On Providence and Prayer

by Jack A. Keller

Mr. Keller was editor and planner i the Department of Youth and Adult Publications at the United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, Tennessee in 1987.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 4, 1987 pp. 967-969. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


We are not to give up cooperating with God’s redemptive power. With this understanding of providence and prayer, it makes sense to keep on trusting God’s limitless love.

The doctrine of providence is a kind of theological watershed separating Christians. On each side of this great divide people claim to have a better account of how God is present in the world. Each view , of providence, which also entails a corresponding approach to petitionary prayer, bears an insight that we dare not lose. But neither side alone is fully adequate to the witness of Scripture or to the evidence of our experience.

On one side there are Christians who are confident that God can and does intervene directly in the world for the sake of particular individuals as well as to direct the larger currents of history. Since we know God as a person, the argument goes, it is reasonable to presume that God's personal nature is reflected in the divine creation. We live in a world directed and controlled by a personal God who exercises providential care for nations and for individuals. If God's will directs even the flight of tiny sparrows, how much more does God care for human beings (Matt. 10:29-31).

God is the good shepherd who protects and heals individuals (Ps. 23) as surely as God directs natural and historical events to serve the divine purposes (e.g. Is. 40:21-24; Amos 9:7). Julian Hartt has summed up this classic position on providence this way: "Since God created the world, it cannot lack anything God intended for it to be and to have. The divine purpose and the divine management cannot be violated or even momentarily frustrated by the behavior, intentional or unwitting, of any part of creation" ("Creation and Providence" in Christian Theology, edited by Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King [Fortress, 19821, p. 120).

What we might call the evangelical understanding of providence, in which God is willing and irresistibly able to intervene on behalf of particular individuals in very specific ways, leads quite naturally to heightened interest in petitionary prayer. Prayer, according to this view; changes events and circumstances-not merely the one praying. Harold Lindsell, former editor of Christianity Today, has made the point clearly: "No one should succumb to the error of viewing prayers as a means of changing the individual and his attitudes rather than changing events, circumstances, and history itself Certainly 'prayer changes me' -- my outlook, orientation and my attitudes. But prayer also changes those situations and circumstances of life which are distinctly divorced from any change which. may take place in the individual who prays" (When You Pray [Tyndale, 1969], p. 11).

More recently, systematic theologian Donald Bloesch has explained that while "God's ultimate purposes, are unchangeable ... his immediate will is flexible and open to change through the prayers of his people." "A personal God, who loves and cares, can be solicited in prayer. Prayer can work miracles because God makes 'himself dependent on the requests of his children" (Essentials of Evangelical Theology [Harper & Row, 1978, vol. 2, p. 57, and Vol. 1, p. 31). No wonder belief in God's providential care as direct and specific for individuals engenders urgency and intensity in the actual practice of petitionary prayer.

This view of providence contains much that is appealing. It surely echoes important voices from Scripture that testify to God's ongoing involvement with the creation, and especially with the people of Israel and with those who follow Jesus. It helps us grasp in concrete ways the basic Christian affirmation that God cares for us and actively seeks our well being. It encourages us to place our concerns and needs before God prayerfully and boldly, assured that God is not indifferent to our plights and that requests made in good faith will be honored.

Yet the reality of innocent suffering has made sensitive people suspicious of this formulation of the doctrine of providence and the corresponding view of prayer. Some months ago Nashville newspapers gave extensive coverage to country-music entertainer Barbara Mandrell's auto accident, in which she suffered a broken leg but escaped serious injury. President Reagan's get-well greetings to, Mandrell exemplified the understandings, of, providence described above:. "God must have been watching over you." I wondered when I read that, as I am sure many others did, whether Reagan was aware of the implication of his statement: that God did not care providentially for the young man driving the other vehicle, who was killed instantly in the collision.

More generally, any case of innocent suffering (especially when hundreds, thousands, even millions are victimized) raises the, question:, what happened .to God's providential care? If God can and does respond to prayers by intervening directly in the world for the sake of persons and peoples, why do we run into so many situations in which God does not intervene to prevent evil? Though the comfortable are often tempted to project some correlation between human deserts and human suffering, we all know of enough exceptions to disprove that hypothesis. Can we speak credibly any longer of divine intervention in guiding either the course of, individuals and empires or the forces of the natural world?

The perception of innocent suffering is the chief factor pushing many Christians to the other side of the theological watershed. Even more than a world view shaped by Newtonian science, the magnitude of evil that falls upon individuals and peoples rules out for these Christians any easy confidence. in God's direct control of creation. They see the universe as self-sustaining, law abiding and religiously neutral. The sun rises alike on the evil and the good. The rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). As Jesus tells us, God allows persons to suffer the violence of evil and the havoc of accidents without regard to virtues or vices (Luke 13:1-5). God is personal, but paradoxically has placed us in an impersonal universe. Religiously speaking, the best that can be made of such a world is to see it, as John Hick proposes, as a "vale of soul-making." God has a hands-off policy as far as human will and the course of nature are concerned so that we can become people who will freely choose to love the deity.

