Tag Archive: Free Will


Answers to Prayer

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.

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If the atheists are right, we aren’t really free; we are all just the effect of random causes we had no control over. There is no right and wrong, we are not accountable for our lives, and if life has dealt us a bad hand, we can just complain like the victims we are.

If we are free, we are also responsible for the choices we make. But we will live worried, guilt-ridden lives as we notice our own tendency to mess things up.

But if we combine this with an understanding of God’s grace and His sovereign power, then we can rest and really start to enjoy our lives.

God says we are free; our choices matter. He wants us to do our best, and uses the trials of life to change us. But because of Christ’s work, He also forgives us as soon as we are willing to trust that He has. And knowing His will ultimately prevails, we can put our worried hearts aside and live happy, fulfilled lives.

It’s like the old Keith Green song:
“Keep doing your best
And pray that it’s blessed
And He’ll take care of the rest”.

What Christmas Means

How God can allow pain in the world? What answer can He possibly give us? From ISIS to the gas chambers of Auschwitz it often seems He is silent.

And like us, Jesus as Man even asked the same: “Why have You forsaken me?”

But the answer was given over 2,000 years ago. At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God became man, an act of staggering humility. But why was this necessary?

If we understand God is real, and that He desires relationship rather than just religious rule keeping, we must be free to choose or reject Him.

And in the only world where free will can exist, so will the potential for this chaos, pain and the evil we choose to do to one another. An act of divine power to just fix things would violate this freedom; so He had to come as a helpless baby to grow, dwell in our broken world and actually share in our pain. He identifies with us because He became human.

His answer was to suffer with us, and then to offer Himself as the atonement for our sin. And if He identifies with us, when we choose to enter relationship, we identify with Him: and what happens to Him becomes our fate as well.

His work was that, having died to sin, to rise again, through death to the resurrection: the defeat of the random, decaying order we see, an eternal hope for all will put their trust in Him.

If, in our identification with Him we died, we hope also to rise. This is the central belief and hope of the Christian faith: death and sin are defeated in fact.

He came to do so much more than teach.

Intentionality

A little while ago, blogger Dave Ramsey wrote an article entitled “20 things rich people do every day”. He received  lot of criticism for it, but as he later pointed out, he was simply observing cause and effect. Good habits consciously applied make success more likely, and are found more often in people we would call successful.

Please don’t misunderstand. This is not an endorsement of the “prosperity gospel” and I continue to think it a dangerous distortion. Nevertheless scripture plainly teaches the just rewards of applied effort; Ramsey’s article merely points out the people who do these things generally do better in life. People who succeed in life are intentional; they don’t drift with circumstances but have goals and focus their attention and talents to reach them. They are lifelong learners, they plan, they dream and pray and give thanks. They don’t let life just happen: they make a life as stewards of God’s gift.

My first real encounter with God involved a calculated – and very unemotional – decision to learn and read the Bible for information, not out of a sense of guilt or religious duty, but because I simply wanted to know God better.

We are choosing creatures, and one of the significant ways we are made in God’s image is that we have a free will. We are not just victims of circumstance; we are not fatalists. We can make things happen – in fact, we are plainly commanded to do so in scripture, even while we give thanks for all life brings.

We can drift with the current of circumstance, or we can choose to learn, to seek, to change ourselves and the world. Life is a gift from God: what will we do with it?

A few days ago a young man in Moncton shot and killed 3 RCMP members and wounded two more. One of the deceased Mounties was a Christian, and friends of his were interviewed on the news yesterday. He had been married for 4 years, and his wife is expecting their second son in September. They talked about how their pastor, before laying the carpet in their new church, had members of the congregation write on the cement floor of their new sanctuary. His verse was from Jeremiah 29:11 which reads, “ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”.

This young man loved Jesus, and now he’s gone, victim of a random, evil act. Where was God in all this? Larger questions of evil loom large: why does a supposedly good, all powerful God allow such things?

We must remember that God went to the cross. God as the incarnate Son submitted to that same capricious evil that befalls us and so identified with our pain and hurt. How does He fix it? Does He just wave a magic wand and make everything better? No. He comes instead to suffer with us, to share our pain, to sit down in the ashes with us and weep and bleed and die.

God does not want a bunch of robots. He desires sons and daughters in relationship with Him. But in a world where relationship is possible, there must be free will, and such freedom means we will sometimes abuse our free will to hurt others, to hurt and kill even the Son of God Himself: as Luther says, we carry His nails in our pockets. When we hurt one another, we sin against the very One who made us.

