How could prayer possibly work?

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that God exists, and that he is all knowing and all powerful. That being the case, he would know at this very moment precisely how the future will play out. Moreover, his decisions on how future events will transpire are based a level of knowledge and wisdom infinitely superior to my own.

So how is praying going to change anything? How could I possibly think that asking God to spare the life of a sick relative (or whatever) would cause him to alter his divine plan? Wouldn’t God know what he’s doing without needing input from me?

Disclaimer: I’m not trying to convince anyone that prayer can’t work. I’m just genuinely curious how those who believe in the power of prayer would answer these questions.

I suppose if there is some kind of etherical connection between people prayer can have an impact.

Unless you’re going on the assumption of an all powerful, predestination god which it looks like you are. In that case I have no answer as to why. Some protestants believe in predestination I’m sure they’d have a response.

I’m not really sure I understand how God could be all-knowing without there being a sort of pre-destination, but I suppose that’s a whole other question.

I guess that the way I see it (again, assuming an all-knowing God exists) is that God exists outside of time, and so from his perspective everything is determined, but from the perspective of people existing at a moment in time, the future is still unknown and effectively undetermined. So I don’t see a contradiction in me exercising my free will to kick a rock across the ground, thereby influencing its future location, despite the fact that God already knew both that I’d kick the rock and where it would end up. I do see an apparent contradiction though in me exercising my free will to pray and thus influencing God. God already knows what he has chosen for the future (since I’m assuming he’s all knowing), so how could I change his mind?

I hope this makes sense. It’s late and I’m kind of half asleep.

Atheist speaking here, but personally (assuming the existence of God) I don’t see any conundrum here at all:

Prayer is a form of worship.
Worship pleases God.
God rewards those who please him.

Where’s the hang-up?

But if that’s the case, then it would be just as effective to simply worship God by praising him, giving thanks, etc., rather than by asking him to grant specific favors. After all, if God wants to reward you, he already knows what you want without you telling him. But I’m under the impression that many people believe there is a specific advantage in praying for things. (e.g., Asking God to help you find a better job, etc.) Is that not the case?

Whoops you got a good point there. Well there you go. The one part of religion I thought actually did make sense, in fact makes nose sense whatsoever. Why am I not surprised.

Could it work somewhat like infinite chess? God can see an infinite number of moves ahead from an infinite number of choices.

A prayer is or is not answered, for whatever Godly reason. Changes the chessboard.

New series of infinite moves from infinite number of choices. Humans still influence where the game is going by choosing to pray or not.

I suspect there are several serious flaws in that but I am just on my way to bed and thought I’d give er a go.

Erp, yeah, there sure are :slight_smile: “New series of infinite moves” make no sense; by definition “infinite moves” already covers every possible combination.

I don’t see that much a difference between the location of the rock and the ‘result’ of a prayer. Maybe the fact that you are going to pray to him and that he will ‘answer’ your prayer is predestined as well, from God’s perspective. Then again, the more I think about it the more my head hurts.

“William found that he now thought of prayer as a sophisticated way of pleading with thunderstorms.”
–Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Mine too. I think I see what you’re saying. However, I do think there’s a bit of a difference:

In scenario A, it is God’s will that at a certain point in time you kick a rock, thereby moving it to a certain position. Thus, from God’s perspective it is predestined that you kick the rock, and that it lands at that position. (From your perspective you chose to kick the rock, and the result was unknown until it happened.)

In scenario B, it is God’s will that you, say, pray to get a new job, thereby causing God to answer your prayer and give you a new job. So, from God’s perspective it is predestined that you say that prayer, and that this influences God to give you a new job, and therefore God acts so as to cause you to get a new job.

Now, my problem with this is that it makes no sense for your prayer to influence God. You would only pray to God if it was God’s will that you do so, so it must have been God’s will from the start that you get a new job. Because how could God say, “I want you to cause me to decide to give you a new job” if he didn’t want you to have that job. So in this case, the prayer doesn’t seem to have any effect on the outcome. God wants you to get the job from the start, and as a consequence you get the job. God can’t possibly change his mind about the job, because there can be no new thoughts or ideas for an omniscient being. (This isn’t a restriction on God’s free will, however, since if he’s infallible he’d never want to change his mind. Saying God can’t do the things he doesn’t want to do is no restriction.)

Now, I can see another way to look at it, namely supposing that prayer directly influences the world (rather than influencing God). Suppose scenario B is rewritten as: “God wants you to pray for a new job and get it as a result, therefore you pray for a new job, and this causes you to get a new job.” This seems equivalent to scenario A. However, my impression is that most people who believe in the power of prayer think it works because God intervenes on your behalf as a result of your prayers, as in scenario B as I originally stated it. The notion of prayer directly influencing the world without God acting as an intermediary seems almost akin to a belief in magic. (Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t possibly be true, only that I doubt it’s what most people believe.)

