By Mark Horne
Despite my rather hectic schedule as a father and pastor, I’ve become more and more concerned that a tract defending God’s sovereignty and fore-ordination of all things would be a helpful tool for the Reformed pastor–one converstational in tone and persuasive in style. I have decided to undertake this endeavor but, unhappily, am not nearly finished with it yet. I thought I would provide the introduction for the public. I am not at all sure that it is accomplishing the tone and style that I am aiming for and would appreciate any feedback.
IF GOD IS IN CONTROL, WHY PRAY?
I was driving down I-240 from the Saint Louis Airport to my (rather temporary) home in Fenton, Missouri, when I realized that I was an atheist.
This was not a proud moment for a seminary student who aspired to serve God in the pastorate. Thankfully, I was granted repentance.
What had happened was this: An elderly lady in the church my wife and I attended had been told that she must have her leg amputated immediately. The surgery would be radical, going all the way to her hip. We were to pray for her. That was what I was trying to do as I drove home from work that day. I was trying to pray for her.
How do you pray for someone in that situation? I prayed for her courage, for her doctor to be given wisdom and skill, for her own spiritual growth. But even praying silently I kept avoiding the H-word in my mind. I was avoiding even considering the possibility of healing, let alone praying for it. It didn’t feel right. And at some point on the drive home I asked myself (perhaps out loud): “Mark, why don’t you pray for God to heal her?”
Indeed, why not?
I had to face the fact that I was afraid. I was afraid that if I asked God to heal this lady and God answered my prayer by saying “No,” that I would have to face a crisis of faith. The reason for this crisis would be the fact that God’s answer to my prayer would be the same as what would happen if there was no god who answers prayers. If I prayed and nothing happened I would have to deal with a temptation to doubt God. By not taking the risk, I was avoiding a trial of faith.
But as soon as I confronted my fear I realized that my unconscious strategy was self-destructive. To refuse to pray is the decision of an atheist or a deist, not that of a Christian. Atheists don’t believe in God and deists believe in a world-maker who left us with a self-powered universe to which he pays no attention. Such people do not pray because prayer does nothing. Christians, on the other hand, pray because God is in control. God answers the prayers of his people. Indeed, because God is in control of the world ultimately, God’s people–through prayer and worship–are in control derivatively.
I realized two things that day. First of all, I realized that acting like a deist or an atheist was a stupid way to avoid the temptation to be a deist or an atheist. In a real sense, I was giving in to temptation ahead of time so I wouldn’t have to struggle with resisting it later. If I continued to limit my prayers to natural things that might happen anyway, I would be fostering unbelief in my heart. I can’t think of an easier way to slide into faithlessness than to act faithless while praying. Surely, letting doubt infiltrate one’s times of direct communication with God has to be a dangerous thing. Think of James’ warning:
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:5-7).
To craft safe easily managed prayers that only ask for things that might happen anyway does not comport well with James’ warning.
The second thing I realized is that my assurance that God is in control could easily decay into a passive fatalism. Deism is supposed to be exactly the opposite of a strong confidence that God is actively overseeing all that happens according to his wise plan. But it is quite possible for people who believe that God is in control to act exactly like Deists. Deists don’t pray because the world’s course is not affected by God. Zealots for God’s control don’t pray because they think the world’s course is set by God so that they should ever expect God to change it. The two positions seem opposite but the believers in a managing God could easily act exactly the same as a deist would. Belief that God is in control of the world degenerates into a belief that the way the world is reveals God’s plan.
As I said, God was merciful. I repented. I confessed to God that I was afraid to ask him to deliver this sister in the Lord from having her leg severed from her body. I was afraid because I He might say “No.” That was certainly his right. But it was my right and duty to beg him to do otherwise. So I was begging. Save her leg. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
God spared her leg. The next time she was examined the doctors found things weren’t so bad after all and they canceled the amputation.
Later that week my wife and I took part in a Bible Study. Everyone there had known about the impending amputation and the fact that she wasn’t going to have to go through it was a hot topic for conversation that night. It was interesting. One person especially admitted that he had thought about praying for her healing but had decided not to do so because, after all, God had decreed all things. Since God had already decreed everything that would happen there was no point in praying that he would change his mind and do something different.
I objected. No, God had revealed to us what he intended to do. According to all that the medical experts could see, God had decided to take this woman’s leg away from her. But after God’s people prayed to him to have mercy on this sister in Christ, he relented and showed a new determination by altering the situation.
I didn’t say this as someone who thought that God had been ignorant about the future or unsure of what he was going to do. I would insist, as we will see, that God must have planned for this woman to be in a position where the doctors were forced to amputate her leg. God must have planned for his people to pray for this woman. And God must have planned to answer their prayers. God must have planned the entire sequence of events: the initial action, the prayer, and the subsequent response.
In other words, it must both be true that our prayer changed God’s mind and that God himself planned for our prayer to change his mind. Seemingly paradoxical perhaps. But true.
We will return to the question as to whether my claim is true in a later chapter. Right now I want to simply point out that it is perfectly possible to believe that God decrees all things and also believe that God changes his mind in response to prayers. A person who believes one of those two things does not have to deny the other. After all, this is no more problematic than stating that God responds to prayer and yet knows the future–something that Christians have confessed for centuries.
Before I end this chapter I want to point out something else: while prayer is compatible with the claim that God is in control, that God works all things according to his plan, it is not compatible with a God who is not in control.
Think about it. When you pray for someone are you assuming that either you love that person more than God does or that you are more aware of that person than God is? If God’s eternal control must be denied to protect prayer then we have not yet gone far enough. We must not only deny that he plans or even knows the future, but we must also deny that he has knowledge of or interest in the present. Avoiding the apparent tension in our thinking simply leaves us with more problems, unresolvable ones.
The argument goes like this: If God has already planned every detail that ever happens, then prayer is useless. The fact that we pray for things means that the future must be truly contingent upon what we as creatures do with no eternal decree determining what must happen in advance.
This strikes many as plausible. When I pray for a friend’s healing or conversion I am praying for things that may or may not take place. To say that the outcome is already planned by a God who is in absolute control of all that happens seems to take away all normal motivation in prayer.
But why stop there? When a Christian prays for another and pleads for him before God’s throne does he think that he loves that person more than God? If not, then why does he argue with God and beg him to act on his friends’ behalf? When the Church prayed for Peter as he was sleeping in Herod’s prison (Acts 12), did they imagine that they cared more for Peter than God did? Did they think that they understood better than God how much the Church needed Peter’s ministry or how much they would miss him?
And what can be said about God’s love can also be said about his knowledge and attention. When we pray to God is that because he is distracted until we get his attention? Did the Jerusalem Church think that God was too busy elsewhere to have learned of Peter’s imprisonment and imminant execution?
Limiting God to “make room” for prayer can only end up with a god who is too limited to be of any more use than an imaginary pagan god. Prayer, in this world view, is really a form of magic that is meant to attract the attention of “higher powers” to get them to aid us.
I think the whole quest to explain prayer by limiting God is simply doomed. We are much better off praying to the true God rather than some alleged god of limited love and knowledge. He, at least, is worth praying to.