Exploring Mormon Thought: Prayer

In his deservedly famous essay “Self Reliance,” Emerson suggests that just as our “creeds are a disease of the intellect” so our “prayers are a disease of the will.”

Alone in our closets there is scarcely anywhere to hide. Five serious minutes of prayerful silence are enough to show any one how quickly our attention wanes and how ingrown our wills tend to be. Who, having ascended the hill of the Lord, can pay attention to what he has to say? Who can forget themselves in prayer rather than forgetting God?

Like peeling back a stiff bandage, prayer shows us the wound that we are. No wonder there is a palpable, if deceptive, relief that accompanies an avoidance of prayer.

Emerson continues:

In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they call a holy office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — any thing less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.

Emerson distinguishes two kinds of prayer: (1) prayer as an expression of craving and private interest that petitions for some particular commodity or end, and (2) prayer as a contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. Emerson (harshly) characterizes the first as a kind of involuted begging. He describes the second as a kind of joyful, meditative kenosis. In the first, we tell God how we would like things to be. In the second, we listen for how God wants things to be.

In the second chapter of the second volume of Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought, Ostler reverses these polarities. Chapter two deals with “Providence and Prayer” and early on Ostler similarly distinguishes between contemplative and petitionary kinds of prayer while, however, privileging (as most Mormons do in both theory and practice) the latter rather than the former.

Ostler sees some value in contemplative prayer but demotes it, interestingly, for the same reason Emerson demoted petitionary prayer: it’s ingrown navel-gazing is too self-centered. Ostler describes contemplative prayer as a “form of therapeutic meditation” and “even an atheist may recommend such meditative prayer to the true believer as helpful in achieving peace of mind” (687 of 7837; all references are to the Kindle edition).  Further, “it seems that the purpose of meditative prayer is to influence and change the person praying and not necessarily influence God.” Even prayer as an expression of gratitude “may merely fulfill a need of the person praying” (712 of 7837).

On Ostler’s account, true prayer gets off the ground only when we “seek in prayer a mutual and reciprocal relationship” with the Father (712 of 7837). This kind of prayer is only possible if God can be influenced by our active petitions for particular blessings.

I agree with Ostler that prayer must be actively engaged rather than self-satisfied and I agree that what we seek in prayer is a living relationship with God. I also agree with Ostler that, in order for this happen, prayer must be God-centric rather than self-centered. However, with Emerson, I’m skeptical that petitionary prayer, in and of itself, is the best way to do this. Answered petitions may most publicly attest to an intimate relationship with God, but they may not be the best way to form it.

Offering a rough phenomenology of prayer, I would suggest instead that, while petition we must, prayer deepens as it moves from petition to gratitude and, moreover, that it deepens even further as it moves from speaking to silence to hearing. This deepening of prayer in concentrated silence is a movement away from the demands of the ego and toward a profound intimacy with spirit as we enter into the rest of the Lord.

As a practical matter, I’ve written some about this before.

34 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: Prayer

  1. Question… what kinds of prayers (petition or contemplative) would you say the following individuals tend(ed) to offer?

    Joseph Smith

    In the Savior we have the ultimate ideal for emulation, and if you want to suggest that he is just “other” and we can’t emulate him in prayer (why?) then in Joseph Smith we have a fallen mortal whose mission was to point to the savior.

    So what kind of prayers do they offer and should it be instructive for us?

  2. Insightful thoughts, Adam. Certainly the LDS model of prayer is a little too cut-and-dried. In practice, it sometimes devolves into simply asking God for stuff, while of course being careful to use thee and thine when asking for me and mine. If that becomes distasteful but one also is not into the sort of prayer as therapeutic meditation that Ostler rejects, what else is there? Maybe prayer is overrated.

  3. I strongly disagree with a lot of what Ostler suggests. I’m not quite sure where to begin.

    Ok. So let’s start with the fact that petitionary prayers don’t work, in my opinion. That’s from my own personal standpoint and also, I think, from a theological standpoint. Take the omniscience of God. “My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning” (Abraham 2:8). He knows everything that will unfold, and He does everything in His power, short of compromising our agency, to ensure that the end is as good for us as possible. He is not going to change the plan simply because we ask Him to, because any deviation from the plan He already has would be, by definition, to our detriment. The Bible Dictionary asserts that: “the object of prayer is not to change the will of God”. Rather, I think it is to seek to know the will of God that we might obey and understand it more fully, and so that we can be better instruments in the hands of God in bringing about His perfect will, instead of seeking to change it.

