Prayer and Free Will

My mom just got back from Rwanda where she was doing missionary/teaching work. I'm very proud of her. I had a daily itinerary for her trip so I could pray for specific things she would be dealing with. What I found is that I was spending 90% of my prayer undermining people's free will. I never really thought about until I stopped believing in free will, but man, we 'prayer warriors' (Evangelicaleese for: people who actively petition God on an aggressive schedule.) are all about actively attacking people's ability to make decisions completely on their own. Here are a few examples from my recent prayers:

God, please keep the guards calm and peaceful as my mother passes checkpoints.

God, please help the government officials and shipping workers to be honest when they deliver Mom's books to the library.

God, please open the women's minds to the alternative food sources Mom is proposing to them.

(There were plenty of non-will related prayers as well such as keeping the weather mild and my mom healthy, but I'm just pointing out certain kinds of prayer right now.)

In these samples you can see that what it comes down to is asking God to force people to behave in certain ways that I deem beneficial to them and others. If a gun-toting road-side guard at a check point is of a violent disposition and is in the mood to shoot someone, yet my mother passes by without incident, is that guard still possessed of free will? If a dishonest shipping clerk feels like selling my mom's books to the highest bidder and claiming them as lost, yet receives a sudden bout of conviction and decides not to, has God overridden His greatest gift to us? (The ability to choose good or evil.) If the farmers that my mom advocated unorthodox edible plants to would have declined had I not heroically intervened in prayer, can their decision be described as "free"?

I guess that depends on how you define free. I feel like free-will defenders will say that when God intervenes in a person's mind in a positive way, He's not actually manipulated them. Rather, they would say He is clearing away the evil that normally clouds their decisions. That sounds great, but unless you are ready for Calvinism you better be careful going down that road. It leads to double-predestination. Because you are in a situation where God apparently values Free Will and our decisions; (including the ones to be bad.) but sometimes if we beg enough, He will clear the path to goodness for some. But only some. And there's the rub. You can say that God ties His own hands by only 'enlightening' those who are prayed for. But reality shows that many who are prayed for die without repentance. (That we know of.) So He must choose not to answer every prayer. Why? Because He respects their Free Will? He didn't respect that Free Will for those He 'enlightened'. So we are left with the Calvinists, insisting that He just likes some of us better than others, saving the ones He likes and letting the rest slide into Hell.

So that's why I think a Free Will perspective is incompatible with intercessory prayer. But is my cold, mechanical (I'm straw-manning myself for fun.) view of reality more compatible? I think so. Because I view God as a Being who knew all and planned all before He created anything. He knew I would pray that the Rwandan guards would be relaxed when my mom passes. In fact, He designed my brain and thinking patterns and those around me to influence me to pray that exact thing. And He also created that guard, his culture, his brain chemistry, his proclivity to harmful substances, his love for poetry, etc. And because this was all planned out ahead of time we don't have a God responding to a request and changing brain chemistry on the fly. No, we have a God creating a perfect tapestry of interconnecting reality before that reality is spoken into existence. His decision as to whether or not He would answer the prayer I would say was made before the foundation of the world. And it was made in the planning of that guard's DNA and the other nearly-infinite factors that compelled him to act the way he did at the moment my mom drove past.

In this view you could say that my prayer then accomplished nothing; as if God needs have His mind changed by some guy in a condo in Kirkland before deciding how to compel a Rwandan guard to act. But God does not need anyone to ask Him to help, or to save, or to damn, or to bless, or to curse. I believe that our prayers, like giving thanks, giving alms, helping the needy, befriending the friendless, etc. are all responses to faith that God built into our souls, brains, hearts, or wherever you think faith resides. In other words I think we tend to see prayer backwards. We see a linear process where we do a thing, then God does a thing. But in reality I think God does a thing outside of time that ripples throughout reality and time. He causes the sick man to be healed before the sick man was born, and that decision on God's part also causes concern and prayers of loved ones before the healing happens.

So why do I pray if I think I'm not changing the outcome of anything? Because I am expressing the deepest desires of my heart. Desires that God put there. I pray many times a day because I am compelled to do so, just like everything else I do. And I'm so thankful that God put that desire in me.


