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Do Prayers Work in a Pandemic?

According to cage-rattling atheist Dan Barker, the answer is no. In an article called “The Coronavirus Proves that the Christian God Does Not Exist,” Barker writes, “It’s simple logic. The Christian god promises to answer prayer. Prayers to this god are not answered. Therefore, the Christian god does not exist.”

You might have rolled your eyes if you saw name-it-claim-it televangelist Kenneth Copeland literally blow at COVID-19: “I blow the wind of God on you. You are destroyed forever, and you’ll never be back.” But Dan Barker is rolling his eyes at all prayers offered up regarding the pandemic, whether it be during a church service, a pre-meal prayer, or on the National Day of Prayer on May 7. As co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Barker does more than just roll his eyes at any government-sponsored event which has the word prayer in it; the FFRF actively seeks to shut down such events.

Is Barker just really ignorant of the Christian faith? Not at all. In his younger years, Barker was a name-it-claim-it minister himself.[1] In his article on how COVID-19 disproves God, he cites Bible verse after Bible verse in which God offers to answer the prayers of the faithful.

So how should Christians respond when God doesn’t answer the prayers of the faithful?

How do we respond when, for example, a Christian governor proclaims a day to pray for rain, only to have the drought worsen? We’ve all been there at one time or another. We have prayed unselfish prayers from trusting hearts, only to be met with silence. The psalmist must have been facing the same experience when he prayed,

“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).

This is the “door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside” that C.S. Lewis experienced from God when Lewis’s wife died.[2]

Although there aren’t a lot of milestones in Jesus’ life that mirror our own lives, here’s one thing we share in common with Jesus: He prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). And yet the response? Silence.

We’ve been there.

It’s remarkable that Jesus’ agonized plea to His Father to be spared from crucifixion went unheeded. The One who told us, “Everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:8) did not receive when He asked.

So, should we keep praying for a quick end to this pandemic? And when we pray such prayers, how should we pray them?

Should we pray with a shrug of the shoulders, similarly to how we might wear a homemade mask to Wal-Mart: “Well, it probably won’t help, but it might, so I might as well”? Or should we offer up bold prayer-commands, similarly to how a Kenneth Copeland or younger version of Dan Barker would pray—praying for an outcome and declaring it to have happened all at the same time?

We can find both kinds of approaches in the Bible. There are times when we see the person respond with a “Who knows? Perhaps it will work” kind of faith (Jonah 3:9; 2 Kings 5:13-14). Others, like the Apostle Peter, prayed for healing with an alarming boldness (Acts 3:6).

The truth is this: To ask, “Who knows?” doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of faith. And praying that “It will be done as I say” doesn’t necessarily mean an abundance of faith.

We need to remember that faith is only as valuable as its object. If your faith is in a particular answer to your prayer, then that faith is about as valuable as hot air from a televangelist.

But if your faith is in God? That’s where prayerfulness meets faithfulness.

When your faith is in God—and not in a particular answer from God—then your faith takes on a maturity that is neither naïve nor pessimistic.

It’s actually not all that surprising that Barker went from name-it-claim-it faith to concluding, “This doesn’t work.” Why? Well, because when it grows up and moves out of the house, that faith gets clobbered by reality about as brutally as Disney faith gets beat up by life (“When you wish upon a star,” “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” “Think of the happiest things . . . you can fly!”).

But faith in God? That’s a serious-minded pursuit of God, not a genie.

This is the kind of faith which asks, “Just what is God up to?” more often than, “Just when will I get my answer?” Faith in God means that you are trusting in the Author of the book, whatever peril the characters find themselves in on chapter 26.

How should we pray during this pandemic? The short answer: pray with faith. But make sure that it’s a faith in God as He is:

Faith in a God who is.

Job was a faithful follower who lost his health, his wealth, and his kids in one tragedy after another. Understandably, he wanted answers from God. We get an entire book about Job in the Bible (42 chapters!). But in the entire book, he gets zero answers to his specific questions. He never finds out why any of these tragedies happened.

However, Job does receive a visit from God at the end of the book. He realizes that God is there. He is reminded of God’s infinite power and wisdom. And even though Job gets none of the answers he’s asked for, he ends the book satisfied that God is there.

If you don’t receive an answer to any of your prayers, will it be enough to know that God is there? Os Guinness lists various tragedies that push us to ask, “Why?” Then he says, “But I know why I trust God, who knows why. So, faith is not irrational. We can trust God in the dark simply because we are not in the dark about God.”

When your faith is in God—and not in a particular answer from God—then your faith takes on a maturity that is neither naïve nor pessimistic.

Faith in a God who wins.

We humans are expert craftsman in the art of idol-making. We make idols out of anything that moves and even things that don’t. We make idols out of money. We make gods out of health and longevity. We place ultimate trust in political parties.

Because God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5), He feels toward these idols the way a husband feels toward the adulterer who is flirting with his wife. When God permits suffering in our lives, it shakes our trust off the idols we have made. When stock markets crash, it’s an opportunity to have our trust shaken off of money. When sickness attacks, it’s an opportunity to stop trusting in health and longevity and start trusting in God. When governments fumble the trust we place in them, it shakes our trust off of government and invites us to trust in God.

In the end, God easily wins. Suffering along the way helps us to recognize Him as winner and to place our trust in Him.

Faith in a God who revives.

Yes, we are told to pray for the sick (James 5:14-17). And, if you look at the prayer Jesus told us to pray, you will find it’s good to pray for God to meet our basic needs (Matthew 6:11). Yet God’s priorities seem to be a lot bigger than just curing sickness. When the God-man Himself was on earth healing people, the healings were never the point in themselves. They were meant to point the crowds to the much more significant miracle of forgiving our sins (Matthew 9:6).

In fact, if you look at the prayer Jesus told us to pray (often called the “Lord’s Prayer”), you won’t find sickness mentioned. Instead, you’ll see God’s biggest priorities take up the first half of the prayer: God’s name being seen as holy, God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done.

Christian, do you want God’s church to experience revival?

Do you want God’s kingdom to come and His name to be famous? Do you want those who are far from God to come home to Him? The uncomfortable truth is that most of us humans are so spiritually apathetic that, without disruption, there will be no revival. We naturally want more than anything to live a comfortable, normal, unruffled life. God, on the other hand, wants things much more glorious for His image bearers.

Considering God’s ultimate priorities, it shouldn’t seem somehow out-of-character for God to allow something disruptive like a pandemic.

Should we pray for COVID-19 to go away? As people who love our neighbors, then, yes, that’s an appropriate prayer to pray. But we also ought to be reminded that we have long prayed for God to revive His church and to reach the lost. By praying for both revival and for normalcy, which prayer should we expect God to answer? Does God bless us more by giving us a comfortable, safe, normal life, or by allowing us to experience situations in which we have to constantly trust in Him?

We need to remember that faith is only as valuable as its object.

Faith in a God who answers.

In the absence of an answer, we do well to remember that our faith is in God, not in a particular answer. But perhaps it’s even more accurate to say that our faith is in God, who is a very particular answer.

Let us explain. We will pray prayers that go unanswered. When that happens, it is helpful to remember that we’ve already been given the best answer that God could give. He came in person as the final Answer:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:1-3).

There will be times when you feel like God is being silent. If He doesn’t answer, then go with the Answer He’s already given.


[1] Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), 8-10.

[2] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 6. 

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