Every once in a while, I have a good chuckle when an online atheist performs some amateur psychoanalysis on me after having read over something that I have written. “You are afraid of death”, an atheist might say, “and are therefore desperate to find some way of escaping this horrible fear.” Alternatively, they might focus on my inability to consider contrary evidence and say, “You are so biased that you are unable to acknowledge contrary evidence. All you see is what you want to see.” I always find these episodes tremendously amusing. “Please tell me more about myself Mr. Atheist”, I think to myself, “it is ever so wonderful to hear an expert opinion on my deepest motivations from someone who doesn’t know anything about me.” I find these opinions so humorous because they couldn’t be further from the truth.
The fact is that before I was a Christian I was suicidal and invited death by driving recklessly and engaging in self-destructive behaviour. I remember looking over the edge of the School of Engineering and Applied Science building at UCLA in a moment of despair and thinking “Why not jump? Why not?” Praise the Lord that He delivered me from that despair!
“Aha!”, an atheist will say, “you didn’t want to die! You wanted to find reason to hope for a better world and a better life! That is your source of bias and that is why you cannot see contrary evidence.” To the accusation I would gladly agree, to the conclusion I would strongly disagree. The atheist above would be correct that I did not want to die. I was open to the possibility that there might be a better world and a better life. This seems entirely rational to me, but a fear of death had no part in my motivation as far as I can tell. What about the conclusion? Am I unable to see contrary evidence?
The fact is that I think about difficulties with the faith every day and I have written numerous posts about them. This is because I have a deep desire to understand the truth and my scientific training tells me that improved insight is found in investigating the things you do not understand and not in rehashing the things you do understand. Over the last few weeks, for example, I have been puzzling over an unanswered prayer. Actually, to call it an unanswered prayer is a bit of a misnomer. As the details will demonstrate, it is the most emphatically negative answer to prayer that I have ever received.
So I was staying late one night at work finishing up a few odds and ends when I saw that one of my coworkers that I have been trying to witness to was staying late also. Seeing an opportunity to spend some time with a man that I like, I invited him out for some pizza. We had a great conversation and some great pizza, but it seemed like he was suffering from a bit of a cough. I said to him, “Well I believe that Jesus Christ has the power on earth to heal people and I was wondering if you would mind if I prayed for you that you would feel better?” He agreed to allow me pray for him and I gave what I thought was a good prayer which concluded with the request, “Lord I know you love this man and I ask that you heal him in the name of Jesus Christ.” We finished up our meal and he went his way and I went mine. I didn’t see him again for almost a week and a half.
When he finally showed up for work nine days later, he had the most horrible cough I have ever heard. I work across the building from him some 90 feet away and I could hear him coughing all day long. After a few days of this, I finally got up my courage and asked if I could pray for him again. We did a similar prayer and he got worse again! Every day he has coughed for many weeks now and each one of those coughs has been tremendously embarrassing for me. What went wrong? I took a step of faith while witnessing and put the name of Jesus Christ on the line. My coworker had the faith to allow me to pray for him. I don’t understand.
Now some skeptics will say at this point that I didn’t see an answer to this prayer because there is no God. In response to such a person, all I can do is laugh. The reason I have been so puzzled about the results of this prayer is precisely because I have seen so many powerful and obvious answers to prayer that this result came as an absolute shock to me. I am not so biased that I cannot see evidence that is contrary to my faith. I see evidence contrary to my beliefs all the time, yet I would argue without hesitation that my personal experience with answered prayer is, this incident notwithstanding, a tremendous source of comfort and security to me. All I can do in this particular incident is go back to my standby “when all else fails” argument. “God is maximizing the goodness function in ten trillion variables and some local deviations from what would seem optimal to a processor of limited capacity are to be expected.”
In a previous essay, I discussed the idea of faith healing and in that essay I encouraged Christians to use all the professional medical help that is available to them as Paul encouraged Timothy to use wine to treat his upset stomach. Prayer is powerful and essential, but we are not to put the “Lord our God to the test”.