July 31, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: The efficacy of prayer

John F. Fink(Twenty-fifth in a series)

What good does it do for us to pray? If 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, how can we say that we act freely?

People have asked these questions for centuries. It’s hard to reconcile belief in the efficacy of prayer with God’s omniscience.

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

For us, what happened yesterday, or just a second ago, is past, and what will happen tomorrow, or next year, is in the future. But in eternity, there is no past and future. Everything will be in the present.

Here is C. S. Lewis’s description of eternity, from a chapter titled “Time and Beyond Time” in his masterpiece Mere Christianity: “If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: We have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.”

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 doesn’t foresee us doing something tomorrow any more than he saw us doing something yesterday. He simply sees us doing it, whether past, present or future. So 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.

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 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. For me, at least, it also helps answer questions about the efficacy of prayer. †

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