God foreordains everything
“Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” -Ps. 139:16 (cf. Job 12; 14:5; Prov. 19:21; Eph. 1:11).
Every one of our days unfolds according to God’s definite plan. Indeed, all of human history has been irrevocably purposed and foreordained* by God from eternity:
[*NOTE: I am using the term “foreordination” instead of the more popular “predestination,” because the former broadly refers to God’s definite and sovereign plan for everything, while the latter narrowly refers to God’s election or reprobation of a person (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5). I think this is a useful distinction worth preserving. For my take on predestination, see my post “If God Predestines People for Salvation, Why Do We Need Missions?”]
“The Lord Almighty has sworn, ‘Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will happen. … This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?’” -Is. 14:25-27 (cf. Is. 37:26; Acts 4:28; 17:26; 1 Cor. 2:7)
Moreover, God’s sovereign plan is based on his omniscience and omnipotence. He is all-knowing. Therefore, his plan is perfect. He is all-powerful. Therefore, he is able to execute his plan. So God never changes his mind (Mal. 3:6; 1 Sam. 15:29; Is. 46:9-11; James 1:17). What he has foreordained inevitably comes to pass (Num. 23:19; Ezek 24:14).
If this is the case, why is prayer necessary or consequential? If prayer cannot change God’s will, why should we pray at all? If prayer is not specified as the condition for the coming of the kingdom of God, then why should we pray, “Let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10)?
Does prayer change us? (Yes, but that’s not all…)
The popular response to this conundrum is the response that “prayer changes us, not God.” Some say that prayer is simply a matter of obedience, since we are commanded to “pray continually” (1 Thes. 5:17). In this view, the command to pray is an arbitrary fiat.
Unsatisfied with this explanation, others say that prayer is an expression of our identification with, and conformity to, God’s will (Paul Helm, Providence of God, p. 158). It is true that, in a real way, prayer does change us. Prayer softens our hearts to accept the will of God.
Does prayer change God? (Yes and no…)
However, this is is an incomplete picture of prayer. Those who pray in the Bible expect objective results (Phil 1:19). They believe that God will bring about tangible outcomes in response to their prayers (Acts 26:19; Rom. 1:10; 15:30; Eph. 6:19).
In fact, throughout the Bible, it seems that God does change his mind in response to prayer. God pronounces judgment on the city of Nineveh, yet relents when the people repent and pray (Jonah 3:10). God decrees that Hezekiah will die of his illness, yet he heals him when Hezekiah humbles himself in prayer (2 Kings 20:1-6; Is. 38:1-8).
Prayer does not change God per se. Examples of God “regretting” his decisions (Gen. 6:6) or changing his mind are anthropomorphisms–attribution of human characteristics to God. Nonetheless, these are accurate phenomenological descriptions.
A both-and scenario
God has foreordained that prayer be a means to certain divinely-instituted ends. And since we cannot directly experience God’s eternal and final perspective on things, it is impossible to answer the “how” questions concerning prayer. But as far as we are concerned, from a finite, temporal point of view, prayer does move God to actions that otherwise would not have happened.
This is not an either-or scenario. It’s a both-and. So pray humbly and submit yourself to the will of God! But also pray boldly and effect the will of God! Pray knowing that God is ultimately responsible for all things! But also pray knowing that you are, in a very real way, responsible (1 Sm. 12:23).
This is Part 1 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 2 of 5: Using the Lord’s Prayer as a Model for Our Prayers.