When Does God Interfere?

Don - August 31, 2005

I struggle with the dynamics of agency, life as it happens and answers to our prayers.

Did God create the earth, place man on it, give him his agency and then pretty much let things go on naturally from there?  If not, does that mean God is constantly interfering with and tinkering with the lives and events of His creation?

Here’s my latest situation.  I own a theater in Orem, I am always looking for more opportunities.  I found a theater in Lewiston Idaho, about 100 miles from where I live.  Regal Cinemas wanted to sell the theater and 3 acres of developmental land.  I contacted Regal and then their real estate agent, explained I didn’t want to buy the property but if he found a developer that was interested in someone to lease the theater I was very interested.  Within a month he called and told me he had a buyer for the property and they were interested in my leasing the theater.  I made a proposal which they liked.

Ok, now the prayer, study, prayer etc. comes in.  We all know the routine, "If it’s good for us, help us etc., etc. then please bless us with this."  We’ve prayed for/about this theater for about 7 months.  We found out a few days ago that the other big theater owner in town actually purchased the investor’s contract and will be operating the theater themselves.

So did we not get this theater because: (A) we couldn’t handle the extra money (B) God wants us to struggle more in paying off our debts and this would have been too easy (C) I would have been a crappy operator and the theater would have failed and put us further in debt (D) God doesn’t care (E) God does care but couldn’t/wouldn’t influence the other theater owners not to purchase…they have their agency (so maybe it would have been good for us, but that’s the way it goes.

Could more fervent prayer changed this?  How much prayer does it take for God to interfere?  How does God decide when He will interfere?  Is it based on our prayers, our actions, our needs.

There must be some kind of "let agency take it’s course, until……"  Until what?  What’s the trigger that causes God to step in?

14 Comments »

  1. I struggle with the dynamics of agency, life as it happens and answers to our prayers.

    We all do. Our relationship with God is not some binary switch, linear matrix, or rat maze which needs to be navigated for the bit of cheese. Its a complicated thing that requires us to get to know ourselves and Him, just like getting to know another person is difficult. The difficulty is in getting to know God and what His interests are. Badgering God with our petty desires is about the same as us being nagged by a 3 year old who wants to watch TV and they just wont shut up and leave you alone.

    Did God create the earth, place man on it, give him his agency and then pretty much let things go on naturally from there?

    No, e.g., everyone in the Scriptures. God put men on earth so they would toil and earn the bread they eat by the sweat of their brow, thats from the very beginning. God then steps in as a social engineer to make sure things are going according to His plans (e.g., Assyria/Northern 10, Babylon/Judah, Saul/Paul, Alma the younger). Individual lives are interacted with, but who can predict it?

    If not, does that mean God is constantly interfering with and tinkering with the lives and events of His creation?

    No, God acts as He sees fit according to His own interests. We have agency, and so does He. He only “interferes” when it suits His needs and accomplishes His goals.

    Why see things as such a sharp dichotomy. Either God is interfering all the time or not at all? Why not a happy balance somewhere in between? God has big plans and makes sure those are all on track, regardless of whether us mortals are along for the ride. And if we want more to do with Him, then we need to get on the train so we are along for the ride.

    Here’s my latest situation…. Could more fervent prayer changed this? How much prayer does it take for God to interfere? How does God decide when He will interfere? Is it based on our prayers, our actions, our needs.

    Yes and no. There are passages in Scripture that suggest an individual’s relationship with God is interactive and open to input (e.g., Gen. 18:23, Luke 11:8-9, etc.). However, there are plenty of passages which indicate God does his own thing and humans fail to comprehend/assist/do it.

    Nobody is going to be able to answer this kind of extremely specific question in satisfiable manner if you cannot yourself.

    There must be some kind of “let agency take it’s course, until……” Until what? What’s the trigger that causes God to step in?

    There is not causal relationship between prayer and getting an answer to prayer, regardless of fervence. Some things simply dont matter as much as we think they do. Part of the purpose of prayer is to discern God’s will (i.e., thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, in other words we dont do all that good a job of doing His will here on earth) so we can figure out what to do. If we’re just praying to ask God to see it our way, then thats not effective.

    Think of the relationship with God as a relationship with some person who is a lot smarter, more powerful, and busier than you. Not as an enormously powerful computer, which if we can discern its complexities and algorithms then we can unlock the secrets to turning it into a vending machine for blessings. Not saying you are doing the latter, but just presenting two dichotomies and am suggesting the former over the latter.

