Communication is such a problem. No single set of words seem capable of clearly expressing what one means to a large and diverse group of people (such as readers of this blog). So I often find comments reflect misunderstanding of what I said even though I can’t really think of a better way of putting the thought.
In a recent post I said Arminians should not pray for God to save their friends and loved ones. The reaction has been interesting (I’m trying to keep calm and objective). I think there’s some misunderstanding in some of the reacting comments and questions.
The issue is not the words prayed so much as the meaning intended. And what I would say to a person about it depends on who they are and the context.
Because I like my prayers to be consistent with my beliefs (e.g., about God’s sovereignty and about reality) I never ask God to change the past. I don’t think God can do that. I think it’s even incoherent to talk about changing the past. In that I agree entirely with Calvinist philosopher-theologian Paul Helm.
However, I clearly recall an incident where my mother prayed that God would work it out that whoever found her purse (which was no longer where she lost it) would turn out to be a Christian or at least an honest person and return it to her. Of course, at the point of her prayer, she was asking God to change the past (or assure that something that already happened have happened in a certain way).
I didn’t criticize her; she was my mother and I was pretty young and didn’t want to show her disrespect or get into an argument with her. I let it go. What harm did it do? None.
However, if someone asks my theological opinion about praying for God to change the past, I will kindly tell them I don’t believe in it and explain why. (For example, there’s not a single example in Scripture of it and it’s illogical.)
If someone prays for God to save their loved one, I’m not going to get all worked up about it and criticize them and tell them to stop it. But if they come and ask me about that kind of praying I will tell them what I believe about it.
And what I believe about it is that it depends on what is intended. Normal language interpretation would seem to me to indicate that asking God to save someone, without any qualifications, is tantamount (whatever is intended) to asking God to do the impossible (from an Arminian perspective).
So, if a person asks me about such praying I will lead off the discussion with “What do you intend for God to do?” If the person says “I am asking God to intervene in their life to force them to repent and believe” I will say “That’s not possible” and explain why. If the person says “I am asking God to bring circumstances into their life to show them their need of him…” I will say “Well, that’s not what I think those words mean, but okay, if that’s what you mean, God knows what you mean and so go ahead and pray that way.”
It seems to me that “God, please save my friend” without qualifications normally means “God, break my friend’s will and force him to repent.” Perhaps not everyone who prays that prayer means that, but that’s what the words alone imply. That’s not consistent with Arminian belief. In my opinion, only a Calvinist (or maybe also a Lutheran) can pray that way consistently.
And my opinion in this case is–it depends on what you mean because God always knows what you mean and you’re praying to God. And if you mean to ask God to violate someone’s free will and force them to be saved, then I don’t think that’s proper. If you mean to ask God to bring circumstances into a person’s life that will probably convince them of their need of salvation, then it’s proper. But why not pray with words that communicate what you mean?
Now, having said that, there is one exception to what I would do. If I hear my pastor or Sunday School teacher or a student pray something like “God, please save so-and-so” I will probably go to that person and inquire what they meant and suggest changing the words in the future to match the intended meaning. Why? Because public prayers also teach. People hearing a pastor or Sunday School teacher or student pray such a prayer will probably get the wrong idea (unless the prayer was intended monergistically).
Having said all that (a lot of words to attempt to explain what I thought I could take for granted), let me give an illustration of proper non-Calvinist praying for a loved one. I know a man who was raised in a Christian (Pentecostal) home and church but wandered away. In that context, he “backslid.” As an adult he was living a life of sin far from God. His friends and loved ones prayed that God would “work a miracle in his life” by which we meant bring some circumstance to bear on him that would convince him of his need for God.
The man rarely went to church with his wife, a devout Pentecostal Christian, but one Sunday reluctantly went along. That Sunday a person gave a prophecy during the Sunday morning service (something quite rare even in most Pentecostal churches!) that contained some message the man interpreted as “just for him.” He felt God was speaking directly to him through a prophecy–a phenomenon he was familiar with and had great respect for. That brought him to his knees and he repented and has been serving God faithfully for years afterwards. When his friends and loved ones prayed for his salvation, God heard their prayer. Even though God could not just “save him” willy-nilly, he could create a situation in which the man’s heart would be convicted in a powerful way so that to refuse to repent would have been unlikely–something like Saul on the road to Damascus.
If someone means THAT by “Lord, save my friend,” then fine. But I don’t think that’s what happened or could have happened. “Lord, save my friend” (without qualification) normally reflects monergism, not synergism. However, it doesn’t mean God won’t hear the theologically incorrect prayer and act on it. Yet, if it is prayed publicly, some people may misinterpret it and think monergism is intended and right (when the prayer is answered as described).