Don’t let foreknowledge weird you out about prayer!

When people try to second-guess our God who knows the future, things get sticky.

FOREKNOW fɔr'noʊ verb. Be aware of an event before it happens.
[Foreknowledge fɔr'nɑl.ədʒ noun.]

God is omnipresent, meaning he exists everywhere in spacetime. There’s no place, nor time, where he’s not. Various Christians incorrectly describe God as outside time, looking down upon it all at once; they got the idea from St. Augustine, who probably got it from Plato of Athens describing his pagan gods. But that’d make God not omnipresent, because he’d be outside the universe, not everywhere within it. So that’d be wrong. Space and time are the same thing anyway: God’s inside time and fills time, same as he does space. He’s here, aware of what’s going on. And 20 years ago, still here, still aware. And 20 years from now, still here, still aware. Simultaneously.

That’s a mind-bending idea to us Christians. Even us Christians who love to watch science fiction TV and movies where they monkey with time travel for fun and adventure. ’Cause we’re time-based creatures: We only experience now, the moving present instant. And even when we’re consciously aware, paying attention to now… we actually aren’t. ’Cause in the split second of time it takes for our senses to take in the world around us, and for our brains to process it, and attach emotions and ideas and values to it… that instant is over. It’s become the past. We’re reacting to a memory. We move through time just that quick.

Whereas God didn’t move. He still sees that moment. Plus every moment we consider “now,” whenever we perceive it: The moment I write this, or the moment you read it. And all the moments before, and all the moments to come. Forever, in both directions.

God knows the future—a phenomenon St. Paul labeled προγινώσκω/proyinósko, “foreknowing,” Ro 8.29, 11.2 ’cause from our human viewpoint the future doesn’t yet exist. Because of God knowing it, a lot of us Christians take a lot of hope, and feel really confident, that everything God says about the future is guaranteed to happen. Jesus is returning. We are getting raised from the dead. All things are gonna be made new. None of this is hypothetical: God’s not making the universe’s greatest-educated guess, or talking about stuff he’s gonna almightily try to achieve. He’s speaking from experience (or to coin a word, foresperience). He foresees it, so he foreknows it. It’s real. Well, fore-real.

Thing is, on the other side of this coin is another phenomenon which I tend to call “predestination angst.” You might already experience it; you just don’t know what to call it.

Paul’s word προορίζω/prohorídzo, “foredecide” (KJV “predestinate”) is where Christians got the idea of predestination—that God hasn’t just foreseen stuff, but fore-decided stuff. Like whether you’re getting into his kingdom or not. God’s not waiting for the future to happen first, nor for you to decide something before he responds to it. Why should an unlimited God need to? He’s acting now. Or he might’ve acted already.

Fr’instance: You’re not sure you’re gonna make your car payment; you pray really hard; you get an unexpected check in the mail which means you can make your car payment. Hallelujah. But when did God start answering your prayer? When you prayed? Well he can’t have: That check had to get printed and mailed, so these events started in motion days ago. Which means God answered today’s prayer days ago. He foreknew your prayer, foredecided what to do about it, and foreacted upon it. Mind bent yet?

True, some Christians only talk about predestination when we’re talking about God choosing our eternal destinations. I’m not talking about that today. I foresee another time for that. (Well, not like God foresees: I’m predicting. He’s seeing.)

But the angst—that feeling of dread or anxiety we can’t put a finger on—comes from our worry that because God foresees, foreknows, and foreacts… exactly why do we need to pray? God already knows what we need before we ask it. Jesus even said so. Mt 6.8 So… do we even need to pray? Hasn’t God already made up his mind? What’s the point?

And so our budding little existentialists sit down and despair, and stop praying.

If that’s what you’re doing, cut it out. Pray.

Determinism and prayerlessness.

I wrote elsewhere on determinism, the belief our circumstances are beyond our control, ’cause God rigged the universe to follow a pre-planned path. I wrote about it in part because James rebuked it. Jm 1.13-15 Even so, there are plenty of Christians who believe this crap.

