Finally the site is open! I've been waiting to ask this for a week or so. I have been pondering typical responses concerning intercession and resultant positive/negative outcomes and am hoping someone can assist with explaining the actual argument being used, or perhaps that should be used.

The gist of the problem is that I perceive believers in my circle to say both of the following:

  • When desirable outcomes occur (according to common sense), God shall be praised for his actions which bring these outcomes about
  • When undesirable outcomes occur (according to common sense), we have no idea what God's motivations are behind such apparent inaction

My intuitive reaction to this reality is that these statements are saying that it is both possible and impossible to know what God would or would not do, but I'm not sure my intuitions are correct and am looking for help with the underlying arguments.

Perhaps the issue is that it seems implied that God would bring about a positive outcome because of his omni-max qualities. If my understanding of this implied basis for praise is correct, I think the philosophical conundrum is this:

If one claims to know the reasons for an agent's actions (or at least that the agent brought about some outcome via action), can one claim to be entirely ignorant of reasons for an agent's inactions?

Put one last way, can one gather information about an agent's reasons for actions such that:

  • the information informs one only about reasons for action,
  • the information states nothing whatsoever about reasons for inaction,
  • any perceived actions provide no new information about the likelihood of future action/inaction,
  • and any apparent inaction provides no new information to confirm/disconfirm the original information concerning reasons for action?
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    Answer: Yes, it is inconsistent. Just like it is inconsistent to claim an all-powerful all-knowing god, and still take aspirin when you have a headache. Reasonably, the all-knowing, all-powerful god wants you to have a headache if you have one. Jun 16 '11 at 5:26
  • I think this great story by Borges raises exactly this question: southerncrossreview.org/49/borges-judas-eng.htm
    – Ami
    Jun 16 '11 at 5:30
  • @Lennart: Good points. Perhaps if one always prays for what is "apparently good," one may be preventing someone from experiencing even greater goods via suffering. Perhaps the only prayers that should be prayed are, "God, please do what you were going to do anyway."
    – Hendy
    Jun 16 '11 at 5:47
  • @Hendy: Well, since god is omniscient, praying must be completely useless, reasonably. Unless god refuses to do anything except when asked to. Which I have a hard time getting to make sense with the general idea of god. Jun 16 '11 at 6:20
  • @Lennart Praying isn't useless in that it changes our perception of things. While it's true that all of which God has decreed will come to pass, it's not necessarily always evident what will come to pass. It may be the case that my mother has fallen ill, but not the case that the illness will eventually take her life. Prayer, a commandment in Scripture, doesn't change what will take place, but it alters my perception of what is taking place, additionally serving as a proclamation of God's authority and power over all things. Jun 16 '11 at 16:54

The simple answer is that God should be praised for all things, good or bad, and thanked for all things, good or bad. Of relevance would be the 1689 London Baptist Confession, which states:

God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass;

Chapter 3: Of God's Decree

As for the aspect of mystery, I don't think it's inconsistent to involve that as well. The fact that x takes place is enough to praise God (speaking theologically here), whilst the means by which x came to take place could be a mystery to those involved in praise.

This answer may sound more theological than you had expected, but that is largely in part due to the nature of your question.

For what it's worth, a Christian (speaking of my own class of 'believer'), ought to be thankful for all things, desirable or undesirable. That doesn't mean we don't mourn tragedies on another level, in our ignorance of God's reason for decreeing such tragedy, but it does mean that we must ultimately defer to (as stated above) the most wise and holy counsel of his own will.

There is a flip-side to this coin as well. Unbelievers ought to refrain from "Where was your God when..." type of arguments when tragedies take place, unless they think it is equally worth asking "Was your God responsible for..." when great things take place.

Contrary to the comment that it is inconsistent to claim an all-powerful all-knowing god, and still take aspirin when you have a headache, it is not inconsistent to take an aspirin when you have a headache while at the same time believing all that takes place follows from an eternal decree. Man only knows the decree as it is manifested in the past, and therefore has no future goal to comply with in not taking an aspirin. If a person takes an aspirin, that act of taking an aspirin was also decreed eternally yet cooperatively done by the individual in time.

