Funerals, Sovereignty and Your Prayers: A Poll

The Rev. Nathanael Emmons (1745-1840), intellectual scion of Hopkins and thus Edwards, was the mentor of more than 150 ministers. His collected sermons span six volumes and many of them touch on death and the sovereignty of God. Among many passages, Emmons sites Job 23:13,

But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth.

It is hard not to see this passage as an echo here:

and there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it.[From Abr. 3:17.]

Since Augustine and before, religious thinkers have come against the idea of God’s sovereignty. Why? For one thing, it struggles with the idea of petitionary prayer and freedom in general. Emmons deploys the passage in defense of God’s choice over life and death and the inexplicable way some live and others die.[1]

So, do your prayers make a difference? Or are they just disturbances in the acoustic background. Are the only prayers that are answered, those whose words are put in ones mouth by God?

[1] Emmons was a New Calvinist.


  1. Well, I definitely don’t think they are for God’s benefit. It’s he’s omniscient, he doesn’t need me to voice what I need, want, or are grateful for- he already knows. The point is, do I know it? Something about articulating your gratitude and your needs helps give perspective and help us align with the will of God. I’m not saying God doesn’t appreciate our prayers or want us to do them- but more because he recognizes that it is a tool for our good.

  2. KerBearRN says:

    Good question. I for one would appreciate some better insight than my own, as I’ve often wondered if there is really a point in asking. When I am realistic, I find myself asking more along the lines if “Help meunderstand Thy will.”. But often…well…erm…I suppose I resort to begging.

  3. I couldn’t pick just one because I think the situations are unique in which each might apply. The allegory of Zenos is on my mind having just taught it in GD and I am inclined to interpret prayer as a conversation with God in which he teaches, tests, and gives rein to matured servants. I think the response God has to our prayers depends on the context and our development with him. If we understand that, I think we begin to pray differently.

  4. Interesting weasel Bonnie, but it doesn’t fly. Make your choice.

  5. Weasel, eh? So God is limited to one response to all the myriad prayers tossed at him? In my own life I’ve felt him kindly ignore the ones I didn’t really care about, refuse to grant the ones that weren’t in my best interest (which is his will), grant a few to teach me a lesson, and extend answering for the purpose of engaging in a conversation with me or to help me understand the needs of other stakeholders. I think petitionary prayers are important because we are told to offer them, and I think I lean toward them being exercises, but I struggle with the word “merely.” Having a pluralistic outlook isn’t weaseling. Manufacturing a reason to ignore my dishes is weaseling, and I plead the fifth about that one.

  6. Wrong question. God is a monopolist who wants to maximize his return from this planet, i.e. souls returning to him. He answers petitionary prayers to do the maximization. You assume that God has to have a rule book by which he/she operates, but the scriptures indicate that there is no rule book, God does what God wants, which, according to the above extremely general rule, is to maximize the return. (That is, if we have faith that God loves his/her children and wants them back.)

    The other imperative is freedom to doubt. If God answered every petitionary prayer the same way there would be no doubt. Sometimes miracles occure, sometimes not. If they never happened we would not doubt that prayer had no effect. If they always happened, again, no doubt.

    (p.s. has the spell checker been turned off? Do I see an increase in typos and other junk?)

  7. I’m with Bonnie. I picked “Are skillfully balanced,” but I know there’s more to it than that. Yes, prayer is mainly for our benefit and to teach us humility, but I can’t ignore the glaring examples from the scriptures of people petitioning and reasoning with God.

  8. Well, I answered “exercises to understand our own minds” because that’s what I think on a good day, but most days I’m confused by the whole issue.

    I suppose on my best days I think petitionary prayers are exercises to understand our own minds and also to understand God’s mind. Depending on how He responds to our prayers, we can learn something about His will. Maybe. I don’t know. I pray mostly because I can’t help it.

  9. Recently I talked to a retired professor of psychology. He told us an unusual story. He is not religious and not usually very depressed, but in a very depressed state he looked in the mirror and said, “If there is a God, make me happy.” He said he was instantly transported to a state of pure joy. He asked us, knowing that we were religious, what that meant. We did not say it, but thought, “Duh.” There is no accounting. If I asked to be made happy, I know I would get a shrug and be told to “fix it yourself.”

    My wife died. I so desired an intercession. But there were other plans and other destinies which I did not know and could not have guessed. I treasure and honor her sacrifice, as unwilling as it was, to let this happen.

  10. I believe that God answers petitionary prayers because we give him permission by asking to thereby to intervene in our lives. He waits until we asks so that we don’t become spoiled use Him as a tool. I believe that he waits until we ask to protect the relationship where we are so weak and he is so powerful.

  11. KerBearRN says:

    Btw– I was being a “weasel” (bc I didn’t feel like any once choice was a good fit)– and it DID allow me to choose two. (partly on accident– I chose one answer, then a different, and when I saw that it had ticked both boxes, I just figured WTH and clicked submit.). So FWIW to the resulting numbers…

  12. I’m pretty sure that God intervenes in my life all the time, whether I ask him to or not. And I’m very grateful for it.

  13. larryco_ says:

    Bonnie (#5): what an elegant response!

  14. pangwitch says:

    what is the difference between the last two options?

