Does God Move When We Pray? A Free Will Theist’s Response

prayer-childWhat happens when we pray?  Does it move God, who classically has been seen to be immutable and impassible?  In the previous post, describing classical theism’s response, we explored how the categories of classical theism require us to also hold to a strong sense of God’s sovereignty, ordaining even the means (prayer) of the ends he seeks to accomplish.  That move, however, raises the serious problem of evil because of this strong sense of sovereignty.  In light of this new problem and question, free will theists attempt to counter the problem of evil with a solution of their own.

Recall what we said about classical theism (CT) in the last post.  To make prayer meaningful in the face of a strongly sovereign God, classical theists refused to weaken the sense of sovereignty, claiming that prayer was also part of the divine order as the way he would accomplish his divine will.  CT then holds that prayer has more to do with changing us and involving us in the divine economy (ordering of the world).  CT does not shy away from the logical implication then that even the evil that takes place in this world is under the divine, sovereign control (hence responsibility) of God.

In response to that horrific reality, free will theists (FWT) step up to rearrange the deck chairs to prevent the ship from sinking.  Free will theists, of which Arminianism is included, believe that humans were created with a radically libertarian free will.  God in his freedom chose to make a world in which his sovereignty was redefined or limited to accommodate creation.  For the relationship between the divine and humanity to be authentic it had to be freely chosen by both parties.  After all isn’t love a choice?  As such, we were created totally free, and only after the Fall was that freedom limited.  But in Christ, our freedom is restored, according to FWT. The evil in this world is then no longer God’s direct responsibility.  It is human choosing and willing that is the problem.

So what does this account of the God-World relation look like in terms of prayer?  FWT believe that God is still immutable, but he is only immutable in his essence, being or the stuff that makes him God.  In other words, he will never cease being God because that is WHAT he is, but he can change in response to human choices.  His relationship with humanity is dynamic while remaining unchanged in WHAT he is.

He is also impassible in a redefined way.  God feels and emotes when we suffer, celebrate or pray, but he is not surprised, overwhelmed or penetrated in his being with emotion.  His engagement with us is authentic relationship, but he does not suffer the way humans do.  So a majority of FWT still hold to the classic categories for WHAT God is (immutable, impassible, etc.), but they slightly redefine them to fit their presupposition regarding radical, libertarian freedom for human beings.

So what happens when we pray?  God moves.  He is sovereign, and he has a plan.  However, he does not determine exactly what and how all things will take place in the divine economy.  Think of God as a master’s master of chess, and think of humans as being cognitively developed to the age of two.  How do you think that chess game would go?  Is God in control?  Yes.  Is humanity playing a real game with real choices?  Yes.  Is the outcome in doubt?  Nope.

While sovereignty for the CT means God must have ordained every move of the chess game, the FWT holds that God’s sovereignty only means he ordained the outcome of the game and that he merely knows about each move that will be made.  FWT hold to God’s foreknowledge as the key to understanding his sovereignty, but CT hold to God’s pre-ordaining as the key to understanding sovereignty.

It seems we have a winner.  FWT theism with their notion of radical, libertarian free will allows for real relationship, real prayer and avoids the problem of evil.  Problems solved.  Or are they?

While the tension of the problem of evil appears to be less, it is nevertheless still very real.  Let me use an illustration to make my point.  According to Illinois law, first degree murder involves what we would typically think of as intentional murder.  For example, I am angry at someone for cutting me off in traffic, I get out of my car at the next stop light, and I shot the offending driver, killing them.  That’s murder in the first degree.

In Illinois, and many other jurisdictions, there is a second definition of first degree murder.   Illinois law states a person is guilty of first degree murder when “they know that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual or another.”  In other words, if I do something, while not intending to murder someone, that nevertheless does result in their death and there was a strong probability that my actions would cause that death, I have committed first degree murder.  For example, if I speed excessively down a residential street and run over a young child, killing them, I will be charged with first degree murder, even though I did not intend to kill a child.

Macabre discussion, I know, but so it the problem of evil.  As you might see, CT is like classical first degree murder.  Divine sovereignty is such that God’s finger is on the trigger, metaphorically speaking.  But in FWT, God’s finger may not be on the trigger but he nevertheless left a loaded gun in a room full of toddlers.  I don’t see how FWT does a much better job of escaping the problem of evil.  Moreover, if God knows all our choices before we make them and God cannot be wrong then are we truly free in the radical libertarian why that FWT describe?

It may be that one more option should be explored before settling on a model that attempts to answer the question of what happens to God when we pray.

