Prayer, Freedom, and Divine Power
“God, Please heal the relationships in my family.”
By Bob Mesle
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We were reading John B. Cobb’s little book, Praying for Jennifer, and discussing both the problem of evil and the nature of prayer. I was asking them to consider how prayer might be different if they adopted a process relational vision of a God of infinite relational power, rather than the classical view of an omnipotent God of coercive, controlling unilateral power.
I asked the classic question: “If God is all powerful and all loving, why is there so much evil, so much suffering in the world?” Their first response was ‘free will.’ “God is all powerful,” they said, “but gives us our free will.” Then I asked them to write a couple of prayers for us to think about—anonymously.
Many prayers were similar, but one particularly caught my attention and led to an excellent discussion. “God, please heal the relationships in my family.” “Let’s think about this,” I said.
I proposed a simple and all too common example. Suppose Dad has been cheating on Mom. She finds out. What do we think has to happen for that relationship to be healed?
You will probably think of the same things we did. Dad has to repent; he has to really decide to stop cheating. He is probably struggling with guilt, and with anger at himself. He might be wondering if he wants to stay married to Mom. Mom, on the other hand, is feeling betrayed, angry, hurt. Her trust has been dealt a heavy blow. She may also be struggling with whether she wants to stay married to Dad. If they want to heal the relationship, if they want to stay together, he will have to repent, apologize, and really change, and she will have to forgive. Trust will have to be rebuilt.
What then, are we really praying for if we pray, “God, please heal this relationship?”
Could even an omnipotent God do that? First, can God forgive Dad for Mom? Does that even make sense? I mean, if Mom has to forgive Dad (if she even should), then is that something God can do for her? Clearly God cannot make Mom forgive Dad without taking away her free will. We might imagine an omnipotent God just waving God’s hand and saying “Now, Mom, you will feel forgiveness toward Dad, and tell him you forgive him.” What is that? That isn’t real forgiveness. That’s totally nothing. That’s just hypnotism. Throw in, “And by the way, you will completely trust him again.” BOGUS!
Would God even have the RIGHT to do that? Mom is the one hurt and betrayed. Does God have the right to steal her free choice about whether she wants to forgive and move on?
My class saw the big problems. Clearly, they were committed to a free will solution to the problem of evil, and believe in free will in any case, and could plainly see that for God to just turn people into repenting and forgiving puppets was totally fake, totally worthless, totally BOGUS!
Yet, many of them know they had prayed for similar things. Athletes had prayed, “God help everyone to play their best and play with sportsmanship.” Same problem. “God watch over and protect us on the playing field, so that no one gets hurt.” Even accidental collisions are the results of steps freely taken by the players on the field. Can God make us freely choose to be good sports, or to never step in a way that caused injury to ourselves or others? No way. Free will would be out the window and it would be Puppets On The Field.
The thoughtful people in the class quickly saw that they were praying for God to do things that even an All Powerful God could not do, and that they really did not even want God to do, because they wanted to play as free people, not puppets. We didn’t even have to mention prayers like “God, please help us win.”
I suggested that it was good for them to pray about the things which were important in their lives. If they pray for good sportsmanship and no injuries, they were likely to play fairly and try not to hurt opposing players. That’s good. But, still…
I suggested that they imagine praying to a God who is not all powerful, but who has Infinite Relational Power. Imagine praying to a God who is intimately sharing the feelings of all the people involved, knowing the guilt as well as the anger, the pain of the Mom and children, the concern of my student for her family. Imagine praying to a God who is already working to draw the people in directions that will promote healing, toward genuine repentance and forgiveness. Imagine praying to a God who cannot take away our freedom, but is always loving and already at work, not waiting for us to ask. Think how different prayer might be.
I often suggest that “worship” is the act of centering our lives around what rightly belongs at that center. You don’t have to “believe in God” to worship in this sense. But if you do believe in a loving God who is already centered around healing relationships, then prayer as worship is not an act of asking God to do what God apparently has not bothered to do so far. It isn’t pleading, begging, or negotiating. Prayer becomes an act of listening, trying to understand and feel what divine love might already be calling us to do, and trying to center our lives around that.
“God, please heal the relationships in my family,” becomes a question. “God, what are you doing to call my family toward healing, and how can I be engaged in that effort? Thank you.”