Interventionist God

Free will. This has got to be one of the most readily used “escape out of a difficult conversation for free” cards by Christians. It is my argument of choice (at least currently anyway!) in addressing the ugly problem of evil.  Especially the evil committed by human kind to itself.  The existence of evildoers etc is not so much the issue, but the fact that we believe in a God who does not appear to intervene.  God did not stop Hitler’s plans, even though one may believe that God knew Hitler’s destiny from even before the womb.  So why not?  How could a merciful loving God who desires to be reconciled with his creation allow these things to occur?  Surely this is inconsistent?  Either that, or God can’t intervene.  Ta Da!  Out comes the free will card.  God does not intervene with our capacity to exercise our free will, whether we use it for the betterment or the detriment of ourselves and others.  If He did intervene and override our will, we would be reduced to puppets, robots.  So the argument goes.  Now my tone is a tad sarcastic here, but I have faithfully reproduced this argument when confronted by  spiritual seekers who struggle to climb over this mountain.  To be honest, I don’t think my argument helps them. I don’t think debates full stop are terribly effective in drawing people to Jesus, but that is not the point of this post.

God does not need to be defended.  A brief perusal of my fave book of Job makes this point loud and clear.  However,  on this topic Christians are often called to explain their beliefs and God’s seeming inaction.

The book “The Openness of God” has an interesting comment to make on this topic in the preface, highlighting a logical inconsistency in the use of the “free will perspective”.  How many of us pray for a job?  A spouse?  A relationship that seems to be struggling?  Someone who needs protection from something, or even themselves?  When we ask God to intervene in these situations, what exactly are we asking Him to do?  Er… override the free will of the desired recipient of God’s intervention.

So God does not intervene in stopping evil, but will make the “gorgeous brunette over there notice me”, because I ask Him to?  Please note this comment is to make the point only, not to suggest that I am seeking a love interest!  Nick Cave has an interesting lyric on this idea:

“I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know darling that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms
Into my arms O Lord                (from The Boatman’s Call, Into My Arms)

I think the problem is clear, although I wish the solution was also.  The bible speaks of praying for each other, praying for our needs, intercession etc, suggesting that God does intervene in the lives of His people.  And, I believe this has been borne out in my own personal experiences. However, I am now less certain how the “free will” card really works, if indeed it does.  Maybe getting out of the preface of the book will help…

22 thoughts on “Interventionist God

  1. Again, your thoughts are inspirational to get me thinking, as per usual.

    I myself have used the free will argument when working with apologetics. But, it’s very true that we do ask for God to intervene in our stead, and that we are encouraged to do so. So, I see the conflict.

    It could have something to do with agreement. The Bible says that when there is agreement, then prayers of supplication are performed. Perhaps the one being prayed for is the one needing to agree with God, hence no breach of free will?

    But that leaves out when the party whose free will is about to breach free will. It’s a good post! Keep it up!

  2. But if only those prayers of agreement will be granted, why bother praying them at all? This post has really got my mind going… I truly enjoy this blog.

  3. Good point Bea, and further, how can we ever know what will be a ‘prayer of agreeement?’. And how often when we ask God for something, and for His will to be done, do we fully mean it (and therefore pray in agreement)? I don’t think our motives in prayer are often that pure – at least I know mine are often not! There has to be something more to help make sense of this…

  4. Please correct me if I am wrong but, I thought we were encouraged to pray for God to grant us what we need.

    Which is not always what we want.

    Maybe the gorgeous brunette is not what you need in your life.


  5. I actually just stumbled upon your blog while searching for the lyrics of the Nick Cave song that you quoted. I just wanted to say, great post!

    I can only assume from what you wrote that you’re a Christian questioning the nature of certain Christian beliefs, and for that I think you deserve a commendation.

    What’s interesting to me is that God was very much an “interventionist god” in the Old Testament, not so much in the New Testament, and under the assumption that He exists, he can only be describe as in deist “absent creator” terminology today.

    To me (I guess I’m that loud-mouth atheist the faithful are so upset about these days) God is a paradox whose nature the faithful would be wise to better define. Many Christians believe state that God has a plan for all of us. If so then why pray? And if all of our actions have been predetermined (or at least known to God), that pretty much leaves free will high and dry. And “God’s gift of free will” relieves Him of the pressure of preventing evil wrought by humans, but it still cannot explain suffering wrought by the natural world.

    Just a couple of thoughts from another viewpoint 🙂 Again, fantastic post. I think I’ll be reading your blog often.