CG said…
Thank you Joshua. I've been wrestling with this prayer/free will thing for a while now. My husband of 12 years left us just over a year ago - and I'm crying out daily for a miracle restoration... and then wondering if God is 'allowed' to interfere with my hubby's 'free will' or not... I've been searching Scripture for answered prayers, where other people's free will is also involved... I just read another article by someone else, and am greatly encouraged that both of you seem to believe that yes, it is worth it to pray. :)
Anonymous said…
I must make a few comments to your reasoning. But first I need to make clear that I'm no way trying to slander you or your religious views. But instead trying to engage some sort of discussion which I hope we can conduct with out being rude or disrespectful towards each other.
With that then out of the way. I must ask, In the most respectful manner; is the god you pray to, really good if he did not give us free will? If all of which happens was already planned or known, are we not then just not just puppets or robots? And the thing we define as life is no more real than the movies we watch. Or the bad soaps run on tv? If god knew that millions of people would die(or suffer) due to acts of violence (or evil in general)(now I realise a counter statement to this would be free will. So let's say a natural disaster(could've been stopped without interfering with people's minds)), does that not make him evil? But if I understood your entry correctly you believe that your decision to pray, is actually not your decision, but rather your involuntary role. Now I guess It would be quite offensive calling you a hypocrite. But can't you admit it sort of sounds like it?
I hope you respond and argue against. Since I too am looking for some sense or good argument that would justify prayer.
Hi, Anonymous. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I think I'll just point to the premises we don't share, and I think that will help steer the conversation and help us not talk past each other. First off, our biggest divergence is sure to be our definitions of good and evil. In fact, my definitions make your entire argument moot to me. (which is not the same thing as saying they are wrong, they simply are not intelligible IF my premise is correct.)

I'll lay this out as concisely as I can. I interpret the world as having two 'layers'. There is the Experiential layer in which we live now. It is all about how we perceive ourselves and our place in the universe. We FEEL very strongly that we have the freedom to make choices and, in fact, without this overwhelming prima facie feeling society crumbles. We have no basis for law, justice, love, etc. At least, no mechanisms currently in place. That could change.

So on the Experiential layer of reality we have our free will because we NEED our free will. God would not have given us such an overwhelming feeling of it for no reason. If only the philosophers and intellectuals can access reality it's probably not reality in my estimation.

On the other hand, I propose another layer of reality I call Ultimate reality. Rather than our perception of ourselves and our place in the world, it is the perspective of God. I obviously do not have access to God's mind and don't pretend to speak for Him. But imagining being outside time and being all-powerful and such, one can make vague sketches of what an Ultimate perspective might be.

And to bring this to the point, from that Ultimate perspective 'evil' could be a non-entity. Here's how: IF there is a reason for all the suffering that occurs on this Experiential layer, in the Ultimate end, THEN that suffering is a tool, or a process that brings about a result. IF God has created this Experiential layer of reality in order to make the kinds of souls He desires, then when those souls are united with Him, (I'm speaking in a Pauline sense (1 Cor 15:20-28) they can then gain His Ultimate perspective. So, if this scheme is True, then every soul would see the suffering that they called 'evil' as a necessary part of their growth toward perfection. At that point, it is no longer evil because no one perceives it as such. God does not. Those who suffered it do not.

Now if you have the time and inclination you can consider this theory and see how it applies to the rest of your argument. A quick side note I'll add, which is my usual rejoinder to the robot/puppet defense... If I am a robot or a puppet, is that better or worse than being clay? I personally don't care what God made me. I care that I'm Loving those around me. Whether it is 'REAL' Love or feelings or not, I feel it and it gives me joy.

If you'd like to learn more about the soul-making theodicy I touched on, check out my book review here:

And of course feel free to reply back here if I haven't melted your brain with insanity.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for responding! And I'm terribly sorry about my late response. I've been on traveling feet, and thus haven't remembered to respond!

I'm not really buy the premise that none would be interpreted nor seen as evil on the ultimate plane / layer if given free will. If a person were to commit a severe crime, because he chose to. Would he on a higher plane still be relieved of the guilt he has by not only god but other "beings" (not sure on how to refer to soul on such a plane of existence), as there is no evil? If that is the way, and the only and thus ultimate way, I must re-ask my question of prayer, and question my moral responsibilities towards my surroundings. Because if there is no greater consequence of my actions, why fear doing so? Obviously there can be no greater reason for "evil" on the premise that the Experiential layer has free will. And as we both know, free will and destiny just cannot go together.

Now you'll have to excuse that of course I may have gotten your argument completely wrong. And then I hope you'll correct me.

Also I'm not sure you answered to my actual question about prayer, as to what justifies prayer? That is if we now have free will.

All the best

No worries, Rasmus. I'm in no hurry. I'm not sure that I understand the whole of your reply, but I'll take my best stab at it. I'll say very clearly that I can not think of any way that a created being could have real (Ultimate) free will. But because I have a puny human brain that means I could be totally wrong about that. What this means for me, practically, is that I don't base any of my philosophical/theological arguments on having or not having free will. I spent years passionately studying the topic and found nothing but dead ends. So I can't really engage your arguments on that subject. All I can say is that it certainly appears that we can make free choices, and because I'm positing a God who knows what He's doing, I presume that He designed us to feel this way. So to play along with the premise of free will is to honor His design of our human brains.