    Secondly, and this may be prove very controversial, I really do think prayer is more about us than it is about God. Like the sabbath, prayer was made for man, and not man for prayer. Neither was prayer made for God. “Your father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). God knows what we need. God knows what we want. God has already factored that in to the equation. If our needs and wants are in accordance with His perfect plan, then He will fulfil them, if not, then He will leave such petitions unfulfilled because to do what is asked of Him would be detrimental to the overall well-being of His children. Therefore, since God doesn’t need prayer, it must be for our benefit. Yes, “it seems that the purpose of meditative prayer is to influence and change the person praying and not necessarily influence God.” That is because we are the ones that need influencing and changing, not God. God is perfect, He requires no influencing or changing. If our petition is in accordance with His will, then it will be granted anyway, if it is not, then we should never have desired it in the first place.

  4. I don’t like the idea of a father who says I don’t need you; you need me. Or of a father who has everything already all figured out and pre-determined. Somebody I’m supposed to laud and whorship, contemplate and analyze in terms of where I’m at but who I never get to interact with. How boring. Not my kind of a loving dad. I’m not opposed to a plan, but my experience is that with agency there’s always lots of excitement and changes. How can you foresee what hasn’t happened yet? I also don’t like the idea of a father who exists in some hokey “other” existence. Absent? Not my type of a dad.

  5. themormonbrit, how can you say that petitionary prayers do not work, when this seems to be such a common experience of believers in and out of the church?

    “He is not going to change his plan simply because we ask him to.” There is scriptural evidence to contradict this idea. God agreed to spare Sodom each time Abraham asked if he could find less and less righteous people. God said, “ask and it shall be given you.”

    I think the confusion lies in understand “God’s will.” God’s will is not always an involuable and unalterable thing, like commandments written on stone. God specifically says, “I do not command in all things. Men are to do many things of their own free will.” “I teach them correct principles, they govern themselves.”

    It is within this wide berth of freedom, that God answers our prayers. Prayer is not a time to submit ourselves to some singular, robotic set of instructions. It is a time to make decisions about what we want, what we think is good, make plans, and go to God for help with them.

    Of course, sometimes God does have a specific will for us, and prayer is a time to try and find what that is. But even when He does, sometimes He agrees to change His will, even at our peril, like when He granted Joseph Smith permission to lend the manuscript to Martin Harris.

  6. wreddyornot, I can understand where you are coming from, particularly since we are thinking in a mormon framework here. Based on the King Follet Discourse, mormonism asserts that us and God really aren’t that different after all. We are of the same species He is just a bit further ahead than us. Hence, most mormons would probably agree with you and be deeply suspicious of any suggestion that we are very different from God. Thus, I understand your objections.

    Nevertheless, I disagree with you in quite a few ways. “I don’t like the idea of a father who says I don’t need you; you need me”. Fair enough, but to be honest, I believe that God really doesn’t need us, and that we really do need God. The aseity of God has always been a fundamental attribute of God in Christianity, based on passages of scripture such as Acts 17:25 “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.”

    “Or of a father who has everything already all figured out and pre-determined”. Well, let’s consider the alternative – a clueless God who’s pretty much doing His best and figuring it out as He goes along. That idea is terrifying to me. As for everything being pre-determined, it’s important not to confuse omniscience with predestination. God foresees everything that we will do, but this doesn’t mean that He causes us to do that. He can do this because He knows us so completely that He knows what we will choose in any given situation. See my post, titled “Compatibilist free agency” at http://www.zionssynod.blogspot.com, for more on how God can foresee everything we will do without compromising our agency. It’s quite long, I hope you’ll bear with it.

    “Somebody I’m supposed to laud and whorship, contemplate and analyze in terms of where I’m at but who I never get to interact with”. Interaction with God still happens. We ask Him questions and (hopefully) He gives us answers so that we can more efficiently carry out His perfect plan, but there’s also an element of telling God everything that is happening in our life, how we feel about it, etc. It can be a beautiful experience to just tell someone and know that they’re listening. I’m not opposed to that, I just think that telling God anything is more for our benefit than God’s benefit, since we cannot tell Him anything He doesn’t know already. He doesn’t need to hear it, but often we need to say it. So when we speak to God, it is for our benefit, and when He speaks to us it is also for our benefit. I fail to see how prayer is designed for God’s improvement; it is entirely for our own improvement. God is perfect; His plan is perfect; neither He nor it require improvement.

    “My experience is that with agency there’s always lots of excitement and changes”. I agree. I merely believe that God foresees these changes, and adapts His plan accordingly.

    nate, fair enough. I will concede that there are many examples in the scriptures where God changes His mind. I don’t think I can argue with that. The rest of your comment is where we disagree.

    I do believe that God’s will is involuable and unalterable, in the sense that in every situation there is always a single course of action that will bring about the greatest happiness for all involved. In every situation, there is always a course of action that is ‘most right’. I understand the scripture you quoted from D+C in terms of being compelled; it is reproving the saints for waiting for some kind of strict THOU SHALT commandment, and for thinking about the gospel in such a legalistic way. It’s basically saying not to wait until you are compelled before you do something; we should just pull our socks up and do it, even though we haven’t been compeled to do so. That’s how I interpret it, anyway. And I am sure there are many scriptures that disagree with me that I have no good way of explaining.

