Jimmy Carter’s grandson spoke briefly at the Democratic National Convention on July 26. Among other things, he said that “thanks to the miracles of modern science and the power of prayer” his grandfather is now free of cancer.
As an admirer of Jimmy Carter, at least most of the time, I was saddened last year when I heard that he had cancer—and happy to hear fairly recently that he now claims to be cancer-free.
But was it the power of prayer that caused that happy change?
There were certainly a lot of people who prayed for President Carter after hearing about his cancer. In April of this year, a webpage of the American Baptist Home Mission Society was titled, “Calling for prayers of healing for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.”
That is just one example of numerous calls for prayer for Carter, who has been much more popular as an ex-President than he was while in the Oval Office.
This raises some interesting questions about prayer, however. Would God not have taken Carter’s cancer away if fewer people had prayed? If so, how many fewer? Was there a tipping point? Why? Does God decide whether to heal any given individual based on the number of prayers received?
Four years ago on August 15 my blog article (see here) was about intercessory prayer, and I raised some of these same questions. Because the situation hasn’t changed in these four years, allow me to repeat two paragraphs from that article.
The theological question, you see, is this: why would the all-loving God change things or do things differently, or better, because of prayer—and even be more likely to do so if there were a lot of prayers or a lot of people praying.
Jesus spoke disparagingly about those who think that they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). Didn’t he likely think the same thing about those who believe that God will give special consideration to the words of many people?
Or, is prayer just sending of “good vibes” out into the world that, literally, change things if there are enough of such vibes for a specific purpose? Possibly, I guess—but I seriously doubt it.
I have long contended that prayer primarily changes the one who prays, not the One prayed to. Prayer has often changed me—but has it ever changed God? Probably not.
So, was there any benefit for so many people praying for President Carter? Probably so—but not because those prayers changed God.
If praying for Carter caused some people to think about the yeoman’s work he has done through the years with Habitat for Humanity and to recognize the ongoing need for providing more and better housing for poor people across the country, those prayers were beneficial.
If praying for Carter caused others to recall his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006) and to become more concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, those prayers were beneficial.
If praying for Carter caused still other people to reflect upon the problem of racism in the country and that in Atlanta next month he will be the convener and one of the keynote speakers of the New Baptist Covenant meeting using the slogan “Baptists Working Together for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, those prayers were beneficial.
But I can’t imagine God saying to the angels (or whomever) at some point earlier this year, You know, if enough people pray for Jimmy, I will just take the old guy’s cancer away.