Not necessarily. For example, here is an infinite sequence: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, . . .

Although there are infinitely many numbers in the sequence, it will never contain the finite subsequence 3,2,1. This is clearly true, since the original sequence is monotonically increasing. On the other hand, 3,2,1 is contained in the different infinite sequence 3,2,1,0,-1,-2,-3, . . .

I still don’t know what VegemiteMoose is talking about, though. I’ll have to go back and read it again.

Fair enough. You have some unquestioned assumptions, and unquestioned assumptions will nearly always get you into trouble.

• You’re thinking of God as a person, essentially — a divine persion, but a person nonetheless. A thinking individual who, although officially omnipotent and all-cognizant and all-buzzword and so on, is sitting somewhere listening to you pray, in real time, prepared to mull over what you’ve prayed about and after reasonable consideration reaching a decision. You’re thinking this doesn’t parse. You’re right.

• You’re thinking of the praying person as an individual beseeching an external God for a favor or dispensation. Give me a candy bar, Santa Claus. Let me get that job I applied for, I really need it. Please God let my baby be all right, don’t let my baby die. You’re thinking prayer is a failure unless God lifts a hand and goes B-ZAP and modifies what would otherwise be how things work out. You’re thinking this doesn’t parse either.

It is more useful to consider the state of being “one with God” as a participatory event. Prayer is a process that facilitates that state of being. The praying person may be able to do things, or may be able to reach an understanding, or in some cases an emotional acceptance, not otherwise attainable. Prayer focuses.

As promised, I read it again. It sounds like what you’re saying is that God can see exactly what would happen as a result of each set of choices, but since people have free will, he doesn’t know what choices they’ll make until they make them. So it’s kind of like a tree that extends forever, with each choice a person makes representing a branching point. As time moves forward, God (and everyone else) discovers which branch we’re on, but only God can look ahead to see all possible branches extending from the current branch.

In fact, presumably in this picture God created all those branches. Thus making the creation of the universe somewhat akin to writing an infinitely long “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

If this picture is correct, then God is “omniscient” in a more limited sense. He knows what the result of any choice will be, but not what people will choose. This actually seems like a pretty elegant solution to the problem. It neatly explains free will, and also explains how people’s choices (whether the choice to pray or anything else), can have a real effect on the world. The downsides of this view (if they can be called “downsides”) are that it limits God’s knowledge of the future to the ability to make conditional statements (e.g., if this happens then this will happen), and that it essentially makes God subject to time, since his knowledge changes as time progresses. I find this a little odd, since modern physics contends that time is a dimension of the universe, and yet God created the universe and thus presumably exists independently of it. Did God create time only to render himself subject to it, essentially choosing to limit his knowledge for the sake of mankind’s free will?

At any rate, the question remains whether this is actually the view generally held by those who believe that prayer works.

It sounds like you’re saying the purpose of prayer is not to affect what actually occurs in the world, but rather to affect the person praying so as to better allow them to accept God’s will. That makes sense, but if that’s the case, why do so many people’s prayers seem to consist, at least in part, of asking God for things? Are they not praying correctly?

In my personal beliefs I would say; an all knowing being would consider prayer a lack of faith, and trust in it’s goodness. I would be insulted if someone told me to take care of my children when I was already doing so, and I do not have the knowledge that a god would have, were he all knowing and powerful.

I think prayer helps some people psychologically and so it does them some good, they feel safe and happy that someone is looking out for them. That in itself could help them relax and get better, or except what would happen to them.


I tend not to pray for specific outcomes for pretty much the reasons laid out already in this thread. My “gimme” prayers tend toward asking for wisdom, strength, courage, the usual gamut of namby-pamby self-help wish fulfillment.

That said, this thread has raised a question in my teeny-tiny mind: why are we assuming that God knows the particulars of everything that will happen? If we do indeed have free will, isn’t it possible for God to be surprised by something we may say or do? What’s the authority from which we derive the belief that God knows everything that will happen in detail?

Don’t know why I didn’t notice **tim314’**s post before asking my question. I’ll chew on his take for a while, as it seems to address my confusion directly.

A better cosmological/theological understanding? That’s worth $4.95 right there!

If everything is pre-determined and nothing can alter God from his divine plan, then there is no way you can not pray. It’s in part of God’s divine plan that you are going to pray at that time.

If everything is not pre-determined and there is a possibility that your prayer might change the future, then it is worth a shot as it might convince God to change the future.