March 15, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: What good does it do to pray?

John F. FinkWhat good does it do for us to pray?

I realize, of course, that there are various types of prayer—adoration, praise, petition, intercession, contrition and thanksgiving. But for now, let’s stick with petition and intercession, in which we ask God for something.

If we believe that God knows what is going to happen in the future, are our prayers going to make him change his mind? Furthermore, if God knows what we are going to do tomorrow, how can we say that we act freely?

These are questions that people have asked for centuries. It’s hard to reconcile belief in the efficacy of prayer with God’s omniscience. He already knows whether or not our prayers are going to be answered, so why bother to pray?

It has helped me reconcile those two concepts by trying to grasp another difficult concept—eternity. That, too, is hard for us humans, with our finite minds, to understand since it means the absence of time.

For us, things happen moment after moment. What happened yesterday, or just a second ago, is past, and what will happen tomorrow, or the next year, is still in the future. But in eternity, where God lives, there is no past and future. Everything is simultaneous, in the present.

This is important if we are to consider the question of human freedom despite the fact that God knows everything that is going to happen. God does not foresee us doing something tomorrow anymore than he saw us doing something yesterday. He simply sees us doing it, whether past, present or future.

In God’s eternity, both yesterday and tomorrow are eternally present. For you and me, yesterday is past and tomorrow hasn’t come yet, but that’s not true in eternity.

Therefore, God doesn’t have to change his mind in order to answer our prayers and make something happen in our future that otherwise wouldn’t have because our future is the present for him.

Furthermore, his knowledge of what we are going to do in the future doesn’t destroy our freedom to decide whether or not we are going to do them. He knows our future actions to be the freely performed actions they are.

Other people have a different objection to prayer. How, they ask, could God possibly answer the prayers of all those people who are praying to him at the same time? Perhaps they visualize God handling one person’s request, and then moving on to another’s and on down the line until everybody is taken care of. How, they ask, could he have time to handle all those requests?

Of course, that question itself involves “time,” and God is not in time. He’s in eternity. I suppose we could say that he has all the time he needs except that that answer contains the concept of time. Let’s say that he has all eternity in which to listen to all those prayers.

It’s well for us to become familiar with the concept of eternity since that’s what we will experience after our death—a “time” without time. †

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