    The reason I am so ready to discount a lot of this scriptural evidence is because of how abhorrent I find the idea of a God who will deviate from the best possible course of action in a given situation on the whim of someone who sees without perfect knowledge, through a glass, darkly. I want the God I worship to do whatever is most conducive to His children’s happiness in every situation, instead of following my whims, which will inevitably be imperfect, mistaken and faulty.

    By the way, wreddyornot and nate, I very much enjoy this discussion we’re having. I don’t mean to offend ot disrespect any of you. `

  7. So let’s start with the fact that petitionary prayers don’t work, in my opinion. […] He knows everything that will unfold….

    If you let go of the second assertion, the first ceases to be a problem.

  8. themormonbrit, I admire you having strong opinions, even if they disagree with scriptural evidence. The scriptures don’t agree with each other after all.

    But I disagree that there is always an “ideal” best possible course of action for every circumstance, which God could guide us to. When I look at diversity of animal life, and geological history, I don’t believe I am looking at the “best of all possible worlds.” I believe I am looking at the fantastic “improvisations of God.”

    I believe this in human life as well. If I write a piece of music, there is no “ideal” perfect piece I might compose, in one specific perfect key, and one specific perfect style, but rather a great multitude of perfect and imperfect paths I could take. And each human life is like a musical composition. And we are the authors of that composition.

    What is God’s role? I tender father, teaching correct principles, opening doors, shutting others, encouraging particular things, discouraging others, like a master painter guiding his art student, teaching techniques without controlling every gesture, or dictating every structural piece of the composition.

  9. “that it deepens even further as it moves from speaking to silence to hearing.”

    Wouldn’t it be better to say it deepens as it begins to contain all three, and perhaps more? Otherwise, you’re left with the idea that the best prayer is the prayer in which we only hear. Something of a one sided conversation, not to mention a repudiation of the idea that we are active and growing agents. You might mean any number of things by “ego” – some of them I’d agree we need to distance ourselves from, others we need to augment. Your final paragraph seems to me something of an almost Buddhist, or at least religious, rather than Mormon, insight.

  10. themormonbrit

    It’s my understanding in LDS thought aseity pertains not just to HF but to all of us (intelligences etc.). Now, I suppose He could have left me be, but he didn’t, did he? Why? Well, he needed me. He says I was part of a grand plan, right? He’s a father; I’m a child. LDS thought characterizes the relationship this way; I’m tempted, but forego saying, from beginning to end.

    As to agency and foreknowledge, I briefly checked out your linked blog entry. Interesting, but it seemed flawed to my more libertarian free-will sensibilities. Since the posting under discussion stems from Blake Ostler’s book(s), I ask: have you read Ostler’s first in the series, EXPLORING MORMON THOUGHT: VOLUME 1, THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD? I like Ostler’s arguments there and in other articles which can be found at http://blakeostler.com. If you’ve read those works, what’s your major objection to his position on agency relative to foreknowledge?

    It’d be pretty boring, my simple mind thinks, to be able to predict everything without flaw. Now to plan how to address lovingly the unexpected: to me that seems way more compelling. Universes of creativity. I like it. And I love having HPs who help figure things out.

  11. Blake’s book actually inspired a cartoon I did (he’s books have inspired many). In fact, the severaly of Deseret News editors loved it but it got held up and consequently unpublished because there were many people who hold to a absolutistic conception of God. Nevertheless, I’ve always thought there was something strange about asking for whatever was going to happen to happen. I see prayer as petitionary and meditative and when it becomes one or the other it lessens the experience.


  12. Why peel contemplative and petitionary prayer apart, Adam? I wonder if both Blake and Emerson make the same faux pas, missing a kind of form/matter coupling: contemplation as the matter of prayer, petition as its form….

  13. Good question, Joe. I think the answer is straightforward: it’s very hard to talk and listen at the same time.

  14. nate, thank you for your comment. However, I must disagree with you if you suggest that there is not always a best course of action in a given situation. You brought up the example of composing a piece of music. Now I’m not suggestiing that any piece of music is better than another (I have my tastes, but they are subjective, not objective), but when writing a piece of music, I am sure there is one particular composition that will have the greatest impact on yourself and have the most profound influence on the greatest number of people who will listen to it. That isn’t to say that other compositions are wrong or bad or evil, but I do believe that whenever someone sits down to write a piece of music there is one particular piece that they are capable of writing that would have the greatest positive impact on the lives of the greatest number of people who will hear it. I think this line of reasoning holds true for a lot of life. That is not to suggest, however, that we should pray for revelation in every single situation we find ourselves in (though that would be an interesting interpretation of ‘pray unceasingly’). In many cases, reason and careful reflection will lead us to a course of action that approaches the ideal.

