To Matt on the Problem of Petitionary Prayer

My buddy Matt Tapie recently wrote a blog that deals with faith in God and the problem of petitionary prayer (i.e. Prayers that ask God to DO something to help us). The central problem is always this: Why does God help some and not others? A few major solutions have arisen to deal with this problem:

Are all "miracles" just coincidences, completely explainable by scientific cause and effect? In this case, God is like a scientist who made this huge science fair project we call "creation", and then sits back passively to watch it run. This, by the way, is called Deism, and it leads directly to Atheism, because if God is nowhere involved in Creation, then there is no need of using God as a causal or explanatory factor at all.

Or, is God bound by the processes of the Universe to evolve along with it, growing and changing as the Universe grows and changes, like a soul that grows with a body? In this case, God cannot do anything other than what is already happening, because what is happening- good and bad- is God's personal evolution. God is doing the best God can. This is called process Theism, or panentheism, and because it leads to a view in which God never intervenes in Cration to express His personality, it usually leads to pantheism. Pantheism is the view that "God" is really the impersonal life force of the universe, source of good and evil, and unknowable to any personal being (like us).

So, all of the major solutions seem to deny key features of the Biblical revelation of God we find epitomized in Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate. This God is personal, does "intervene" on some occasions, does do "miracles" (but infrequently), and does seem to be moved by petitionary prayers. But, why is God not moved by EVERY petitionary prayer (if, indeed, he loves everyone)? Here is what I wrote to Matt:

Have you ever read CS Lewis' book "Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer"? It has some truly brilliant parts in it about intercessory prayer.

I think my problem with intercessory prayer is solved primarily by the fact that God is a Person, not merely a principal. He can act as he wills, in random freedom. This is not to say that He is capricious. I believe he always acts out of His own Nature as Triune Love.

But HOW that Love is manifested in our lives and in our world is diverse. I assume that in any choice that God makes (or any of us make, for that matter), someone is benefitted more, and some less, by the consequences of that choice. If there are a hundred people, and if God acts in any one of their lives, the consequences of that action will result in some level of benefit for 20 of them, some level of detriment for 20 of them, and no effect on the rest, how will God act?

God could enter into History in a radical way, and destroy all contingencies which cause adverse effects (including destroying all sin and those who will not relinquish sin). But this would be the end of the world and the end of History. All human striving and accomplishment would end, and we would forever come face to face with what we have become.

But, I assume that God has chosen that the costs associated with the end of History are not yet worth the benefits, so He has not chosen to enter into history in a complete and comprehensive way. He has chosen to limit his divine causality in such a way that positive and negative consequences are actualized by his activity in the world.

Take, for instance, the Incarnation. That bit of Divine action in space and time created the means for our salvation and deification. But at what cost? It led to the crucifixion of God's only Son. And that led to His resurrection. And that led to the growth- and ultimate persecution- of the Christian movement. And this, over time has led to billions being saved and millions being martyred.

I believe that God thought the positive consequences outweighed the negative, but it is important to note that not even such a great "miracle" as the Incarnation of God was not without serious, and lasting, negative consequences.

This same thing could be said for God's calling and election of Israel as His People before Christ. God's intervention caused endless grief for the patriarchs. It caused the loss of all the first born in Egypt. It caused the death of a whole generation of grumblers in the desert. It caused genocide for the Canaanites. It has caused endless wars and pogroms and holocausts and exiles for the Jewish people through the ages.

Is it all worth it? Yes. It means the ultimate redemption of the world through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. But this divine intervention is not without serious cost.

And what about the blind and the lame who are miraculously healed by Christ (in the Bible) and by His Spirit (in the continuing history of the Church)? Are such "miraculuous interventions" without cost? Think of Lazarus who, once raised, had to die again. Think of the lepers who had togo back home, back to work, back to society, and deal with the heartache associated with that. Think of the paralytic who has to learn how to work and integrate into society. And think of anyone who has 20 years added to their lives through a divine healing. They have to deal with the death of family, the betrayal of friends, and the brokenness that comes with just living in this world.

In the long run, isn’t it hard to calculate if a "miracle" gives more than it takes?

Or, to take a final example. Who would have thought seven years ago that it would be a BAD idea to get rid of an oppressive dictator who was jailing, torturing, and killing dozens of people every year in his country? Who would have thought that it was a bad idea to invade and "liberate" people? Who would have thought that people might be "better off" with an oppressive government?

And yet, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the consequences were not as we thought. We do not know what the long term effects will be. But, we do know that secret police raids that killed or tortured dozens every month, have turned into sectarian violence that kills hundreds every month. And we have learned that there are some things a country has to do for itself, or else it does not "own" the change it creates. Swooping in with US military might may not, after all, be such a wise idea if democracy and freedom is to be spread in a genuine way.

There are many times when a person (or even a country) cannot "liberate" someone else. It only causes a mixed bag of resentment and dependence toward the liberator. Instead, the would-be liberator must give power to the oppressed to free themselves, and if they do not use that power, they go on being oppressed.

All of this goes for God as for men. Does God "intervene" and do amazing things in the world? Yes. But all of these interventions have positive and negative consequences, and you can bet that there is a Divine calculus that goes into making such decisions, which is unfathomable to us who can only hold "seven units" of information in our minds at any one time.

God's normal method of intervention, is to give us the spiritual power [i.e. grace] we need to liberate ourselves and others, because if he swooped in and causally did it for us, we would be immature and spoiled. God knows when it is better to do it for us (by miracle) and when it is better, in the long run, to help us do it for ourselves (as is the norm).

And then there is the problem that we often do not realize that allowing us to undergo temporary pain is often needed for long-term health. For instance, one day after my daughter turned two I had to take her down to get shots. She hated them, and she was very angry at me, for taking her to get them. It will be years before she realizes that they were necessary for her health in the long run.

The same is true for us. We do not realize why we must go through pain. But we will. And even physical death is an incomparably small price to pay to save us from a dead soul due to pride and selfishness. I am convinced God allows many to be taken away from this life so they do not grow into monsters or sub-humans.

All of this taken together, I think I am starting to grasp why God does not always intervene or heal in the way I expect Him to. I think our prayer and petition is related to how God acts, but in a systemic, and not a linear way. It is not as if my request [A] causes response [B]. Rather, in the timelessness of eternity, God hears my request [A], and does Divine Calculus with factors [B] through [Y], and then chooses in freedom to act in method [Z].

I also think that we must understand another thing from Scripture: All of the passages that speak in terms of "ask and it will be given you", are all written in second person plural. It is not an individualistic "you" who asks God, without discerning the will of God. It is a communal "y'all" who petitions God, after discussing and discerning together what should be asked. As Westerners, we tend to think of spirituality and petitionary prayer as the work of an individual, rather than as the work of Christ's Body, the Community of God.

In the final equation, God's answer to prayer isn't actually like an equation at all. It is more like a marriage. And while your spouse often acts in ways you might expect, you can never quite pin them down as if they were a machine. The same is true of God, in a cosmic, sinless, perfectly loving way.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.