Free-will Praying and the Sovereignty of God
Abraham’s Plea Bargaining Influenced God.
I know those words sound incredulous to any human with a high view of the sovereignty of God. The Creator-God needs no one to influence him. What kind of God is Elohim if he can be influenced? A God that hasn't made up his mind? A God that needs the Finite Ones to help him process big decisions? What is God, some kind of unintelligent energy that needs us earthlings to think for him?
But as we look at the Genesis eighteen story there it is, God permitting Abraham to pushback and plea. As the story plays out, it appears that the whole episode was just a charade since God sentences Sodom. Abraham loses the case. God remains Sovereign. So what was the purpose of prayer? Was Abraham’s prayer more about himself, more about his personal development and growth and being in the Presence of God?
When I think about prayer as something that exerts an influence only in my life and not in God's existence, I am reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.” We need this quote because it reminds us of how much we need God, how much prayer changes us, deepens us, and works in us. I have found Lewis’ words on this subject a correcting perspective in a church world that often uses Jesus as a genie-in-a-bottle who helps make all our wishes and dreams come true.
But then there are the contradictory words of Karl Barth, “prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action even upon his existence.”
What?! So which is it? Is prayer for us or is prayer for God? The simple answer is, “Yes.” Prayer is a thing of beauty; both God and humanity walk away from the moment influenced by each other. Isn't this how all relationships are? When we interact with each other we are influenced by the other, not just our actions but our existence. Could Barth be right? Is God's activity and existence influenced by mere mortals?
Two observations come into view from this narrative; first, when God goes down to assess the evidence and make a judgment based on Abraham's plea bargain he discovers there are not ten righteous people in Sodom. As he is sentencing the cities an interesting set of instructions goes on the record. “ When God destroyed the cities of the valley he remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow.” (Genesis 19:29).
God remembered Abraham. This remembering is not to say that God had forgotten Abraham but now he remembered; its more like, “in thinking about Abraham,” God reacted. Abraham’s relationship and pleading influenced both God's existence and activity. Abraham’s nephew and family are brought out of Sodom because of the friendship that Abraham had with God.
But what about God's sovereignty? The tension between the weakening of God’s sovereignty by succumbing to the influence of human prayer is resolved in the “fact that God yields to human petitions, that he alters his intentions and follows the bent of our prayers [not as] a sign of weakness … but in [showing] his greatness” (Karl Barth). In other words, a little girl's ability to wield an influence over her mother, doesn't reveal her mother to be weak or lack control, but reveals the delighting and kindly heart of the mother, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).
Because we read this story with the end in mind--the destruction of Sodom--our view of God is skewed to think that God said, 'no' to Abraham. But stop for second and think about God's answer to Abraham. My second observation is God said ‘yes’ six times to Abraham. There you have it; God answered Abraham. God said, yes, again and again and again. Abraham was getting everything he requested. One has to wonder if God would have said 'Yes' had Abraham asked for God to spare the city for one righteous person. God's yeses challenge us to pray large. The six yeses invite us to listen for the yes in God's voice. And Abraham shows us the possibility of standing courageously before the Judge on behalf of our cities and world. His audacity to press the Judge for more and more leniency is nothing short of courageous.
Emboldened prayer is not such because of the courage of the petitioner, but emboldened prayer is such because of its vision of the Judge. Abraham asks large because he believes God to be large. Abraham asks for leniency because he believes God to be a lenient and merciful God. Prayers are a reflection of who we believe God to be. Abraham is praying for God to forgive an urban inner city of its violence and oppression. This is not a safe prayer. This is a large prayer. Large, audacious and courageous prayers are emboldened by an accurate vision of God. Prayers that risk-nothing, fueled only by individualized ambitions will be answered with the same coldness and dankness from which they are prayed. Large prayers are not ambiguous generalizations, but prayers that are measurable, riskable, numerable (50,45,40,30,20,10). Courageous prayers are not New Years resolutions that you need God simply keep you motivated toward. They are city-wide and heaven deep! They call all of heaven to invade all of earth. Martin Buber said, if our prayers … “can no longer desire the impossible [they] will be able to achieve nothing more than the all-to-probable.”
Abraham asks Big and God says, “Yes.”
What are you asking that is Kingdom Big? And is your faith large enough to hear God say, “Yes”? If not, its time to get a bigger view of God.