    It may be that you’re right, in certain cases perhaps there is no best ocurse of action. What then? Well, then perhaps God does choose between many equally beneficial paths on the basis of someone’s wants and desires. But I simply cannot accept that He needs us to tell Him what those desires are (though often, as I noted before, we need to say it even if He doesn’t need to hear it). He knows the most intricate and intimate details of our heart and soul; He knows what we need and what we want. I believe that He has already factors our wants and desires into the equation; He doesn’t need us to tell Him what we want in order for Him to decide which course of action to follow, He already knows what we desire and has taken those desires into account when formulating His final decision.

    wreddyornot, I simply find it hard to believe that God needs me. Yes, He could have left me as an undeveloped little intelligence with stunted growth, but He chose not to, because He loves me, not because He needs me. That’s my view on the issue anyway. I don’t really know if either of us could prove the other wrong except by asserting “I am right and you are wrong”. However, I just cannot accept that God needs anything. The God I worship is self-sufficient and doesn’t need me. He needs nothing, because He lacks nothing, because He is perfect.
    I, on the other hand, am very much imperfect, and therefore I desperately need Him.

    Perhaps I’m looking at this in an un-mormon way; perhaps I’m coming at this from a very un-mormon angle. I can understand why that accusation could be made. In Aaron R’s brilliant post at By Common Consent (enemy territory, I know), he deals with the ‘ontological gap’. In the comments someone responded to this idea of there being a vast difference between God’s perfection and our sinful depravity by saying something along the lines of “If I wanted to be a Protestant, I’d go be one”. Fair enough. I don’t want to be a Protestant (at this moment and time in my life, though I do have a deep appreciation for Protestantism), but I can understand why some mormons may find my views heretical. Oh well.

    I feel a bit embarrassed saying this, but regrettably I have not read any of Ostler’s books (because unfortunately I don’t own them). I have, however, read several summaries of portions of his work. Perhaps, like the Book of Mormon, his books are in the category of books that you don’t have to read in order to have a strong opinion about (I’m joking, by the way). I definitely think he comes at things from a particular angle within mormonism, one rooted deep in the King Follet Discourse and the teachings of Brigham Young and the Plan of Salvation and a plurality of Gods. You know, the wonderful weird stuff of mormonism that everyone loves. While I admire his boldness and his love for mormonism’s distinctive doctrines (a love which I share), I do feel that he perhaps is sometimes too enthusiastic to dismiss anything that stinks of traditional Christian theology. The God of Abrahamic religions is almost universally described as being omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient. Ostler’s view of God ascribes to Him omnibenevolence, but dismisses omnipotence and omniscience in an attempt to protect and safeguard the precious doctrines of agency and Gods in embryo. While I admire his love for these doctrines, I also can’t deny that I worship a God who is both omnipotent and omniscient.

    As for the relationship between agency and foreknowledge, I would seriously love to have a robust discussion about this issue with you, but I would rather do it in the comments of my blog post at http://www.zionssynod.blogspot.com; I think I address quite a few issues relating to agency and foreknowledge. I’d genuinely be interested to know which parts you think are flawed (and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way). I think if we start having this conversation here we have the potential to veer off topic. Naturally, if you’re a metaphysical libertarian and I’m a compatibilist, we will have disagreements, but I still think we could have an interesting discussion.

    Perhaps being able to predict everything without flaw is boring. I don’t really care. I find the idea that God is at the helm and knows what is coming very comforting, much more comforting than the idea of a God who is surprised and shocked by everything I do. I dislike that idea because it suggests to me that He doesn’t really know me that well.

    Basically, I like the idea that God already knows what problems will arise, and how to deal with them. My responsibility, through prayer, is to bring my own will in alignment with His perfect will, and then act to bring about His marvelous plan. In this there is safety and peace ;)

  15. mormonbrit: Your approach to prayer is not merely in tension with basic Mormon commitments, but any Christian view as well. One cannot make sense of the petitions in D&C 109 for instance or any of the prayers where Joseph Smith asks for deliverance for the saints. One cannot make sense of the prayers offered by Jesus where he constantly asks the Father to bring about outcomes based on the petitions. The prayers offered by the resurrected Christ in 3 Nephi for instance ask for healing and blessings, for Israel to be moved to repent and for disciples to be enlightened and protected. None of these requests make sense if we are limited to just aligning our will with God’s.

    I have reviewed some of your discussion on our blog about agency and foreknowledge. With respect, your discussion is not persuasive because it doesn’t address the strongest arguments in any way. I acknowledge your honesty in admitting that you haven’t read my books, but once can hardly claim to have addressed or seriously considered a view without actually knowing what it is.

    What your view shows is precisely what I argued: that petitions of the kind offered by all of the prophets and Jesus both as a mortal and as the very resurrected God of heaven and earth are nonsense given complete exhaustive foreknowledge. It seems to me that it is a price that is way too high to pay to give up faith in the God revealed in the holy writ in favor of a mere tradition of omnipotence and omniscience as classically defined (not defined anywhere in scripture). I don’t care if your views are heretical (from a Mormon perspective), but but they make little sense to me either from the perspective of scripture or logic. At the very least, it seems incumbent on you to engage the best arguments — which I believe I have presented.

