Why should people bother to pray? For many people, both religious and irreligious, this question does not seem to have a satisfactory answer. They still pray when desperate - who doesn’t? - but even then, they can’t see the sense in it. If God already knows everything that is going to happen, if he has already decided what he is going to do, our prayers are irrelevant.
I recently corresponded with an intelligent man who has concluded that “Christian belief is illogical.” One of the reasons for this is that the Christian God “exists outside of time” and so has always known what will occur in every moment within time, effectively making what we call free will impossible. And if free will is impossible, how can the Christian God hold people responsible for their actions and beliefs?
I think there are answers to these questions or at least there are reasons to question the validity of the questions, but one can immediately see how this understanding of God would undermine prayer. If “what will be, will be,” praying is an exercise in futility.
One way Christians have responded to this problem is to say, “We don’t pray to change what is going to happen but to change ourselves,” but this answer seems quite inadequate. If nothing changes because of our prayers, then, perforce, the person praying does not change either. If prayer can change the person praying, then it can change other things too.
The biblical writers and the people whose stories they told saw other problems to prayer but not this one. They took for granted that their prayers made a difference. If they prayed, something would (or at least, might) happen that would not happen if they did not pray.
Perhaps they were just more naïve than we are. They didn’t have an Albert Einstein or a Bertrand Russell confusing them about the nature of time and God’s relationship to it. The term “confusing” is not ill-chosen. There is still no general agreement on the nature of time either in Einstein’s field of theoretical physics nor in Russell’s field of philosophy. Indeed, Russell and his Cambridge colleague J.M.E. McTaggart could not even agree on whether there is such a thing as time.
So when we say that prayer is a problem because God “already” knows what is going to happen we are not treading on solid ground. We do not understand the words we are using, including the word “time,” nor do we understand God’s relation to it. This remains one of the deepest mysteries of existence.
It is better to come at the problem of prayer from the perspective that God created a world that was good, as the first chapter of Genesis says repeatedly, but not complete. For the good work of creation to reach its fulfillment, God made creatures capable of interacting with him and one of the ways in which these creatures interact with God is through prayer.
If we approach prayer from the perspective that God created a world with space in it, a world in which either one thing or another can happen while remaining within God’s overall plan, this particular problem of prayer goes away. In fact, we begin to see that this arrangement is a necessary condition for the fulfillment of God’s intentions for a mature humanity.
If we approach this problem of prayer from a richly biblical perspective, that God has made room in the universe for our prayers to change things, it goes away. But other obstacles remain.
Two of the biggest are, to put it boldly, God and us. God’s will and his ways will always be an obstacle to prayer for the person who does not know God or share his interests. But to the person who is getting to know God (who is “growing in the knowledge of God,” to borrow St. Paul language), God’s will and ways become an invitation to pray.
Prayer, for such people, becomes an adventure and seeing answers to prayer - sometimes quite remarkable - a source of joy. This is precisely the life God planned for us and the one Jesus taught his followers to expect: “… my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name … and your joy will be complete.”
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.