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Even When We Are Powerless, We Aren’t Without Power

John Terrill April 18, 2022

We plant, pluck, build. We gather, embrace, seek, tear, sew, and speak. On other occasions, we reach the limits of our influence. We weep, mourn, lose, keep silent. And eventually, we die.

At times, power and influence — bestowed upon us by God — reside squarely with us. And at times, they are out of our reach. But circumstances of powerlessness can lead us to pray for wisdom and strength that reside outside of ourselves (Eccl 3:1-8).

A colleague recently wrote these reflections on human agency in the world:

The complex challenges of our era — extreme in scope — test human resolve and Christian faith. Whether and how we face today’s human and global dilemmas is not uncomplicated and, to a significant extent, is connected to how we view ourselves as agents and stewards of God’s world. Our decisions and actions, collectively and individually, have impacts: They can heighten, attenuate, or resolve problems and bring healing. They can be life-giving or deadly. In every field of human endeavor — from artificial intelligence to cryptocurrency to genetic engineering to protection of human rights — our efforts to exercise reason, pose relevant ethical questions, lead, and act for the greater good, all matter. We need divine intelligence to both ground and move us to act on behalf of this stricken planet, our communities, and all the creatures that inhabit it.

Truly, “our efforts to exercise reason, pose ethical questions, lead, and act for the greater good” matter. But as image bearers of God — who only see in a mirror dimly and know in part — we must acknowledge that our capacities are limited. Rightly understanding our agency influences the manner in which we choose to engage society’s most challenging problems — and determines that “we need divine intelligence” indeed.

C.S. Lewis repeatedly addressed the exercise of agency through the practice of prayer. In his short essay, “Work and Prayer,” he responded to a common objection regarding the efficacy of prayer that read: “If he is all-wise, as you say he is, doesn’t he know already what is best? And if he is all-good, won’t he do it whether we pray or not?” In other words, if God is omniscient and loving, why bother to pray?

Lewis’ response examines a false distinction common in the understanding of prayer: that there is a lesser sort of prayer that “consists in asking for things to happen,” and a higher sort that “offers no advice to God” and only seeks communion. The problem with this distinction, notes Lewis, is that it strays from biblical teaching. Through petitionary prayer, God’s people repeatedly enlist his strength. By calling on the name of the Lord, for example, Elijah dramatically defeats the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:20-40). And Jesus even invites his followers to ask, seek, and knock, and to appeal to the Father for daily bread (Matt 7:7, 6:11).

“Pascal says that God ‘instituted prayer in order to allow his creatures the dignity of causality.’ It would perhaps be truer to say that he invented both prayer and physical action for that purpose.” — C.S. LEWIS

Further, to refine his convictions about the nature of prayer, Lewis turns to Christian anthropology, suggesting that men and women achieve agentic outcomes through work and prayer, often best paired together. “Both are alike in this respect — that in both we try to produce a state of affairs which God has not (or at any rate not yet) seen fit to provide on his own.” Lewis muses that weeding a field is not radically different from praying for a fruitful harvest since both can lead to positive results. The outturn of work is given to human agency; the outturn of prayer is given to God’s goodness, power, and authority. “This is not,” Lewis reasons, “because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it works at all it works unlimited by space and time.”

In the same essay, Lewis notes: “Pascal says that God ‘instituted prayer in order to allow his creatures the dignity of causality.’ It would perhaps be truer to say that he invented both prayer and physical action for that purpose.”

Could it be that work and prayer are gifts from God that enable us to gain a better understanding of where human agency begins and ends? Might prayer be a way to clarify, even humble, our concept of cause and effect?

Locus of control (LOC) is a core psychological theory that sheds light on this “estuary” where we see the convergence of God and human agency. First conceptualized by Julian Rotter in the early 1950s, LOC illuminates human motivation. The American Psychological Association defines LOC as a way “to categorize people’s basic motivational orientations and perceptions of how much control they have over the conditions of their lives.” In other words, LOC helps us understand and navigate the complexity of human agency and causality. Scholar Stephen Nowicki, in Choice or Chance: Understanding Your Locus of Control and Why It Matterselaborates:

LOC reflects how we have learned to perceive what happens to us. The more we have learned to expect connections between our actions and outcomes, the more Internal we are; the less we expect such links, the more External we are. If we are more Internal, we tend to view ourselves as able to influence the course of our lives; if we are more External, we tend to view our lives as governed by forces beyond our control.

Predictably, externals see their lives ruled largely by fate, chance, or other powerful actors. By contrast, internals see themselves as the product of their own actions and decisions. Not genetic, but learned and fluctuating over a lifetime, LOC has a consistent influence on personal achievement. In most situations, internals attain more of their life goals than externals. They generally perform better at work, engage more consistently in civic affairs, and achieve higher levels of physical and mental health. However, as Nowicki and other researchers warn, this is not a universal rule: “Mindlessly approaching all circumstances as though we can control all aspects of them ignores the very real possibility that such control may not be attainable. We can avoid counterproductive expenditures of energy by learning to distinguish those instances in which our effort will and will not have a positive effect.”

The limits of our agency are best understood when placed beneath the ultimate power and authority of God. This is the way of wisdom. Human knowledge and action have divinely orchestrated parameters. As Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12). We’ve been given the gift of image-bearing stewardship, but the healthiest form of agency toggles adeptly between the importance of internality and externality, as LOC instructs.

In ceaseless dialogue with a loving God, work rightly paired with prayer is the most efficacious way to change our parts of the world. And as we encounter our limitations to affecting transformation, we make room for God’s spirit to affect change in us. Work and prayer are not only channels for God’s work, but primary conduits for us to trust God more profoundly.

This article was originally published at Common Good, a publication of Made to Flourish, an organization dedicated to empowering pastors and their churches to integrate faith, work, and economic wisdom for the flourishing of their communities.