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Many people, whether or not they are believers, have wondered about prayer. What is the point of prayer? If God already knows what will happen, why pray? If I pray for something good to happen, wouldn't it happen anyway, if God is good? This last question has been considered by philosophers, and is called the divine goodness problem of petitionary prayer.

While there are many other forms of prayer – contemplative, meditative, worship, confession – petitionary prayer is prayer in which a person makes requests of God, for themselves or others. If we assume that humans have freedom of the will, and that God does not predetermine everything, then the problem can be put in this way, according to philosopher Eleonore Stump:

  1. God will not fulfill a request that makes the world worse than it otherwise would have been.
  2. If what is requested in prayer would make the world better, then God would bring that about, even if no one prayed for it.
  3. Therefore, petitionary prayer is pointless.

While I think we can accept the first claim above, it seems to me that there are reasons to question the second one. It is not clear that God must always follow the principle "If x makes the world better, then I must bring about x." This principle would ultimately lead to the claim that God must create the best of all possible worlds. And there are reasons to question this claim. Consider the following, from contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in his book God, Freedom, and Evil:

"Just as there is no greatest prime number, so perhaps there is no best of all possible worlds. Perhaps for any world you mention, replete with dancing girls and deliriously happy sentient creatures, there is an even better world, containing even more dancing girls and deliriously happy sentient creatures. If so, it seems reasonable to think that the second possible world is better than the first. But then it follows that for any possible world W there is a better possible world W', in which case there just isn't any such thing as the best of all possible worlds."

If the second claim in the above argument is true, it would follow that God must bring about the best of all possible worlds. But given that logically speaking there may be no such world, we have reason to doubt the second claim. We therefore have reason to doubt this argument for the conclusion that petitionary prayer is pointless.

But this only reveals flaws in one specific argument against the claim that prayer has a point. What else can be said about the value of prayer?

First, prayer may be effective in helping humans cultivate friendship with God, as we communicate with God in this way. The medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas thought that part of the point of prayer was the joy of talking and communing with God.

Second, I think it is plausible to hold that there are goods which God may only want to bring about in partnership with one or more human beings through prayer. That is, God may only want to accomplish some good things in the world in partnership with us. Perhaps God only wants to bring about certain things in the world in response to our prayers, respecting our freedom and using these interactions not only to work with us for the common good, but also to cultivate our individual characters.

Consider an analogy. There are goods which a parent may only choose to bring about in partnership with her children. For example, a child may ask her parent to volunteer at a homeless shelter together, and the parent agrees to do so. The parent may have intended to use that time in a different manner. But because her child asked her, and because she values working with the child to bring about certain goods, she grants the child's request to volunteer together at the homeless shelter. This can enhance the parent-child relationship, as shared work of this kind between humans has the potential to foster intimacy and knowledge of one another. Ideally, the child may see and appreciate anew (or afresh) the compassion or patience or humility of her parent.

Similarly, shared work between humans and God has the potential to deliver experiential, or existential, knowledge of God as loving, patient, humble, or generous. In the midst of shared work, particular traits (or different aspects of them) become evident, perhaps in a unique manner. This form of experiential knowledge of God is significant in a way that mere knowledge about God is not. And according to many traditions, it can be acquired as humans bring their requests before God in prayer.

Michael W. Austin is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Eastern Kentucky University. He has published ten books, including one that focuses on growing in Christian character,Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life (Eerdmans, 2012). You can connect with him at michaelwaustin.com, on Twitter @michaelwaustin, and on Facebook.
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