  15. Wth, I checked them all.

  16. As long as we’re on the subject, I find the notion of asking for a blessing on food/refreshments very intriguing. It’s sort of a pseudo-sacrament blessing. Do we really think that Heavenly Father “blesses” the food to, typically, “nourish and strengthen us” ? I get that it’s largely traditional and a good time to have a prayer, I just don’t understand precisely why we do it and what is really going on. I guess, in the end, I’m not entirely certain that the sacrament prayers actually DO anything to the bread and water, or if it’s designed to focus the partaker on remembrance, repentance and the Savior.

    These are petitionary prayers, aren’t they? It’s us asking for something.

  17. God has free agency. He will do what he wants, but always keeps his end of the bargain. Everyone’s prayers are different, everyone’s hearts are different, everyone’s reasons are different. Thus prayers are granted, but there is no rhyme or reason to it. I adore intellectualism, reason, logic, coherence, etc… but, honestly, attempting to fit God into the little box that is our mortal mind and telling Him he must stay there so *we* can understand is as slippery a slope as they come–at least for me.

    I try to have as close to a true paternal relationship with God as I can. I get angry at Him sometimes, and I tell him so. I sass more than is probably wise, but it is only because my tiny mortal brain cannot wrap around the ways of life and eternity sometimes. Perhaps I will be forgiven, perhaps I will not. A dialogue is necessary to me though, and necessary to my relationship with God. I cannot pray on my knees because I have a bad knee, but when I pray I make sure to talk out loud. Talking out loud in prayer (for some reason) makes it impossible for me to tell those little white lies I may want to tell about myself, or even my “want to wants”.

    That is my answer to the question. Whether or not God answers, or even listens is up to Him and in His own time. It is my providence to seek His audience.

  18. I find these questions odd and annoying:

    “So, do your prayers make a difference? Or are they just disturbances in the acoustic background. Are the only prayers that are answered, those whose words are put in ones mouth by God?”

    Of course prayers make a difference, and if God simply put words in our mouths, where is the role of agency and faith?

    There are some pretty obvious examples in the scriptures of God granting the things prayed for. Certainly he would not have granted those things if they were not in accord with his will, but that doesn’t mean he was going to grant the wish without the asking, or that he put the words in the mouth of the person praying. The best example of this is the Brother of Jared. He wanted lights for his people’s ships, and not only did the Lord grant his request, but he did it in precisely the way the Mahonri asked. Was this in accord with the will of the Lord? Certainly. Would the Lord have done it if there was no request? I don’t see why. It was an example of someone exercising faith to request and receive a great blessing for his people. How does that not make a difference?

  19. EOR, are you sure God has free will?

  20. WVS, good question. I also wonder how do we know if God keeps his/her/its end of the bargin?

  21. WVS and JeffS I am not so arrogant as to say that I am sure of anything.

    However, if Man is created in God’s image, and scriptures tell us that our free agency was essentially paramount to God’s plan it makes sense to me that God does have free agency. I have never seen anything to the contrary. I cannot imagine that mortal probation would be worth anything if God did not have free agency. If another person, or entity could twist His arm then what would be the point?

    As far as God keeping bargains that is really what faith is for. I have faith that if I do my duty and keep the commandments then X will happen. As to surety, no.

  22. WVS: If God isn’t free in your view, then you would be the only one in the history of Judeo-Christian thought who thought so, with the exception of Baruch Spinoza who was a naturalistic pantheist who held that God just is the deterministic natural universe. Of course there are several Muslim philosophers who maintained that God isn’t free and the actual entailments of the views of almost all classical Judeo-Christian theologians are logically inconsistent with the view that God is free — contrary to their express assertions about God’s freedom.

    What on earth makes you think God is not free?

    I suggest that if God is free, then he is free to answer petitionary prayers as he in his divine knowledge sees to be for our best interests. Moreover, I believe that Mormonism provides one of the few theological frameworks that can assert God’s robust moral freedom.

  23. Well, I don’t know if God has free will Blake. It sort of depends on whether he already knows what he’s going to do with absolute certainty. The tension between the two ideas is very strong but not explored without shrugging of shoulders. (grin)

  24. Too tough to differenciate from here. I checked them all.

  25. themormonbrit says:

    I think the freedom and agency of God (and the closely related issue of His omnipotence) is one of Mormonism’s greatest paradoxes (not in a negative way). On the one hand, we have a God who is profoundly limited, by the laws of nature, physics, morality, justice, mercy etc. This idea that God is God only because He obeys these priniciples – and hence, if He were to cease obeying these principles, He would cease to be God, is beautifully outlined in Alma 42. I think this concept is uniquely mormon – things are not right merely because God commands them; rather, God commands them because they are right. This makes something else greater than God. This would seem to indicate that He is not omnipotent, or rather, His omnipotence is dependent upon His obedience to these great laws. However, I think Mormonism also asserts, without contradiction, that God could, in theory, choose to sin, and indeed, if we go by the King Follett discourse, has possibly sinned in the past while a mortal. Alma 42 does not imply that God cannot break the law of justice, it merely points out that if He did, the consequence would be that He would cease to be God.
    So, basically, I think Mormonism makes a case for a God that is bound by eternal laws which He perfectly obeys, but could, in theory, break those laws.