Posted by: Alex | June 12, 2011

Christian Libertarianism and Prayer

Continuing to discuss the book Desiring God by John Piper.  A few more posts on this book to go.  Currently I’m in the middle of staff training here at the Barbara C. Harris Camp in New Hampshire, and that is taking about 90% of my time and attention.  Its been great so far, very glad to be here, but it means writing has taken a back seat for a bit and the pace of writing has gone down drastically.  My hope is that when I have time off I will be able to get through a sizable amount of writing and get ahead of the game (as opposed to right now being a tad behind it).  Bear with me, the project will continue, if slowly.

The chapter I want to look at today is the one titled “Prayer.”  I honestly have to say on the front end that this was to me one of the most disappointing chapters in the book in my opinion.  Piper uses language that sounds very noble, I will give him that:

We have learned from the Bible (and from Edwards!) that God’s interest is to magnify the fulness of His glory by spilling over in mercy to us.  Therefore, the pursuit of our interest and our happiness is never above God’s, but always in God’s.  The most precious truth in the Bible is that God’s greatest interest is to glorify the wealth of His grace by making sinners happy in Him- in Him!  (159, emphasis his)

But we have to ask what this means.  We pursue our happiness in God, therefore our pursuit of our own happiness is not above God’s interests.  I’m not entirely sure I understand the logical move Piper is making there- it doesn’t seem workable to me.  His often used example is that going to a doctor when we are sick does not make us greater than the doctor.  This honestly seems like an empty statement to me.  Greater in what sense?  In the sense of medical healing skill?  Well, certainly not.  In the sense of having the greater character?  Hard to say.  It does seem to me, though, that our own self-interest is the end-goal of the visit and the doctor’s interest has become instrumental to serving that end (for us).  From our perspective, then, it would seem that our own interest is the greater.  Piper I think tries to avoid this conclusion by arguing that God is glorified by making us happy in Him and therefore in a sense our interest is God’s interest.  God’s glory is our happiness.  A possible problem, though, is that the potential for this line of reasoning to devolve into a superficial view of God as a genie in a bottle seems very apparent to me.  I would like to believe Piper doesn’t have such a superficial view of God as waiting on our every desire, but several other statements are worth pondering:

How then do we glorify Him?  Jesus gives the answer in John 15:7:  “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  We pray!  We ask God to do for us through Christ what we can’t do for ourselves- bear fruit.  (161, emphasis his)

This statement seems pretty reasonable.  We ask God to help us bear fruit.  I think virtually any evangelical can affirm that, no matter what their theological persuasions.  But Piper doesn’t stay here he continues to drift:

The implication is that those who do ask- Christians who spend time in prayer- do it because they see that God is a great Giver and that Christ is wise and merciful beyond measure.  And therefore their prayer glorifies Christ and honors His Father.  The chief end of man is to glorify God.  Therefore, when we become what God created us to be, we become people of prayer.  (162)

The noble language of this passage masks the drift that is taking place- we serve God by praying for God to serve us.  “God is a great giver” can be both a fantastic theological statement and it can open the door to a wide range of mis-applications.  The drift continues with a quotation of Spurgeon that Piper employs:

[Spurgeon writes] Here is a delightful partnership:  we obtain that which we so greatly need, and all that God gitteth is the glory which is due unto his name.  (163)

The language used here emphasizes the “easiness” of the exchange from a human perspective.  While this has often been part of Reformed evangelical evangelism I sometimes wonder if it promotes bad theology.  Staying that God is giving us a magnificent gift and he is doing all the hard work can quickly turn into a “fire-insurance” view of salvation.  In the context of a discussion about prayer, that I think can very quickly turn into a view of God not unlike a genie in a bottle ready to answer every desire of our heart.

Now, so far this is not explicitly what Piper has argued for.  He has kept to very generalized language that could be interpreted a variety of ways.  I have chosen to focus on what I see as the more dangerous edge of that interpretation because I think given Piper’s “Hedonism” or what I have labeled “Christian Libertarianism” this is the possible direction his theology could move, the dangerous slide he is open to.  And given later comments Piper makes, I think he is very aware of this and even encourages it.  Take for instance this statement:

Someone may say that this is self-centered.  But what does self-centered mean?  If it means I passionately desire to be happy, then yes, prayer is self-centered.  (163, emphasis his)

My paraphrase of this would be Yes, it is self-centered, but that’s fine.  Prayer is supposed to be self-centered.  Piper is rhetorically trying to make this sound noble, but I’m not convinced this isn’t just a euphemism for selfishness.  After merely brushing aside and scoffing at the accusation, Piper tries to offer a more substantial defense:

But surely we should not call this pursuit of happiness in prayer self-centered.  It is radically God-centered.  In my craving to be happy, I acknowledge that at the center of my life there is a gaping hole of emptiness without God.  This hole constitutes my need and my rebellion at the same time.  I want it filled, but I rebel at God’s filling it with Himself.  By grace I awake to the folly of my rebellion and see that if it is filled with God, my joy will be full.  “Self-centered” is not a good way to describe this passion to be happy in God.  (164)

To use the medical analogy Piper frequently employs, we can paraphrase this as follows:  I am sick and desire to be well.  I realize that the doctor is the only one who can make me well, but I don’t want to go to the doctor.  Finally, I give in and receive treatment for my sickness.  But this is not “self-centered”- its the doctor who made me well.  The point I want to make in paraphrasing it this way is that the doctor may be the one doing the work, but ultimately it is the patient’s interests that are being served.  The patient turning to the doctor may in some ways honor the doctor (with their trust or with their praise, perhaps), but they are ultimately interested in doing this because of what they get out of it.  Piper readily acknowledges that this is his view of Christianity:

Christianity is fundamentally convalescence (“Pray without ceasing” = Keep buzzing the nurse).  Patients do not serve their physicians.  They trust them for good prescriptions.  The commands of the Bible are more like a doctor’s health prescription than an employer’s job description.  (171)

God certainly offers healing and mercy and grace.  God is a great giver.  There is no doubting this.  But I think there is also a strong part of the tradition which sees God as a great King or Lord whom we serve.  There is a significant part of the tradition which acknowledges that while God does many wonderful things for us, God is not our servant (but we are God’s servant).  Piper seems to me to be brushing aside such parts of the tradition by focusing entirely on the view of God as serving us.  We ask for whatever we would like and God will grant it.  As Piper puts it:

Good service is always and fundamentally receiving mercy, not rendering assistance.  So there is no good service without prayer.  (172)

Prayer is extremely important.  I don’t want to seem like I am attacking the notion of prayer.  But Prayer which views God as a genie in a bottle waiting to answer our various requests, a divine room service, seems to me a serious cheapening of God, a serious reduction of the divine character.  It seems to me that Piper is encouraging such a view of prayer, and that honestly worries me quite a bit given his influential status in evangelical culture.

What do you think?  Is Piper promoting a view of prayer that reduces the character of God?  How is Piper’s view of prayer different from a genie in a bottle approach to God?  Why might or might not that seem problematic?

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