Prayer and an omnipotent and infinitely wise God

I invite the faithful to reconcile these two points. I do not think these are strawman arguments because I have heard them made, but I do not know if these represent the perspectives of experts in theology.

  1. People should pray to God because sometimes God grants the requests made in prayers. These seems particularly compelling to God if a lot of people pray for the same thing. God has the power to grant prayers of His choosing. So the whole congregation should pray that Aunt Minnie is cured of her cancer.

  2. God is all-knowing and all-wise, has a grand plan for humanity and the universe. God works in mysterious ways that we cannot understand, and even great tragedies are part of his great plan. So don’t question the plan. If Aunt Minnie gets stage 4 cancer, sorry, that’s the plan.

So if God knows best about everything, and his wisdom dwarfs our ability to even comprehend Him, why would He change his grand plan at the whim of some feeble-minded humans, just 'cause they ask?

I frequently bring this up as an example of religious magic, in that this is a magical behaviour within an entirely religious context. I claim that it is magic for pretty much the reasons you suggest: a ritual action with a desired result that is theologically unnecessary due to the expressed nature of God. People are invariably hugely offended at the very idea that praying is a magical act, but at a loss to explain its function otherwise except by saying it is of psychological benefit to the person praying (which I agree with) but not useful as prayer (which seems at odds with the prominence of prayer for the monotheistic faiths).

But that’s like a lot of religious practice: difficult to justify with an omnipotent, omniscient, benign deity. I like C. S. Lewis’s take, though it again is inconsistent with the theology in that it posits a very fallibly human sort of transcendant deity.

From C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew:

“Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.
“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.
“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly.
“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse. “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”

I’ve always argued that if god is omniscient and omnipotent, then it is nonsense to talk about him giving people free will. If he knows everything, then he knows everything you will do from the moment you are born to the moment you die, and intended it to be that way. He cannot give people free will unless he doesn’t know what they are going to do, in which case he is not omniscient.

For the same reason, praying to a god who is O&O is pointless.

I’m about to go to bed. But I have time to post the short version- I dunno. I don’t claim to have all the answers. The big difference in positions here is that I do believe in a G-d who does have all the answers. I believe, based on a mishmash of various things, that if in the end I am judged good and worthy I shall get to sit down and hear all the answers.

99+ % of the time I pray, I simply pray for the strength to keep going. And, here I am.

Also OTTOMH, this same theological territory was covered in Fiddler when Tevya asks “Would it spoil Your vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?”

Speaking as a Christian; other religions may have other responses.

Prayer is for people, both for individuals and for communities. Prayer changes us, not God. We pray to better understand our own relationships with God, to better follow him, to better remember our duties to our neighbors.

In general, God’s plan is simple: love. It’s the greatest commandment, and we’re commanded to love entirely. That includes using the minds gifted us. Only through questioning can we come to fully love.

It’s also worth pointing out that “Doubting” Thomas is the everyman of that story. God expects us to have doubts, and doubt is a part of our knowing God.

It looks to me as though your reasoning depends on the assumption that God is subject to time. When you say that God “doesn’t know what they are going to do,” you’re saying that their deeds are still in God’s future.

It does seem odd that an infinitely wise God would allow himself tyo be influenced by people’s prayers. One observation that C. S. Lewis made that I have found helpful is that God allows people to influence the world through their actions, so why not through their prayers as well?

I’ll say that my mind recoils from the notion that God’s willingness to work a miracle on Aunt Minnie’s behalf might depend on whether she’s popular enough at her church to motivate fellow churchgoers to pray for her. “Sorry, Minnie. The threshold was one hundred hours of prayer from your friends. They only clocked in at six and a half, so you’re screwed.”

I don’t agree with either of these statements, and I don’t see how god being outside of time, which I will stipulate is a fairly obvious corollary of the assumption that he is O&O, changes the fact that since he knows the entire course of the history of the universe, no creature in that universe has free will. He has laid out every decision they think they are “freely” making.

I would argue that prayer does not affect God in any way since he is by definition unchanging. However, prayer opens us up to the will of God and thus makes it possible for God to change things for the better by using us as a “vessel” for his goodness.

Because A doesn’t follow from B. Knowing what people will choose doesn’t mean they didn’t have a choice. If that were the case, then knowing history would mean that people in the past never had a choice. The only difference with being outside of time is that you know the history before it happens.

The idea of free will is that God knows what people choose, and he works within that. And that also is an answer to why prayer can help. God knows what you’re going to pray for. And he likes it when you pray to him. (Because he considers it good for you) Therefore it’s in his interest to be more likely to help you out if you prayed/pray/will pray than if you don’t.