    Comment by Kurt — August 31, 2005 @ 3:53 pm

  2. I’d go with (E). I tend to think God does take an active interest in our lives and will interfere at times, but not when it involves another person’s agency.

    Comment by Eric Russell — August 31, 2005 @ 4:31 pm

  3. (F) God does not interfere because of the principle of free agency unless interfering somehow furthers his own broader mission and purposes.

    Comment by john fowles — August 31, 2005 @ 4:39 pm

  4. Hey Don,

    Great post. Good questions. I actually have a post in the works on the subject of God answering some of my stupid prayers (they seem stupid in retrospect but were very important at the time.)

    The upshot of that upcoming post is that we call God “Heavenly Father” for some very important reasons. Among them is that our relationship to him is exactly like the relationship we have with our earthly parents. Therefore, I have decided that the best way to understand God’s motivations is to consider my own responses to the requests of my own dear little children. Sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I say no, sometimes I say yes. I have reasons for all of those, including my mood, how busy I am at the time, the nature of the request etc. Another major factor in my response is the earnestness and level of deep longing I sense from my child. Sometimes they can indeed talk me into things that I am surprised they managed to do. So when I seek blessings from God I see myself as a little kid and him as my loving dad. He can read my level of need and desire and sometimes I have indeed been able to twist his arm and get things from him that are shocking.

    See this post and the follow up posts for an example of what I mean…

    Comment by Geoff J — August 31, 2005 @ 4:46 pm

  5. “So did we not get this theater because: A, B, C, D, E?”

    You did not get the theatre because “the other big theater owner in town actually purchased the investor’s contract and will be operating the theater themselves”.

    I guess that would be E.

    Comment by Kim Siever — August 31, 2005 @ 6:21 pm

  6. Don, I write this with all due respect and hope this doesn’t sound too grumpy.

    I have a hard time believing that God would care any more about your business decisions that he cares about the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And where do they find themselves today?

    My point is this — God has granted us agency and the world unfolds before us because of the way we use it. Nothing more, nothing less. He allows it to rain and shine on the just and the unjust alike. I have completely abandoned the idea that my prayers change God or what He “thinks” or how He reacts to or interferes in my life.

    To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I pray to change myself, not God.

    Comment by Chris Williams — September 1, 2005 @ 2:27 pm

  7. Kurt, thank you for your blow by blow analysis.

    Geoff, I think of Heavenly Father that way too. Obviously we can get our own way sometimes even if it’s not good, like J.S. and the lost 116 pages. I do have a difficult time when the scriptures tell us to weary the Lord with our prayers, and then when to back off.

    Comment by don — September 1, 2005 @ 2:34 pm

  8. Chris: I have completely abandoned the idea that my prayers change God or what He “thinks” or how He reacts to or interferes in my life. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I pray to change myself, not God.

    Sorry, but I could not disagree more, Chris. I believe this is in fact a false and fatalistic and pernicious doctrine (even if it is a popular doctrine).

    I’ve posted on it in the past.

    Don – I think that the process of wearying the must include real dialogic prayer. God will tell us when to shut up and stop asking if we really are bugging him. If he does we can be grateful that we have at least received revelation on the subject and that He is fully aware of our request (even if he is denying it.)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 1, 2005 @ 5:29 pm

  9. Chris, you point out the extreme in one direction, the other extreme is the person who prays over which brand of beans to buy at the store.

    If you point is valid, and I don’t believe it is, then how do you explain Alma Jrs. conversion or Saul’s conversion.

    If feel there is a delicate balance for God to let things unfold…naturally…and helping when He knows what He’s doing based on His and our eternal best interests.

    Comment by don — September 1, 2005 @ 6:07 pm

  10. Geoff J: Sorry, but I could not disagree more, Chris. I believe this is in fact a false and fatalistic and pernicious doctrine (even if it is a popular doctrine).

    I’ve posted on it in the past.

    Sorry, Geoff, but I’m at a loss with your response. I don’t believe in absolute foreknowledge at all. I believe in agency. That I have abandoned my belief that my prayers change God in any meaningful way should NOT be understood as an embrace of the notion that the future is somehow foreordained. The future is a function of what we make it through the exercise of our agency.

    So, I agree with you that the doctrine is false and fatalistic and pernicious — and it’s not one I believe in.

