If God knows everything that has happened and will happen, and God is all powerful, does prayer matter? This is the question that Bruce Epperly ponders in today's posting. It is an important question that too often we evade. So, take a read and engage Bruce in conversation.
Does God Know the Future?
Why Does it Matter for Those Who Pray?
When I was a child, my mother posted a magnet on our refrigerator that proclaimed, “Prayer changes things.” I have always taken this motto seriously. While I have many ways of praying – I use words, images, energy, touch, and silence at various times – I pray for things, large and small, knowing that within God’s reign and the interdependence of life, there may, in fact, be no small things.
As a practical and constructive theologian, I am interested in how our beliefs shape our practices and everyday lives. Accordingly, the question of divine foreknowledge is important to me. Does the fact that God knows – or does not know – everything in advance shape our faith and practices of prayer? In this essay, my answer is a resounding “yes” and, more than that, I assert that a God who does not know the future – a God for whom the future is open – inspires us to pray and claim our role as God’s partners in changing the world. In contrast, a God who knows everything in advance renders our prayers unnecessary.
Classical theology asserts that God knows the plot lines of our stories before we were conceived. As Rick Warren states, God has planned all the important events of our lives without our input. God holds the past, present, and future, according to classical theology, in an eternal now. Divine omniscience and omnipotence are intimately connected: because God’s knowledge is always active and never passive – God creates but does not receive. Accordingly, we can add nothing new to God’s experience. More interestingly, if God perfectly knows and decides all that will occur in changeless eternity, then nothing new can happen to God and God can do nothing new in the ongoing history of the universe. If divine knowledge is complete and divine action is perfect, any variation of either on God’s part is unnecessary and would imply the existence of imperfection in God’s nature.
What are the implications of divine foreknowledge theologically? First, our prayers really make no difference to God or anyone else. God already knows – and may have planned – what will happen. Prayer is entirely for our sakes and changes nothing in the condition of those for whom we pray. Our belief that our prayers make a difference is an illusion, grounded in our temporal existence. Second, and more radical, a God who knows and plans everything in advance may be described as “all powerful,” but such a God actually has finite power, since God can do nothing to alter God’s knowledge or plan. God is caught up in an eternal “Groundhog Day” in which God experiences the same universe and same finite events over and over again, with nothing new possible.
I assert that a God who neither knows – nor can determine – the future in its entirety not only makes the statement “prayer changes things” meaningful, but also has more options and influence than a God who knows and determines everything in advance. To clarify, there are two ways of looking at omniscience: 1) knowing everything – past, present, and future – as actual or 2) knowing everything in the past as actual and knowing the future in terms of possibility, but not actuality. I opt for (2) and believe that it allows us to interact creatively with a living God, and not a fully determined, unchanging God. God knows everything up to this moment in time and the landscape of future possibility, but not the actuality of what will occur.
To summarize, if God neither knows nor determines the future in its entirety, then our prayers add to the universe and support God’s ever-present aim at wholeness, beauty, love, and healing. Our prayers open the door for new possibilities of well-being for others and allow God to be more creative in bringing shalom to our lives and the world. Our prayers shape, to some degree, others’ experiences and, thus, allow for a greater influx of divine energy and possibility. Second, a God for whom the future is open can do new things, explore new possibilities, and shape the world in unexpected ways in partnership with the ongoing universe. God is not a prisoner of God’s past decisions. This is truly a living God: even though we have real freedom and creativity that places limits on the expressions of divine activity, God has infinite resources to respond to the world as it is and will be. Ironically, a God who is limited in some ways has more power and creativity than one who has determined everything in advance. God is alive, creative, novel, and creative yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
In an open universe in which creativity and freedom and real, our prayers are important: they shape us and others, and enable us to be God’s partners in healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.