“If someone who doesn’t know God prays to God does it make a difference?” With the collapse of Fabrice Muamba over the weekend and the incredible response to it, that’s the question that one young person I know asked on Monday.
If you don’t know the event, Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed forty minutes into a football match against Tottenham on the weekend. He had a heart-attack. As I write he’s still in intensive care but showing signs of improvement. It happened during the only Premiership football match of the afternoon and consequentially the minds of a large part of the country were at least giving the game some attention (I had the BBC live football reporting running in a browser tab while doing some other stuff as it happened). It wasn’t long before #prayformuamba was trending on Twitter and Facebook was full of people saying things like “I don’t care if you’re religious or not but pray for Muamba”. The call to prayer becomes more of a phenomenon than the initial tragedy of a incredibly fit 23 year old having a heart attack. The tabloids run headlines like “God Is In Control” and the BBC devote a whole article to the phenomenon of why people pray in situations like this.
Which brings us back to the question; if someone who doesn’t know God then prays to God does it make a difference? A Christian, a Muslim, and an atheist all pray for Muamba; the Christian prays through Christ to the Father, the Muslim to Allah in hope he might be merciful, and the atheist in what he hopes is the spirit of scientific enquiry. Do the latter two’s prayers count? Do their gods listen, or does the true God listen and accept their prayers anyway? Do all prayers end up at God? There are a couple of questions to ask to resolve this.
First, on what basis does anyone get to pray to God? When Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray He starts with “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Prayer is on the basis of God being a Father who listens to His children and answers them. This is the same way he listens to Christ and answers Him. His disciples can come to God the Father in heaven as their Father. Why do they get to call Him their Father? Because they’re His children. How are they God’s children? Because He’s adopted them as children through Christ (Eph. 1:5, Gal 4:5). Why did he have to adopt them? Because they weren’t His children beforehand. Before they were saved and brought into Christ they were orphans. Actually worse than that, they weren’t orphans, they were children of wrath (Eph. 1:3). Along with that they were dead in their sins (Eph 1:1), and following the rebellious rule of the world (Eph 1:2). This is not a position you can pray to God the Father from. Dead people have no voice to ask with, orphans have no one to ask for, and rebels have no inclination to ask for anything. We also are in that same position outside of Christ. Before any of us were adopted in Christ to be sons of the Father we were rebels and dead and orphans and then thanks to his glorious Son we were saved and brought to Him. And if we are saved the Father is obliged to hear our prayers the same way he has to hear the prayers of his Son. He delights to hear the prayers of His children. He loves to hear his children pray. He think it’s brilliant.
But those outside of Christ? Does he have to hear their prayers? I guess He could hear them, but He’s certainly not obliged to. He has not promised to always hear their prayer like He has with His children. Those people who are not his children, their prayers do not have to be answered by God. Is this unfair? Yes! But it’s unfair not because he promises to hear some and not others, but because fair would be Him listening to no-one’s prayers ever. We all come from dead, rebellious, orphan stock. We’re all children of the sinful man Adam. And yet, he still adopts and listens to these dead rebels. What’s ridiculously, gloriously, even more unfair is that there is one prayer that He’s promised to listen to from anyone. He said he’ll listen to any dead, rebellious orphan if they cry out to Him for salvation. And then’ll He’ll be their Father and then He’ll answer all their prayers.
There’s another way of thinking about this. Ask the question; “whom are these people praying to”? Are they praying to the Father even if they don’t realise it? Are they praying to a false God? Are they praying to no-one at all? In the Old Testament you get plenty of examples of people praying to gods who don’t listen to them. Think of Elijah facing down the prophets of Baal. Elijah tells them to call on their god Baal. They pray from morning till noon. “‘O Baal answer us!’ they shouted. But there was no response; no-one answered” (1 Kings 18:26) Elijah rightly then mocks the prophets of Baal for praying to a god who doesn’t answer them. “‘Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened?’” (8:28) says Elijah. “But there was no response, no-one answered, no-one paid attention.” (8:29) Praying to Baal is ineffective and useless. As is praying to the Philistine god Dagon, the star god Rephan, and the child sacrifice loving Moloch. As is praying to any God who isn’t the Father of Jesus Christ. The only God who answers prays is God the Father. So unless they are praying to that God, they aren’t praying to anyone of use.
You could say at this point “well, people are praying to God and that God must be our God right?” No. Because our God isn’t some generic higher power God, our God is the glorious trinitarian God; Father, Son, and Spirit. Okay, then what about if you were to say “well, people are praying to God, and that God must be God the Father right?” Again, no. How do we know anything about God the Father? Only because God the Son has revealed the Father to us. “No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [that is, Jesus Christ the Son], who is at the Father’s side has made him known.” (John 1:18). So who are those who don’t know the Father through the Son praying to? I think, no-one. They can’t be praying to the Father because they can only know the Father through the Son. Could the Father choose to hear their prayers anyway, even though they’re not to Him? Again, I guess so, He’s the Father, He does what He wants to do. But He’d wouldn’t be answering prayers sent for Him.
So I think in answer to the initial question “If someone who doesn’t know God prays to God does it make a difference?” is “they’re not really praying to God, so no, he doesn’t have to answer to them.” Whoever they’re praying to it isn’t their Father in heaven, because they don’t know Him and haven’t been adopted by Him. And because God isn’t their Father he isn’t obliged to pray to them.
I think this is important because prayer is an awesome, phenomenal gift of God to us in the gospel. When we’re saved by Jesus we get the ability to pray, and because we’re rubbish at using the gift we get a Spirit who teaches us how to pray and intercedes for us when we can’t. This is a great gift we need to treasure, and it’s a gift Jesus had to die to bring to us. And so saying that everyone gets it anyway undermines Jesus’ death to bring it about. It messes with our understanding of how powerful prayer is too. If we tell everyone they can pray to God and he might hear them, then no wonder we expect God not to answer prayers. When we insist that we as Christians have access to God because of Jesus’ death for us, because He is now our Father, then we’ve got grounds to expect and even demand a response from Him and so persevere in prayer knowing He loves us and loves to give us good things.