Speaking anecdotally, I’ve found for a lot of ’em, it began with predestination angst. Sometimes back when they were kids. That’s about the time this idea struck me: “If God already knows everything before I make my prayer requests, why pray?” Sometimes we struggled with it alone. Sometimes we asked our parents… but they had lousy answers. Sometimes we asked our Sunday schoolteachers or pastors… and sometimes they had lousy answers.

I was going to a Presbyterian church at the time, and that church has way too many determinists in it. So I was given a probably-too-oversimplified answer: “Well, we don’t entirely know the answer to that one. But we pray anyway. Because Jesus told us to.” Lk 18.1

Which didn’t solve my quandary any: So Jesus only wants us to go through the motions? Isn’t that hypocrisy? And didn’t Jesus’s comment about the Father foreknowing our requests Mt 6.8 just follow a rebuke against praying like hypocrites? Mt 6.5 So confusing.

But when you’re a kid, you don’t always realize there are authorities beyond the people you go to—and if they don’t know either, keep looking. Instead you might assume there is no answer. So you give up and stop praying. Which means you just stopped listening to the Holy Spirit, who does have all the answers. Yikes.

From there on out, you’re in an echo chamber of your own melancholy. You figure prayer doesn’t matter because God does his own thing anyway. So you won’t pray, except for formal occasions, in which you go through the motions, and don’t bother to listen to the Spirit—and his corrections. You accept any teachings about living in a universe sovereignly controlled by God so tightly, there might not even be such a thing as free will; it’s all illusion. If you ever bother to study religion and theology, you’ll seek out fellow determinists who just reinforce these ideas: “Yep, God runs everything according to his own secret plan, and we have no say in it. Just between you and me, yeah it’s depressing. I take joy in the fact we know better than everyone else, but otherwise I try not to think about it. You know what really helps me get through the day? Craft beer.”

I do know determinists who pray. But it’s definitely not with the purpose of talking with God. It’s unidirectional. It makes their relationship with God feel interactive. But they figure it’s ultimately meaningless, and contributes nothing. It’s okay; God’s got everything going according to plan anyway. Right?

So why do it? Often for their own edification: They’re trying to conform to God’s will, just like we do with the Lord’s Prayer and other rote prayers. Doesn’t matter if God listens or doesn’t: It’s not communication, but meditation.

And often it’s for their own amusement. It’s like people who talk back to the movies or TV: “Don’t go in there! Don’t trust him! Look out; he’s got a chainsaw!” Yes, I do this too. Yes, it annoys people who prefer dead silence when they’re watching their shows. Yes, it befuddles them: “You do realize they can’t hear you. They filmed this months ago. The show’s gonna play out the way the writers intended. You’re not a contributor; you’re just a spectator!” Yes, I know all this; I’m not delusional. I do it anyway, ’cause it amuses me. And it amuses plenty of others, as demonstrated by the popularity of Mystery Science Theater 3000. and RiffTrax.

Yep, for some Christians, prayer is exactly the same as talking to themselves, to an imaginary friend, or to the television. They’re venting. And it’d blow their minds if God ever spoke back… which y’know, he’s been known to do.

Anyway, enough about this depressing mindset. There’s so much wrong with it, I don’t know that I’ll get to all of it. I’ll just focus on the main point:

Predestination isn’t predeterminism!

I first gotta remind you worry doesn’t come from God. Jesus ordered us not to worry, remember? Mt 6.25-34 Worry’s based on embracing doubt instead of dealing with it; from listening to naysayers, skeptics, and Satan instead of the Holy Spirit. You got worries, you seek answers. Don’t stop till you find ’em.

