Famine, Affluence, and Petitionary Prayer

There are many puzzles and paradoxes regarding “petitionary prayer,” which philosopher Eleonore Stump defines as “a request made of God for something specific believed to be good by the one praying.” The majority of these puzzles and paradoxes, which Scott Davison surveys in some depth in an article for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, have to do with God’s power, knowledge, and goodness. For example, won’t an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good being do what is best for someone regardless of whether or not they ask for it? Some (in my opinion, more obscure) problems have to do with God’s alleged changelessness––if God doesn’t change, then how could a petitionary prayer make a difference to what happens, and isn’t the point of petitionary prayer to make a difference to what happens? There are a variety of ingenious solutions to these problems (an exemplar of which is Stump’s paper), as well as non-petitionary conceptions of prayer that avoid the problems altogether. In this brief essay, I don’t want to consider any of these traditional and major difficulties. Rather, I want to to develop and consider a problem that (for reasons that are probably idiosyncratic) tends to bother me more, but that I don’t see much discussed.

The Problem

Consider the following petitionary prayer: Boshua is in a well-paying but personally unsatisfying real estate job, and he prays that a new opportunity will arise. I’ll call this a “first world prayer,” in-keeping with the well-trodden meme. Of course, like those who participate in the meme, I do not mean that “first worlders” don’t have serious problems, or that those outside the “first world” don’t sometimes have non-serious problems.

At the moment of Boshua’s first world prayer, it is exceedingly likely that the following type of event is taking place: Someone is in catastrophically worse need than Boshua. Given that someone, let’s call him Blenjamin, is in catastrophically worse need than Boshua, how can Boshua justify spending his time praying for his need instead of Blenjamin’s? Blenjamin may be experiencing torture, starvation, or some other serious horror. Right off the bat, you might be thinking

Boshua can pray for a slightly better job AND Blenjamin’s access to food! 😊🙏

But this will not do. We know in advance that Boshua has a finite time on Earth, and that he will spend an even smaller amount of that time praying in the petitionary mode. Whatever amount of time that is, it is virtually guaranteed that there are unmet needs catastrophically greater than Boshua’s desire for a more satisfying job, and that these needs are being unmet simultaneously with Boshua’s prayers. So, for any person’s serious need, how can Boshua justify spending his time praying for his need instead of that one?

In trying to articulate what is difficult about the problem, I’m reminded of a surprisingly similar problem in moral philosophy. In one of the most famous essays of contemporary ethics, philosopher Peter Singer makes the following observation:

[I]f I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

He generalizes the point to a variety of needs and our use of financial resources:

When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look “well-dressed” we are not providing for any important need. We would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were to continue to wear our old clothes, and give the money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving. It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which philosophers and theologians have called “supererogatory” — an act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.

According to Singer, our obligation to do considerably much more than we now do to help people who are suffering follows from extremely simple and intuitive principles, principles like “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

Returning to the main topic, remember that I am discussing petitionary prayer, not prayer in general. Petitionary prayer is supposed to do something––more specifically, it asks God to do something, with the hope that the prayer will be efficacious in this goal.

If you aren’t already a petitioner of God, then try to imagine that you are one. There is some finite amount of petitionary prayer that you will offer in your lifetime, and each prayer has some non-zero chance of being efficacious. In this way, petitionary prayers are not wholly unlike dollars sent to charity organizations: you have a finite amount to spend, and you send them in the hopes that they will be efficacious for meeting some suitably specified need.

Applying the analogy, we can think of Boshua’s choice to pray for a more personally fulfilling job rather than someone else’s catastrophically more serious need as similar to someone’s choice to spend money on unneeded clothing rather than famine relief.

Turning specifically to Singer’s example of walking by a drowning child and deciding to sacrifice the good condition of one’s expensive, dry shoes, imagine being in a prayer gathering in which there is some finite amount of time for prayer and where you know that there are enough catastrophic needs to take up all of the time. In such a gathering, would it be morally justified to take up time with a first world prayer? Intuitively, it seems that Boshua, for example, must be morally obligated to forgo whatever career benefit he might receive from prayer in order to allow time for more serious petitions.


Notice that this is not a problem for petitionary prayer per se, any more than Singer’s argument is a problem for money. At bottom this is a practical problem, or challenge, for a person who prays in the petitionary mode. Put another way, it is a problem for petitionary prayer as standardly practiced. The standard practice, after all, is the Christian practice that sees the following imperative, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as an inspiration:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Even taking this injunction literally and authoritatively cannot help with our problem, since no matter how much we petition God in our finite lives, we will never exhaust the needs that are catastrophically more serious. Of course, you might take the “everything” to be restricted by those things about which we tend to “worry.” In that case, it probably is true that we worry more about our first world problems than catastrophically more serious problems other people face. This is just how most of us are built, psychologically––and it’s probably advantageous for us in an evolutionary sense. But this simply re-introduces the same problem at a different stage: how can Boshua be justified in worrying more over getting a more personally satisfying job than over Blenjamin starving to death?

Speaking for myself, I prefer the sort of Jewish perspective on prayer exemplified by Abraham Joshua Heschel (who you may have already seen in one of the links above), but even the Jewish tradition is chock-full of petitionary prayer.

Ultimately, much like in the case of Singer’s famous article, I’m left thinking that there aren’t really very many good responses that don’t seem either ad hoc (perhaps morality luckily demands of us roughly what we’re already accustomed to doing, and not much more!) or just flatly a- or anti-moral (perhaps it’s simply ok for us to pursue even frivolous projects contrary to morality’s demands!). This would mean that any time one is engaged in petitionary prayer, one should spend one’s time praying about those things that are quite serious and catastrophic––no one knows where to draw the line, but it’s surely above praying for a somewhat more personally satisfying job when one is already financially and otherwise secure. All that said, neither my moral nor religious life reflects this conclusion!

Concluding thought

Obviously, I’ve ignored roughly 1,000 other ways one might tackle this issue––for example, one might pursue any number of strategies parallel to those developed in response to Singer’s paper. Plus, I’ve grossly caricatured the “ad hoc” and “anti-moral” replies in offensively dismissive parentheticals, so one might develop serious versions of those. Ultimately, I’m just curious to hear what other people think about this issue.