    Adam and Joe: As usual, the answer is both/and. There is certainly a place for just listening in the way that only silence of heart and mind can empower. There is also power and in asking and trust (having faith) that one’s prayers will be answered — sometimes even in a way that God initially counsels against and says “no” the first three times. There is a lot to learn from such interaction. In addition, I argue that we give God permission to intercede in our lives in ways that otherwise he may not by asking.

    There is also a powerful place for dialogue of both listening and asking, both complaining and being chastised in prayer.

    However, I believe that the discussion of corporate prayer and how we make our requests more powerful through union in prayer with others also deserves comment.

  16. Blake, I am forever painfully aware that I am probably not best qualified to comment on your work and your arguments. I am at a disadvantage, lacking exposure to what you term “the best arguments”. All I can say in my defence is that my ignorance is not wilful – I would certainly read your books if I had them. But until I buy them (which will be soon, hopefully), I see your arguments through a glass, darkly. Unlike how God sees things, incidentally (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

    Ok, now that I have offered a brief disclaimer completely ruining any shred of credibility I once possessed, let me proceed to give my humble opinion.

    Which must begin with another disclaimer. I suppose I am not trying to argue that my view is the most compatible with scripture and traditional mormon doctrine, because I am quite aware that it probably isn’t. I’m not even certain if it’s at all reconcilable with mormonism, but it nevertheless remains my belief and opinion. Yes, the scriptures are rife with examples of petitionary prayer being effective. But I cannot accept petitionary prayer as being at all equal to contemplative prayer. So I have to regretfully dismiss those scriptures, ignore them and hope they go away so I don’t have to think about them. Perhaps that’s the wrong way of dealing with scripture, but I do not feel obligated to accept something simply because it’s in the scriptures.

    Yes, I suppose we agree on one point: petitionary prayers make no sense if God has ultimate foreknowledge. Faced with this dilemma, we then take differing paths. I cannot relinquish my belief that God has ultimate foreknowledge, thus I must reject petitionary prayer. I believe God has ultimate foreknowledge because I believe in a form of determinism (as outlined in my post at http://www.zionssynod.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/compatibilist-free-agency.html), not the other way around.

    Ultimately, I am probably not the best person to comment on your work because I am not familiar enuogh with it. I am familiar with many of the issues you deal with, I am simply not very familiar with your unique perspectives and arguments on these issues. However, I merely hoped to give my two-cents worth on petitionary prayer and how I think it links in to divine foreknowledge, omniscience and omnipotence.

  17. Ok, Blake, I am part way through your dialogue article. I may write another comment when I am finished, but several things have occured to me while reading it.

    Firstly, if we were having some kind of theological competition as to which view was most compatible with mormonism, I would definitely hand the victory to you. You demonstrate quite conclusively in your article that your view is certainly the most supported by mormon scripture. I am not trying to argue that my opinion is the most compatible with mormonism, nor even that it is easily reconcilable with mormon teachings. You wrote: “I don’t care if your views are heretical (from a Mormon perspective), but they make little sense to me either from the perspective of scripture or logic.” I agree that they make little sense from the perspective of mormon scripture. That’s what I was trying to say when I said many mormons may find them ‘heretical’. However, I do wish to challenge you from the perspective of logic alone.

    You argue against both Sears’ and Talmage’s views of foreknowledge and free will. I wish to discuss with you one particular point you make when criticising Talmage, who believed that God has become so acquainted and familiar with us over eons of time in the pre-existence, that He knows from experience what we will choose in any given situation. You then argue that this undermines the whole principle of repentance and being born again, because our character and nature can change. You say that this argument of foreknowledge is incompatible with the principle of repentance; He may know our character, but our character can change, and hence the decision we make in a given situation at one point in time may not be the same decision we make in an identical situation at another point in time, because our character and nature can change.

    I actually agree with you on this point. I appreciate Talmage’s attempt, and have always admired his work, but I think in this case he is not compelling. You point out that such a view holds that God’s complete foreknowledge is merely empirically certain, not logically necessary. In other words, His knowledge is based simply on experience, in the same sense that I can predict that if I were to give my brother a free hot dog, he would likely eat it. My knowledge of his character and what he will choose is based, purely and simply, on external observations and experience. In other words, God’s knowledge of our natures is not ontologically different from my knowledge of my brother’s liking for free food.

    Obviously, this is problematic, because natures can change. A sinner may be born again, which throws a spanner in the works for God, because He is dealing with a different person, who will probably not make the same decisions he has made in the eons of the preexistence. Similarly, my brother may suddenly turn vegetarian, and thus would not accept my offer of a free hot dog. Thus, I disagree somewhat with Talmage’s concept of God’s foreknowledge.