  6. Hi Brian, thanks for dropping by – sorry to take so long to respond. I do not have much time for blogging these days. Yes, I am a Christian, but one who obsessively questions everything, at times to my own detriment I think! I am interested to know what you mean by “deist “absent creator”. You raise some good questions, and I welcome challenge and debate (especially from loud mouthed atheists)! As for the plan stuff – I reckon that at least part of the typical Christian focus on “God’s plan for my life” is borne out of Christian immersion in self-centred culture where the primary questions are “What’s in it for me”, “how will my needs be met” and so on. Part of me wonders if the “what is God’s plan for my life is the Christianese equivalent. A more Christ(ian) response might be to wonder how my life will make a difference for others – especially for those who are disadvantaged, the poor, the powerless. Sorry for the lengthy reply that ought to be a post I guess… 🙂

  7. This is an interesting discussion that seems to be continually coming back so we can have another go at thrashing it out!

    Yes, I struggle with the ideas in tension of a God who can’t be bought with some of my less holy prayers (thank goodness!), and the idea of prayer that has obvious spiritual consequences. Is praying for any ‘thing’ justified, as compared with praying that I will become more immersed in God and our purposes become more aligned (that would be me changing rather than God!) How does being blessed come into this too?

    Sometimes I think that the scientist in me jumps so quickly into the science paradigm of the Western world, trying to explain everything in detail, when often I just need to sit with God and feel, or use an arts paradigm (if only my vocab was a bit better) with more poetic descriptions. But that doesn’t wash in modern Adelaide. Reminds me of the quote from The Colour Purple – “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” I need some simplicity like that!

    Sorry to vent in your space! Beck

  8. Hi Rebecca, it does seem to resurface regularly. I wrote this post over a year ago now, and it is hit regularly by people interested in the subject. I love the quote from “The Colour Purple”.

  9. Its rather mind bending that ‘God’ will grant us a convenient car park or even a great job, but stay remarkably silent whilst those that purpose to represent ‘him’ bring hell on earth. both on a global scale and on an individual and emotional level.

    Ps. Jesus is the answer.
    (as long as you don’t ask too many questions.)

    Great site by the way christina…

  10. Oh, and to quote Nick Cave further,
    ” Hey Ho, Oh Baby Please Don’t Go, All Supernatural On Me”

    from the album, The Lyre of Orpheus

  11. Hi Trev! Good to hear from you. It is rather shameful the way Christianity (bearing little resemblance at all to Christ himself) all too often becomes the vehicle to legitimate oppression, injustice, demonising “the other”… I wish it was just in the past.

    Nick is rather a spiritual dude isn’t he. I reckon most of his songs have some spiritual layer to them. It is not always comforting though, and in that sense I think he has a lot to say to Christians. He is rather good at pulling down flimsy theology or practice.

  12. On the paradigm … I am a blonde who is actually a (mousy) brunette …. a westerner living in the middle east amongst those who tell me ‘inshallah’ daily (if God wills) … and I reply – you should really wear your seatbelt – inshallah is OK but people on the roads here are crazy and you have a very high death rate on the roads!

  13. Siobhan – the “if God wills” phrase can easily be used to avoid responsibility, or to put off making decisions, or perhaps as you point out, wear seatbelts! Thanks for dropping by.

  14. The recent earthquake in Haiti started me thinking about the notion of an interventionist God, again, which led me here. The notions of free will and an interventionist God are not inconsistent, I think, so long as we limit that intervention to the inspirational manipulation of people’s motives. Can an interventionist God not “inkle” a set of possible responses to a person receptive to his will, with little compromise to the person’s free will? A statistically significant number of those “inkled” to may choose a response consistent with an interventionist God’s will. After all, who has definitively described the process of original thought? What is the origin of inspiration?

    The why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people question is yet to be resolved, but I am growing more comfortable with an interventionist God’s role in inciting an altruistic response on the part of some to the misfortune of others.

    1. Thank you, Scott. That is encouraging. Yes, I have had a few close encounters with Open Theism… I find many of the tenets very appealing. I am particularly drawn to the notion that God can intervene in history and work His will through the actions of believers who exercise their free will. Surely I have encountered kindred hearts here, and I shall be back.

  15. I rather like adriana’s comment about God giving us what we ‘need’ rather than what we actually ‘want’… and I don’t know if you’ll appreciate a non-Christian-but-theist’s point of view in this matter, (esp one so long!) but thought I should share, if I could.

