Facing a forecast of rain, Pastor Jim prays that it will be sunny for the church picnic. Lo and behold, the day arrives and the meteorologist is proven wrong, for there is not a cloud in the sky. Hot dogs and potato salad, football and capture the flag, and much bonding among the disciples of Jesus ensues. And Pastor Jim closes off the festivities with a heartfelt congregational prayer: “Thanks Lord, for answering our prayers with this lovely sunny day.”
Was Pastor Jim’s prayer inappropriate? Many people seem to think so. I’ve often heard the complaint that prayers like this show a tremendous amount of egotism. How dare Pastor Jim think God is going to alter the weather patterns just for him and his church picnic. It’s like he thinks he’s the center of the universe or somethin’.
But is this really correct? Is it really true that Pastor Jim’s prayer is egotistical? Of course, I’m not denying that it could be. “Hey God, Jim here. Pastor Jim. Hold the rain okay? My flock wants to frolic on dry grass.”
Yeah, that kind of prayer would be egotistical. But nobody said Jim prayed that kind of prayer. Isn’t it possible that Jim might humbly pray for sunny weather?
As I noted above, the sense of indignation seems to trace back to the assumption that when people pray out of personal interest for a change in the weather that they expect the positive outcome will obtain solely in response to their prayer. Thus, the objector assumes that Pastor Jim’s request assumes that God will alter the weather just for him and his church. But Jim need not have that assumption. Most Christians adhere to a doctrine of meticulous providence according to which God is overseeing the fall of every leaf, the course of every raindrop, the trajectory of every photon. With that in mind, Pastor Jim would recognize that for every weather event God could have innumerable reasons for seeing that that weather event be actualized rather than another. Consequently, by praying for sunny weather Pastor Jim would see himself adding simply one more reason for God to actualize a sunny day rather than a rainy one.
Beyond that, the objector misses all the other functions of Pastor Jim’s prayer. His prayer for rain is a performative utterance by which he expresses his recognition of divine sovereignty, his desire to see his community deepen through shared public experiences, his hope that those arranging the picnic not be disappointed, his evangelistic desire for positive outreach to the wider community, and so on. His prayer has all sorts of functions. But a crass expression of egotism isn’t one of them.