Cooking, Bathing, and Soaking, Oh My!
J. P. Moreland is a poster child for intellectually savvy and deeply conservative evangelicalism. He is brilliant–stunningly so. I have learned a lot from him over the years. I was listening to his talk on YouTube, entitled “On the Promises and Problems of Petitionary Prayer” (2013). He said things that perfectly align with my vision for prayer, which can be found in my book “Divine Echoes.” He also said things that I can no longer believe in.
Where do we agree?
In the video, J. P. Moreland says,
“Sometimes God doesn’t answer prayer because the answer involves coercing the free will of other people and he is not going to do that.”
Yes! Brilliant! This is perfectly aligned with my view of an uncontrolling, loving God. Although, Moreland might want to emphasize God’s autocratic power and say, “God can control if he wants to,” I would rather say, “God can’t control due to his uncontrolling and loving nature.” Either way, the outcome is the same. God does not coerce or control others.
Moreland gives an example:
“So, you are praying for a job. You ask God, “Please give me a job.” May I ask you, what exactly is God supposed to do to answer that prayer? What can he do? I submit to you that God is not in control of whether you get a job or not. You may not like to hear that and I’m sorry. Maybe we will end up differing about it but my view is God is not in control. . . So, your praying for a job. What if the boss doesn’t want to hire you? Well, then you are not going to get the job, even if God wants you to have it.”
The judgment, criticism, and even condemnation I have received from some conservative Christians because I emphasize God’s uncontrolling love, particularly in relation to petitionary prayer and theodicy, has at times been emotionally and spiritually taxing. But I am glad that there are voices even among conservative Christians that are saying very similar things. There are some things God cannot do. God cannot violate others’ free will. The results of prayer can thus be affected by the reality that God respects others’s free will and is not in control. (While Moreland states this in theory, it seems his practice of prayer does not change much—more on that in a minute.)
One of the pitfalls of the traditional model of petitionary prayer is that it tends to ask God to love or change others without considering other dynamics and agencies like a person’s free will. Advocates of traditional prayer typically view God as an autocrat. That is, God is in utmost control, has absolute power, and is the only one who is keeping blessings from his people. Therefore, the more we cajole God with prayer, the more likely God will be to cease being passive, get off his throne, and engage in the loving action desired.
Sharing one’s heart with God is a beautiful and relational act. However, we distort God’s image when we repeatedly pray for people or situations, portraying God as a stingy God who withholds his love until we pray a certain number of times or achieve a certain head count on a prayer chain. We distort his image when we make prayer about us and God and forget to take into account the freedom and agency of the other people involved.
Moreland goes on to say,
“God is not in control of everything. There are certain things God is not in control of and those are the free acts of people. I hope God is not in control of those acts because God would be causing rape. And when a murder and rape takes place and do you think God was in control of that act? I hope not. That is not the God I know.”
That is not the God I know either. On a recent podcast, I debated a Calvinist who has stated, “Even the worst act in human history is from the hand of the Lord.” Are you kidding me? This is exactly the kind of portrayal of God that makes my stomach turn and a view that I have been trying to persuade others to reject.
A God who is in control of all things is a flat-out moral monster. Was Auschwitz “from the hand of the Lord”? Is rape “from the hand of the Lord”? Is another child dying every ten seconds due to hunger “from the hand of the Lord”? Are mass shootings “from the hand of the Lord”? Looking out into the world and seeing all of the evil that takes place on a daily basis, one must deduce that the hand of the Lord is the hand of calloused, brutal sadist.
Take a deep breath. Speak these words out loud: GOD IS NOT IN CONTROL
Saints, although it may be anxiety-provoking, coming to believe and state the obvious is a good thing. God is not in control. The quicker we can acknowledge that fact, the better our world will become. It stops making God look like a cruel, puppeteering lover of misery and pain, and it motivates and energizes us to cooperate with God and become his hands and feet in the God-starved world around us.
Where do we disagree?
Even though Moreland believes God is not in control, he also still believes prayer is powerful and effective. Of course, I do as well, but, we part ways on the methods of petitionary prayer we are talking about.
Moreland says in the talk,
“When we pray about something we can co-labor with God. We direct the power of the kingdom on to the situation we are praying about and we cook it, we bathe it, we soak it, we do work on it, while we pray…We bring the kingdom on to something like a radar beam, while we are praying and we cook it.”
Cooking? Bathing? Soaking? Are we in some type of specialized cooking class? Do our prayers really act like a radar beam on the person and situation we are praying for? I am sorry, I can no longer subscribe to such superstitious prayer. If Moreland admits that God cannot control people or situations, I don’t know how cooking, bathing, and soaking (all super spiritual words for simply talking to God) are going to accomplish anything different than what God is already doing—especially if one believes, like me, that God is doing all he can in each moment to maximize good and minimize evil within the constraints of his uncontrolling, loving nature.
In his talk, Moreland admits that even though he is cooking, bathing, and soaking things in prayer and supposedly bringing the kingdom onto people and circumstances like a radar beam, his prayers are seldom answered. He states,
“If you were to ask me, what percentage of my prayers get answered, I would say 5-30%.”
Can you imagine what the sales pitch would be?
“Step right up folks, I am going to tell you how to pray in power. I am going to teach you how to cook, bathe, and soak so on average 15% of your prayers can be answered!!”
Knowing Moreland, I am sure his prayers have always been sincere. I am sure they have been for people to be healed, saved, and delivered and for dire circumstances in the world to be changed. The stark reality of only 5–30% of his sincere prayers being answered perhaps points to problems with the method of his prayer, rather than the loving, compassionate, and uncontrolling One to whom he is praying.
As I share in my book, I don’t think we need to continually cook, bathe, and soak in prayer, especially not for the basic needs of humankind. God is already actively seeking to meet our needs by loving us, healing us, saving us, and delivering us from the most fundamental obstacles to human flourishing.We don’t need to beg God like hungry dogs beneath the master’s table, waiting for delicious scraps to fall from the heavens.
For example, a basic need is to be free from poverty. God never desires that people be deprived of sustenance and starve to death. Another basic need is to be free from racism and oppression. It is never God’s will for people to suffer discrimination because of the way they look or because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, and so on. Other basic needs include the necessity of a world free from violence and genocide and a world in which healing from devastating injuries and accidents can occur. A basic spiritual need is for salvation. God always desires people to be saved and to know his love intimately. All these basic needs are a “Yes and Amen” to God.
If people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words (cooking, bathing, and soaking) will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind. Moreland made plenty of comments that convince me he is on board with this notion. Although, there are some statements he made that cause me to wonder.
I have the utmost respect for J. P. Moreland. I am grateful for him and his ministry. He has encouraged, challenged, and equipped more in the faith than I may ever dream of. He is spot on when it comes to God’s uncontrolling and non-coercive love. Perhaps, his praxis could be tweaked to catch up with his view of God’s uncontrolling loving nature?
For those interested in learning how prayer can be more effective, less harmful, and doesn’t make a good God look really bad, you can pick up my book Divine Echoes. The book places God’s uncontrolling love in conversation with issues of prayer, social justice, and moral responsibility. I also detail a new paradigm of prayer called conspiring prayer, which can revitalize both individual and corporate prayer.