    As Muslims we believe that this world is not really a home for people. It is a place where humans are placed in order to be tested, to see if they worship God out of (yes, I say it) free will. This does come with consequences – when people do not have faith, they are able to act in evil, but simply put, every hardship and suffering is a test. There isn’t a human being that survives to adulthood without having suffered in some way, whether it is at the hands of another human being or some other force, and if God were to remove all the ways people suffer in the world, He would have to do at least one of two things: stop everyone’s loved ones from dying, or stop our ability to love. Obviously we don’t want the latter and as for the former, i think there’s a name for a place like that. We call it heaven 🙂

  16. Sultana, your point of view is very much welcome. I agree that suffering is something that is as certain for all of us as breathing and dying. I also agree that our capacity for love, desire for it, rejection are at the crux of much suffering.

    Steven, I am drawn to open theism. There is something about it that resonates within me, and seems to at least breathe a bit of hope into questions like this one. Another idea it plays with is the capacity for God to self-limit his knowledge. Does he really know ( or care to know the next word I type as I sit here)? This thought and the possibilities it enables have interesting ramifications for the problem of good and evil.

    1. In the last six months or so I have engaged in a struggle between open theism and somewhat more mainstream Protestant theology (I am an ELCA Lutheran). But I keep coming back to the struggle between the presence of evil and suffering in a fallen world and the implications of man’s understanding of free will. If I may come near to Sultana’s thought, I, too, do not believe this mortal realm is the intended home of the eternal man. I believe this earthly life is a time when we are all able to work out our faith as we journey together toward our eternal home. I am therefore reconciled to suffering and death (yes, even of the the innocent) because misfortune, natural calamity, persecution and evil are in the nature of a fallen world populated by imperfect people. I believe it is at times like that when people of faith join together and become the mystical, spiritual tools of God, working His will in the world. So I am reconciled that it is our imperfect human love that causes our sorrow at the death of a loved on, but it is God’s perfect love that empowers us to rejoice that their earthly perils have ended.

      If I may add a few rambling thoughts on the subject of free will…

      If this mortal life is not a God-given opportunity to work out our salvation freely, then this mortal life is a cruel joke. Did God know that young Adolf Hitler would become the murderer of millions? I think that is an invalid question because 1) does God “know” in the same way that we “know” and, 2) if not, how would we ever be able to “know” as God “knows” without being gods ourselves? Open Theism would indicate that God can not know the future (all-powerful notwithstanding) because the future has not happened yet and is therefore unknowable. One notion regarding the physical universe is that all events which occur in time and space are occurring simultaneously. But since God transcends place and time, what He may not “know” at this place and time, He may very well “know” at another place and time. So if those physicists are correct, and all of space and time are in God’s view concurrently, God knows the future – and we have not lost the mortal integrity of the “future” being contingent on a series of unfolding “presents”.

  17. The eternal home of immortal man… It is an interesting question. My thoughts about where or what heaven is have shifted somewhat, though still full of shades of grey. I am not entirely convinced that it is somewhere “else”. If there had been no fall, would we be in heaven, or would we still be looking for some place that is better than earth? Is earth an imperfect heaven that has been greatly despoiled by our ignorance and greed? I believe that the passages that are often translated as a “new heaven and earth” can be also translated as a “renewed” earth. This little shift in words has potentially a great impact on how we view our current abode….

    some interesting thoughts about free will and God knowing all vs not knowing that which has not yet occurred. I have always argued that God’s knowledge transcends time and space as we know it, and therefore is not really comprehendible to us. Now, I am not so sure about that. I don’t have a firm alternative thought on it though! I do think open theism contributes something rather interesting to the question though.

  18. You ask a couple of interesting questions,Christina. At what point and by what process does the union of human egg and sperm receive “the breath of life and become a living soul.” as we read in Gen. 2:7? We know that Adam and Eve were not intended to live forever. After being scolded for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they are sent out of the garden “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (Gen. 3:22b).

    I’m led to believe, then, that Man, in his physical body, was not intended to live forever. I’m led to believe it is the spiritual Man, that part of Man which became a “living soul”, that sheds the physical constraints of mortal life to take on immortality and have eternal communion with God and the hosts of heaven in the spiritual realm. The notion that Man must undergo a transition, which we now call death, from his earthly, physical life to his spiritual, eternal life is clear enough in Scripture, beginning in Genesis; Man was created with a physical nature and imbued with a spiritual nature; the physical nature ceases and the spiritual nature lives on.

    Scripture is replete with instances where dwellers of the spiritual realm cross back and forth between the spiritual and the physical – angels, demons, cherubim. But according to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lu 16:19-26), Man is allowed to cross that boundary only once, and is not allowed to cross back to the physical.

    I’m struggling through some of the implications of Open Theism with regard to traditional Christian doctrine. I’m finding that Open Theism is creating more questions/problems for me than it solves.

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