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.