Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once observed, "when I pray coincidences happen, and when I do not pray coincidences do not happen." Many Christians can resonate with Temple's wry description of answered prayer. But skeptics disagree, charging that such experiences only demonstrate a selection bias that "counts the hits" and "ignores the misses." They ask, "What about all the time when you prayed and those 'coincidences' didn't happen?"
The skeptic has a point. Sometimes God doesn't seem to answer our prayers. So are we guilty of counting the hits and ignoring the misses? Or could it be that answered prayer still can provide evidence of God's existence and his benevolent care? To answer that question I will consider a specific case from a personal friend of mine, Kent Sparks.
Kent is currently Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Eastern University. But some years ago he was a pastor living with his wife Cheryl (a physical therapist) in North Carolina when they were pursuing an adoption through a crisis pregnancy ministry named "House of Ruth" in Downey, California. However, since they had not had success with House of Ruth over the previous 1 ½ years they proceeded to close on a private adoption in Georgia.
After they closed on the adoption of their daughter Emily and returned to North Carolina, Kent called House of Ruth and left a message requesting the agency suspend their file. Little did Kent know that at that very moment House of Ruth was in a meeting with a young woman who would choose the Sparks as the couple she wanted to adopt her child. As soon as the meeting ended House of Ruth called the Sparks family to inform them of the good news. Cheryl answered the phone, assuming they were returning Kent's call about cancellation. Needless to say she was shocked to learn instead that they were being offered a second child for adoption!
Overwhelmed by the prospect of accepting a second infant, Cheryl called a friend to ask for prayer. Later when Kent arrived home from work Cheryl asked him to conduct a family devotion without informing him of the situation. Perplexed, Kent opened his Bible and read from Proverbs 3:27: "Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act." (NIV) Shortly thereafter Cheryl's friend called her and said "I have a verse for you." She then quoted Proverbs 3:27, the very same verse! Based on that collocation of events Kent and Cheryl accepted the adoption and welcomed their second daughter Cara into the family.
Is it reasonable for Kent and Cheryl (and us) to believe that this adoption was divinely planned? In order to answer this question we should consider the concept of a design filter. When we seek to identify (divine) design as an explanation for an event we first seek to establish that the event was contingent. For example, any event that is explicable in terms of a known natural law is not explained via design. (That's why we don't invoke Jack Frost to explain the frost on our window panes.) Next, we need to eliminate the possibility of chance. We do that by looking for events that are sufficiently complex and specified to a situation. If the event is contingent, complex and specified – i.e. it conveys a complex meaning – then a design explanation for the event is warranted. (For further discussion, see William Dembski, The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press, 1998), chapter 2.)
To illustrate, imagine that Fred Smith passes a movable type sign every day on his drive to work. On the day of his fortieth birthday the sign says "Happy Birthday!" Could Fred reasonably believe that the message was put there to wish him a happy birthday? That depends. The first hurdle to clear is an analogue of contingency. For example, if the sign always said "Happy Birthday!" then no design inference would be warranted. But if this was the first day that the message appeared on the sign then the event could be considered contingent. So that's the first hurdle to identifying design.
From there, we should consider that the more complex and specified the message, the stronger the evidence is that the birthday greeting is for Fred. Thus a sign that reads "Happy Birthday Fred!" offers better evidence, while one that reads "Happy fortieth birthday Fred Smith!" offers excellent evidence that the sign is for Fred Smith.
Kent's case reflects these same hallmarks of contingency, complexity and specification that make design a reasonable interpretation. While these events are obviously contingent, they are also complex since they involved multiple factors timed together (e.g. Kent's call concurrent with the adoption meeting) and they included specified information (e.g. two independently confirmed references to Proverbs 3:27). Consequently, I conclude that Kent and Cheryl (and we) are fully justified in drawing the conclusion of divine action in confirmation of the adoption.
But wait, do things change if we also "count the misses"? In short, can instances of unansweredprayer overwhelm this message? In my opinion, no. Consider again our example of Fred. He may have never have seen a message on the sign relevant to him on all the days he drove by the church sign. But that doesn't change the fact that when he drives by on his birthday and sees a sign that says "Happy fortieth birthday Fred Smith!" Fred surely is correct to believe the message is for him. By the same token, even if Kent and Cheryl have never had another experience like this, the contingency, complexity and specification of the events are sufficient for them to believe God planned Cara's adoption.
To sum up, when we pray and so-called "coincidences" happen, we need not be afraid to conclude that God is indeed working in our lives through everyday miracles. So keep praying and wait for the "coincidences" to happen!