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#335 Must We Pray for a Miracle?

September 16, 2013

Dear Mr William Craig,

I hope you will answer my question because it has been the main objection preventing me from converting to Christianity even though I find most of it coherent and eminently attractive.

My question is about divine providence. In the Gospels, Jesus taught his disciples to pray God by asking him: "give us this day our daily bread". In other parts he also compared God to a loving father who would always give their children what they asked for (as long as it was reasonable).

From the wording used by Jesus it seems clear that he was referring to basic, material needs such as food and clothing. However, in actuality it seems God very rarely answers such prayers. Priests today encourage us to ask for spiritual needs such as courage and charity, but not for our daily bread. And they do so for seemingly good reason, since fundamentally, the world runs according to unchanging physical laws, and unless God causes miracles which is quite rare, things just happen because physical laws force them to happen this way. In fact, God appears to have no way of answering most prayers aside from violating the laws of nature, and we reasonably should not expect God to routinely violate the laws he has set in place. Therefore, we should reasonably not expect God to answer our prayers.

Therefore, it seems that the prayer taught by Jesus is either pointless, or must be understood in a spiritual sense. While I am no exegete, it seems to me that the phrase "give us this day our daily bread" is too insistent on the notion of immediate, concrete, basic needs for a spiritual interpretation to be satisfactory.

I feel this point is too fundamental to be brushed aside as "mysterious" and I cannot bring myself to believe in Christ without understanding why he told us to pray in this way.

I thank you in advance for your consideration and would like to use this opportunity to thank you for your work of which I am a great fan.

Yours truly,


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Dr. craig’s response


Have I got good news for you, André! I believe that I can answer your question and thereby remove the last obstacle to your becoming a Christian.

What you're looking for is a doctrine of providence that finds some middle ground between events wrought by miraculous intervention and events produced by purely natural causes. A Molinist theory of divine providence supplies just what you’re looking for.

A Molinist theory of providence is based upon the 16th century Jesuit theologian Luis Molina’s doctrine of divine middle knowledge. According to Molina God knows not only everything that could happen and everything that will happen but also everything that would happen under any circumstances. For example, he knows what you would have freely done with Jesus had you been the governor of Judaea instead of Pontius Pilate. Moreover, He knows this explanatorily prior to His decree to create a certain world. His middle knowledge serves to guide Him in His choice of which world to make actual.

Suppose God knew that if you were in a certain set of circumstances you would freely pray for your daily bread. Suppose, further, that God wants to answer that prayer. Must He then miraculously intervene in the world in order to supply your daily bread? Must He, for example, create bread miraculously out of nothing in your cupboard? Or must He miraculously cause firings of the neurons in the local baker’s brain causing him to come to your house with a loaf of freshly baked bread?

No, for God can set up in advance purely natural causes that would provide you with the bread you need or purely natural circumstances in which He knew someone would freely give you the bread you will pray for. Those prior causes or circumstances can similarly be brought about by God in the same way without miraculous intervention, right back to His creation of the universe.

So when you pray, God mustn’t at that point spring into action to bring about the answer to your prayers. The natural causes and circumstances can have been already in place that will bring about the provision just at the time that God knew you would pray.

Of course, this raises the question, “What if I were not to pray? Since the causes and circumstances sufficient to bring about the answer are already in place, isn’t prayer superfluous?” Not at all! For if you were not to pray, God would have foreknown that via His middle knowledge and so would not have set up the causes and circumstances in the first place! You are entirely free to pray or not to pray; but what you cannot do is escape God’s middle knowledge. Whatever you would freely do in those circumstances, that will have already been known by God, and so He can set up the prior causes and circumstances to bring about an appropriate answer, if He so desires. (Of course, that’s at His discretion, and He doesn’t always give us what we pray for.)

What all this implies is that in between events brought about by God’s extraordinary providence (miraculous interventions) and events brought about by His ordinary providence (events which regularly occur as products of purely natural causes) there is a third category, which we may call God’s special providence, namely, events which are the result of purely natural causes but which are unusual in terms of their special timing and context. For example, if just as George Muller is giving thanks for God’s provision of daily bread for his orphanage, knowing all the while they have no food, and at that moment a bakery truck breaks down outside in the street and gives all its provisions to the orphanage, then we may regard this as an answer to prayer, even if there are wholly natural causes of the truck’s breakdown at just that place and time. It’s a special providence of God, prearranged in answer to Muller’s prayer.

This Molinist doctrine of providence is a tremendous encouragement to prayer, by the way, because it doesn’t require the faith for a miracle. You can pray that God will provide you with a job, for example, without thinking that during your job interview God must cause miraculous neural firings in the boss’s brain causing him to hire you.

Obviously, I’m not saying that God doesn’t ever do miracles in answer to prayers but just that it isn’t always necessary in order for Him to answer our prayers.

Thus, while I agree with you that “we reasonably should not expect God to routinely violate the laws he has set in place,” it doesn’t follow that “we should reasonably not expect God to answer our prayers,” since, given divine middle knowledge, it is false that “God appears to have no way of answering most prayers aside from violating the laws of nature.

Having said that, André, I want to end this answer on a pastoral note. I do think that our most important needs are spiritual and not material. I’d encourage you to do a study of the prayers of Paul for the churches he wrote to in his letters in the New Testament. It’s striking how little Paul prayed for their physical needs in contrast to their spiritual needs. For example, Paul prayed for the Philippians that “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1.9-11). I think that oftimes our prayers go unanswered because we are simply praying for the wrong things.

- William Lane Craig