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Why don’t we pray crazy big prayers?

A good friend of mine posed this question last week.  Though absurdly simple, I found it fascinating to attempt an answer.

The question:

  • We talk about praying big but why don’t we pray crazy big like “God save every person” or “God please end all cancers this year” or things like that?

The attempt at an answer:

First, I love the question because it highlights an assumption we all make but almost never really consider.  I cannot recall the last time I heard a prayer for something as grandiose and broad as “God please end all cancers this year.”  This requires us to ask whether this is the natural result of a correct view of God’s order or if this is simply another sign of our weak and timid faith.
I believe part of the reason we don’t pray “God save every person” is that we intuitively know God won’t do this.  Even illiterate Christians with no theological training know this (ironically, the minority on the other side are often highly educated professors).  Now this doesn’t do much to answer the question, but it clarifies that our opinion on the subject comes much more from our intuition than a conscious decision.
If you’re a hardcore, unwavering Calvinist, I don’t think you really can answer the question.  If God 100% controls, in every sense of the word, who goes to heaven and hell, then there really is no reason for Him not to save everyone.  The only logical reason for God to refrain, under a Calvinist framework, is if He is more glorified by allowing some to perish.  To me, this appears a bit sadistic.  But it’s likely what led Aquinas to state that our second favorite activity in heaven will be to meditate upon the eternal torment of unsaved sinners.
If you leave a little tension between the choice of man and sovereignty of God, I think you can come up with a decent explanation.  John 1:7, Acts 17:30-31 and many other verses seem to indicate that Jesus truly desires everyone to repent and follow Him.  However, God’s desire is of course, very different than His will, or put another way: from the reality He knows will unfold.  In this, Jesus seems to model very well what our attitude ought to look like in praying for big things.  Yes, our heart must long for everyone to be saved, but we would be naïve to operate under the assumption that it will occur.  Because Jesus knew, as we know as well, that this won’t happen.  The bible tells us that many will perish apart from God, and it would be foolish to live apart from this knowledge.
Much of these problems arise when we destroy the distinction between desire and will, lumping them together in a single essence of sovereignty.  But we see many indications of God wanting something other than what occurs or what He wills.  This is a mind bender, but I think it is critical to retain the distinction.  With it, we can learn how to pray as well.  We can desire for God to end all cancers, but we also can assume that this very likely wouldn’t accomplish His greater plan for the earth.  For example, we know suffering is part of our pre-heavenly state and is critical to our sanctification.  Thus, in praying for an end to all cancer, we would show not only our mistrust of God’s use of suffering but also our ignorance of His stated plan.
Now, this surely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray to cure cancer, but I think it ought temper our prayer for a miraculous, instant, worldwide cure apart from human work. It’s almost like in prayer we’re supposed to keep one eye on the desires of our heart and another on our understanding of His will.  Perhaps it is like an older brother who sees his younger brother making bad decisions.  He wants to jump in and stop him, but his father tells him to step aside and let the younger brother learn from his decision.  He can certainly pray for his younger brother, but it would be silly to continually pray for something his father explicitly said he wouldn’t do. Though, as a caveat, it would be callous for the older brother to walk away and say “tough luck, you’re screwed”.  Our hearts ought remain in desire of the younger brother’s immediate rescue, but our minds trust that a better plan is in place.
This is a very close parallel to how we ought view the Kingdom of God.  God’s kingdom is already at hand, and therefore we ought act in boldness to improve the earth.  Yet God’s kingdom is also ‘not yet’ and therefore we ought remember that full redemption won’t occur until His final return.

Last rambling thoughts:

If the two prayers listed were answered, it would cause such massive turmoil in the world, life on earth as we know it would end.  It’s pretty clear that God has not left this timing up to us. And, if God answered those prayers, it would also effectively void any responsibility on our part to go out and cure cancer or evangelize the nations.  Though God works through bold prayer, Jesus spends much of His time telling people to make tangible changes in their life, not simply pray about them. Looking at it another way, it certainly would create much more fellowship, love, sanctification and sacrifice for us to all engage in the great task of evangelizing than for us to bring it about solely through prayer from the comfort of our condos.
If God saved every person, based on your prayer, it would nullify your own prayer, as it would show that human agency meant nothing and we truly are nothing more than puppets.  Oddly, in God answering your prayer, it would lose all meaning as a prayer.


Comment from Wyatt
Time March 21, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Hi James,

It’s an unfathomable mystery why god saves some, few, many or none at all. Pannenberg emphasizes that we will have limited knowledge until the eschaton based on 1 cor 13:9, so Aquinas’ statement about hell may sound absurd to us, but all knowledge is not revealed to us. Hell is a horrible place where people are thrown into against their will, but somehow all people serves god’s purposes, even the wicked for the day of wrath Prov 16:4, so we’re left with job 38’s response, “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

So based on our limited knowledge, prayers like “cure all cancer” are in danger of opposing god, like Gamaliel’s advice (Acts 5:39 “but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice,”). Remember Jesus said the man born blind wasn’t only because of his sin, or his parents (think original sin) but so that god’s glory may be revealed in the miraculous restoration of his sight. Similarly, when Peter tried to stop jesus from going to the cross, Jesus rebuked him and called him satan.

In defense of poor calvinists like me, I’d ask you what is the difference between your understanding of a calvinist and a pantheist? Because if all things happen exactly according to god’s one will, then effectively god would be nature? I don’t know any calvinists who claim to be pantheists, but there are many theologians such as schleiermacher, spinoza, etc who would don that label. Even jonathan edwards nods towards panentheism in his original sin.

There has to be a distinction in wills of man and god, so I think its a false dichotomy to dismiss calvinism as an authoring of evil. Even within god there is a distinction of wills (not my will by your will be done – Jesus). The church has always rejected monothelitism.

I believe 1 Timothy 2:4 “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” is more troublesome than john 1:7 becuase it implies universal salvation, or that if salvation is determine’d by man’s will, then god is powerless and unable to save anyone. an impotent god means the true gods of this world are men and various other powers, which is basically a return to polytheism.

Comment from KM
Time March 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Good explanation of one of the confusing aspects of prayer. It has always helped me greatly to use the Father/child scenario; not only in understanding some of the mysteries of prayer, but giving me great comfort. Freedom to “pray big” knowing a loving Father is in control.

Comment from Wyatt
Time March 28, 2011 at 10:37 am

Hey James, where did you find that thomas quote? I cannot find it, and would like to look it over. I dont know what aquinas said, but there should be an element of joy for those in heaven that god has defeated his enemies, and is eternally in triumph over them. In John’s Apocolypse, he’s weaping because he doesnt see any justice.

Comment from carol
Time June 3, 2011 at 5:09 am

i think its because i’m selfish. when i go into prayer, i’m pretty much thinking of me and mine. and worship. (and yes, i lean calvinist- don’t hold it against me :-) yea, i do the global thing, but honestly, until just now, it never occurred to me to pray for an end to ALL cancer: although i’ve prayed for individuals with cancer for years.

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