  • If I get you right, you're resolving my question by claiming that all (good and bad) are mystery and are praiseworthy, correct?
    – Hendy
    Jun 16 '11 at 5:43
  • @Hendy I'm a bit confused about what you mean by "mysterious". The means by which an event comes to happen may be mysterious, but the fact that it took place means God decreed it according to his own will. In one sense, we are to express humility in knowledge and praise God for doing as he sees fit. In another sense, we may mourn a tragedy because of the means by which it came. The two aren't necessarily contradictory, unless you take the position that God is only in control when good things happen, and somehow is asleep at the wheel during the unfortunate things. Jun 16 '11 at 5:56
  • @Jonathan Sampson: I think "mysterious" means that the reasons of the agent for choosing a particular outcome are unknowable by us. AKA, "God works in mysterious ways." Jun 16 '11 at 10:32
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    @Ben On a presuppositional level I assume a priori that if God is the creator of man, He is capable of revealing items to man in such a way that man can know it. Jun 16 '11 at 16:14
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    P.S. I'd also like to thank you for the discussion. I needed a topic to get my feet wet on this site :P
    – Kevin Peno
    Jun 17 '11 at 20:49

If positive outcomes are equated with action and negative outcomes are equated with inaction, then I think the two views are consistent with each other. The four criteria of discreet information gathering are also satisfiable in general: for example, at random times, I give you a dollar, because "I think you should have this now"; defining "random time" in any specific way such as a Poisson distribution violates the third condition of not providing information, but there are mathematical probability distributions and physical interpretations of time which don't. God does not speak of what he does not know, and he does not act when unnecessary. Tautologically, if God acts, action was necessary, and if God speaks, he knows. This view is compatible with God being all-knowing and all-powerful, as long as "all" is limited in an unknown and unknowable way, which it seems to be, effectively. The reason we should praise God for positive outcomes is that his action has given us an example of how to achieve these outcomes and a guide for making them ever better. On the other hand, God's inaction is of no help in understanding negative outcomes, and we are left alone wondering why bad things happen. In that sense the question is a variation on the problem of evil.


It is incredibly inconsistent and I think it is what drives away certain logic minded individuals from the church. For example, myself. When analyzing certain arguments and this argument comes to light, I find that many believers get exasperated, frustrated, and then attempt to change the subject or resort to name calling. I would only attempt an argument like this with someone I was friendly with, so it has not come to blows, and the only name calling was jocular in nature, but it typically happens nonetheless.

I saw a meme on the net somewhere that said "Yes, your God will give you sunshine on your wedding day." The picture had a pretty woman in a wedding dress next to an extremely skinny black child, presumably from Africa somewhere.


The below assumes that God has a plan and only interferes if things are not going according to plan.

From a logical perspective you could say that there needs to be action in order to be a reaction.

Now if you believe in God and him having a plan you could say that if things are following his plan already he remains inactive as there is nothing to do. (Learn from your mistakes human.)

Or if action is needed so that the human can get safe to the next mistake to make God will step into action and prevent any harm from his sheep since they still got lessons to learn before departing.

If you assume God is there to make everybody happy every time then inaction can indeed only be a mystery because it does not make any sense if God indeed just wants the "best" for everybody. (Whatever best means.)

  • I think this gets at the heart of what I'm asking, except that most theists I know don't "assume God is there to make everybody happy every time." Another way to view it: Believers tend to pray for the apparent good (healing, positive outcome, etc.). If it happens, God is given credit. If it doesn't, trust is put in his wisdom for having a "greater purpose." But if the greater purpose is, indeed, greater... why not pray for the apparent non-good since one can't predict ahead of time what God's plan is?
    – Hendy
    Apr 7 '15 at 21:52
  • If you equate prayer with hope then the explanation is easy. Apr 8 '15 at 10:46
  • Not being religious, perhaps it's hard to imagine why one would pray and not hope simultaneously. Aren't the two essentially hand in hand? Or, given that the question relates to how a "typical" person would pray, do you think this embodies the typical disposition?
    – Hendy
    Apr 12 '15 at 7:24

In the Neo-Platonic tradition of thought --highly influential on many religions of the world, notably Christianity --God is identified as the source of all and only good (all good things, and only good things). Evil is not considered, in this view, to have its own metaphysical existence, it is only the absence of good.

One of the dominant metaphors for this, dating back to Plato himself, is to picture God as the sun, good things as the sunlight, and anywhere that bad or evil holds sway as areas in the shadow. In that context, it is not inconsistent to thank the sun for the sunlight, but not to blame the sun for the shade.

While most modern believers are not explicitly neo-Platonic, the influence of that view continues to have an impact on beliefs such as the seemingly paradoxical ones you just described. You may not personally be persuaded by this metaphor, but hopefully it will help explain how and why believers can thank God for the good things, but not blame God for the bad ones.

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