Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Praying for the salvation of free agents

In a previous post, I suggested a path to a universalist faith by way of the Bible's teachings about prayer. The apostle Paul calls us to pray for the salvation of all people, and says that this is an essential part of godliness, since God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim 2.1-4). Now in various places throughout scripture, we are called to pray to God with faith, expecting to receive what we have asked for, if it be God's will. Moreover, we are told that a righteous person's prayer is powerful and effective (Jas 5.16), and as a person grows in righteousness, she is more and more concerned for the salvation of others, just as Christ himself the Righteous (1 John 2.1) intercedes on behalf of sinners and died for them. So it would seem that we can and must pray for the salvation of all, believing that God will grant this prayer!

Now a problem arises: what about human freedom? Perhaps we can pray for God to do things, for example to heal a sick person, but can we pray to God that other free agents do something, at least with any confidence? Are we not permitted to pray with confidence about our prayers to God for the salvation of another person?

Notice that if we answer 'Yes' to these questions, we are put in a very uncomfortable position. After all, we may pray confidently for a number of things about which we are uncertain whether God wills them -- e.g., that a sick friend be healed and spared from death. Jesus teaches us to pray confidently and persistently, but this not always a guarantee that we will get what we want, because sometimes our will does not align with God's will. Yet in the case of Paul's injunction, we are told precisely that it is God's will for every human person to be saved, and to pray for this end. So we are not in ignorance about whether God's will is the same as our will in this particular case; rather we are as sure as of anything else in the scriptures! Why, then, should we not have confidence that this prayer will be answered?

Suppose I pray that God provide for me a woman to be my wife, and that I live together with her in a happy and fruitful marriage, but as a matter of fact, I marry a devil-woman and my marriage is a wreck. One way to think about this is that God wanted my marriage to go well, but he had no control over it, and so my wife on her own chose to live disastrously and ruined it. This is a miserable position, however, because if God lacks that kind of control over my future, there's no sense in praying to him for such a thing. Why pray to God for a happy future life together with another person, if God has no way in principle of guaranteeing that such a thing could take place? Can I take my devil-woman of a wife to be God's answer to my prayer? In that case, was God playing a joke on me? Or should I think rather that God has nothing to do with my personal life, since he has no control over the free choices of human beings? If that's the case, then just what does God do anyway? Why pray to him about anything?

Another way to think about this scenario is that it wasn't God's will for me to have a happy marriage. Perhaps he allowed that I suffer through this because it was critical to his greater providential plan, both for myself and for my wife and for the rest of the world, that I suffer in this way. Perhaps you will say that this compromises God's goodness, but not necessarily. After all, if God is good, he would allow this to happen only if he had an adequate reason; and God is good, and he has allowed this to happen, so therefore he must have an adequate reason. The logic here is impeccable, so at the end of the day, it comes down to whether we are willing to admit that God, being good, can nevertheless allow that disastrous things happen.

I don't think this a unique problem for the theologian who understands God's providence a bit more "deterministically" than others. After all, if God foreknew that disastrous and evil things would happen in the world and yet created the world anyway, how is he any better off for that fact? None of those things would have happened had God never created the world, regardless of whether he determined that they would happen or not. In that case, it seems you're no better off whether you affirm that God implements these sorts of tragic events as a part of his providential plan or else he simply foreknows them and lets them happen independently of his control. In either case, God's goodness is compromised or not. The real problem, however, is that if you take the view that human freedom is outside of God's control, you might quickly run into disastrous problems understanding God's providential control of the world. You would have to allow the possibility that the world turn out incorrigibly wretched, as in Hard to be a God.

I know what it is like for a desperate parent to plead before God with utter abandon and exhaustion for the salvation of her wayward child. This is a common enough reality, if you are in a large enough church community. Can you imagine saying to such a person, I'm sorry, you can pray for your son's salvation all you want, but don't pray with any confidence or hope or expectation that it will happen. After all, your son's got free will, he can do what he likes, and he may reject God forever. That's a reality you'll simply have to accept. Aside from the philosophical and theological problems such a conception of divine providence creates, this kind of thinking is pastorally disastrous. That is hardly the way you would console a mother whose very sense of the meaningfulness of her life is hanging by a thread since her six children are all wayward criminals, this close to ruining their lives forever.

It seems to me that we can and must pray for the salvation of others with confidence. If we cannot pray for this, then our conviction that God works all things for good (Rom 8.28) will fall apart. If God has no control whatsoever over the actions of human beings, then it is hardly worth praying to God about anything in our lives -- for a job, for a happy marriage, for the salvation of our children, etc.