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3 Responses to Does God Move When We Pray? A Free Will Theist’s Response

  1. Glenn Smith says:

    Hey Ryan~
    It seems to me that both assertions, as you have presented them (CT & FWT), are presuppositional in that they necessitate a tension between God’s sovereignty and the existence of evil. I wish to contend that there is no tension.

    Since this was initially couched in the context of prayer, I would begin this post by submitting to you that, in that you pray… you declare His sovereignty! It would necessarily inform the basis for the action itself. You ask for and give thanks for things because you inherently recognize that God is the author and source of all the good that you have and all the good that you hope for. It is a humble acknowledgement of helplessness and dependence. It is simultaneously a confession of personal impotence and God’s sovereignty.

    Accordingly, whatever theological system one may be betrayed into agreement upon in discussion, I submit that all Christian’s believe that God is entirely sovereign in salvation. I have never known a single contrite and broken heart to not give God thanks for their salvation. Again, the belief in God’s sovereignty is self evident. Even the most ardent free will proponent has yet to express, that while grateful for the means and opportunities of grace that God gave him, he is ultimately thankful to himself for having responded to God’s call. I have never heard, not even one, declare that their repentance and belief was a function of their own wisdom or sound judgment.

    Additionally, to again bring it back to prayer, I would submit that when you pray / intercede for the salvation of others, you declare the sovereignty of God. I hardly think that anyone would pray that God would bring their friend to a point where they can then save themselves! No. In fact we all pray that God Himself would save them… open the eyes of their hearts so to speak, renew their natures and move their will to receive the Saviour. The act and subject of prayer is assumptive of God’s power. I guess I would then suggest, even as we journey in sanctification, so it is with all of our prayers; be it for our daily bread or for Him to keep temptation off our path. Prayer exists because He is sovereign over our wills and He will move us in keeping with the ‘newness’ of our redeemed nature!

    Frankly I believe we regard this ‘controversy’ wrongly, for it is not true that some believe in Sovereignty while others hold an opposite view (you describe it as “God in his freedom chose to make a world in which his sovereignty was redefined or limited to accommodate creation.”). There is only one view of God’s sovereignty given us in the meta-narrative of the pages of our Scriptures and some simply mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.

    As with most error in the church, the root cause comes back to rationalistic speculations… a need for systematic consistency, a reluctance to allow for the existence of antinomies which allow for a God that is wiser than men and a consequent subjection of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.

    To set up my next post, Scripture clearly teaches the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man and it is clear that man has a hard time letting those two truths live side by side. Thus we enter into these ‘disputes.’

    To finish this post I would contend that those who contend for anything less than God’s full and complete exercise of His sovereign nature upon His creation, really believe in it just as strongly as those who contend for completeness of it. Do you pray for your daily bread? Do you pray that temptations in the coming day are few? Do you thank God for your conversion? Do you pray for the salvation of others? If no, then perhaps one is not yet born again. If yes, then one actually believes in God’s full and complete exercise of His sovereign nature upon His creation. On our knees we are all agreed!

    Grace & Peace

  2. Glenn Smith says:

    As I closed my last post, I supposed that our Scriptures are clear in their teaching of God’s complete sovereignty and man’s ultimate culpability and that there is no Biblical position that sees them in opposition to one another.

    In a previous post I have said… “So… I am at peace with something that is unavoidable yet insoluble and it is thusly due to a deficiency of my own understanding. The two principles are not to be treated as rival alternatives (leading to bad religion) but rather as complimentary and in a way that I do not understand.

    That God is both King and Judge is explicitly taught. As King he orders and controls all things, including human actions, in accordance with HIS purpose (Gen. 14:8, 50:20, Prov. 16:9: 21:1, Matt 10:29, Acts 9:27-28, Rom 9:20-21, Eph 1:11…). Additionally He is Judge, holding every man responsible (Matt 25, Rom 2:1-16, Rev 20:11-13…). Both are guaranteed to us by the same divine authority, therefore both are (equally) true.”

    It should probably be understood that “evil” as an entity cannot exist without an understanding of good. It is true in the same way that “darkness” cannot exist without light. Light is understood as a ‘physical’ thing and much like the proposed conundrum of God’s sovereignty and evil, physicists find themselves dealing with an antinomy in that, against all comprehension, light exists both as particles and as waves. However without the knowledge of light, there is no darkness – it has no physicality. For those outside of Christ, they can attain a level of morality for they have seen (allow me to feebly illustrate) the pilot light of the furnace in an otherwise dark basement – thus darkness is perceived, but only relative to the light. You and I however, have come up against the one in whom there is no darkness, and the level of ‘morality’ that we have been called to, far exceeds any understanding of man.

