If God Knows the Future, Does Prayer Change Anything?

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 zacklocklear@outlook.com)

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11 thoughts on “If God Knows the Future, Does Prayer Change Anything?

  1. Deep thinking like this makes my head hurt.
    But thanks for it anyway.
    My daughter was asking about predestination, and how since God knows everything we really have no free will.
    I said “When I offer you a chocolate or vanilla cupcake, I already know u will choose chocolate. Therefore, I foreknow, like God does. Did I force you to choose chocolate?? NO! You had free will.
    That’s how I think of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have heard of a theory that says God can choose to not allow Himself to be aware of the future in some cases. If He truly has a relationship with us, it would be difficult if He knew everything that was going to happen. So He could just choose to block certain parts of the future from His mind and could answer our prayers as they come.

    Barb

    Liked by 1 person

    • This sounds like what is called “open theism.” It is the idea that certain aspects of the future are “open” before God and that he chooses not to know the outcome of those aspects. I’m not an open theist myself, but I do have some sympathies with those who are. Do you think open theism works?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Zack! God bless you and thank you for your post.

    I believe in a God who is living and acting in the single eternal present moment. The present is all that exists and is an expression of God. The future is not determined in a ‘clockwork’ way, but rather is the result of God’s activity. God is alive right now, rather than being some kind of distant God who set the universe off and is watching it unfold.

    I believe that everything is unfolding in accordance with God’s will (because God is omnipresent). This means that even our prayers are under God’s control. This shouldn’t stop us praying, but we should acknowledge that events are unfolding under God’s control, in the same way as the puppeteer knows what’s going to happen in the puppet show but events in the show are not realised until the puppeteer brings them about. We may feel as though have free will, but this is ultimately an illusion; a mode of thinking (also under God’s control).

    I’m not worried if you disagree, but having given this subject a great deal of my attention I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

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    • Hey Steven, thanks for reading!

      I really appreciate your thoughts and I’m glad to see that you’ve been working through them. I actually used to subscribe quite heavily to Calvinism, though overtime my position has changed and I’ve become less deterministic. About half (if not more) of my good friends are Calvinists and so we have great discussions about this topic. As you’re probably aware, many people have a hard time with this idea of God being the puppet master because of sin and evil. They would look around at the evil of the past and present and find it hard to justify how God could, in a sense, be the puppeteer behind these things. What are your thoughts on how to reconcile these objections?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Zack, such a good question! I do believe God is responsible for all those things that we call ‘good’ and all those things that we call ‘evil’. So the important question is obviously ‘why all the evil?’

        I think God created all things in order to glorify Himself, and I believe our suffering is a part of His self-glorification. We experience tests and trials and suffering, but God brings us through and so we learn more about Him due to our experience of suffering. Some suffering may seem needless or gratuitous, but I believe God always has a purpose.

        I’m actually exploring Calvinism at the moment (currently reading the ‘Institutes’) but I don’t consider myself a Calvinist at this point in time. I think Calvinists generally maintain a belief in free will whereas I believe all will is God’s will. But I’m still learning about Calvinism so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong?!

        Would you agree that it’s logically contradictory to say that God is omnipresent but that we also have free will? Curious to get your thoughts about that one 🙂

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      • Steven, it’s good to hear your perspective. I do think that history, as a whole, serves to point to and glorify God. I think that trials that we encounter in life can be used to bring God much glory. I do run into a couple places where I have difficulty reconciling certain things the notion that God is responsible for evil and uses it for his glory. I’ll list a couple of things.
        First, if God controls all things, and human beings disobey his commands, then we run into an interesting dilemma where God has commanded something, and yet by his own will has made people do the exact opposite. I think my reformed brothers refer to this as God’s “revealed will” (that which God commands) and his “hidden will” (that which God actually carries out or desires for purposes he alone may know). But as a consequence, I think what happens is that we cannot actually ever know what God really desires from us. He commands us to do one thing, but doesn’t give us the ability to do it–and yet he desires us not to have this ability to carry out his commands for some other purpose. From my understanding, Luther struggled with this and came to the realization that all that can really be known about God is through Jesus. The Father is hidden.
        Second, I run into the problem of understanding how God is without moral defect, and yet is responsible for genocide, rape, and whatever horrendous evil is out there.
        Third, it seems to be that there are things in Scripture that do not bring God glory, which would include the disobedience of his children. In fact, there seem to be instances in Scripture of this (Acts 12:23; Rev. 16:9). Now it may be the case that God somehow receives glory in the end for their disobedience, but at the moment, their actions did not bring him glory. And if God is responsible for their actions, and the actions did not bring him glory at that moment, then God did not do all things for his glory. He may receive greater glory in the end for their disobedience, but there is at least one (or in this case, two) instances where glory was not given to God. So I have a difficult time understanding how God, who is responsible for all things, does all things for his glory, and yet it seems that there are instances in Scripture where he is not getting glory. It is also difficult to see how things which do not give God glory (sin, for instance) actually do give God glory. I believe that God will eventually get glory from all of human history, and I even believe that he can get glory from horrible things, but I don’t think all things bring him glory.
        Fourth, I question whether God needs glory. He wants it, and no doubt he wants us to give him glory, but he doesn’t need it. Glory that comes outside of inter-Trinitarian life is unnecessary. Otherwise, God is dependent upon creation for his maximal greatness. That seems to present us with serious problems, since it compromises God’s aseity.
        Fifth, I think we must at least acknowledge that the idea that God does all things for his glory is nowhere explicitly listed in Scripture (Rom. 8:28 is not necessarily implying this). But then again, a lot of things are not explicit in Scripture (think the Trinity). But I struggle with this concept because of reasons that I’ve listed above. This leads me to believe that maybe not all things happen for God’s glory, even if he is able to derive glory as a consequence (not a means) of a tragic and evil event. I have two options in my life, in good times and in bad: I can either bring God glory, or I can withhold it. Unfortunately, when I sin, I believe that I am withholding it, regardless of the situation.

        So these are a couple of issues that I would raise.

        Also, most Calvinists that I know are “compatibilists,” so they believe that free will and determinism are compatible. Free will is complicated.

        Like

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