Our Prayers and God’s Messy Plans

The Council of Gods, Giovanni Lanfranco (From Wikimedia Commons)

The Council of Gods, Giovanni Lanfranco (From Wikimedia Commons)

I taught lesson 35 today, which covers Amos and Joel. As usual, I benefitted a great deal from Ben Spackman’s Patheos posts, and in particular his discussion of Amos 3:6 and Amos 3:7. The latter, of course, is the famous scripture we all learn in seminary: “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Ben included a short paper about the meaning of the word “sod” (“secret”) and its relation to the idea of a divine council. The word refers to both private discussion and the product of such discussions. The Old Testament is certainly rife with examples of the Lord involving mere mortals in His planning process and accepting their input.

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” – Genesis 18:30-32 (NIV)

This idea of a God who involves us not only in the unfolding of some inexorable plan, but in the decision-making process is perfectly commensurate with His status in Mormonism as an embodied, personal deity. As someone rather than just something.

On the other hand, the idea of a wise, powerful, and benevolent God changing His course as a result of our input can be disconcerting. Doesn’t He know what He’s doing? Wouldn’t it be impertinent to suppose that we could tell God anything? This concerns leads to a tendency to fix scriptural depictions of God’s interactions with humans. Interactions which, if they are taken at face value, pretty clearly state that God actually does change course as a result of human input.

4 Thus hath the Lord God shewed unto me: and, behold, the Lord God called to contend by fire, and it devoured the great deep, and did eat up a part.
5 Then said I, O Lord God, cease, I beseech thee: by whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small.
6 The Lord repented for this: This also shall not be, saith the Lord God. – Amos 3:7 (NIV)

The strongest version of this attempt to rescue God’s perfect autonomy holds that prayer not only cannot change God’s will at all, but that it shouldn’t even presume to try. Prayer becomes about reconciling our will to His. We change. He does not. Weaker forms posit that there are certain, pre-designated blessings that God may hold in reserve until we think to ask for them. In either case His will is ultimately impervious to human input, but His actions in the latter case are to some extent contingent.

The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. –Bible Dictionary (Prayer)

These are sterile, formal, stilted, hollow versions of the rich, emotional give-and-take common between God and His children in the scriptures. People are angry with God. They accuse God. They challenge God. They question God. They plead with God. They beg and petition God. Not all of these interactions are perfect, of course, but the important thing is that they are interactions. God reacts. He is affected by us. Sometimes He recants and changes course, even apparently in 180-degree turns. And even when He doesn’t—as with Job or with Jonah—He is still in an important sense reacting to the actions of His children. Jonah wants God to destroy Ninevah. God reuses, but he reacts to the request by teaching Jonah a parable. Job wants God to show up and defend Himself. God shows up, not to defend himself but to question Job, but he shows up. These examples show God is not merely acting out a script He wrote himself, following steps in His plan and checking off one item after the next. He is responding.

Amos 3:6, the verse that comes right before the famous one, is not as well known. Following a sequence of cause-and-effect pairs beginning in verse 3, it reads in the KJV: “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?”

The Joseph Smith Translation alters verse 6, reading “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not known it?” Ben pointed out in his podcast that when we examine a Joseph Smith Translation it’s sometimes more illuminating to consider that Joseph Smith was reacting against rather than to simply take the JST version as a standalone utterance. I think this makes sense, and fits with the interactive, iterative, and even dialogic approach evident in Joseph Smith’s revelatory process.

In that case, it seems apparent that what Joseph Smith was reacting to when he changed “done” to “known” in Amos 3:6 was the problem that God would actually engage in evil. But the Lord doesn’t do evil things. Changing from “done” to known” fixes the problem. And yet there’s another approach: one could note that the word “evil” is translated ambiguously in the KJV (“misfortune” is an alternate translation that captures the negative impact on human life without implying immorality). So it’s possible that the JST—while entirely correct in what it enacted—was resolving a problem that needn’t have existed in the first place if Joseph Smith had had a better text with which to start. Similarly, the intuition behind creating a theology of prayer that neutralizes the capacity for true interaction with the divine may be a valid solution to a malformed problem.

Consider how the problems that seem to arise with changing God’s mind evaporates if part of God’s will includes His own desire to interact with us. Instead of picturing God’s will as a static and comprehensive blueprint, we could view it as an algebraic formula with some of the variables left unassigned. We can, within certain parameters, determine what should go there. Even if our answers are inferior to God’s wisdom.

Part of God’s plan is for us to have a role in shaping our future—individually, collectively, and interdependently—so there is no contradiction between due reverence for God’s wisdom, power, and benevolence and the apparently undue influence we confused, prejudiced, blinkered, sacred mortals have on those plans.

The family analogy works as it so often does: God knows what is best in the short run (independently of what we might think is a good idea), but in the long run what is best entails allowing us to lend our childish contributions as the price of being actively involved. Of learning. Of growing up. Of becoming like Him.

I suspect God’s plan is much more organic and resilient than any narrow conception of perfection would allow. His plan is perfect in the way our homes are, in those rare sublime moments, perfect. It’s a statement of relationships between individuals being in harmony, not a question of whether or not the house is clean or the homework is all done.

