Have you ever heard people say, “I prayed for beautiful weather, and look, isn’t it a gorgeous day? God answered my prayer.” or “I really prayed for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win, and look! It’s a miracle, they beat Detroit!” I always shudder when I hear people say things like this. It makes me think, “but what about the farmers who are in need to rain for their crops?” Or “what about the person praying that the Red Wings would win?”
I find such prayers egocentrical. I find it hard to believe that God caused the sun to shine just for you, just to answer your prayer. Or that it was because of your prayers that your favourite team won.
Yet I have not given this much thought aside from my knee-jerk shudder. So that’s what this post is about. It is not to say, “this is what I believe”, but rather “here’s what I’m thinking”. Your comments will be appreciated.
I am exploring this today because recently I was on the “giving” end of one of these answered prayers. I have giving in quotations because if I was an answer to this prayer it was 1) against my desire and 2) involved international tragically breaking news, all for a rather trivial request: a notebook.
My Trivial Case Study
I was working alone in the bookstore the other night when an article reporting the death of Steve Jobs caught my attention. I’ve recently taken an interest in Mac as a result of my conversion from Microsoft last week, and knowing that closing time was only a few moments away leaving me with a few free minutes on my hands, I decided to quickly read the article before closing up the store.
The article was longer than I expected and when I glanced at my watch it was 9:05 p.m. I hurried to the front door to lock it up but before I could get there a car had raced to a screeching halt as two passengers shot out like a slingshot and into the store. I told them that we had closed five minutes ago but they pleaded that all they needed was a notebook; they’d be very quick. I agreed, locking them in and rushing them over to our notebook section. “We’re closed, you have two minutes so make it quick” I said, anxious to get home. Their mom thanked me profusely for allowing them into the store. “We prayed all the way here” she said, “Oh God, we know we’re going to be late, please let them be open”. As they were leaving the older boy said to his mom, “it’s amazing. We prayed so hard all the way here. We were five minutes late and somehow God was still faithful!”
Was I a reluctant tool in the hands of God for a trivial request? I didn’t know the urgency for which they needed the notebook. I didn’t ask. But clearly there was a sense of desperation.
The Question Behind the Question
But my inquiry goes much deeper than that.
- I was late closing the store because I had dabbled on the Internet when there was work to be done, and this is how I came across the article concerning the death of Steve Jobs.
- I had a heightened interest in the death of Steve Jobs because last week I bought my first MacBook Pro.
- I bought my MacBook Pro last week because my Acer Netbook had died on me and I had vowed months ago that my next computer would be a Mac.
- I vowed my next compute would be a Mac when my computer proved incapable of finalizing a slideshow for a wedding I had done as a favour. In a pinch (the day before the wedding), my friend let me use his Mac (my first experience with one) and the slideshow was a huge success.
No doubt I could easily trace this further, but you get the idea. How involved was God in this whole process to get me to the point where I would get lost in an article regarding the death of Steve Jobs, thus being an answer to an urgent prayer request for a notebook? I don’t know and I don’t think I can know in this life (1 Cor. 13:12).
But I believe by conviction that God’s sovereignty means that he must be – whether directly or indirectly, through direct cause or permissiveness – involved in everything.
How Involved Is God?
This is actually a hard pill for me to swallow. My openness to the Open view of God challenges this concept of God’s involvement in everything. Greg Boyd lays out the principle that God causes those things that God wants to make happen (sort of like Calvinism) even to the point of overriding human free will. God only foreknows with absolutely certainty those things that God directly makes happen. But since God does not make everything happen, he does not know with absolute certainty what will happen in most cases.
In other words it seems to me that God is directly involved in the “big picture” things, but is hands off on the small day to day things.[i] But this train of thought can lead to an almost deistic view of God: present to drive the main story, but absent in the subplots. Even if we say that God is “working” in those small mundane things, how does he answer direct prayer requests without having a more direct involvement in the seemingly mundane things leading up to the fulfillment of a trivial request?