It’s why I’ve never seen predestination and free will (or the non-religious version of determinism and free will) as actual opposites. You can have both in the same universe.

Umm, if y’all are going to talk about the Christian god and prayer don’t y’all kinda need to address what the Christian god says about how prayer works?

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”
Matthew 18:19 NIV

It couldn’t possibly be because that’s not how reality actually works could it?

What we see in reality is that prayers are often not answered. What are we to make of that, if we want to take that Bible verse at face value? I’ll admit that common sense tells me I can’t expect to get what I want if I have my family pray for me to win the lottery. And this would be not just two of us, but significantly more, depending on how far out into the extended family we take it. Millions of others are praying for the same thing for themselves, and we’re all not going to win.

But our cancer-stricken Aunt Minnie shouldn’t present such a problem. Suppose the minister announces at the church service, “Sister Minnie has been diagnosed with cancer. Please keep her in your prayers.” Then she takes a turn for the worse, and then she’s gone. Do we assume no one could be bothered to pray for her? Or that a greater number of people wanted her dead and prayed accordingly? Or that maybe it’s not that simple, and there are a few caveats and terms and conditions that may apply, and Jesus didn’t talk about that part because he wanted to keep his statement simple, so much so that he didn’t even insert “probably” as a qualifier?

Devout people will often look at an unanswered prayer and say that what happened was “God’s will.” Fine. If we truly have an omniscient God watching over us, he knows better than we do what’s best. But if God’s going to act according to his will regardless of how we pray, what’s the point in anyone praying with the expectation that “it will be done for them”?

I have a deep and abiding faith. Not much on religion. Why would you think God would answer your prayers and not someone elses? It’s sort of like the winning team thanking God. Cause he was rooting for you and not them? I believe we were created by God and that’s the end of it. We do what we do from inception. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. I believe in heaven and hell , my own interpretation. Not looking for arguments just expressing my opinion.

Thanks for sharing this perspective. But I cannot help but wonder why prayer appears to be more transactional, like the OP suggests: if there are enough prayers, something good will happen/something bad will not happen. As a non-believer, it seems like prayers are mainly asking for something - something to happen/not happen. Another example is sports teams about to face one another both praying for victory - ISTM prayer is about wanting something and not about a relationship with God (unless that relationship is merely asking S/He for stuff). I freely admit I dont know how prayer is supposed to work.

This may be true for you and many others. But also for many, prayer seems to be a way to alter outcomes.

Even if today many religious people hold the view that prayer is for those doing the prayer and we cannot know or control what God will do, that clearly isn’t how prayer (or the relationship with God in general) was held in the past.

Just as one example, if the Pope can tell you “participating in this war will buy you a ticket to heaven” or “paying the Church X Florins will get your mom through Purgatory Y weeks faster” then there’s clearly no shyness about claiming to know the mind of God or impacting his decisions.

I can’t think of any sources explaining how prayer is for us, not God, and that we shouldn’t expect God to address our prayers directly, that are older than the modern field of Statistics. Food for thought.

Certainly there are people who only turn to prayer when they need or want something, and some of them seem to think of God as a cosmic servant or wish-granting genie; but that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

I have often seen the mnemonic ACTS to stand for the varieties of prayer that believers are supposed to engage in: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.

This is what Jesus says about prayer:

Matthew 6:5-15 NET - Private Prayer - “Whenever you pray, - Bible Gateway

5 “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues[a] and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward! 6 But whenever you pray, go into your inner room,[b] close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.[c] 7 When[d] you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. 8 Do[e] not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 So pray this way:[f]

Our Father[g] in heaven, may your name be honored,[h]
10 may your kingdom come,[i]
may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread,[j]
12 and forgive us our debts,[k] as we ourselves[l] have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not lead us into temptation,[m] but deliver us from the evil one.[n]

14 “For if you forgive others[o] their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.

Needless to say, pointing out these verses will get you a lot of pushback from the prayer-pushers.

Note how the exemplar prayer only has one part asking for something, “give us today our daily bread”. It’s a community ask, not an individual one. And that it is as much reminding us of our Christian duty to provide each other with the necessities of life as asking God to provide for us.

Thank you - that is helpful in understanding. I wonder (rhetorically) how prayer got twisted into what is perceived today as asking God to do something (and related to the OP, how asking God to do something when S/He already decided how things are going to go). ISTM like the powers of the Church used prayer to get people to fall in-line: “Well, if you pray in our church enough, your prayers are more likely to get answers”, and then “If you let me lead you in prayer, we have more power to get those prayers answered”. I am not trying to be critical here, but just trying to understand how the initial verses you provided ended up as today’s “If I pray hard enough in public, my enemies will be destroyed”.