But I don't think one must assume that because we feel we have free will, that we actually truly do. Just as God gave us the potential (through scientific inquiry) to find out that the sun does not orbit the earth, even though the overwhelming sensation our brains give us is that it does; so it is with free will. God gave us the potential (through philosophical inquiry) to find out that our wills are not actually free.

All this is just to establish that we can't KNOW whether we have free will or not. So I fell that it is more wise to create a philosophical/theological model that can work either way. This is why my two-layer system works for me.
With that re-established, let's examine a case study that you pointed toward. I will add details to make it more obvious what I'm saying. You mentioned someone who does some bad thing in this experiential life, and then feels no guilt in the Ultimate Life because the "bad" thing he did wasn't ACTUALLY bad in the new context. Let's examine a worse-case scenario to test my theory at its limit. Let's say there is a child molester who rapes little boys. So, the very worst thing a person can do. In my model, this person is 1.) Being evil on the Experiential Layer, but is also 2.) creating suffering that is part of a larger plan that God foreordained. On THIS Experiential Layer this guy is a monster, the very embodiment of evil. And for a society and morality to exist we MUST treat his actions accordingly. We MUST fight it, resist it, punish it. This is WHY God gave us this sense of Free Will in the first place. It wasn't just a random thing He did to trick us. It's THE vital and necessary part of the process He created us to go through. It is what is required for us to find things 'good' and 'bad', 'evil' 'sacred' etc.

If this is the case then what we call Justice is finding a way to balance the evil with the good in this Experiential Layer. And when we think of this child molester entering the Ultimate Layer our sense of Justice is projected onto that Layer and for justice to exist we think we ought to apply those balancing principles to it. So we think there must be punishment that is commensurate with his evil. (or in the case of an eternal hell it would be punishment infinitely MORE weighty than his crimes)

However, if this two Layer system is true, you don't have a sick-disturbed guy who wants to rape boys in the Ultimate Layer. You have a being that DID those things in their Experiential life for whatever reason (most likely a very broken brain that they no longer possess and so he is no longer suffering from those compulsions) and can see through the eyes of the Ultimate that the suffering he brought about produced something glorious. Keep in mind this ONLY works IF those victims of this demented crimes SHARE that perspective. there would not be in the Ultimate Layer, abusers and victims. There would only be unity. The boys that were raped would have to ALSO see the Ultimate purpose for the suffering they underwent, and rejoice in it. At that point there is no wrong that needs to be balanced by justice. With no victims there is no need for justice. Our status as criminal or victim is left behind on the Experiential Layer when we enter the Ultimate Layer.
And as you brought up, that leads to the inevitable question: Why be good if there are no consequences for evil? My response is twofold. First, I did not propose a system where there is no consequence for evil. I'm only proposing these 2 Layers. There could be more Layers in between. There could be an infinite number of intermediate layers where our souls need to come to grips with how the Experiential and Ultimate Layers are reconciled. This could be a very painful process for those who committed horrible crimes. It could be like gnashing of teeth and feel like eternal flame and undying worms. It could be a very very long process, or it could last but an instant. Or if there is no time involved who knows?

The second answer is more complected and touches on your issue. If one only does good because they fear consequences for doing bad... Are they really doing 'good'? Or are they just following the rules of a system that offers reward and punishment? If they are playing by rules following their desire to gain pleasure and avoid pain then they are essentially no different than a reptile or insect doing the same thing. Where is the free will? If their REAL motive is simply basic instinct then there is no room for free will as far as I can see. They are being manipulated by impulses to act in complex ways that fulfill simple desires.

So I think I've covered enough of my theory for my opinion on prayer to be understood. I believe that prayer is NOT a tool one employs to change the actions or attitudes of God. This is the common, unsaid presupposition behind most people's idea of prayer. They think God will do or not do as they request, otherwise why bother asking, right? Instead I see prayer as a vital exercise in guiding our thoughts and attitudes. It helps us to communicate to ourselves (or opens our minds to God's communication if you please) the deeper things of life. The underlying values we have, and how we ought to apply them in our lives. I see prayer as self reflection that not-praying does not allow. I don't think the matter of free-will is very relevant to this when viewed this way. I'm not trying to change other people's minds when I pray. I'm trying to focus and direct MINE.

Hope this helps you to understand where I'm coming from.
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