Have you ever prayed for something desperately only to be left with silence? Now I’m not talking about, “Lord help me to win the lottery tomorrow,” or some manipulative quid pro quo like, “If you only get me out of this I’ll go to church every Sunday for a whole year!”
What happens when we pray according to what we know is God’s clearly revealed will only to be stymied by cruel circumstance? That’s when we pull out the time-worn answers:
- God’s timing isn’t our timing
- There must be some unconfessed sin in your life
- God is using this to develop your character
- There are mysteries we just can’t know (I call this the “Job” answer)
For Mark Gregory Karris, these answers didn’t satisfy on a theological or a personal level. In Divine Echoes, Karris presents a new theological perspective on prayer rooted in the theodicy model of “essential kenosis” (18) developed by Thomas J. Oord in his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.
Is God a powerful being who loves or a loving being who is powerful? The essential kenosis model assumes the second. Consider this quote from Oord’s Uncontrolling Love of God:
God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love. Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine, and God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling the strings. God never controls others. But God sometimes acts miraculously, in noncoercive ways. God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty. (94)
For Oord (and Karris), God does not intervene unilaterally in the world—to do so would be to deny his nature as love. God works with his creation for the restoration of all things. Karris puts it bluntly:
It is not that God can control creatures but chooses not to do so. It is that God cannot control creatures due to his loving nature. Simply put, love does not control (126).
Oord’s model provided Karris with a way out of a philosophical problem he had with prayer.
The Philosophical Problem with Prayer
Let me qualify that heading. Karris’ problem is with petitionary prayer—the sort where you ask God to act even when the pray-er is disconnected from the situation. These prayers include:
- Lord, please help the people in [foreign country].
- Lord, show your peace to the people suffering from [latest tragedy].
Karris defines this traditional understanding of prayer as “talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand” (34).
These sort of prayers imply that God is not already loving those people to the fullest. They imply that by the act of praying, you are somehow increasing God’s capacity to love. Let me put it negatively: if you did not pray, God would not care as much. With this comes incredible stress and pressure!
On the contrary, says Karris,
God always loves to his greatest ability in every moment, respecting our free will and other agencies in the process. (21)
If this is true, then petitionary prayer at a distance does nothing other than assuage the heart of the pray-er. It could actually undermine God’s work by relieving the burden of action from the pray-er.
What About the Bible?
Here’s the rub. Scripture tells stories that don’t align very well with the essential kenosis model. Jonah’s fish was a pretty coercive move! When it comes to prayer, there are many places where people petition God to act in power at a distance. Karris tackles this problem head-on in two ways.
First, he notes that words have more than a literal meaning. Consider Paul’s request for boldness:
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19 NRSV).
On the surface, it appears that Paul needs the Ephesians to pray or God will not empower him to be as bold as he could otherwise be. Karris looks deeper and considers the community-forming value this prayer request would have on the Ephesian church. Furthermore, “the people making the requests feel comforted knowing others are praying for them” (44).
Second, he challenges traditional evangelical models of interpretation. Karris cites Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So and Gregory Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God as ways to interpret scripture which “loosen the grip of a reductionist, literal view” (115). It would have been helpful for Karris to explain these models of interpretation further since the average reader might not know the theological freight they carry.
Karris offers enough exegetical insight to make the average reader question the traditional interpretation of scripture on petitionary prayer. Perhaps that’s all we can reasonably expect from one chapter in a broader argument.
The most important part of Divine Echoes is not the deconstruction of classic views, but the constructive project based on the word conspire:
The English word conspire comes from the Latin word conspirare, which literally means “to breathe together” and figuratively “to act in harmony toward a common end.” (151)
Conspiring prayer is something the pray-er does “with God rather than to God” (151). Instead of praying, “Lord, help the victims of [this tragedy],” we pray, “Lord, how can I help to demonstrate your love to the victims?” Here the people praying acknowledge the uncontrolling love of God while at the same time assume their God-given responsibility.
Personally, these chapters were the most inspiring. Even if you choose not to jettison the traditional view of prayer, the conspiring prayer model is a powerful corrective to works-less faith.
Karris provides appendices full of conspiring prayers which confirm and illuminate the work he did in the main body of the book. There is also a study guide available for small groups. The questions are well thought out and will help any prayer group wrestle with the problem of theodicy and the role of conspiring prayer.
Karris, Mark Gregory. Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. Orange, CA: Quoir, 2018.
Karris, Mark Gregory. Divine Echoes Study Guide: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. Orange, CA: Quoir, 2018.