Few subjects are more controversial than prayer. Materialists say it is pointless. People of faith believe prayer is powerful, even if their perspectives are diverse. Does God intervene in the physical world? Do prayers go unanswered from a lack of confidence and commitment or from praying amiss and seeking the wrong outcome? After all, if we are doubtful and lazy or misalign with God’s purpose, why shouldn’t the answer be no? If God knows what is best, why bother praying at all and take the risk of second-best? Doesn’t God already know what we need? If you were to ask a dozen people these questions, you might get the same number of different answers. Prayer is mysterious. Even so, I will attempt to shed some light on this perplexing topic.

If God does not exist or interact with the physical world, then prayer is nothing more than a psychological balm. But since I am a Christian with a fundamentally different view, I believe prayer is more productive than wishful thinking. I base this on the biblical text, years of experience as a praying person, and numerous observations within the assembly of believers. Though I have a few speculative ideas I will outline later; for now, the following assertions are both widely accepted in Christian circles and foundational to what I see as a realistic view on prayer:

  1. God wants us to pray.
  2. Prayer can affect our material reality.
  3. Our prayers do not always obtain.

According to the biblical text, one thing is clear: God desires for us to pray. I will not rehash a supporting case here since even a cursory study overwhelmingly supports this premise. But what about prayer’s impact? Perhaps God merely wants to build a relationship without bestowing any causal influence to His creatures. In other words, we can grow closer to God through prayer, but how reality plays out is entirely unaffected by our supplications. Yet, again, a quick search of the text makes this doubtful. There are explicit commands to pray for the sick and present our requests to God. It hardly makes sense for Jesus to talk about mountain-moving faith if nothing in the universe ever moves due to prayer. Prayer can change reality. But why do our prayers sometimes fail to come to pass? 

As a young believer of thirty-three, I went to church early one evening to get the jump on everyone. Others soon joined me in the sanctuary to pray for a sick congregant dying of cancer. With confidence and zeal, we prayed into the night. We had several such vigils. To my great disappointment, he passed away a few weeks later, succumbing to the illness. I remember feeling disappointed and confused. Why didn’t God heal the man? The pastor offered a lackluster explanation: God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. That left me with a tragic thought: How can you tell the difference between that sort of providence and no providence at all? Twenty-five years and many answered prayers later, I have a different question: Why should we mortals sway the firm hand and plan of God when His providence is so much better than our supplications?

To begin looking at prayer from within the context of providence, consider the following dilemma: Imagine a crossroads where a contingent situation might take one of two paths (A or B). Further, imagine, God knows A is the best path as it leads to an outcome closer to what He aims for in Creation. Also, assume, the A-outcome is physically inevitable unless God supernaturally intervenes. Now consider you pray for B to obtain instead of A. All other factors, such as faith, commitment, and zeal aside; Will God respond to your prayer and intervene in the material world to affect a B-outcome, even given A is more aligned with His purpose and will happen naturally? Some say no. I say it depends.

Before we dive in, let’s contextualize the above dilemma within God’s style of providence. One possibility says God created the best possible world, with all contingent outcomes predestined since the Big Bang. God established the complete timeline, including every particle decay and creaturely choice, by bringing the right world into being and sustaining a precise heading towards a fixed end. On this view, God intervenes, perhaps even as a consequence of prayer, but such interventions are predetermined. At no point in history is God swayed, even by prayer. Abraham’s prayer with God over Sodom wasn’t a genuine negotiation since what we see as prayerful interaction and compromise is a series of events cast in temporal stone before the world began. I call this the closed style, where Creation is a prewritten script.

The other possibility says God yields in Creation, allowing it to unfold and build itself with a degree of freedom. According to natural science, quantum events appear ontologically vague, where specific outcomes are intrinsically stochastic. In other words, randomness seems to be at the root of physical reality so that, for example, when a particle decays, the exact moment is entirely impenetrable–and perhaps not just to mere scientists. Can God create something that produces a random number in time such that He is surprised in time? Setting aside divine temporality for the moment, I believe so. I do not see this question in the same illogical category as a rock too big to move. Christian theology already recognizes the concept of divine condescension with Christ, the eternal Logos, entering the spatiotemporal world. It seems entirely possible God also yielded in Creation by designing intrinsic uncertainties right into its very fabric.

This alternative style allows for flexibility in the details, even if the broad strokes are providentially inevitable. On this view, God most certainly intervenes as the Story unfolds. But His involvement is not to keep Creation strictly on Script, but instead, adapt an evolving narrative. The Script is fuzzy at the quantum level, and nonlinearities allow that fuzziness to bubble up to the macroworld. Freewill may indeed be free and not just automatic firings in the brain. The future may not be precisely set. Thus, God’s glory is displayed as he achieves His magnificent ends despite the uncertainties and openness in this evolving Story. I call this the open style, where Creation is an improvisation. (1)

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the theology of time because it is so obscure. But how God interacts with time is entirely relevant here. On the closed-style of providence, the static B-theory (tenseless, block view) of time fits because the entire timeline already exists and is fixed, like a prewritten script. Now is not a privileged point on the timeline to God as He sees the whole block. On the open-style of providence, the dynamic A-theory (tensed view) of time fits well. Now is a unique point in the timeline. Accordingly, God is with us temporally instead of distant and removed from time. This latter view is called divine temporality.

