Answers to Prayer and Free Will
We sometimes are troubled that God does not always answer prayer the way we would expect, especially since the Bible tells us that we are precious to Him.
Life still appears random, and we ask ourselves if things are just happening as they would happen. We don’t see God’s hand notable in daily life.
Or we are told He does answer prayer, but if we aren’t seeing Him move it’s because we don’t have enough faith.
I wonder if both ideas misunderstand our real situation.
If God is the Creator and outside of time, we may reasonably expect that He is sovereign and can work all things out according to His plan; and if He truly desires our good, that He hears us. But because He desires relationship with created, finite beings, He must grant them free will so that relationship can be consensual. That’s where things get messy.
If the free will of humanity is a real thing, then it’s nonsense to expect a direct correlation between prayers offered and desired results. There will be notable instances, perhaps even miraculous deliverances; but to get what we want every time we pray is to ask the impossible. Some thoughts:
1) Sometimes there are conflicting needs, situations and desires of praying individuals – whose prayers get answered?
2) God knows what we need better than we do, and if God dwells in the past, present and future all at once as the Bible suggests, He sees outcomes we can’t. We are finite beings who live in time, and we often can’t know the long term results of the answer we desire. He does.
3) Besides this, we may consider that the results of our physical actions are limited by our own physicality and mortality; but when we pray, we invoke a power that stands independent of time. Prayer could be a much more powerful force, and a Heart greater than our own must balance our requests against our ultimate good and His plan for the universe.
4) And sometime we ask amiss, for our own pleasures. We trust our own hearts a little to easily: yet the Bible tells us the human heart is wicked and deceitful; self-centredness is the default position of the human heart. Even among His chosen, we must unlearn a lifetime of looking out for number one, and sometimes what we ask for has some of this in it.
But what about when we have done nothing wrong, and God just doesn’t seem to be there?
5) I wonder if God sometimes answers prayer in large strokes, with the complex good arising out of many smaller things that seem like reversals and trials at the time.
One example that comes to mind is Joseph in the Bible. Sold into slavery by his brothers, I don’t doubt he cried to God and wondered why he was left to languish in an Egyptian prison. Yet this trial put him in the position to save his family and changed him from an arrogant upstart to a gentle, forgiving man. It took decades before he was able to connect the dots and see God’s hand.
6) And what of Christ’s passion? Our Lord prayed for deliverance in Gethsemene, yet it was not offered. The Jewish leaders freely chose to have Jesus executed; and they are described as blameworthy even though we are told it was God’s plan from the start.
7) Waiting and trusting develops our souls, puts on spiritual muscle. What we become is more important than our comfort. And if our wills really are free, I don’t see any other way God can amend our bent nature. We have to swim against the current if we are to be changed in fact.
Read Psalms. Lots of wonderings, yet the Psalmist remains faithful. The Bible is quite clear that sometimes faithful people endure terrible trial.
Read Hebrews 11. Some were saved or brought great deliverance; others suffered and were even killed rather than deny their allegiance to God.
When we trust, even our effort is more relaxed. To do our very best because of the gratitude we have for Our redemption is one thing; to work hard because we don’t think God will come through if we don’t is another, and I wonder if this attitude informs much of our work for Him. To do our best and then to be able to rest at the same time is the key, I suspect, to avoiding burn-out. Understanding God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge is part of this.
In the end, I think the Bible describes a God who is eternal and sovereign; whose plan will prevail, and who wants to change our hearts. He moves many things to accomplish His will; and our freedom is one of the things He works with. His work in and for us will not always be obvious.