    Instead, I would propose that God’s knowledge of my nature is ontologically different from my knowledge of my brother’s. He knwos my nature and character not because He has observed me and become acuainted with my behaviour for countless ages in the preexistence, but because He is God, and knows things in a way that is ontologically different from the way I know things.

    The scriptures teach that we will be judged not just on our words and deeds, but also on our thoughts. As it says in 1 Samuel 16:7 “The Lord seeth not as man seeth, for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart”. This scripture, and many others, show that God’s knowledge of us is different to our knowledge of others. His knowledge is based not on external observation, but on internal comprehension.

    The fact is, we choose to change our character. We choose to be born again. We choose to put off the natural man. We choose to yield to the enticings of the holy spirit. We choose to pursue a divine nature. We have a choice.

    Whether or not we will choose to do this is determined by our current nature. We may choose to repent after many years of sin and sorrow, or we may not, as determined by our nature and character. Now, in Talmage’s system, God would be at a loss to predict anything about us every time our nature or character was changed or altered, every time we repented, every time we were born again, He would be clueless about how we would behave, because He would have no data from which to draw an inference as to what this new creature in Christ might choose to do.

    However, if we assume that God’s complete knowledge of us is based not on external observations but rather on an internal comprehension of our entire identity and nature, then this difficulty is done away with. God will never lack data, because He is not limited to external observance of us, He can also perceive our entire nature from an internal rather than an external nature. He can do this because He is God; He can He can predict that a person will have a change in nature, and He can predict exactly how that person’s nature will change, and then He can thus predict exactly how that new nature will determine that person’s decisions.

    In other words, you argue that because our natures change, determinism is false, and therefore God cannot have absolute foreknowledge. However, what I think you fail to recognise is that any change in our nature is itself determined by our prior nature, being itself a choice on our part. Therefore, a God who knows us intimately and completely, based not on external observations but rather internal comprehension of our very essence, would be able to predict whether or not we will choose to repent, whether or not we will choose to become born again. Not only that, but He will be able to predict exactly how we will change our nature, to what degree and in what way. This internal comprehnesion of our essence and nature is the only data required to be able to predict how we will behave, since it is what determines our choices. Thus, God will be able to predict our decision to be born again and put off the natural man. He would be able to predict my brother’s hypothetical decision to become a vegetarian. He would then be also able to predict any future decisions this new creature in Christ would make, since He would comprehend their new nature fully and completely.

    Just some thoughts. I hope you don’t interpret my disagreeance for disrespect. I have come to greatly admire your deep thoughtfulness and intellectual aptitude while reading your article. I just felt that I needed to bring up a few things while reading it.

  18. mormonbrit: First, thank you for the kind words. Let me reflect a bit on where I believe the crux of this disagreement lies:

    “In other words, you argue that because our natures change, determinism is false, and therefore God cannot have absolute foreknowledge. However, what I think you fail to recognise is that any change in our nature is itself determined by our prior nature, being itself a choice on our part.”

    This assertion is not supported by scripture, empirical study or anything else. It is the entire crux of your argument and yet consists of nothing but assertion. But of course asserting a view doesn’t establish it. In fact, we can fundamentally change from a person who is under sin and a slave to our pasts to being free in Christ to act for ourselves and not merely being acted upon — as Lehi says in 2 Ne. 2.

    In addition, there is nothing possible in scientific observation to support the kind of assertion that you make. As Hume observed, we never observe empirically actual causes. We infer them. In addition, in neuroscience we can never assess the type of global causal relation between the past personal constitution of an individual with that person at some later state. Interestingly, studies show that similar behavior often uses different neural pathways (it’s called multiple realizability) and different behaviors often appear to use the same neuro-pathways.

    I suggest that all that the notion that God looks on the heart supports is that God knows our thoughts and hearts, not that he knows that our hearts and thoughts are determined by our pasts. However, I’m interested in your phrasing: “any change in our nature is itself determined by our prior nature, being itself a choice on our part” — if the change of our natures is itself a choice, then such change is not the result of causal determinism that considers all past causes but in the primary cause that itself is an explanatory cause — our choices. The question is what our choices are: are they the result solely of and fully explained by prior causes . . . or is there a creative organization in our choices that is solely referable to and fully explained by the will or “self” as a whole? I don’t believe that question is squarely addressed in scripture; though Lehi’s statements come real close to affirming choices that are not the result merely of prior causes — we act for ourselves. In addition, I suggest that it is a person as a functioning whole that creatively adds something to the past data that is not found in the data itself — a creative organization into something wholly new and creative.

  19. I’m with Joe Spencer–I find I can’t even understand my own will until I see what I ask God through prayer. Then, I can try and refine and purify my intentions.

  20. DLewish – Yes, that’s the sort of thing I have in mind. Groanings that can’t be uttered interceding for me. I’m wondering if groanings are contemplative petitions….