In the book Time and Eternity by William Lane Craig, we see a case for divine temporality. According to Craig, God is timeless, sans the universe, and condescends into a temporal relationship at Creation. Again, I admit the entire philosophy around God and time is speculative and practically incomprehensible. Yet, it still seems apparent, to me, that God is in a temporal relationship with us somehow. I say this because much of the biblical text, and my spiritual experience, makes little sense given divine timelessness, since listening, interacting, responding to, intervening are all temporal concepts. A god who is not in such a relationship (in any conceivable way) could not listen and then respond to prayer. I am in no way dogmatic on this topic, but perhaps different Persons of the Trinity relate to time differently. (2)

So let’s first look at our hypothetical dilemma on the closed style. Here it seems entirely possible God predetermines a B-outcome as a consequence of an antecedent prayer, even though He prefers A. Thus, for example, at the behest of Israel, God includes King Saul in the Script (B-outcome) even though an A-outcome of trusting God without a King would have been the better route. Paradigmatically, Israel’s demands didn’t sway God since their complaint, and Saul’s subsequent installment was already in the Script. This style leads to some obvious questions: Why script-in the suboptimal path, even in response to prayer? If God predestines the lesser outcome at a crossroads, does this mean that Creation is not the best possible world? I hope to clear up or avoid these questions.

As you might have guessed, I happen to believe the open style of providence is more likely to be true. However, I can see a theology of prayer fitting somewhat within the closed model as well. So, what about the dilemma on the open providential style? A jazz musician moving the listener towards a particular note might go for the sharp instead and, surprisingly, make it work brilliantly! Similarly, considering the dilemma on the open style, God might affect a B-outcome in response to prayer, knowing later, through His infinite wisdom, it will work into His masterpiece. On this view, the best possible world is only achievable if it includes certain freedoms to create itself. Creaturely free will, response to our supplications, and physical uncertainties disrupt the Story, but the value of these inclusions is greater than the potential for disruption. God perhaps prefers improvisation to rigidity and predictability.

So, on the open style, when God told Hezekiah to get his house in order, He meant it. But the king’s fervent prayer swayed God to alter the Story and allow fifteen more years of life, even though a great sin would result. A suboptimal path at a crossroads is not a strike against the Story as God crafts a beautiful masterpiece around the rough edges. Thus, God and humanity are in a kind of dance. He leads; we try to follow, and how we traverse the dance floor is not precise. But even without precision, God will achieve His purposes. Instead of supernaturally transforming the physical world to stay on Script, God intervenes to carry an evolving story forward towards an end He desires.

Blaise Pascal famously said of prayer: “[God] instituted prayer in order to give his creatures the dignity of causality.” In other words, prayer is a divine privilege where the created may alter the course of Creation. Thus, we get to steer the Story! This privilege is a necessary aspect of the best possible world God could instantiate. So, going back to the concern about a suboptimal creation, if the B-outcome obtains, this is no indication of a lesser world because exercising the privilege itself is the greater good. Thus, God sees the value of answering prayer as more significant than the ripples in the Story caused by a lesser B-outcome. But, of course, there must be some recognition of the ripples in the Story. Some waves are too big; it is good to reject some prayerful supplications. 

Combining the open style of providence and my experience with answered prayer, I see a clear analogy to describe this dignity of causality: The parent-child relationship. It’s almost as if human relationships in marriage and family point to divine realities. But I digress. How a parent responds to their child’s requests seems to be very similar to how God responds to our supplications. As a father, I want the best for my daughters. Of course, I did not always give them what they asked for, but sometimes I was swayed by their requests, which altered my response. On the other hand, some childish demands were too dangerous and the potential disruption too great. I was right to deny those requests. Perhaps God, like a loving father to his child, takes a similar stance with us.

In conclusion: God bestowed a great privilege to His creatures; the dignity of causality. Along with other uncertainties designed into physical reality, the freedom to ask the Creator, and alter the Story, potentially creates ripples. In God’s infinite wisdom and love, he weighs the significance of disruptions against sincere requests. As a child to his father, we too present our thanks, smiles, and supplications to the Creator. He longs to answer in the affirmative because he loves us. To say ‘yes’ and alter the Story is good in and of itself. His masterful improvisation sees a way through towards the desired end, despite what may appear to us as a suboptimal path. Yet, sometimes the ripples are too great. God leads the Story a different direction, and we wonder why our prayer went unanswered.

  1. To those concerned that an open style of providence conflicts with biblical prophecy and apocalyptic texts, I would argue a resolution combines a proper exegesis with the broad strokes of the Story providentially secured, even if the details are flexible.
  2. For a brief introduction to divine time: http://drjohnsanders.com/god-time-and-foreknowledge/ (note: I do not agree with all the views of the author, nor am I fully on board with open theism, but his explanation of divine time is very good)