I think this is precisely the point some critics of the Open view of God make. Three hundred years before the biblical king Josiah’s spiritual reform of Judah he is prophesied by name. This is one of the most specific and clear prophecies in all of scripture. But when we begin to reflect on all of the causations it took to bring about that very specific prophecy, it becomes difficult to imagine how God was any less involved in the mundane details leading up to its fulfillment as he was in the big picture.[ii]
The same seems true of my own experience. It is difficult to imagine how it is that God was directly involved in the final event resulting in the fulfillment of the rather trivial prayer request, without him also being somehow directly or indirectly involved in every causation that led up to that point.
Is “God answered my prayer” Self-Centered?
So then can that boy really say that God answered his prayer without being self-centered by saying so? To word it another way, did every causation that led up to the fulfillment of his prayer – my divorce from Microsoft, the nearly failed wedding slideshow, the crash of my Acer, my recent acquisition of a MacBook Pro coupled with my recent interest in Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs death itself, my doodling on the internet against work policy, my coming across that article and so on – all happen to answer a single prayer request for a notebook?
I think the answer is actually yes and no.
As I said, it’s difficult to imagine how God was directly involved in the final event in light of all of the causes that led up to that event without also acknowledging that God was involved in those events as well.
Let’s approach this from another angle.
Imagine that my Acer flawlessly performed the actions I need it to do in order to present that wedding slideshow, thus I never had that experience with a Mac. My Acer finally crashed out on me, but rather than investing in a MacBook Pro I purchase another inexpensive Microsoft computer. I would never have had a particular interest in Steve Jobs when he resigned from Mac and while his death probably would have caught my interest, the interest would have been peaked not by who he was (I didn’t know who Steve Jobs was in July!), but rather by the onslaught of bloggers and Facebook users flooding the internet with reports of Jobs passing. In that case I may have eventually read the article, but probably not immediately. At 9:00 p.m. I would have closed down the store and been gone before 9:05. The customers would have pulled in as I was leaving, at which point I would have shrugged my shoulders as I passed them in the parking lot and headed home.
What then would the boy say about his prayer request to God? That God didn’t answer? That God was not faithful? So it seems to me that those causes had to happen or else that boy’s prayer request would not have been fulfilled. Thus by implication God was involved in those causes.
So I think the answer is “yes” in that in, through and by those events the boy could praise God for answering his rather trivial prayer request. But I also believe the answer is also “no”, I don’t believe God was involved in any of those things just to answer that boy’s trivial prayer request.
Is God’s Infiniteness The Answer?
The idea that either God directly causes all things to happen so that he did all of these things that impacts so many people just to answer one boy’s prayer request is absurd to my mind. But on the other hand the idea that God is helplessly and hopelessly working in situations that are completely out of his control (so that he might respect human free will) supposing that – in our situation – God can only be said to be “faithful” because I chose to go along for the ride (which, in fact, I didn’t); this idea seems just as dangerous.[iii]
The answer I believe is found – or at least partly found – in God’s infiniteness. That is, God’s picture is unfathomably larger than yours and mine. By causing or allowing a single seemingly mundane thing – such as the falling of a tree somewhere in the amazon or a person tripping on a step and hurting her knee – God sees every ripple effect of that cause and has in mind an infinite amount of things he plans to accomplish through those things.
That is, yes God was involved in all of those things to bring about an answer to a rather trivial prayer request. But he was involved in none of those things just to bring about an answer to a trivial prayer request. Because what came from those things – what you and I will never either in this life or the next even glimpse the full scope of – is so far beyond me that all I know is that one evening I was annoyed by two shoppers who barged into the store five minutes after closing; and all that boy knows is that somehow, some way, God answered his prayer.
[i] Open Theists would not say that God is “hands off on the small day to day things”; they would rather say that God works in those things, but does not do so in a way that disrespects human free will.
[ii] Cf. 1 Kings 13:2 and 2 Kings 22: ff.
[iii] It seems here that I am being a little bit of a reductionist by oversimplifying a rather complicated discussion. It should also be remembered that I have not touched on even a small percentage of the issues in this discussion, such as natural disasters.