Now, when I get my soup, should I be thankful? Yes, definitely. Because the matter of soup was created by God in the first place. All soup finds its original origin in God’s creative act. And I did need soup and I did ask for it. So, yes, I should be thankful. Does the fact that God perhaps did not do an additional miraculous intervention in answer to my prayer mean that he doesn’t care about me? No, not at all. I have soup, and I am continuing on the path of love in this life toward the ultimate love of God when I finally see him.

Let’s imagine another case: I am a college student and I’m out of money for my last year of college. I need $8,000 for tuition and I’ve worked every summer and I’ve just not been able to keep up with my college bills. I’m also poor, lack a credit history, and unable to secure a loan. I know that I could just drop out of college and work for a semester, but I also know that that risks my never finishing college. Plus, finishing college sooner will enable me to gain a better job sooner. So, I pray to God that he will somehow provide me the means to finish college. Let’s imagine two scenarios that could transpire.

Scenario One: a week after I’ve been praying earnestly, I receive an envelope in the mail with a check for $8,000 from someone I know but who was unaware of my specific monetary need. I also had not spread around in my prayer group or church that I was desperate for college tuition. Can I conclude that God answered my prayer? Well, it seems pretty unlikely that someone would send you that exact amount of money at just that time, doesn’t it? Yes, it is very unlikely. So, you can conclude that it is very likely that God intervened to assist you.

Scenario Two: a week after I’ve been praying earnestly, I receive a letter from the University offering me the on-campus position of a Resident Advisor in my dorm. The University gives students their tuition in return for their service. It’s just what I needed and I wonder if God intervened to assist me. What is the likelihood that a university would ask someone with a record of diligence and responsibility to take on the job of an RA? This is actually likely. Certainly, it is more likely than someone sending me a check out of the blue! So, can I conclude that God intervened with the University administration to help me go to college? It is less likely that God intervened in this case. It doesn’t mean that he didn’t. Our issue isn’t whether he intervenes, but whether we can tell. Now, let’s suppose that I had not applied for an RA job at all. Given that the University had plenty of applicants and they nevertheless reached out to me seems less likely an outcome. That would increase the likelihood that God intervened in some way to move them to offer me the job.

In some situations, the likelihood of a natural solution is so low that a miraculous intervention seems the only possible explanation. Suppose I’m sick with stage four cancer and my doctor says it’s all over. Meds now should only be taken for pain. I pray to God for healing but admit that I’m a mortal creature and I understand that everyone dies. So, “not my will but thine be done.” However, I have a large number of things that I’d like to complete in this life, so I’d really appreciate some miraculous intervention! Three weeks later when the doctor checks my cancer, he discovers to his total shock that my cancer is gone. The extreme unlikelihood that a stage four cancer would just disappear makes this a very high likelihood of divine intervention and healing. These kinds of cases do happen.

God’s love for us doesn’t depend on his transforming our mortality into immortality in this life.

Now, let’s imagine in the cancer scenario that God does not miraculously heal me. Does this mean that God doesn’t love me? No, it doesn’t. Why? Because we know that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on his transforming our mortality into immortality in this life. He loves us, yes, but we’re going to die anyway. That’s just the way it is. If God did heal me, I’ll die of something else down the road. We might then wonder why God healed me in the first version of this scenario. We don’t know. We don’t know why God intervenes when he does in most instances. For every case where God does intervene, we can find many more where people are praying in similar circumstances and he doesn’t intervene. There is some kind of divine calculation and strategy at the highest levels that we human beings simply cannot figure out. This is one of the deep lessons we are supposed to learn from the Biblical story of Job. The divine algorithm is above our pay grade. We simply must trust that God has his reasons for non-intervention and leave it at that. We also must be thankful that he intervenes in the cases of other people when he doesn’t intervene in our case. This is crucial, so that we avoid resentment and bitterness. Faith always requires thanksgiving coupled to trust that God knows what he is doing.

We might object that God seems to be treating us like mere things rather than persons, playing with us in these non-intervention situations. He calls us his children, he says he intends to relate to us as spouse, but what father or husband wouldn’t intervene to save his family members in these situations? This is a potent objection so long as we are selective in the metaphors we choose to describe our relationship to God. For God also describes us as branches on a vine, clay on the potter wheel, and errant sheep belonging to a shepherd! The truth is, we aren’t mere persons. We really are things. But we aren’t mere things either. We are person-things. What does that mean? It means that God created us, and as such, he really does have the right to do with his creation as he sees fit. He gave us life, so if after three years, he decides to pull the plug on our lives, that’s his right. If after three years, he doesn’t intervene when a car runs us down, again, that’s his right. We belong to him like the potter’s clay, like the sheep to the shepherd. And like the potter’s clay, sometimes the potter wrecks the work and restarts on the wheel. The potter knows what he is doing. The clay doesn’t have a mind and cannot object. But we are clay that thinks and feels! For while we are things, we are likewise persons. We expect to be treated as such, not as mere means, but as valuable in our own selves. Yet that is exactly what God has already promised us, for he offered us a way to know him face to face, to find the ultimate fulfillment in our nature as persons, as intrinsically valuable as his lovers. There is no greater value that God could recognize within us than to offer us this supreme gift of love. So, yes, we are children and we will one day be spouse, but we are also sheep, we are branches, and we are clay. All of these metaphors are true at the same time. Our relationship to God is very complex.

Someone else might object that it might seem that we’d be better off—for our nerves at least—if God didn’t intervene at all, because, since he does, it might appear that we are given false hope. Jesus says that if we ask anything in his name, he will give it to us. We then struggle to understand what “in his name” really means. Jesus also says that if you knock on the door a lot, the Father won’t give you a stone, but a fish. When the loved one we are praying for doesn’t get well, we wonder how that wasn’t a stone. Where’s the fish? Again, we must remember what the divine objective is: to bring us into the fullness of love. Can God do that while we are sick and dying? Yes. Can God do that while our child struggles with a physical or mental infirmity? Yes. Can God do that while we are subject to criminal attack? Yes. From God’s perspective our completeness in his love is the biggest fish of all, and he expects us not to lose hope or our focus on that objective by putting these lesser (but important) objectives ahead of that.

And as for whether God should ever intervene, let’s face it, God’s miraculously helping us is really, really good. We might be like the three friends of Daniel facing the fiery furnace, confident that God can rescue us but not expecting that he will rescue us. We might end up like most of the people in that very situation, burned up as martyrs. But if God does rescue us, that just adds to the goods within the world. That’s better than his never intervening at all. Acknowledging that intervention does sometimes happen, together with accepting that it didn’t happen in my case and I cannot figure out why, yet retaining full faith in God’s love for me is one of the most difficult elements of the walk of faith. But it also proves to be the cauldron of transformation that purifies us and prepares us for the beatific vision—just like Job. So, don’t give up, ever. God loves you. Remember what St. Paul said at the end of Romans 8: nothing can separate you from the love of God. So, no matter what happens, God still loves you. The question is whether you will still love God.

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