The argument is as old as the Bible. Do we really choose to believe in God, in Jesus? Or does God choose us, extending mercy to some, and hardening the hearts of others?
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Romans 9:18)
I prefer to avoid thinking about confusing and contradictory concepts—they make my head hurt! However, the tension between predestination and free will concerns me a great deal. In fact, it’s a matter of life and death.
There are people I love who are not believers. Being an evangelical Christian, this worries me. I want to see them in heaven! Naturally, I’ve been praying for them. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I admit, however, that I’m pretty discouraged.
The problem is, I prayed for my mom for 25 years—and then she died. As far as I know, she never budged an inch from her resolute atheism—not exactly encouraging when it came to praying for my dad. I prayed for my dad for 40 years—and then he died. I have no indication that he ever believed either. Of course, we’ll never know this side of heaven what God was up to at the very last moments of their lives. Still, all evidence shows that they resisted God until the end.
So why should I keep praying for unbelievers?
To be fair, several others have had a change of heart. Was that because I prayed? The problem is that there’s no way to address this scientifically, with a neat and tidy double-blind study. So I sit and doubt and wonder.
Here’s where things get complicated. As far as I can determine, either…
Prayer will “allow” God to change someone’s heart.
This implies that God is responsible for their current state of denial and that I can influence a change. Since it’s clear God has not yet answered my prayers, perhaps He’s waiting for me to pray “enough” before He acts (see the next option below). Maybe my prayers can change His mind (a concept I have trouble accepting).
We know that God doesn’t always answer “yes” to every prayer, but 1 Timothy 2:4 says that He wants everyone “to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” If this is God’s will, why doesn’t it happen?
Praying is about changing my heart.
God already has His mind made up, but is delaying so that I’ll learn and grow to be more like Jesus. Praying might make me a more loving, devoted friend, or perhaps years of praying will increase my resolve to keep going in the face of frustration.
I have a hard time believing that my spiritual growth is more important than my parent’s salvation, but then I’m not God.
Praying won’t do any good.
Did God decided to permanently harden my dad’s heart? Perhaps he wasn’t on God’s guest list. It goes against my understanding of God, but a number of verses (Mark 13:20 and Romans 11:7-8 for example) imply that He might do this.
Or, God answered my prayer as much as he was willing to do, but refused to take away my dad’s ability to choose. He had already issued an invitation and my Dadwas free to accept it or not. The ball was in my dad’s court.
The problem here is that I’m not God. I don’t know what He might or might not have decided. I can’t distinguish the elect from the rest. And I don’t know how close anyone might be to faith, in spite of external evidence.
The Bible tells us to pray.
1 Timothy 2:1 says, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men….” In light of this and other similar verses, why would we be told to make supplications, prayers, and intercessions for everyone if these efforts aren’t effective?
So I end up with a headache and more questions than answers. All I know is that I’m still praying, and taking any and every opportunity to share the gospel without being obnoxious or pushy about it. I want to make sure my conscience is clear. I’m assured of two truths: their ultimate decision isn’t my responsibility, and God loves them more than I ever will.