Praying in the Whirlwind

Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare TheodicyIn Satan and the Problem of Evil (see Book List), Greg Boyd lays out what he calls a “Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy.”  Boyd’s Open Theism leads him to “solve” the problem of evil in a different way than many Christians of more traditional perspectives have in the past.  He lays out his model in six theses, all under the assumption that loving relationship is the primary reason for creation:

Thesis 1: Love must be freely chosen.

Thesis 2: Love entails risk (i.e. a real exercise of free-will must take place.  You must be able to choose the opposite of love for the choice of love to be real and worthwhile).

Thesis 3: Love and genuine freedom entail that we are, to some extent, morally responsible for each other.  I can really affect you for better or worse and you can do the same to me.

Thesis 4: Our power to influence for the worse must be roughly proportionate to our power to influence for the better.

Thesis 5: Freedom must be, within limits, irrevocable.  God can’t say, “You have the freedom to affect your neighbor for good or ill” and then, when someone decides to hurt their neighbor say, “Nevermind, I’m taking your free will back.”  So God has to watch some things happen that He doesn’t want to occur.

Thesis 6: This limitation is not infinite, for our capacity to choose is not endless.  There will be an end to evil; we are only free to chose within certain limits, and God “wins” in the end.

You don’t have to be an Open Theist for this theodicy to work.  You could hold a “free will theodicy” regardless of how you conceptualize the future and God’s knowledge of it.  Probably the most unique aspect of Boyd’s thought in this area is his focus on the influence of Satan and forces of evil in the world.  But regardless of if you agree with Boyd on other issues, I think this is one of the best formulations for breaking down a plausible free will solution to the problem of evil; I highly recommend both Boyd as an author, and this book in particular.

That said, I’m not interested in meticulously analyzing Boyd’s solution to the problem of evil in this post.  That task would likely require a very long blog series which I am not prepared to write:)  I’ll let you get the book and analyze it for yourself:)  But I would like to look at one of the (in my view) positive side effects of adopting his understanding.  And that lies in our conceptualization of prayer…

Praying in the Whirlwind

Prayer is a tough concept for many people, including myself.  I get why it would be important to “spend time with God” (it helps me lead a better life, it might form my character, I could be led down certain paths, etc.), but I don’t always get why I should pray for particular things/people/events.  As the old conundrum goes, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, how could my request possibly have an effect on what He does?  At best I am asking Him to do something that He is already going to do, but more likely (because I am not all-knowing), I am asking Him to do something that He doesn’t want to do.  Either way, it seems that God’s going to do what God’s going to do.  If I am starving to death and I pray for food but it doesn’t come, God must have wanted me to die of starvation right?  So what’s the point in asking?  In fact, asking for particular things almost seems insulting.  Do I know better than God?  And yet we are commanded to pray, even with persistence (Luke 11:5-13, 18:1-8)…(and by Jesus no less!)  What’s going on?

You could just chalk it up to an inability to understand God.  “My ways are not your ways” and that whole deal.  But you’re still left, in the back of your mind, with the idea that there is no logical importance for petitionary prayer (praying for specific needs). And that, for many, is a hindrance to actually doing it.

What’s interesting about this theodicy is that if you buy into it and the idea that human beings (and potentially non-human, spiritual beings) actually have some measure of control over what happens in the world, it might make some sense out of the logical need and importance of petitionary prayer.  Here’s how Boyd lays it out.

First, although generally speaking, the classical understanding of God’s omnipotence holds that God can intervene in the world anytime, anywhere, and in any way He wants, Boyd’s free-will model holds that God is doing the most good He can, but His action must be seen in the light of the restrictions involved in creating a cosmos full of free agents.  God, on this model, literally cannot stop evil from happening at all times because of the nature of love and free will.

God is everywhere and at all times present in his creation maximizing good and minimizing evil.  But to the extent that he has given creatures say-so, God has restricted the exercise of his own omnipotence (p. 213).