But something else happened. He rose from the dead, proving that the seeming triumph of evil is not the end of the story. He defeated death itself.

I’m reading an interesting book right now, The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright. I’m finding it a slow read, but it’s an important book, well researched and deep. He examines what really happened on Easter morning, and what it means for us.

It means He’s the Real Thing. It means His death really did something to change our relationship to God: that we really are forgiven. It means that we were created for an eternal hope and purpose, that we matter infinitely to Him. It means that these feeble bodies of ours will be one day changed to eternal, perfect ones free of pain, and that we will live with and love Him forever. It means all the wrongs will be righted. It means that we are destined for ultimate joy and satisfaction.

And when that gets down into your bones, everything changes. We don’t grieve as others do; we know death is not the end. It’s a matter of perspective.

Let’s Get Creative

A few years back, I was at an investing seminar. The speaker pointed out that we are creatures of habit; and that if you don’t deliberately form good habits, you will unconsciously form bad ones. This came as a bit of an epiphany, for it holds some real spiritual truth.

 

I’ve noticed two things about nature. First, that its basically reactive: something happens because something else caused it: cause and effect. In society, people react with hate when abused, they jump when startled. Secondly, there is a tendency towards a running down, a wearing out. A deck of cards won’t deal itself, a house won’t build itself, and my lawn (regrettably) will not mow itself. Untended, it will soon be a mass of weeds.  Disease and age take their toll, things wear out, decay, and fall apart. The universe itself is in fact running down.

 

Like the weeds in my lawn, bad habits form all by themselves. They are part of nature and don’t really take any effort on my part. They just happen.

 

Good habits are different. Every time you do something against your natural inclinations, you rebel against the natural way of things. You have become proactive, rather than reactive. When we don’t clean our house, mow the grass, or even brush our teeth, the natural course is one of decline, decay, and disorder; we have to be constantly adding energy to the system to maintain it.

 

In a very real sense, the spiritual disciplines – like all good habits – are creative acts, the invasion of a supernatural, rational, and moral reality on nature. They are a demonstration of our being more than just biological machines. They are a demonstration of will and choice entering the universe.

 

I think this is one of the ways we are “made in God’s image”. We are to be sons and daughters of God, something of the same type of being – that is, spirits in essence. We have biological life because we live in the natural world; but we have a supernatural life contained in these bodies, because we also inhabit the realm of spirit. I think that is what Jesus meant when He told us to be “perfect”, even as our Father in Heaven is; in effect saying, “You are the same sort of being as your Father in Heaven (i.e., a spirit, and therefore moral and rational): now act like it”. A spiritual being reasons and makes moral choices; in fact, the Author of morality is a Spirit.

 

Christians, especially those of the more charismatic type, are often accused of being emotional. Mature faith involves putting our emotions in their place and determining to trust – and obey – regardless of our emotional state. It’s the most natural thing in the world to love those who love us. It is the path of least resistance – the easy path, the natural, reactive way. Hating those who hate us also comes pretty easy. God calls us to something higher; he tells us to love the unlovely, to bless and not curse, to pray for those who persecute us, to share with the world the same grace He has shown us. He wants us to help Him maintain His world by inputting love and grace into it, even as He Himself does. This is a long, long way from being “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good”.  It’s immensely practical and (no pun intended) down to earth.

 

He wants us to develop good habits of the heart. The deeds of the body in its natural state are primarily emotional and therefore reactive. The disciple is one who rises above these through faith. He chooses to trust – often in spite of his feelings. Romans 12:13 talks about putting to death the deeds of the body by faith. Discipline is an indicator of our faith: do we trust, do we think it’s worth doing? If we take the trouble to put down our natural inclinations, it must be because we expect a benefit, a better knowing of God. The  word disciple derives from the word discipline; the disciple submits to the discipline of seeking God through developing these good habits of the heart, habits of trust, learning what pleases God, and obedience. The undisciplined one lacks faith, or at least isn’t putting it into action; he is an “un-disciple”.

 

Jesus was the first example of a new kind of Man: spiritually alive and in fellowship with the Father, yet inhabiting a human body. Through Him we can come alive to God again, and possess a reflection of that same sort of life in our human bodies. In fact, it stands to reason that we need to be thus connected if we are to really show God’s sort of grace, God’s sort of life to the world. We are to be conduits; “Out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water”. Jesus meant it when He said, “Without Me you can do nothing”. Without that vital connection to Christ what flows out of us is more reaction; and in the scale of eternity, of no value.