Why Pray?

Prayer is the language

I’ve thought about the subject of prayer lately and it’s striking how our view of providence plays such a role on our urgency to pray. Thinking particularly of this passage in Ezekiel:

And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.  Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel 22:30-31 (ESV)

We see that God was looking someone who would intercede for Israel, just as he did when he had Abraham intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah. The other example from the Bible would be Moses, who took it upon himself to intercede for Israel, and interestingly enough, the Bible says that God changed his mind about the judgment that He intended to bring upon Israel.

The traditional view of providence believes that the future is exhaustively settled from all eternity by God. If that is the case, then what difference would it make if an intercessor had not came forward? Is God being sincere here? Moreover, if the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind, how could he honestly say he’s looking for someone who He knows for certain is not there?

In saying these things, I guess I’m letting the cat out of the bag: I think I’ve been an open theist all along and I’m just now realizing it. (I understand that in some Evangelical circles this view is anathema, but this view is at home among many Pentecostals-and I’m one of them!). For prayer to have real integrity and not be a mere showpiece, it has to have some affect on God and truly influence the outcome of certain events. But if our prayer is ultimately brought about by God; I don’t see how it can truly persuade God.

On the open view, while part of the future is settled by God, it is also partly open. God may also have certain plans and purposes that we can hinder through sloth and unresponsiveness, or we can help him bring to pass through our co-operation. In other words, God in his sovereignty allowed himself  to be dependent upon our prayers; He will allow what we allow and he will forbid what we forbid.  This point seems to be driven home by God’s words to Solomon.

“..if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”

2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV) (Emphasis added).

Allow me to illustrate using a personal story. Once when I was in prayer, I perceived that my mom – who lived miles away at the time – may be involved in a car accident. I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. I prayed my mom would be delayed. Several weeks later, I asked my mom about it. I was pretty confident that I had heard from God, but I could have been mistaken. As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and was late to work, and on her way she got stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was unnerving and, she was quite shocked with what I shared with her! (This story doesn’t refute the open view, but rather it was a revelation of what was going to happen under the present circumstances given the most probable free choices of people, and perhaps even angels, at the time.)

Now if the future is exclusively a realm of comprehensive settled facts, then what good would it have done for God to call upon me to pray? Can God act to change what he infallibly knows will happen?  While I don’t deny there are some things God settles ahead of time, I believe there are also real future possibilities of blessing that will come to pass or fail to come to pass through our prayers, which spurs a sense of urgency.

Now the big question is this: Why would God make himself vulnerable by allowing some of his plans to be carried out or hindered by our prayers, or lack thereof? I really think that is a more interesting question than the question about providence alone. Some theologians have suggested that prayer is “on the job training” for Christ’s bride, the church. The crown is for the victor, and the Bible speaks of a kingdom to be handed over to his saints. (Rev. 2:26-28, 3:21, 5:10) At least to some degree, God will not override the will of the church. Through prayer we enact God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the Lord’s prayer says. Prayers can also affect the amount of people who come to know God, and we see from the scripture that God is waiting for the “precious fruit of the earth” before He returns. (James 5:7, 16) This is why I believe E.M. Bounds said:

“God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil …. The prayers of God’s saints are the capital stock of heaven by which God carries on His great work upon earth. God conditions the very life and prosperity of His cause on prayer.”

And John Wesley said:

“God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.”

For the sake of time, I won’t go too in-depth as why this seems to be the case, but we do see that from the beginning, we’ve been made in God’s image and given responsibility to care for the world God has created. (Gen 1:26-28)  Biblically, an argument can be made that man fumbled the ball, so to speak, as the New Testament multiply attests to the fact that Satan the ruler of this world. (John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19) This is why we see in the Gospels and Acts a picture of Jesus and his trainees healing the sick, exorcising demons, etc. Jesus saw this as a sign that the Kingdom of God arriving. We even see Christ addressing natural evil, such calming storms.

At the end of His life on earth, Christ tells his disciples that they’ll do “the works that He does”, and He instructs them on the use of his name. (Jn 14:12-14) In His resurrection, he conquers Satan (Col. 2:15) and removes Satan’s claim over man as his slave, and gives his followers “power of attorney” so to speak to act in his stead. Intercessory prayer is one way we  can wage warfare against these evil powers that corrupt nature and influence men to steal, kill and destroy. (Jn. 10:10) The oft quoted C.S. Lewis famously said:

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

The traditional view of God seems to have to attribute everything – good, bad, and indifferent – to God’s sovereignty. This seems to paint God as some sort of schizophrenic autocrat. How can we be assured of any answer to prayer if this is the way God is? The biblical picture as demonstrated by Jesus was not a puppet master, but “Our Father”. He said that if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father, and in Him we saw someone triumphing over evil and death, and as the one who “gave us the keys of the kingdom”, able to bind Satan’s plans and loose God’s ultimate ends on the earth.

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The Tucson Tragedy and the Problem of Evil

Like most of you, I’d prefer not think too much about the tragic events that happened last week in Tucson. I’m a parent, and the thought of having my own little child or wife gunned down by someone like Jared Loughner is heart-rending. Many will ask how could God let such a terrible thing to happen, and I can’t say that I blame them. Honestly, one of the things that prevented me from faith in God for a long time was the so-called problem of evil.

