Thursday, December 14, 2006

Open Theism: Why Pray?

Implications on A Believer’s Petitions

Would God withhold from us a blessing He intends to grant because we do not pray? Conversely, could His response to our prayer be ultimately contingent on us? How then shall we make sense of the biblical assertion that “you have not because you ask not” (James 4:2)? Open theist John Sanders cited biblical examples of God removing certain plagues at Moses’ request (Exodus 8:13, 31) and ‘changing His mind’ in response to Hezekiah’s request to let him live longer (2 Kings 20:1-6) as evidence that God really changes His plans in response to human actions. [10]

It would seem absurd to suppose that God would ‘repent’ if He already foreknew what would occur. Surely, it is not much of a conversation with God if He already knew in advance what we were going to say anyway. [11] At first glance, open theism appears to offer significant incentive for petitions and supplications since God’s action is largely dependent on a process of relational consultation with us.

Having said that, we also need to do justice to equally important texts that explicitly declare, “God is not a man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent” (Numbers 23:19). There is also a real sense in which God will not “lie or repent; for he is not a man that he should repent” (1 Samuel 15:29). John Piper proposed that taking both sets of texts seriously prevent us from conceiving God’s “repentance” in the same way as the limitations of a man. Unlike us, God is not limited by folly or lack of foresight. He changed His mind “not because it responds to unforeseen circumstances, but because he has ordained that his mind accord with the way he himself orders the changing events of the world.” [12]

That means classical theism could also affirm that God genuinely shows mercy when people turn away from sin and seek His face in prayer. But He is neither caught off guard nor ultimately held contingent upon his creatures. Instead, He infallibly plans and knows in advance even the human actions that He responds to. In doing so, some ‘distinctive’ attractions of the open theist model are lessened, if not removed. Still, it may be objected that “Since even our prayers are already ordained and foreknown by God, does it not render human action unnecessary?” But it would be like asking, “If God has eternally decreed that you should live, what is the use of your breathing or eating?” God has ordained not only that we would live, but also the means (oxygen and food) by which we should live. Similarly, God has decreed our intercessions to be the means by which His Kingdom would be established because nothing amplifies the sufficiency of God and the humility of man more than the empty hands of trusting prayer. [13] Classical theists could strongly affirm human responsibility to co-operate with God to work for a better world since God willed to accomplish his plans through human agency. Divine sovereignty should never be an excuse to neglect prayer any more than it is an excuse for not eating or breathing.[14] Rather, it is the very foundation for the efficacy of our prayers.

Although open theists may pray for divine intervention to influence and woo the sinner, ultimate self-determination still remains on the person himself. Violating man’s libertarian freedom would put His ‘creation project’ in jeopardy. As a result, we could not consistently pray for an efficacious influence that actually brings a person to faith or repentance like: “God, please take out their heart of stone and give them a new hearts of flesh. Grant them repentance and knowledge of the truth. Open their hearts so they may believe.” Such prayers presuppose God’s influence is sovereign and effectual in bringing about actual human repentance and faith. Piper explains in more detail, “People who really believe that man must have the ultimate power of self-determination can’t consistently pray that God would convert unbelieving sinners. Why? Because if they pray for divine influence in a sinner’s life they are either praying for a successful influence (which takes away the sinner’s ultimate self-determination), or they are praying for an unsuccessful influence (which is not praying for God to convert the sinner). So either you give up praying for God to convert sinners or you give up ultimate human self-determination.” [15]

While God graciously desires an intimate personal relationship with us, we need to be conscious of the vertical, Creator-creature dimension of that relationship. We do not relate to Him as equal partners. The purpose of prayer is not for us to counsel God or overcome His reluctance (Isaiah 40:13-14). Considering how God is supremely wise and benevolent in contrast with our ignorance and sinfulness, our petitions could either be inferior to the plan God has for us or be in accord with the plan He already knew is best. Therefore, God would be acting foolishly if He were to give in to our inferior wishes. Our petition should primarily be focused on aligning ourselves to His will in obedience, not changing His will by negotiation.

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