Many thanks to my friend Wing for musing on this question and getting my brain thinking about it: Religion and Philosophy hurt my brain.
Does prayer interfere with the gift of free will?
This question was posed by a very intelligent self-described non-religious person. He was trying to sort out how prayer would work. If one prayed to God to intervene in human affairs, God would then have to force a person to act and that person would no longer have true freedom. It is a very interesting question and one worth pondering. What exactly is the relationship between prayer and free will?
We do believe that God has given us free will. It is, in fact, our greatest gift. It is what sets us apart from the rest of creation. God, had he willed it, could have created us without this gift. We could have been programmed to do only what was right and good and true and lived forever in the Garden of Eden enjoying our paradise. Instead God wanted us to have the freedom to choose. He didn't want us to love and serve Him because we were forced to, but rather because we chose to. He gave us intellect and understanding and the ability to use it. He gave us the gift even though He knew (given his omniscience) that humanity would make some very bad choices. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “by free will one shapes one's own life .” (CCC 1731)
So, then, we certainly do have the ability to choose between good and evil, as well as to make many choices a day which have no great moral significance. Where, however, does our true freedom lie? If we accept that God is an intelligent being (the most intelligent being) who has a plan for His creation, our true freedom lies in following that plan. It is in aligning our will with His that we achieve the greatest happiness and the greatest purpose in life. “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to 'the slavery of sin.'” (CCC 1733)
In the “Our Father,” we pray “Thy will be done.” This is the only prayer of petition guaranteed to be answered. God knows what we need and what is good for us. We may pray with great fervor for something that we truly believe to be good for us – for example, a loved one getting well, or for the gift of a spouse, or for a child – and yet, God may have other plans. Think of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane - “Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it” (Mk 14:36) There is a mystery to prayer and a mystery to the ways of God. Yet, prayer helps us align our will with God's and helps us to accept what does happen even when we do not understand the reason why. “Our Father knows what we need before we ask him, but he awaits our petitions because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what he wants.” (CCC 2736)
Yet, there are certainly times when prayers are answered the way we hope. God does intervene in history and often uses people as his tools to do it. Does this somehow encroach on that person's free will? For example, think of a doctor performing surgery. He is there with the purpose of healing the person. In his mind are all his years of education and practice. If God helps guide his hands or allows him to remember a bit of medical knowledge tucked away in the deep recesses of his brain which allows him to save the person, has he interfered with the doctor's free will? The answer is “no.” The doctor had already made the choice to heal. God simply helped him do it better.
Even when the interference is perhaps more direct – urging a person to intervene in a situation, for example, that a person might have otherwise ignored - the person still needs to make a choice to obey the urge. The person still has free will. Every decision we make is influenced. We are a product of our upbringing, our education, our exposure to the media, etc. All these forces come to bear on any decision we make, whether we realize it or not. God, also can (and should) influence our decisions for the greater good. So, yes, we have free will, but that will is ultimately free only when it chooses as God would want us to choose. Prayer brings our free will, and can help to bring other's free will, into alignment with God's will.