Essay / Theology

How to Detect Answers to Prayer: The Discipline of Journaling

I want to take a look at the importance of identifying and remembering answers to prayer.

In my more than thirty-five years as one of Jesus’ apprentices, I have experienced literally hundreds of specific, detailed answers to prayer. I have been strengthened considerably in my faith by their presence in my life. I, along with others, experience unanswered prayer as well, but in all honesty, I (and my family and close Christian friends) have seen enough specific answers to prayer that it is no longer reasonable for me to doubt that prayer actually works.

Of the two tasks—identifying and remembering answers to prayer, the latter is relatively easy to discuss, so I will focus most of our attention on learning to identify answers to prayer. Regarding remembering answers to prayer, for over thirty-five years, I have kept a prayer journal. I do not write in it daily. Sometimes I do and sometimes I only write in it once every couple of weeks. What I make sure to do, however, is to record and date important prayer requests I shall concentrate on and recording in detail the date and circumstances associated with a positive answer to them. Over the years I have accumulated an incredible record of answers to prayer (and of prayers that were not answered as I had asked). My faith has been deeply strengthened by looking through this journal from time to time. The journal has been crucial because, otherwise, I would forget the incidents and the incredible, supernatural details that were a part of them.

Help from the Intelligent Design Movement

That said, let’s turn to some reflections about recognizing answers to prayer. Interestingly, we can get help in this regard by insights derived from the Intelligent Design movement. Recently, William Dembski has written a book in which he analyzed cases in which it is legitimate to infer that some phenomenon is the result of a purposive, intelligent act by an agent.

Among other things, Dembski analyzes cases in which insurance employees, police, and forensic scientists must determine whether a death was accident (no intelligent cause) or brought about intentionally (done on purpose by an intelligent agent). According to Dembski, whenever three factors are present, investigators are rationally obligated to draw the conclusion that the event was brought about intentionally: (1) The event was contingent, that is, even though it took place, it did not have to happen. (2) The event had a small probability of happening. (3) The event is capable of independent specifiability.

To illustrate, consider a game of bridge in which two people receive a hand of cards. Let one hand be a random set of cards—call it hand A—and the other be a perfect bridge hand dealt to the dealer himself. Now if that happened, we would immediately infer that while A was not dealt intentionally, the perfect bridge had, was, and, in fact, represents a case of cheating on the part of the dealer. What justifies our suspicion?

First, neither hand had to happen. There are no laws of nature, logic, or mathematics that necessitate that either hand had to come about in the history of the cosmos. In this sense, each hand and, indeed, the very card game itself, is a contingent event that did not have to take place. Second, since hand A and the perfect bridge hand have the same number of cards, each is equally improbable. So the small probability of an event is not sufficient to raise suspicions that the event came about by the intentional action of an agent. The third criterion makes this clear.

The perfect bridge hand can be specified as special independently of the fact that it happened to be the hand that came about, but this is not so for hand A. Hand A can be specified as “some random hand or other that someone happens to get.” Now that specification applies to all hands whatever and does not mark out as special any particular hand that comes about. So understood, A is no more special than any other random deal. But this is not so for the perfect bridge hand. This hand can be characterized as a special sort of combination of cards by the rules of bridge quite independently of the fact that it is the hand that the dealer received. It is the combination of contingency (this hand did not have to be dealt), small probability (this particular arrangement of cards was quite unlikely to have occurred), and independent specifiability (according to the rules, this is a pretty special hand for the dealer to receive) that justifies us in accusing the dealer of cheating.

Similarly, if a spouse happens to die at a young age in an unlikely manner even though that spouse is healthy, and if this happens just after the other spouse took out a large insurance policy on him/her or a week after proposing to a mistress, then the three factors that justify an intelligent design are present.

Application To Recognizing Answered Prayer

Now the same thing takes place in specific answers to prayer. To illustrate, early in my ministry I heard teaching on how to pray specifically while attending a seminar in Southern California. In a few weeks, I was to return to Colorado to start my ministry at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden with Ray Womack, a fellow Campus Crusade worker. Unknown to anyone, I wrote a prayer request in my prayer notebook and began to pray specifically that God would provide for me and Ray a white house with a white picket fence, a grassy front yard, within two or three miles from campus, for no more that $130 per month. I told the Lord that this request was a reasonable one on the grounds that (a) we wanted a place that provided a home atmosphere for students, accessible from campus, that we could afford and (b) I was experimenting with specific prayer and wanted my faith to be strengthened.

I returned to the Golden area and looked for three days at several places to live. I found nothing in Golden and, in fact, I only found one apartment for rent for $135/month about twelve miles from Campus. I told the manager I would take it and she informed me that a couple had looked at the place that morning, they had until that afternoon to make a decision, and if they did not want it, I could move in the next day. I called late that afternoon and was informed that the couple took the apartment, the last available one in the complex. I was literally back to ground zero.

Now not a single person knew I had been praying for the white house. That evening, Kaylon Carr (a Crusade friend) called me to ask if I still needed a place to stay. When I say yes, she informed me that earlier that day, she had been to Denver Seminary. While there, she saw a bulletin board on which a pastor in Golden was advertising a place to rent, hopefully to seminary students or Christian workers. Kaylon gave me his phone number, so I called and set up an appointment to meet the pastor at his place at nine the next morning. Well, as I drove up, I came to a white house with a white picket fence, a nice grassy front yard, right around two miles from Campus, and he asked for $110 per month rent. Needless to say, I took it, and Ray and I had a home that year in which to minister.

This answer to prayer—along with hundreds of others I and my Christian friends have seen—was an event that was (1) contingent and did not have to happen according to natural law; (2) very improbable; and (3) independently specifiable (a number of features of the event were specified in my prayer prior to and independent of the event itself taking place).

Meeting these three criteria are not necessary conditions for being judged to be an action by God (God can answer general prayers that are not too specific), but they do seem to be sufficient, and as such, answers to prayer in my life have increased the rational justification of my confidence in Jesus Christ. And by recording these in my prayer journal, they are ever present to be a source of encouragement to me in my life as Jesus’ apprentice.

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