Second, instead of viewing each event as the result of God’s blueprint and His will being the only ultimate cause, this model sees every event as a product of many different wills (including humans, angelic beings/forces, etc.)…

God cannot always get his way and cannot always do what he would like to do or what we would like him to do during this probational epoch.  There are in fact as many variables to consider regarding any critical situation as there are personal agents involved.  Each agent is a center of irrevocable self-determining freedom with which God must contend, and the decisions of each agent are to some extent relevant to all subsequent agents.  The cosmos is woven together as a mutually dependent society within which moral and social responsibility is always somewhat shared.  In this sense we must conclude that every single event in the cosmos is to some extent a universally influenced, sociologically determined event.  Every event within the whole is to some extent influenced by the whole and in turn influences the whole.  That is, every act a free agent performs is in part influenced by how every other agent in the cosmos has ever acted, as well as by how the agent herself has acted in the past (p. 213).

Third, because each event is the product of an astoundingly high number of free agents (for Boyd, each event is at least partially affected by every agent in the history of the cosmos!), we can never know the reason or cause behind a particular event – or a particular evil.  The example Boyd uses is an eight-second interval on the freeway:

One trivial illustration will emphasize the significance of chaos theory for our understanding of the mystery of evil.  Let us try to explain why there is an eight-second interval between two particular cars on a particular freeway at a given moment.  To assess this we would need to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of all the factors that led these two drivers to be on that freeway at just that moment, driving at just that speed.  Had anything been differnt that day for either driver, the interval might have been longer or shorter – or perhaps nonexistent.  The interval between these two cars was also affected by the speed of all the other drivers on the freeway at that time and before.  Thus we would also have to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of all the factors that influenced all the drivers on the freeway that day, driving the exact speed they were driving…We have not yet arrived at the initial conditions explaining the eight-second interval, however, for one cannot exhaustively understand the behavior of any driver on the freeway on this particular day without understanding all the factors that influenced this behavior on the previous day, week, months and years.  Had anything been different – a career choice, a marriage choice, an unplanned pregnancy, an ice storm that altered the lives of a certain driver’s parents in 1942 – the eight-second interval may have been different….Every person, every decision, every physical and spiritual factor throughout history that exercised any influence on creating this eight-second interval would have to be fully understood if the interval was to be exhaustively explained (p. 218-219).

This is what Boyd calls “the whirlwind.”  We live in a reality in which we cannot know the cause of any event or evil that happens because it is caused by an almost infinite number of wills/actions.  So what does all this have to do with prayer?  Well…

If you hold that: (1) God is doing the most He can, but working within the restraints of a creation full of genuinely free agents, and (2) each event is the product of many different wills, then prayer becomes one of the factors, one of the products of free will, that forms part of the cause of an event.  As Boyd speculates:

Just as the Creator set things up so that we have genuine say-so on the physical level, so we can envisage him setting things up so that we have genuine say-so on a spiritual level – and this say-so is the power of prayer.  As morally responsible agents, we are empowered to affect other people’s lives and the flow of history by what we physically do and by what we do in prayer…In the words of Peter Baelz, prayer is one of the central variables that ‘make it possible for God to do something that he could not have done without our asking’ (p. 231).

This would at least begin to make sense of Scriptures describing the effectiveness of prayer, the command to pray persistently, etc. which Boyd details in this chapter.

So what if we conceptualized prayer as a real factor in what happens to people we know?.  What if, somehow, it opens the way for God to act because that is how He chose to set up creation?  Thinking of petitionary prayer in this way would not only give us reason to ask for specifics for ourselves and others, but also the moral responsibility to do so.   Who knows?  But an interesting alternative take on the issue…

Check out more on the six theses (listed at the beginning of the post) here, and for more thoughts from Boyd on Open Theism go here.  Enjoy.  He is an interesting mind…Also, a good short review of the book can be found at