THIS REALLY MATTERS…
When we look at the situations in life that often lead us to pray, they nearly always involve other people. If we’re having trouble at work, there’s often a boss, a coworker, an employee or a customer involved. If we’re having problems in a marriage, there’s always a spouse involved. If we’ve got financial troubles, then there may be any number of people who are either directly or indirectly involved. If we’ve got health problems, then there will inevitably be doctors, nurses and other medical staff involved.
The fact is, nearly every major issue in our lives is affected by people. So if we are to ever present a request to God, and we are to have any sense of confidence that He is able to do something on our behalf, then we need to know how much power God has over the hearts, minds, decisions and actions of people. So, what does the Bible actually teach? Does God have power over free-will, or is God helpless to change a situation unless a person freely and willingly does what God would like them to do?
DOES GOD HAVE POWER OVER FREE-WILL?
Christians have long debated whether God is truly sovereign over all things (including the hearts and minds of men and women) or if God chooses to hold back from exercising His authority over people and allows them to have free-will.
This discussion usually comes up in relation to how people come to place their faith in Jesus. Does God choose us, or do we choose God? Or is there some way in which a combination of both are involved? Many have set out to answer this question. And there are some very good explanations out there. But for the sake of simplification, and for the purposes of focusing on how this issue affects prayer, let’s look at three basic perspectives…
VIEW #1: PEOPLE’S WILLS ARE COMPLETELY FREE
Under this view, God has no influence whatsoever over a person’s will. He allows people to live completely free from His interference.
It doesn’t take too long to figure out the problems with this perspective. If God has no influence over a person’s will, then praying for unbelievers to place their faith in Jesus would be a complete waste of time. Not only that, but praying for anything that involves the hearts, minds, decisions or actions of people would be a complete waste of time. Added to this, there are countless passages of Scripture which clearly teach how God is active in the hearts, minds, decisions & actions of people. As a result, very few people would actually hold to this perspective.
VIEW #2: GOD IS COMPLETELY IN CONTROL
Under this view, God is completely in control of people’s hearts, minds, decisions and actions. In many ways, He is the puppet master and we are His puppets.
And again, it doesn’t take too long to figure out the problems with this perspective. If God is already in complete control of people’s hearts, minds, decisions & actions, then there is no point praying because God is already in complete control of people’s hearts, minds, decision & actions.
The Bible also seems to indicate that our decisions somehow matter. Some would argue that this doesn’t take away from God being in control of people’s wills. But most would have some reservations and would try to find a middle ground between free-will and God’s control…
VIEW #3: GOD INFLUENCES PEOPLE’S WILLS
Under this view, God has influence over the hearts, minds, decisions and actions of people, but He does not control them. In the same way that all of us can have an influence on those around us, God too can have an influence on the decisions we make, the actions we take, the emotions we feel, and the thoughts we think.
Many people would say that this middle ground makes sense in a lot of ways. It explains how God can be active in people’s lives, whilst at the same time explaining how people are free to resist God’s influence. It seems to be the most obvious solution. There is only one problem: IT DOESN’T COMPLETELY LINE UP WITH THE BIBLE…
PROBLEM: THERE SEEMS TO BE EVIDENCE FOR ALL THREE VIEWS
Perhaps one of the reasons that there are so many perspectives on this is because all three seem to be taught in the Bible. Lets take a look…
SUPPORT FOR VIEW #1: PEOPLE’S WILLS ARE COMPLETELY FREE
Consider Paul’s opening chapter in his letter to the church of Rome…
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts… Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy”.
So here we find the Bible teaching that God sometimes removes His influence from a person’s life by handing them over to their own desires. He allows their will to be completely free of His interference.
SUPPORT FOR VIEW #2: GOD IS COMPLETELY IN CONTROL
Consider the following examples from the Bible…
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases”.
Exodus 3:21-22, 12:35-36
“‘And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians’… The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians”.
“But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you’”.
Jerry Bridges explains: “Daniel’s request to the chief official was a difficult one— so difficult that the chief official’s first concern was for his own life if he granted Daniel’s request. Nevertheless, he granted the request. He granted it because God had first moved in his heart to show favor and sympathy to Daniel. He granted it because his heart was indeed in God’s hand, who directed it as He pleased”.
“Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God”.
Jerry Bridges again provides clarity: “God commanded all the men to drop their normal activities three times a year to appear before Him. To appreciate the significance of this command, that would be equivalent today to our nation shutting down all its commerce, all its educational activities, and most crucial of all, furloughing all its military personnel simultaneously, and gathering all those people into one giant assembly three times a year. We can easily see how totally vulnerable and defenseless our nation would be before hostile powers on those three occasions each year. Yet that is what God commanded Israel to do. But along with the command He promised them that no one would covet their land during those times when they were utterly defenseless. Not only would no other nations attack them, they would not even desire to do so… God can restrain not only people’s actions, but even their most deeply rooted desires. No part of the human heart is impervious to God’s sovereign but mysterious control”.
So over and over again in the Bible, we discover that there are times when God takes complete control of a person’s will. He gives them the desire He wants them to have to make the decision He wants them to make in order to perform the action He wants them to perform.
SUPPORT FOR VIEW #3: GOD INFLUENCES PEOPLE’S WILLS
This is by far the most common way we see God interacting with people in the Bible. God seeks to influence but people have the freedom to resist. The most obvious example of this is what we see in the life of a Christian…
“For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other”. Here we find, as we do in all throughout the Bible, that God can often be seen battling against our sinful nature for our heart, mind, and will. He wants control, but He wants it to be given freely.
SO IS IT VIEW #1, VIEW #2 OR VIEW #3?
What if there is another possible perspective? Rather than View #1, View #2, or View #3, what if it’s all three?
VIEW #4: GOD CHOOSES WHEN & HOW HE EXERTS HIS AUTHORITY OVER FREE-WILL
What if God sometimes allows people to be completely free of His interference, other times He completely takes control, and most of the time He works to influence without forcing people to do His will?
If this is correct, then our prayers can make a huge difference.
Our prayers can make a difference because there are times when God is not always influencing or controlling the people involved in a particular situation. Our job is to pray that God would begin to influence or even take control.
And our prayers can make a difference because God has the authority to influence or take complete control of the people involved in a particular situation. Free-will can’t hold Him back. His hands are not tied.
So when we pray, we pray boldly and confidently knowing that God is able to exert His authority over the hearts, minds, decisions & actions of all people. Not just those who follow Jesus. Not just those who are willing to obey. Not just those who are contemplative and reflective. But anyone. Because God created them, and He has a right to them, just as God created us and He has a right to us.
Alexander Carson said: “If we need the protection of men, let us first ask it from God. If we prevail with Him, the power of the most mighty and of the most wicked must minister to our relief.”
Hudson Taylor put it this way: “It is possible to move men, through God, by prayer alone”.