    The presupposition offered up in the last two posts by Ryan, functionally can be asked as “Should God eliminate evil as far as He can? Additionally, “How would that be possible without limiting human freedom?” If then, God were to act in a way that satisfies our rationalistic speculations, wouldn’t such an action actually have the negative consequence of reducing the good that results from the suffering? And if you braved to answer those three questions, how is that you could ever know whether God already accomplishes just that?

    If it were a function of simple logic, the antinomy that besets us in this discussion can be summed as follows… If God is omnipotent and benevolent, then He cannot allow evil unless there is a justification for allowing it. But He obviously does allow it; nay even cause it (for arguments sake! I am not proposing that He is the author of a lack of light!). Consequently, if He is omnipotent and benevolent, then He has a justification for allowing/causing evil. He is benevolent and omnipotent. Therefore, He is justified in allowing/causing evil.

    However, simple logic will never resolve the (perceived) tension between God’s complete sovereignty and man’s culpability and while it is true that one’s feelings on this subject are not determinative, this is precisely the point. The problem is not a conflict between logically-irreconcilable positions, but one involving the beliefs and tastes of the individuals themselves.

    Today, as was demonstrated on previous pages on this blog, the theological defender is almost uniformly charged with the burden of proof, while critics of his views are often thought to have no such obligation. This is nothing less than the current state of culture and philosophy; it has no basis in logic and reason. If my claim that the problem of evil involves no real contradiction obligates me to prove the claim, then the claim that the problem does involve a real contradiction should place the same obligation on those who have a problem with it. This is why too often brothers and sisters so easily reach an impasse in forums such as this.

    So to end this post, I say again, there is no such thing as the problem of evil. There is only a dilemma in theological or philosophical systems that are internally inconsistent in terms of the logic involved. Scripture remains clear… God’s sovereignty and man’s culpability are not to be treated as rival alternatives, but rather in a way that sees both as equally true.

    Grace & Peace

  3. Glenn Smith says:

    As an addendum to my closing statement in my last post, we are not the first enter into this discussion. However there is a distinction to be made, in that those that preceded us, went from grappling to grasping to glorying… and all were a function of faith.

    Habakkuk had one up on us, for his attempt at rationalist speculation, is given to us in an “ask and answer” session with God! Just as Ryan has set the stage for this discussion, the only thing the prophet dared to ask is “why” and “how.” As one sees with most of the minor prophets and their messages, God unapologetically claims that He is going to raise up “evil” (the Chaldeans) as the means by which He has chosen to chastise the nation of Judah. Habakkuk had seen this happen two generations previous as He raised up the Assyrians to virtually wipe out the northern kingdom. He takes that which is inherently evil (lacking light) and uses it for His purposes. In this case God is pulling the trigger! Unlike the gun analogy however, we know that God not only uses the Chaldeans (pulls the trigger on the gun) but then, 70 years later, holds them (the gun) accountable.

    There ought not be any discussion of how or why, but rather we should be examining ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5); whether we have grasped enough of the truth about God, trust it and act on it, such that we become at peace with knowing that such things are beyond our understanding. As I mentioned, Habakkuk goes from grappling with these terrible truths that he is being shown, to grasping his inadequacy to understand, to glorying in his assurance that God is both King and Judge

    Habakkuk came to place where he no longer needed to be self-centered and conditioned by circumstance; and began to once again glory in the God-centered principle of the righteous by faith (Habakkuk 2:4). The truth about a life of faith is that He is the sphere in which you live and move and have your being.

    You cannot be a man of faith and live in a day. You do not live in a day if you are a man of faith. When Habakkuk tried living in a day, he wailed, “O God, you are doing nothing!” (Habakkuk 1:1-2) But when he ever so slightly, by faith, touched the infinitude of God, then he said: “God is doing everything, and if I have any one fear it is lest his wrath which is to overwhelm is too terrible. O Lord, remember mercy.” (Habakkuk 3:1-2)

    I have taken the liberty of these posts since there was no response after these many days. I would suggest that there is only one way to deal with the ‘perceived’ tension presupposed in the last two posts by Ryan – – take both doctrines seriously and to view them in their positive biblical relationship. The Bible does not oppose them to each other, so to qualify, modify or water down each of them in terms of the other, does violence to our Scriptures.

    C.H. Spurgeon was once asked if he could reconcile these two truths to each other. “I wouldn’t try,” he replied; “I never reconcile friends.”
    Grace & Peace

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