*** This blog post comes to us from my friend Derek Ouellette. He just launched his brand-new blog and I highly recommend that you check it out, follow him, and read his stuff! (Kurt)
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time you would have asked yourself at some point, “does my prayer matter?”
And if you’re like me and countless other people I’ve spoken to, you would have sat down across the desk of a spiritual leader such as a pastor probing for an answer to that question. Or you would have brought it up in a home Bible study or a Sunday School class, seeking wisdom from those you trust.
You know it’s a deep philosophical question. If God knows everything, do my prayers really make a difference? It doesn’t get more deep and philosophical than that. But you ask anyways. Why? Despite the fact that you don’t like to think about the deep philosophical mysteries of the universe or that you’re a regular ol’ guy or gal, you ask the question anyways. Why?
Because that deep philosophical question has real-life very practical, hard core, worldview shaping implications.
Deep down inside you know that question really does matter. You know that it’s not just philosophical pie-in-the-sky for the philosophers or theologians to work out.
But that was then. You know. Back when you were young and fresh and new and curious and questioning and exploring and teachable and open.
But somehow you settled. Somewhere along the way you gave in. We’ve all heard the same answers. “God wants you to talk to him,” one will say. “God predestined your prayers,” says another.
It wasn’t enough of an answer at the time. But who were you to question further? So you let it go. You let that answer simmer over the years to the point where you’ve become mediocre about the whole thing. It doesn’t really matter, you’ve convinced yourself. Because “God wants us to talk to him” and “God has predestined our prayers.” You repeat the answer you’ve been given like a parrot.
And when a young, new, curious, questioning, teachable and open guy or gal asks you that question, the answer is just the same.
And the cycle continues.
I want to talk to your younger self for a moment. I know you’re in there, buried underneath years of pat-answers disguised as “maturity.” The you that was full of questions. The bright-eyed and bushy tailed you who sat across from a leader you respected, with scrunched eyebrows and thinking-cap on, ready and willing to go deep into the philosophical question: why pray?
Open. Teachable. Curious. Adventurous.
That’s the you I want to talk to.
So, what’s the question?
“If God knows the future, why bother praying for something? Isn’t it already settled?”
It’s a good question, but it’s one that makes a philosophical assumption. The question assumes that God knows the future. I mean, don’t Christians believe that God is all knowing? And doesn’t that mean that he knows every future?
“Well, okay. But if God knows every future, doesn’t that imply that he also must know the future? He is, after all, all-knowing.”
Well, maybe. But by drawing that conclusion you’ve made another philosophical assumption. You’ve assumed that God knows the future in the same way that he knows the present and the past. If we’re to answer your question, “why pray?” then we need to build our view of God on a different set of assumptions.
[These assumptions will seem counterintuitive at first glance because we are so used to our assumptions. So work with me here, and don’t worry, we’ll get to the Bible before we’re done.]
Let’s assume that the future doesn’t exist and that it will never exist. When tomorrow finally becomes today, it is no longer tomorrow but today. The word “tomorrow” is only a word, an idea, an abstract concept, a way of speaking about what’s to come. The word “today” conveys reality. This day. The day that we are experiencing at this very moment. Today exists. Tomorrow does not. It never will because by the time it “exists” it will no longer be tomorrow, but today.
Let’s assume that God is all-competent and all-wise. He’s not a buffoon or an imbecile. He’s able – not just by sheer strength, but by wisdom and competence. We always talk about how God is all-power and all-knowing. We never talk about how God is all-competent. God is able to work through the most complex situation without having to flex his bulging omnipotent bicep. He’s able to work through it by his know-how. He is, after all, omnicompetent.
Let’s assume that God comes about his knowledge of the future the same way a master chess player does, only infinitely more so. God doesn’t just “see” ten, twenty, of fifty moves ahead, but he sees an infinite number of moves ahead. A master chess player “knows” – we might call it foresight – all of the possible moves that his free-will opponent might make and has planned a response to each one so as to guarantee a certain outcome. Likewise, although the future does not exist, God knows every possible move that a free-will creature might make – though he does not know which move the free-will creature will make. He knows in terms of probability which moves the free-will creature is most likely to make. And he has a response for each.
“But hold on,” you say. “You just said that God does not know which move the free-will creature will make. Doesn’t that mean that God is not all knowing?”
Not really. To be “omniscient” (all-knowing) is to “know all there is to know.” If something is not knowable, than that does not qualify as detracting from “omniscience.” A classical Church leader and one of histories foremost philosophers has said “God cannot do that which is logically impossible to do.” If the future does not exist (which was our first new assumption) then God cannot logically know it. But since God knows all there is to know (everything that exists and has existed), he is omniscient (all-knowing).
So our new set of assumptions are:
A. The futures does not exist
B. God is omnicompetent.
C. God’s knowledge of all future events is based on his infinite understanding of all possible outcomes and probabilities.
So then, back to your question. “If God knows the future exhaustively, why bother praying?” Because God knows what the future will hold if you do not pray and God knows what the future will hold if you do pray. It may be the same either way, or it may be different.
It may be that God has set his mind to do something and no amount of prayer will change that (like in Jeremiah 4:28 and Ezekiel 24:14 for example). We might say, in this situation, that God’s answer to your prayer was ‘no.’
It is certainly true that God is not “like in man” in that he cannot be manipulated or bribed into changing his mind like wicked Balaam and King Saul attempted to do. (Numbers 23:13 and 1 Samuel 15:29.)
But for a child of God who cries out in ernest sincerity, it may be that God was planning to do one thing but being moved by your prayer, he changes his mind and does something else such as in the case of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20) or the prophet Moses (Exodus 32:9-14).
Still other times God plans to do one thing but hopes that someone will pray and change that direction, like in the case of Ezekiel 22:30
So you see you’re prayers do matter and they can change things. Think about that the next time you drop to your knees before the King of the Universe, who also happens to be your Abba.
Oh, and by the way, welcome to Open Theism.