I suspect there are blank spaces in God’s pan—perhaps entire pages—where we are meant to fill in. God may even have His own provisional (short term) plans for those sections, but He allows us to override as part of the (long term) Plan of Happiness.

9 comments for “Our Prayers and God’s Messy Plans

  1. Dave K
    October 13, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Excellent analysis Nathaniel. I’ve had very similar thoughts myself, but never put them into words as well as you have. It seems perfectly logical that if God counseled with us in the beginning regarding the plan of salvation, he would continue to do so in this sphere as well.

    In this regard, I’ve often been struck by how the church received its name. In my reading of the record, Joseph proposed “Church of Christ” and the Savior said “sure, but also include the members.” While we commonly explain that the phrase “of Latter-day Saints” is meant to distinguish this church from earlier version (query why we want to be separate) I’ve often thought the better reading is that Christ sees the membership body as being just a critical to “the church” as He is. The whole purpose of the church is to unify the “Christ” part of the name with the “Latter-day Saints” part of the name. So it makes sense that our will is just as critical as is His, though of course our will does not decide what is “right.”

    How do you see this principle playing out with regards to mortal church leaders? Specifically, I have in mind Elder Robbins’ recent conference address “Which Way Do You Face?” in which he expounded on the following counsel he had received from President Packer: “A Seventy does not represent the people to the prophet but the prophet to the people. Never forget which way you face!” If God cares (and perhaps even needs) our input, would it not make sense for church leaders to represent the people to Him at the same time they are representing Him to the people?

  2. Naismith
    October 13, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    While I enjoyed these insights overall, I would respectfully suggest that you consider dropping phrases such as “….the famous scripture we all learn in seminary.” All that does is serve to make a lot of us feel like stupid outsiders since, no, we never went to seminary.

    Please remember that much of the active church membership are either first-generation members who never had that opportunity when seminary-aged, or lived in a place where seminary was not available (a decreasing occurrence thanks the the online seminary option).

  3. October 13, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Dave K. What Elder Robbins describes (by way of Elder Packer) is a very top-down organization. What President Uchtdorf seems to be describing or alluding to in his talks is a more bottom-up process. One more like that proposed by Bro Christensen and his disruptive innovations. I think the LDS Church is slowly, perhaps too slowly, evolving toward allowing more input from the members.

    Nathaniel, if you believe with Brigham Young that God is progressing along with humanity (he is omni-everything only in comparison to humanity), then the God/human relationship becomes less messy. If you believe that the Earth and church are still being created and we are co-creators in that process then that perhaps simplifies the messiness. We become responsible for the impacts we have on humanity and the Earth.

    In prayer, we don’t necessarily as for favors, we ask for guidance or inspiration. God doesn’t give us answers, but He does listen intently.

    The messiness of life, and God’s role in it, is something we all struggle with.

  4. October 13, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    I very much agree with much of what was written here. I do not find the Bible dictionaries definition of prayer to being sterile or hollow though. Like so many things in the gospel there seems to be three degrees of progress one needs to go through (obedient because you avoid punishment -> obedient to receive reward -> obedient because your becoming Christlike). The Bible dictionary definition takes an average Joe by evolving his understanding of prayer as being like wishes to a genie (or being pointless because Gods plan is going to unfold regardless of our actions), to that algebraic level of understanding you describe later. Most likely the middle stage.
    Or perhaps I took it as a personal attack because of how I felt my understanding prayer advance dramatically when it read it in the BD.
    Either way, great read.

  5. October 14, 2014 at 8:28 am

    I like how St. Paul tells that “we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us…”

  6. JennyB
    October 14, 2014 at 11:08 am

    I appreciate this very much – thank you. I was once told in a blessing, very clearly & emphatically that I must plan my OWN way in life, and only after I had proven to the Lord that I had enough determination of my own, only then would the Lord assist and help me in living and carrying out those plans. I always thought that was so curious – and a refreshing alternative to a life dedicated solely to “doing what God wills for me to do” (as if we don’t have our own brains and hearts for a reason). I think we forget that we are agents unto ourselves- meant to act, not be acted upon (not to be confused with trying to follow the Spirit when moved upon — being open to receiving promptings). I love the emphasis on agency and our own unique personhood whom the Lord respects (It would be easier, in many ways, to be lazy and just say “Tell me what to do”).

  7. Josh Smith
    October 14, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Over the last few years, gratitude has been so much easier for me than petitioning God for things. It’s easy for me to think of things I want, but I’m often stumped as to whether I should be asking God for those things. Very rarely have I felt impressed to ask for something. Often I feel impressed to give thanks.

    One other thought my EQ wrestled with on Sunday–the connection between righteous conduct and temporal wealth. We had a lively debate about what it means for the Lord to be “bound” when we do what he says. That whole concept has been on my mind, so thank you for this timely post.

  8. Ben S.
    October 15, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Glad my work is useful. Thanks for the appreciation.

  9. October 19, 2014 at 1:48 am

    Earth-life is man in a mess (attribute to Dorothy Heathcote). God’s plans “seem” messy (I have too often accused Him of making my life more of a mess than I feel it needs to be); however, as I live and hopefully learn, God’s plans are perfect and it’s my coping with the problems that causes the messes. The gospel provides the structure, but we have to fill in the content. If he gave us all the answers, what’s the point of faith, of pondering, of listening to the Spirit…

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