  21. Ok, Blake, I think I can even further simplify our disagreement. What it really comes down to is whether or not our actions and choices are determined by our nature. I hope you will agree that changing our nature, putting off the natural man and becoming partakers of the divine nature is a choice; it is something we choose to do. If it is not, then the whole principle of accountability is done away with, since how can we be held accountable for something we did not choose to do? Thus, if our nature causes and determines our choices, then it causes and determines our choice to change our nature, thus God could have complete foreknowledge if He completely comprehended our entire nature, thus He would have ultimate complete foreknowledge, thus petitionary prayers make little sense. If, however, our choices and actions are not caused by our nature, then determinismis false, divine foreknowledge is impossible, and there is room for petitionary prayer. So all I need to prove is that our nature determines and causes our choices and actions.

    What is it that determines what we will choose in a given situation? If nothing determines our actions, then accountability is again done away with, since our actions would be completely random and there would be no causal link between ourselves and our actions.

    So something must cause and determine our actions. What is it, though?Why is it that if you were to put two people in exactly the same situation, they would probably react in very different ways? This subject is touched on in the Book of Abraham’s discussion of intelligences. This exploration of the subject of intelligences would seem to suggest that even before we were spirits, we were all different. There was something that was different about each of us even when we were merely intelligences. I will call that our nature.

    I believe that this offers the best explanation of why we all behave in different ways in identical situations. Why is it that one person may rush in to save a cat from a burning building while another will run for their life in a frenzy of self-preservation? Because they have different natures. Why is it that Christ lived a sinless life? Because He was born with a sinless nature. Why is it that Lucifer rebelled? Because He had a rebellious and prideful nature.

    Now, I have been describing these people’s natures in a word or two. Obviously, that is simplistic and a very naive way of looking at things. But God’s observations are neither simplistic nor naive. God sees our nature so completely that He knows that our nature is such that if were to be put in a particular situation, we would react in a particular way. He sees that if a miserable sinner’s mother were to die, he would react by pondering what happens to us after we die, because of his nature. He knows that if that person were to begin to wonder what happens after we die, and if the missionaries happened to knock on his door, he would open the door to them and listen to what they have to say with an open mind. He knows that if they were to testify of the plan of salvation to that particular person, and he felt the spirit bear witness to him, he would react by heeding the promptings he was receiving and would concllude that the gospel was true. He knows that if that particular person were to conclude the gospel is true, he would react by kneeling to offer up a prayer of repentance and commitment to live the principles of the gospel he has recently received, and have a change of heart, and be born again. He knows that if that particular person were to be born again, he would honour his commitments. He knows that if that particular person were to honour his commitments, he would accept the call to serve as a sunday school teacher in his local ward (something which he never would have done before his mother died).

    Now this is a purely hypothetical example of how God can foresee what a person will do even after they have undergone a process of repentance and a change of nature and being born again. This does not imply that God is responsible for that person’s actions, that He knows that person’s nature so completely and comprehensively as to know with perfect certainty how they will react in any given situation.

    I feel that I ramble too much these days. I hope my thoughts have been at least understandable and coherent, and once again I would like to say that I very much appreciate this discussion we are having.

  22. mormonbrit: If our natures are changed by a choice which is dictated by our natures, then take out the choice as an explanation because only our natures have causal power. I have several observation. First it should be rather obvious that if our natures cause our choices, then we cannot change our natures. Our choices are fully explained by whatever nature we have and therefore the choice plays no causal role in what we are — and calling it a choice is an abuse of language. It follows logically that if A causes B to what it is, then B cannot change what A is. Thus, we cannot change our natures and your explanation is a vicious circle of logic and thus incoherent.

    I would also add that the notion of a nature is way to vague as a universal to have any explanatory power. What is a nature such that it could be a cause? Events cause things. If you believe in agent causation, then agents cause things. But natures are just an abstract way of describing the general way in which we generally choose. Natures as such a just abstracted generalities that cannot cause anything at all. Thus your explanation is also vacuous — at best.

  23. Blake, I will concede one criticism of my previous comments as being justified. You claim that the concpet of a nature as a cause for our actions is too vague and abstract to have any real explanatory power. I think that criticism is fair enough. Perhaps I should not be using the term ‘nature’, as I don’t think it accurately conveys the concept I am trying to illustrate.

    The fact remains, nevertheless, that I believe there is something that dictates that we choose the way we do. I will no longer call it a nature. Perhaps the term that comes closest to describing it would be identity. In mormon terms, perhaps I could link it in to the concept of intelligences – our identity existed eternally and is uncreated.

    If you do not believe that our choices are dictated by our identity, then I would ask why do you believe that different people act in different ways in identical circumstances? They choose to do different things, despite being in exactly the same situation. This seems to indicate that there is something different in each of them that underlies their decision. I choose to call this their identity.

