Beyond the Box – Embracing an Open Future

One of my favorite podcasts (and pretty much the only Christian podcast I follow) is Beyond the Box. Basically a couple of heretic Jesus followers who are trying to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). In their most recent episode, Embracing an Open Future, they tried to answer a couple questions about their thoughts on Open Theology. The podcast (as usual) is very thought provoking. I am definitely nowhere near where they are in this line of thought though. I haven’t decided yet if it is a because of my comfort level or because of something else. I do know that my understanding of Cause and Effect is a main catalyst for rejecting most of Open Theology.

This post isn’t really so much about Open Theology as much as it is about something that Steve Sensenig said regarding 1 John 5:14. Here is a transcription from about 22 minutes into the podcast.

Ray: If you think about it, in classical theology, have you ever wondered, “why the heck am I praying?” If God is going to do what God is going to do; or if God already knows the outcome, then what is the point of me praying?

Steve: Is it John that says, in one of his epistles, “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us”?

Ray: “And if he hears us, then we know we have whatever [we ask]”, yeah.

Steve: Right, and so the interpretation is that, as long as whatever you are praying lines up with with what God has already determined will happen, then you’re going to get it — you’re going to get what you prayed for. Which to me seems like nonsense. I have said, and I think I have shared this on the podcast before, because of the lack of punctuation in Greek, I have a hunch that you could (and this would make more sense to me) say (putting the coma in a different place), “if you ask anything [in my name], according to his will, he hears us.

Steve: God has willed and determined that he wants to listen to us when we pray. That puts prayer in a whole different light, because it really can make a difference. I heard a well known preacher one time talk about the verse in James were it says, “If anyone is sick among you let him call for the elders and they will pray for him” and it talks about if he has any sins let him confess them, and basically he will be healed. And this particular preacher said that really what James means is “if it’s the Lord’s will he will be healed.” We’re going to put that [sub-text] in there and say that this is really you’re praying and if it’s God’s will then he’ll heal. Well again you’re left with, “what’s really the point of praying?”

Basically, Steve is suggesting that it is God’s will to hear us when we pray. And that 1 John 5:14 should not be interpreted in a such a way that makes it seem like we need to pray only for things that are “God willed”.

So I jumped into the Greek to see if there was any sort of way to get to this interpretation. This is the last half of 1 John 5:14 in Greek…

εαν τι αιτωμεθα κατα το θελημα αυτου ακουει ημων

Which roughly translates to:

If (εαν) we ask (τι αιτωμα) according to (κατα) the will (το θελημα) of him (αυτου) he hears (ακουει) us (ημων).

“we ask” is a subjunctive verb.

“according to the will of him” is a prepositional phrase.

“he hears” is an indicative verb.

So the question is, does “according to the will of him” apply to the verb “we ask” or the verb “he hears”. I believe the prepositional phrase should be applied to the subjunctive verb. But I wanted to see what other similar verses teach, a lot of them are just as ambiguous, but James actually spoke to this issue in a pretty straight forward manner.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:3)

James seems to indicated that we do not always receive what we ask for, and it has to do with our motives for asking.

In 1 John 3:21-22, John writes,

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.

Just a few chapters before the verse mentioned by Steve, John writes a conditional for what we receive from God. We only receive those things that we ask for if our hearts do not condemn us. If our hearts do not condemn us, then we receive anything we ask for… but if that condition is met, I think most would say that we would only ask God for things that are within God’s desires.

So, Steve could be correct in his interpretation of 1 John 5:14, the preposition phrase could describe “he hears” instead of “we ask”. However, there are at least a couple places in Scripture that shows us that God does not grant any and every prayer. There are conditionals attached to prayer, even if the conditionals are not explicit. I’m not saying Steve believes that God grants every prayer request, but I wanted to take an opportunity to expand on what Steve had said and find out what scripture is teaching.

By the way, Steve / Ray, if you read this and you’re ever looking for a “guest” I’d love to join in :).

(Yeah, that’s right, I just invited myself, I have no shame)

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  1. Lew, thanks for taking the time to examine this more deeply! I’m glad you took the time to check it out in the Greek and to compare what I said to other verses.

    While you are correct that my interpretation of 1 John 5:14 is not a slam dunk (and I hope I didn’t give that indication in the podcast–it’s amazing how things can come out when shooting from the hip in a live, unedited recording such as our podcast!), I find the other verses support a related aspect of what I was getting at in that episode.

    In short, that is the notion that unanswered prayer is more about something being wrong with us, and not God choosing not to answer. Whether it’s our motives, or a condemning heart (based, contextually, apparently upon disobedience), it is not some nebulous “will of God” that prevents the answer.

    While this means that obviously I don’t believe every single prayer is answered, there appears to be ample evidence in the verses you quoted, as well as the teachings of Jesus, that being in a right relationship with our Father does result in a confidence that we can ask for anything and receive it.

    This is most definitely not the teaching of most evangelical Christian teachers.

    Out of curiosity, what reasons do you have for saying that the prepositional phrase should go with the subjunctive verb? You just said that you believe it does, but didn’t give any reasons for believing so. I would be curious to know what support you can give for that.

    Thanks so much for interacting! It’s a great discussion, and I’m thankful that we have listeners like yourself who can fact-check what we say!

    steve :)

  2. Thanks for replying Steve.

    Is “just cause” a good enough answer? :)

    Really, the answer is because of my general Greek training that seemed to teach me (if I remember correctly) that a prep. phrase is usually describing the verb before it. Although I do not think this is a hard-and-fast rule… which is why I think you could be right.

    But, given the testimony of other verses, it seems like it is not absurd to think that it describes “we ask”.

    By the way, I do not want to get into a “verbal” debate here. So let me say that when I read “according to his will” I do not necessarily think that means “according to his deterministic will” in that we must only pray for things that are going to happen anyway.

    I think “according to his will” really describes prayers that align with the character of God… not with what will happen.


  3. For some reason, I never got the email notification of your comment, so I apologize for answering so late.

    [W]hen I read “according to his will” I do not necessarily think that means “according to his deterministic will” in that we must only pray for things that are going to happen anyway.

    And in this, we are pretty much in agreement. This is basically the point I was making on the podcast. :)

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