This rejection of the classic doctrine of providence entails a corresponding reduction of the place of petitionary prayer. We, not the causal structures of the universe, are changed by prayer. Robert A. Raines has suggested that prayer, instead of leading God to intervene in a problematic state of affairs, helps persuade us to be open to all individuals as Christ incognito. "Awareness that Christ lives in my neighbor, though unacknowledged by him, frees me from imperialism or proselytism. I am free to regard him as already loved and inhabited by Christ, a person from whom I may learn something new of Christ, one whom I am called to serve...Prayer is awareness of the potentiality for community which results from Christ's presence in every man and in me" (7he Secular Congregation [Harper & Row, 1968], p. 118). Prayer does not change things because God does not change things; rather, prayer provides us with the vision and strength to suffer with and for Christ in others.

Three problems with this perspective on providence are apparent. First, it does not do justice to those parts of the biblical witness that testify to God's active role in the lives of individuals and in the movement of history. Second, it comes perilously close to a deistic understanding of God and the world. God is removed from the field of action once the enormously complex system has been set in motion. Christ permeates the system, to be sure, but in a passive role-he is to be recognized as present in our brothers and sisters but he lacks causal influence. Third, this view of providence undermines the practice of petitionary prayers. Once you are convinced that pleas for divine aid are merely soliloquies that serve to clarify your own motives and perhaps to summon up your resolution to act, prayer as a genuine dialogue, a pleading before God, evaporates. Why bother to pray. for your needs and those of others -when you know that God does not care enough to do anything about those, needs ? Why not simply think them over by yourself?

Is there any way to understand prayer that can (1) salvage the essential insight in the evangelical view of providence that God cares for persons and peoples and actively seeks our well-being, and (2) escape the ruin that the fact of widespread genuine evil has brought upon traditional formulations of providence? If we hold fast to the biblical witness that God does care for us, individually as well as corporately, what must we infer about God and the world that would account for the fact that petitionary prayer sometimes seems futile?

One option would be to suppose that it only seems that God has not answered our prayers; God always answers, but frequently says No. There are times, perhaps, when that is the case. We do not always ask wisely, and God, to be truly loving, must then refuse our requests. But that explanation will not account for the many occasions when there can be virtually no doubt that our requests coincide with God's will. Surely, God intends children to be healthy and happy, yet our prayers for the deliverance of our children from injury or illness do not always bring deliverance. Should we suppose that God's perfect will is sometimes to wreak havoc and misery upon the innocent? There must be a better answer.

A second option would be to posit that God's power to answer prayer is self limited. God is capable of granting all our requests that are consistent with divine will, but God chooses not to do so. Why? Presumably because God is concerned with some higher good that can be achieved in the future only by means of some evil now. John Hick, for example, has defended such an explanation with considerable acumen in recent years. But this road leads to the conclusion that evil is only apparent, not genuine. It is rather like the prick of the needle in a vaccination against a dreadful disease: painful for the moment but necessary to and outweighed by the realization of a greater good. But such an account is persuasive only if one can agree that what seems to be evil is not genuinely evil. One has to agree that torture, rape, starvation, drug addiction and premature death are not genuine evils. Since many people cannot accept that God uses such peculiar, cruel means to achieve eventual reward, let us consider a third option.

Suppose that God's power to answer prayer is limited by the nature of things. That is, God is one agent of power in a world with a plurality of agents of power. In petitionary prayer, we as agents of limited power join forces with

the divine power. John Magee has captured an element central to this view of prayer: "Prayer is identification with the creativity of God. It is reverent participation in [God's] everlasting work. It is living at the growing edge of the universe, those living nodal points where the future is coming into existence. Prayer does not reverse the divine direction, but cooperates with it" (Reality and Prayer [Harper, 1957], p. 124). In petitionary prayer we are seeking to open ourselves and others to that power.

Since God does not have a monopoly on power, God's will-and consequently God's response to prayers consonant with the divine will-can be and sometimes is thwarted by the recalcitrance of non divine actualities, whether persons or cancer cells. In each moment, God offers the best real possibilities for the achievement of value that can be built upon the past. But God does not force the best on any creature. The divine power functions only as a persuasive lure, which can be ignored or rejected.

The highest achievements of value require a compatible positive response by many creatures. God surely intends, for example, for parents to be able to care for their young children, but that aim can be tragically thwarted by the driver who chooses to drink and then crosses the center line. God surely intends that every human being has enough to eat, but that intention can be tragically thwarted by a complex combination of political, economic, agricultural and military decisions. God cannot unilaterally direct the course of events, large and small. But God is involved in events, large and small, as one of the actors. To the degree that there is receptivity (conscious or subconscious) to the divine will, God's power-and our prayers that are consistent with God's will-are efficacious.

Why should we keep praying if God can be thwarted? Because God never gives up trying to redeem what has gone before, trying to offer to every creature the best possible future, given the choices already made. God's power is not irresistible in the short run, but it is inexhaustible in the long run. God's steadfast love endures forever. Providence, from this perspective, means that God cares about us personally and corporately and works tirelessly (but not unilaterally) for our well-being. Not everything that happens is God's design. But we can affirm with Paul that "in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). The corresponding view of prayer makes sense of the biblical counsel to "pray without ceasing" (I Thess. 5:17).