To give you some personal history, I grew up in a home where both my parents were alcoholics. There was constant fighting going on and it made my life a living hell at times. I couldn’t have friends over, I had trouble concentrating on homework, it warped my ability to feel adequate socially, and then later in my teenage years, I became rather rebellious against society.

I since have had a good relationship with my parents. I don’t want to make them look bad, alcoholism is a terrible disease to try and overcome. But back then, it seemed to me that an all-powerful, all-loving God could not exist given my pain and suffering, not to mention all the evil in the world. At first, I was mad at God, then eventually I quit believing at all. God and suffering seemed to mix like oil and water.

I think hidden in my assumptions were that if God were omnipotent, He just could’ve created whatever world he felt like creating. And if he is Love like the Bible teaches, He obviously would prefer a world that didn’t include suffering. But suffering exists, so my reasoning was that God didn’t exist.

In light of the horrible tragedy in Arizona, I hope that I don’t come across with the coldness of one of Job’s comforters when giving what philosophers have called  “free will defense”. But I think it’s important to see that there is no explicit contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of suffering. “But the contradiction is pretty implicit!”, one might remark. But the person who says that has taken a huge burden of proof in showing how suffering and an all-powerful, all-loving God is logically inconsistent.

It isn’t true that God can create any world he wants and give us free will, because it’s not logically possible to force anyone to do something freely. It’s like “smelling the number 9” or the idea of a square circle. Given the possibility of free will, people can choose evil over good. I think most agree that it is good of God to create a world where we’re not His toy robots, but persons who can make decisions. Moreover, it seems apparent that evil is just a perversion of the good. C.S. Lewis once wrote –

Evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself.

We may not like the suggestion I’m going to make, but as far as we know, a world with suffering may actually be preferred to a world without suffering. While we may not like the idea, as long as it’s even logically possible it defeats the claim that God prefers a world without suffering. It could be the case that a world including suffering could be, all things considered, better than a world without suffering.

In fact, it’s plausible that suffering and God are consistent. Maybe God could not have created a world with as much good as, but less suffering, than this world. We could very well be living in the best of all worlds. God could even have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. Or it could be possible (and this is what I believe), that God might want less suffering in the world but will allow it if we will allow it. Theologically, there are the doctrines of prayer, of angels and demons, and the authority of the believer. We see this authority demonstrated when Jesus calmed the winds, healed the sick, cast out devils etc. Jesus included his disciples and the healing ministry as well. We also see multiple instances in the bible when intercessory prayer prevented certain calamities from happening, and how the lack thereof allowed certain things.

It’s possible that God designed the program of prayer as spiritual training for the believer to “take dominion”, just as God commanded Adam to do in Eden. Sin allowed suffering to come into the world, but we who are redeemed by Jesus are to take up where Adam failed. God may not wish to go “over our head” in many instances, but chooses us to be his agents of change on the earth. (see Genesis 1:26-28 and Romans 5:17)  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once observed –

It seems God is limited by our prayer life–and He can do nothing for humanity unless someone asks Him.

Allow me to illustrate. One morning, while I was in prayer back when I was going to bible college in Tulsa, I had an inner-perception or premonition that my mother, who lived in St. Louis, was going to be involved in a car accident. As a Christian, I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. (See John 16:13) I asked the Lord that he would somehow see to it that my mom was delayed.  When visiting over Thanksgiving, I asked my mom if  such a thing occurred. I was pretty confident in my experience, but for all I knew it could’ve been the pizza from the night earlier.

As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and then later was stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was a little unnerving and she was glad she left later than usual. My mom was not a real believer in the supernatural at that time, but needless to say, my story made quite an impression on her. Now why would God not keep my mom from the accident by acting on His own if that is what he wanted? Why did He instead choose to prompt me to pray? It’s an interesting thought.

Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that God will warn us every time with every detail before something tragic happens, but He may be doing much, much more than we might realize. Christians need to be sensitive to His subtle direction. While this may not be plausible to some of you, it is at least possible God actually may wanted to avert the tragedy in Tucson and alerted people to not go to the event, or tried to alert people to Loughner’s suspicious behavior but for whatever reason, people failed to respond. Based on his character, I’d like to think He did, but as finite creatures, we’re really not in place to make such a probability judgment in all circumstances. (see Deuteronomy 29:29)

And on the scope of the other evidences we find for God’s existence – God being the reason that the universe came into being out of nothing in the finite past, God being the grounds of objective moral values, God being the basis of many people’s spiritual experience, or the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, etc – God’s existence is arguably more probable than not even given the existence of evil.

We should also keep in mind in the light of suffering, Christ entered our fallen world and endured a suffering beyond all human understanding. He became sin, bearing the punishment for the iniquities of the entire world. No one can even begin to fathom such suffering. He was a completely innocent, but voluntarily underwent a frighteningly excruciating and terrible death and separation from God. Why? Because He loved us and wanted to redeem us. How can we reject Him who entered into our pains and gave up all for us, and moreover, who promises us that He will one day fully bring justice?

If God doesn’t exist, then we’re trapped in a world filled with pointless pain and tragedy. But on Christianity, God is the last answer to problem and suffering. He gives us fellowship with Himself and gives us this tremendous promise –

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.