Deontology, per se
Afternoon. Two young men sit at a small, circular table amid the bustle of an urban café. One leans back with his arms and legs crossed, balancing his chair on its hind legs. The other perches half-hunched over the table with his cheek resting on an open palm. They have long since finished their iced teas.
N: “So then you’re supposed to ask God for things.”
T: “Of course. He wants us to recognize our deep need and ask for His help.”
N: “But if He’s all-powerful and everything, shouldn’t He already know what you need?”
T: “He does. Better than we do.”
N: “Then why doesn’t He just give it to you? Isn’t that kind of sadistic?”
T: “It’s important for us to recognize that we aren’t self-sufficient.”
N: “What do you mean?”
N reaches for a sip and remembers his cup is empty. He decides he can wait for a refill.
T: “Prayer doesn’t affect God or His plans per se, but He hears them all, and it’s extremely productive for us.”
N: “Wait a minute, so then your prayers can’t change whatever God was planning on doing?”
T: “Well, no, but—”
N: “So if God wasn’t planning on… I don’t know, curing someone’s cancer, then it doesn’t matter how much you prayed for them to get better, He’s just going to let them die? And you’re still supposed to pray to Him anyway?”
T: “Well, in my experience, even if He doesn’t appear to intervene in the situation directly, His Grace is always guiding and protecting us, making beautiful things out of seemingly bleak circumstances. That was the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: God protected them from the flames inside the furnace, but as they said, even if He hadn’t, they still would have trusted Him. He sees the faith in our hearts, and He always answers our prayers in some form or another.”
N: “So then if God has X-ray vision into my mind, and He’s always magically making good things out of bad things, what difference does it make if I’m praying to Him or not? Why bother asking Him for good things if He was already going to do them (or not) no matter what?”
T: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘magic’ because that implies something illusory or temporary— His goodness is as eternal as He is. As for prayer, I’ve always found that it changes me more than it changes God. It gives us an opportunity to open our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to heal and guide us.”
N: “So then when people say we’re sending our thoughts and prayers, they’re not actually sending anything? They’re just using your suffering as an opportunity to flex their own prayer muscles?”
T: “No, God hears all our prayers, and He always answers them in some form.”
N: “But then you’re using a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ argument: if the outcome doesn’t align with your prayer, how could it have been heard and answered?”
T: “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that myself lately. I’m confident that He hears them all, but sometimes it’s hard to see how exactly He’s answering them, especially in situations that don’t seem to be improving after a long time. Sometimes I feel like Abram and Sarai after God promised them a son but didn’t grant them one until decades later. It can be really hard to just wait patiently and trust Him. Here’s the thing, though: God draws straight with crooked lines. It can be difficult to see in the moment, but every disappointment is a new opportunity to put our trust in His plan rather than our own.”
N: “I can definitely empathize with that, but I feel like this trust-no-matter-what thing is a slippery slope. Every time He doesn’t respond to your request, you’re just supposed to submit even more deeply to Him? That doesn’t sound like love; it sounds like an abusive relationship.”
T: “He always responds, but not always in the narrow way in which we’re expecting Him to respond. He loves us too much to give us all the misguided things we ask for.”
N: “But who is anyone to say they know better about what I nee—”
The barista walks by with a pitcher and refills his cup. Puzzled by his stunned silence, she walks back to the counter. T smiles and lets out a gentle chuckle under his breath.
N: “Oh, be quiet.”
N glances at his phone. A string of unanswered notifications have accumulated like barnacle patches on his lock screen. Time has flown by as usual. They pull on their coats, thank the barista, and halt on the fissure-pocked sidewalk: the usual, ritualistically reluctant departure.
T: “Same time next week?”
N: “Yup. Safe home.”
They embrace, turn, and split, each absorbed in thought.
Daniel Tully is a sophomore at Brown studying Behavioral Decision Sciences.
Illustrated by Claire Lin, Brown '23.