Dear Father John, when we pray for a good and holy intention for a soul, for example: for someone’s return to the Roman Catholic Faith and their Holy Death or that someone will resist committing a serious sin, am I correct in my understanding that Our Dear Lord will stand beside this Soul and bestow upon them the necessary Graces they will need to make the right and wise decision of returning back to their Holy Faith in the Catholic Church, as I mentioned above or resist committing a serious sin, but that it is ultimately up to the individual’s Free Will to accept or refuse these Heavenly Graces from God? I understand that Our Dear Lord will never interfere with our Free Will.
You are correct, but it is well worth reflecting on the mysterious tension that your questions identifies and highlights.
God Wants Friends, not Robots
The tension comes from two truths that seem to contradict each other. On the one hand we know that God will never force us to love him or to do what is right. If he did force us, he would violate our freedom – we would become like robots, or zombies, or squirrels. God doesn’t want that. He created us in his image, with the capacity to love, to give ourselves freely, to choose to become (or not to become) what he created us to be: saints. He wants our friendship, and friendship can never be forced. The Catechism points this out in a couple of places.
– In #311, the Church reminds us that God “respects the freedom of his creatures” and therefore even allows them to go astray, to commit evil: “Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned.”
– In #1884, the Catechism puts it like this: “God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.”
So this is the first truth that we need to accept and understand: God will never force us to be what he calls us to be; he respects our freedom, because he loves us and thirsts for us to love him in return.
God Is not Indifferent to Our Prayers
The second truth, the one that creates the tension, has to do with God’s promise to hear and honor our prayers: “And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Jesus wants us to pray prayers of petition, to ask him to intervene in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. He urges us to invoke his omnipotence, wisdom, and love to change the course of human events. This is the lesson of his famous parable about the importunate widow, which St. Luke prefaces like this: “Then he told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). The same lesson comes up throughout the Gospels and the entire New Testament. As Jesus puts it in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).
Our prayers matter. God is not indifferent to them. Pope Benedict XVI put this beautifully in one of his Wednesday Catecheses:
… all our prayers – with every possible limitation, effort, poverty, dryness and imperfection they may have – are so to speak purified and reach God’s heart. In other words we can be sure that there is no such thing as superfluous or useless prayers; no prayer is wasted. And prayers are answered, even if the answer is sometimes mysterious, for God is Love and infinite Mercy. (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, September 12, 2012)
These two truths pose an apparent contradiction. God tells us that he will answer our prayers. But he also tells us that he will not violate anyone’s freedom. Now, when we pray for someone to do the right thing, or to make an act of faith, we are obeying the Lord’s encouragement to bring our petitions to him. But at the same time, we seem to be asking the Lord to violate someone’s freedom, to change someone’s mind, to use his omnipotence to force someone into following him. Paradox!
Human Freedom Is not Absolute
Two ideas help us escape from this conundrum. First, we have to remember that human freedom is not absolute. Our freedom is what the philosophers and theologians call participated freedom. This means that it is limited. We participate in a reality that is bigger than ourselves, that gives parameters to our freedom. Our freedom has a purpose: We were “created to live in communion with God, in whom we find happiness (CCC #45).” In a sense, then, the default position of our human nature is set to correspond to, to resonate with, all that is true, good, and beautiful. Because of original sin, this default setting was disrupted, and now our wires are crossed, so to speak. But the desire for happiness that we all harbor deep within our souls can still only be fulfilled insofar as we participate more and more fully in God, the source and fullness of all that is true and good and beautiful.
Human Freedom Can Be Influenced
Okay, that’s quite philosophical. Now we can get practical again. And here is the second idea that can help us solve the paradox: Since our freedom isn’t absolute, it can be influenced. Someone can tempt me to sin, can influence me to make a self-centered choice by convincing me that it is somehow true, good, or beautiful (even partially).
We have all experienced this. Just look at a billboard or two, or watch a commercial or two. More often than not, advertising tries to influence our decisions by stimulated our baser instincts. They present certain images, promises, or ideas to our imagination in order to convince us to make a particular choice, to exercise our freedom in a particular direction. Friends and colleagues can do the same thing. Someone at the office can promise me a bonus if I cook the books a little bit. Or they can threaten to get me fired if I don’t cook the books. Either way, they are trying to influence my freedom. And they can do that because of the very nature of our human freedom – it is not absolute; it can be influenced.
For the same reason, someone can influence me for good. Someone can encourage me to do what is right, by giving me good reasons, or by showing me the beauty of the choice in question, or by demonstrating that, in the end, doing what’s wrong will have painful consequences. When we love someone, we want the best for them. We want them to make choices that will allow them to flourish. And so, we try to encourage them to make those choices. We help them. We influence them.
God’s Influence: Powerful and Respectful
When we pray that God helps someone to do what’s right, we are asking God to do the same thing. We are asking him to help the person in question see and follow what is true, good, and beautiful. And God, who is all-powerful and all-wise, is able to do so without violating the person’s freedom. He can turn the attention of their hearts to things that they may not have noticed before. He can create circumstances in which they can feel in a fresh way the natural and healthy tug of the truth. He can do many, many things to influence the person to do what is right, without forcing them.
Does God Really Need My Prayers?
But, you may ask, won’t he do that anyway, without my prayers? After all, God loves each person much more than I do. So why would he wait for my prayers before trying to influence them to do what is right? It’s a fair question. But the answer has already been given. God has given us the gift of freedom. We can change the world with this gift. We are free to sprinkle salt on our French Fries or not to sprinkle salt on our French Fries. Just so, we are free to write an encouraging email to a friend or not to write it. We are free to tell lies about someone or not to tell lies. Every choice we make influences the course of history and the lives of other people, in some way or another. Our choice to ask God, through prayer, to help those in need, can do the same – and God himself promises that it will make a difference. In this life, we may never see exactly how our prayers influence the course of events, but in the end, we will.
As the great spiritual writer Jordan Aumann puts it, following St. Thomas Aquinas, there are three possibilities when it comes to prayers of petition. Some things, God will do whether or not we ask him. Other things, he will NOT do, even if we ask him (he will give us something better). And some things he will ONLY do if we ask him, because he honors the gift he has given us of being free collaborators in his great plan of creation and redemption. So let’s keep on asking, and leave the details up to him.