I remember being young and going over to a friend’s house for dinner, with my brother. Before we ate, my brother was going to pray over the meal when one of the kids said, “Why are you praying over your food? God already knows what you would ask for, so you don’t need to pray.” We were a little shocked by this statement, but it was an intriguing thought. My family always prayed over our food and for our needs. And certainly God knows the future. So are we really just wasting our breath over things that God has already provided for?
Here is another thought. If the future is set—for instance, if God knows that I’m going to get in an accident tomorrow, and he cannot be mistaken about this—then why should I pray for protection when driving? In fact, if the future is set, why pray about anything at all? Certainly my prayers would not change anything. Whatever will happen in the future, God knows, and whatever God knows, will happen in the future. Therefore, why even bother praying?
I think these are good points. But I also believe that there is a mistake in this kind of thinking.
First, let us acknowledge a couple of theological points:
- Jesus tells us to ask (Matt.7:7-11).
- God knows your needs (Matt. 6:8).
- God knows the future (Psa. 139:4).
Now some would say that prayer does not change God’s mind. God cannot be changed, nor would we want him to be changed in anyway. He alone possesses infinite wisdom and knowledge, and any change that could be brought upon God would only decrease his imperfections. So God knows what is best, and our prayers do not change God, they simply change us.
Yet again, I think that there is truth here. Prayer does change us. We know to pray for God’s will in all things (Matt. 6:9), and naturally we should want our will to match his own. But it does seem that we are allowed to make requests (Matt. 7:7-11), not merely pray for God’s will or pray that our will would be changed (though we should do these things). It seems to be that when Jesus tells us to ask, that our prayers possesses the power to make changes. That is to say, if we pray (X), then there is a result (Y). On the other hand, if we do not pray (not-X), then there will not be a result (not-Y). But how does this work if God knows the future? Again, if God knows the future, then the future is locked in place. It cannot be changed.
But perhaps there is way in which our prayers do influence the future—a future which God already knows, down to every detail. Imagine that you receive a phone call from the hospital that your sister has been in an accident. The hospital will not tell you how she is doing, and you jump in your car to rush to the emergency room. In this circumstance you pray to God that she is okay. Now whether she is okay or not, some might say that your prayer changes nothing. After all, the event has already happened. Nothing you do can change the past. But, what if your prayer can change what has already happened?
Now let me propose a way to think about this that can be a little tricky, but I would encourage you to ponder it with me.
Let us imagine that before God creates the world, he knows everything that you will do. He knows, in this circumstance, that you will pray that your sister is okay. Taking this into account, he knows what will happen if you pray for your sister, or if you did not pray for your sister. But again let us say that you pray for her. Before God creates the world in which he exhaustively knows every event that happens therein, he knows that you will pray for your sister, and so acts on the basis of this knowledge to save your sister from serious injury. This means that even though you prayed after you heard that your sister was in the emergency room, God knew before he created the world that you would pray for her after her accident and so worked before and during her accident to prevent her from suffering any serious injury. Thus, your prayer did serve as the means for change in a world in which the future is exhaustively known by God.
This can be quite complex. But perhaps God knows that we will ask for something (even after it has happened, like the accident) and has planned before the creation of the world to take into account and act on behalf of that prayer. This way, both our prayers and God’s omniscience (his complete knowledge) do not necessarily lead us into fatalism (the notion that nothing that we do can change what will happen).
There are many different ways that we can think about the providence of God. Depending on how you choose to think about these issues will certainly influence the way that you pray. It is wise, I think, to carefully consider how prayer works in a world in which God already knows the future. I also think however we choose to think about these issues, that we come to a place where we trust God completely with our future, but we also earnestly pray for things going on in the world—believing that our prayers make a difference.
It is easy to undermine the power of prayer. It is also easy to get into the kind of thinking that because God knows the future, that the future is simply a matter of fate, and our prayers do little else but change our disposition. But it seems to me that God is asking us to pray because he wants to work as a result of our prayers. Now how exactly he chooses to work is a matter of his own will, but he takes into account our petitions to him, and always works according to his good and perfect nature.
(Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)