    You claim that events cause things, and, if agent causation is assumed, then agents cause things as well. Events are themselves caused by agents, whether God (as the first cause and unmoved mover) is the only truly active agent or we are each active agents ourselves (as mormons, I think we must assume the latter). Thus, for God to know the future completely and comprehensively, all that would be required would be for Him to perfectly know and understand every single agent involved in the chain of causation. If He were to know and comprehend every aspect of their identity, He would know how they would act in any given situation, and thus what events they would cause. Yes, they may choose to change their nature, but they cannot change their identity. Otherwise, they would cease to be who they were.

    If we assume that God has complete omniscience of everything pertaining to our identity, then we must also assume that because (as it says in 2 Nephi 2) we alone are things that act, and all other things are acted upon, He would have comprehensive foreknowledge of all future events.

    Now I think we must assume that God does have complete and perfect knowledge of us and all things that constitute our identity. He knows us thoroughly. Although I have previously stated that I am aware of several passages of scripture that do not support my views, I do believe that there are some which do. For example, Psalm 139:1-6 unapologetically declares:
    “O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
    2 You know my sitting down and my rising up;
    You understand my thought afar off.
    3 You comprehend my path and my lying down,
    And are acquainted with all my ways.
    4 For there is not a word on my tongue,
    But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
    5 You have hedged me behind and before,
    And laid Your hand upon me.
    6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    It is high, I cannot attain it.”

    I mentioned earlier the Book of Abraham. I think its discussion of intelligences indicates that we are all different, we have different identities, which are eternal. They are what makes us us. The above scripture, as well as certain others, seem to emphasize that God knows everything about us. He comprehends us entirely in a way that we cannot comprehend anybody else:
    8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
    9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    So are My ways higher than your ways,
    And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
    He knows the way we think, the way we work, the way we feel. I don’t understand why it is such a stretch of logic to assume that if He knows our identity completely, and our identity dictates our choices, and our choices dictate our actions, and our actions dictate all events, that He would have ultimate foreknowledge, rendering petitionary prayer nonsensical.

  24. I think the crux of Mormonbit’s view rests on his fear of accepting that even if God doesn’t have complete foreknowledge he can do what he says he can do. Sort of sounds an awful lot like the pre-mortal council where we were asked to put our faith in Christ, knowing full well that there was a possibility of failure. I’m told some us wanted a more sure way — the rest of us didn’t believe that way existed.

  25. Carey, ouch. Do I detect a hint of a suggestion that I am somehow satanic? I’m not suggesting all of us will make it. For all of us, there is always a possibility of failure. For some of us, that possibility will become a reality, because God is not responsible for our decisions. So I don’t think God having foreknowledge provides a “more sure way”. And I do understand the view that Blake presents in the essay he links to, where he describes God as some sort of master chess player, who is capable of bringing about His purposes no matter what hand He is dealt. Wow, that was a terrible mixing of metaphors on my part. Anyway, I don’t really have a problem with that view. If it were true, I wouldn’t feel frightened or less confident or scared. I just don’t happen to believe that the world works that way. I may be wrong, and that possibility doesn’t frighten me at all.

    I will however admit that I do find the idea of God not having comprehensive foreknowledge slightly distasteful, not because it represents a less secure or stable universe, or one in which I need to have fear or be anxious about the possibility that I might not achieve exaltation, but because I feel such a view would mean God really doesn’t know me as well as I believe He does. If He cannot predict my free choices, then He doesn’t know me with perfect understanding. That prospect, I will admit, I would be disappointed about. But just to clear up any doubts, I am not a satan-sympathiser, nor am I lucifer’s agent on the inside. I just happen to hold the views I do because I think they are the most logical.

  26. Blake, I don’t think we will ever come to an agreement. While I have relished and enjoyed this conversation, and have learned much and questioned much because of it, I still find some of your arguments to be flawed. Likewise, you undoubtedly find many of mine to be flawed. That’s ok. I hope we can simply agree to disagree on this point, as I don’t think further debate will yield much profit except more of the same, tired old arguments used repeatedly by both of us. Nonetheless, this has been an interesting discussion, and one which I feel has made me consider things I had not contemplated before. It has certainly fueled my desire to read more of your work!

  27. RE#30 – Sorry about that — I did not mean to imply your a satan-sympathiser. I think your response about still having confidence in God’s abilities even if it did work that way does address that point pretty well. I must have been assuming too much.

  28. mormonbrit: thanks for the conversation. All the best to you and your family. BTW the notion of “identity” is also very problematic. It is a longstanding philosophical debate about what identity may be.

  29. Blake, thank you for your well-wishing. I’m sure we will have many more discussions in the future. And I’m aware of the longstanding philosophical debate over identity, which I would be all too happy to have with you, but I don’t think that this is either the time or the place for such a discussion. I feel that this discussion has veered quite significantly off-topic. Nonetheless, all the best to you, and I look forward to any future conversations we may have.

    Carey: no worries. I haven’t been as clear as I might have been throughout this discussion.

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