    Comment by Chris Williams — September 2, 2005 @ 8:44 am

  11. Don, Geoff J:

    I can’t find a link to it anywhere online at the moment, but the late Eugene England wrote a beautiful essay entitled “The Weeping God of Mormonism.” If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it. It comes closest to describing the interplay between God and agency in which I believe. To believe in this God, one must accept that He is a God with limitations — he cannot violate our agency, for example — but endless compassion. He is a God who cannot make our decisions for us, but who comforts and weeps with us when things go woefully wrong.

    Comment by Chris Williams — September 2, 2005 @ 8:56 am

  12. Chris,

    That post I linked to was probably a bit misleading because it has such a heavy focus on foreknowledge and you seemed to be really implying a form of immutability in your comment. As you mentioned, the weeping passages in our restored scriptures are in fact among the strongest evidence against an immutable God.

    So getting back to the original comment, I think that we can and do change God’s mind with our petitions. I just don’t believe the notion that my prayers only change me and not Him. That is the doctrine that I believe is incorrect at best and dangerous at worst (perhaps as faith-crippling as the somewhat related concept of a fixed future could be.)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 2, 2005 @ 5:11 pm

  13. Chris,

    That post I linked to was probably a bit misleading because it has such a heavy focus on foreknowledge and you seemed to be really implying a form of immutability in your comment. As you mentioned, the weeping passages in our restored scriptures are in fact among the strongest evidence against an immutable God.

    So getting back to the original comment, I think that we can and do change God’s mind with our petitions. I just don’t believe the notion that my prayers only change me and not Him. That is the doctrine that I believe is incorrect at best and dangerous at worst (perhaps as faith-crippling as the somewhat related concept of a fixed future could be.)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 2, 2005 @ 5:14 pm

  14. As far as a dialog with God and its efficacy goes, I think the example of Abraham and the Lord discussing the fate of Sodom and Gommorah is instructive. The Lord knew the situation in S&G, and so He sent some messengers to destroy the place. Abraham’s interest is in the righteous that might be among them, so he pleads their case (his real interest being Lot and Lot’s family, whom Abraham would probably be assuming are righteous but who really arent). Abraham argues to a point, but the Lord draws a line, and the Lord’s plan continues, but Lot is spared.

    Now, what do we learn from this?

    1) The Lord does in fact hear and listen to people (e.g., the Lord remains with Abraham even after the messengers have left on their fact-finding mission).

    2) The Lord interacts with people (e.g., Abraham and the Lord go back and forth about sparing the righteous from the impending disaster).

    3) The Lord educates people when they talk to him (e.g., Abraham learns the Lord’s nature is both just and compassionate).

    What else do we learn from what didnt happen?

    1) The Lord knew more about the situation at S&G than Abraham did, yet he permitted Abraham to question him and bargain with him, didnt get cross with Abraham, but didnt allow him to derail His plans. The Lord knew more than Abraham in the situation, and He was going to act accordingly.

    2) The Lord did ultimately spare Lot, although Abraham’s appeal didnt appear to have much direct impact on that. So, even though Abraham’s concern over his nephew was justified, the means by which he was trying to protect him were misguided, and his appeal was in effect unnecessary and turned out to be innappropriate given the situation on the ground there in S&D. Yet, the Lord didnt get angry at him, realizing that the matter in Abraham’s mind was the balance between justice and mercy.

    3) While it is obvious Abraham is concerned about Lot, Abraham didnt pray specifically for Lot, but for the righteous to be spared the impending destruction, and his interest was in their lives, not their material things. Abraham’s interest wasnt just in getting Lot and his family and his stuff out of S&D, it was in the well-being of all righteous who may be there.

    So, the Lord does listen to people, does talk to them, does teach them, but the things people ask for tend to be ill-informed but possibly with good intentions. So, while the Lord’s path really isnt altered, the person talking to the Lord does learn something and has beneficial experience. Abraham’s desire and prayer regarding the righteous is fulfilled with Lot being spared, so even though the cities are destroyed, Lot isnt. Teaching us that keeping your desires just (i.e., easy if you reconcile your will to the Lord’s will) and your prayers reasonably fexible (i.e., had Abraham asked the Lord to not destroy S&D at all no matter what, he would have been frustrated) results in them being granted, even if its in a roundabout sort of way.

    Comment by Kurt — September 6, 2005 @ 9:53 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.