Predestination angst is based on a warped view of predestination. Yes, God predecides stuff. Based on what? Based on what he foreknows. Ro 8.29 How’s he foreknow stuff? Obviously he foresaw it. Where’d he foresee it? Well, turns out he’s been busy searching people’s hearts. Ro 8.27 People have been sharing their hearts with him. People have been praying.

God’s foreplanning might feel like our actions have nothing to do with it. That’s because we’re time-based creatures. In time, cause comes before the effect. I send an email at 9:21; you respond to it at 9:23. Foreknowledge, as I demonstrated earlier with that check-in-the-mail story, means it’s possible for God to respond before we send the initial prayer. It’s as if you respond to my 9:21 email, but some timewarp gets it to me at 7:45, before I even thought to send you my initial message. Um… do I still need to send you the initial message? Well—counterintuitively—yes. I still do. Otherwise the effect won’t have a cause!

This is why determinists go wrong: They think it’s okay if these effects doesn’t have a cause. That they’re actually not effects; they’re God working out his entire plan alone, by himself, without any input from his kids, without basing a thing on his unique perspective of spacetime. That God doesn’t predestine stuff based on what he can foresee, for that’d mean he’s responding to events instead of creating them, and that doesn’t sound all that sovereign to them. So while God can foresee everything, he doesn’t use this talent for anything constructive. He simply makes up his own mind on his own initiative, for his own secret reasons.

True, God is so almighty he can do all this stuff on his own. But more importantly, God is love. 1Jn 4.16 Which means he doesn’t wanna do this stuff on his own. He wants to interact with us. He wants to be our God, and us his people. 2Co 6.16, He 8.10, Rv 21.3 He always has. Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12, Jr 24.7, Ek 37.23, Zc 8.8 He wants a relationship with his kids. That means he walks with us and he talks with us, and tells us we are his own; of course he listens to our prayers, and of course he acts upon them. On every single one of them. Our little requests actually get God—from our point of view—to travel back in time and act in history on our behalf.

It’s the farthest thing in the universe from determinism. If you pray, “God, I need help,” sometimes he sends a person to help you. And sometimes God steps over to another point in time, arranges for two people to meet and have a child, and creates that person to help you.

What, you never imagined your prayers had that kind of effect? Of course they do. Ever notice there are certain people who realize, “I think I was created to do this job”? Well, sometimes that’s ’cause they totally were.

God has a plan. But never get the idea he intends to implement it monolithically. He doesn’t wanna implement it in any other way but in love, and love means he’s doing it for us and with us. God’s continually inserting new things into his plan as a result of your prayer requests. And mine. And every other Christian’s prayers. Some of ’em he adds when you pray them; some he adds later; some he adds yesterday, or last year, or back at the Big Bang. Just because they look like they’ve always been there, doesn’t necessarily mean you stumbled into praying for something God already thought of. Sometimes the reason he thought of it was because you did.

I know: For people who obsess about God’s sovereignty, that last statement sounds to them like blasphemy. Well, they’re the ones who act like God isn’t love, so pardon me if I don’t entirely trust their definitions.

Pray!

When we suffer predestination angst, throw up our hands in despair, and stop praying, we’re not giving God anything to work with. Certainly he can, and does, anticipate our needs anyway. But he’d rather not do things like that. He wants a relationship with his kids. He wants us to pray. And not stop.

Will we always get what we want? Of course not. Can we still ask God for anything? Pretty much. And he’ll always answer. Certainly not always in our timing; another side effect of God’s perspective of time is his timing is always gonna be perfect. We gotta trust he’ll show up at the right time with the right answer. That’s the faith part of prayer. Keep that up.

But if we quit prayer, ’cause we doubt our prayers have any effect on God’s sovereign plan: We are in fact doubting God answers prayer. We’re doubting God. That ain’t faith. No matter how you juggle the definitions—and don’t think determinists haven’t tried.

You wanna get your mind really blown sometime: Ask God to show you the instances where he used his foreknowledge to foreanswer some of your prayers. It’ll amaze you to see how his foreknowledge really works.