Pointless Prayer or Gracious God?

As many saints have testified, and many Christians affirm, the life of prayer is not a piece of cake. It’s hard work. It requires great effort to keep a prayer routine in the midst our daily activities. It can also be a very humbling experience to be faced with God’s silence in response to our prayer, realizing our requests are sometimes not in accord with his will.

Some choose a life without prayer, because it doesn’t seem reasonable to them to pray in the first place. Questions abound: Why should we pray if God is all knowing? Doesn’t he know our requests before they are even made? If God were eternal and unchangeable (immutable), then wouldn’t our prayer requests be worthless, since God’s action in response to them would imply a change in God’s mind? And finally, wouldn’t it be more befitting for an all-good and generous God to give benefits without our asking?

God knows all things

With regard to the first question, it’s true that God knows our petitions before we make them. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, prayer is not for God, but for us:

We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to him our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2).

The continued act of turning our hearts and minds to God in prayer creates within us a habitual disposition of humility, thus dispelling the myth of self-sufficiency. Indeed, that is a good for us.

The immutable God

What about the question of God’s immutability and our prayers changing God’s mind?

It is true our prayer requests cannot change God’s mind. Prayer doesn’t move God to say, “Oh, I didn’t plan on doing this, but now that Karlo has prayed for it, I’ll do it.”

We know this is true because God, who is pure act (no potency), is infinitely perfect. There is no perfection he can acquire or lose, which would have to be the case if God “changed his mind.” This is why God says in Malachi 3:6, “For I the LORD do not change.”

But if the Lord can’t change, then what is the point of praying?

Perhaps we can shed some light on the dilemma by understanding that God’s providence involves not only willing certain effects to take place but also the causes from which those effects will be brought about—that is to say, God wills a pattern of cause-effect relationships.

Now, the eternal decree that determines which causes will bring about which effects includes human acts. These actions do not change God’s plan, but they are an essential part of it. In the words of Aquinas, “[They] achieve certain effects according to the order of the divine disposition” (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2).

Consider an example. God decreed from all eternity that I would have a fried egg for breakfast this morning. However, this eternal decree also involved the egg being produced in the usual way—namely, my wife cracking the egg (she’s so sweet), putting it into the frying pan, and heating the frying pan on the gas stove. My wife’s actions did not change God’s eternal plan but were willed by God to be a part of the cause-effect pattern.

The same is true with prayer, whether it’s for a miracle or for something as simple as a beautiful day. Prayer is simply one human action among many (e.g., my wife cooking the egg) that God wills to be a cause of certain effects in his divine plan.

Prayer doesn’t change God’s mind but requests from him that which he has willed from eternity to be bestowed by our prayer. As Brian Davies explains, “God may will from eternity that things should come about as things prayed for by us” (Thinking About God, 319).

In other words, it’s possible that God wills some events to occur only as a result of our prayer. For example, God may have eternally decreed to heal the cancer of a loved one, but only on condition persistent requests for a miracle are made. God may even have willed a beautiful day in Southern California on condition I make the request.

Whether we know the effect is conditioned by the request or not doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s possible, so we make the request hoping that God wills our prayer to be a cause of the effect. If it turns out he did not will it so, then we trust God has good reasons for his choice. This is why Christians pray “Thy will be done.”

But if God wills our prayer request to be the cause of the desired effect, then it would be true to say our prayer makes a real difference. It would not have made a difference by changing God’s mind but by being an essential part of the cause-effect pattern God has eternally decreed.

The real causal power that our prayers have in God’s eternal plan is no different than the real causal power my wife’s actions had in producing a fried egg this morning. Her actions were essential for the fried egg, because that is how God arranged it to be from all eternity. God has created a world in which fried eggs come to be in a specific way.

Similarly, with regard to prayer, some events will occur only as a result of prayer, because that is the specific way God has arranged it. God has created a world in such a way that our actions, including prayer, serve as real game changers in the history of the world.

The bottom line is this: there is nothing in the act of prayer that is incompatible with God’s changeless and eternal decree. Our petitions are arranged by God to be part and parcel of his divine plan—a great honor God bestows upon human beings.

The generous God

Finally, there is the issue of God’s generosity. Why should we have to ask for certain benefits? Isn’t it more fitting for an all-good God to bestow benefits upon us without us asking for them?

There are many gifts God gives us without our petitioning for them. Such gifts range from the act of existence to the gift of salvation won for us by Jesus’ death on the cross. You can fill in the gap with your own life’s blessings that you didn’t ask for.

Secondly, along the same vein as the first dilemma—God’s choice to make certain gifts contingent on our asking for them is for our own good. What good might that be? For Aquinas, it’s “that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God and that we may recognize in him the author of our goods” (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2).

Other forms of prayer

A final thought: the questions at hand imply a limited understanding of prayer—they all have to do with petitionary prayer. Although important, petitionary prayer is not the only kind of prayer. There are other kinds of prayer—such as those of blessing, adoration, thanksgiving, and praise (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2626-2643)—that would not be subject to the dilemmas manifest in the above questions. Thus, even if we couldn’t provide adequate answers to the above questions, one would still have good reason to begin a life of prayer.

As demonstrated above, I do think there are adequate answers to the dilemmas. Rather than God’s eternal and unchangeable nature being a good reason to avoid starting a life of prayer, I think it’s the reason to begin. If we don’t, then it’s possible we won’t receive our desired outcomes.

Written by Karlo Broussard



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    This article seems to have completely destroyed the concept of free will. God knows the future, and allows people to be born and go to Hell. What parent would have a child, knowing that it would be thrown into a pit of fire to scream in agony for all of eternity?
    Personally, I see no sense in prayer until I see an amputee successfully pray their missing limb back, but that sort of thing seems to be outside the powers of Yahweh. The author’s conjecture that God knew we would pray and that said prayer was necessary for event X to occur, makes God look pretty trite, not to mention convoluted; but it doesn’t change the fact that the author has ruled out any free will.
    I remember as a child, when I asked a priest this question, and he suggested that I imagine I was God sitting on a mountain and I saw two cars coming around the mountain towards each other, and one was in the wrong lane, I would have foreknowledge of the pending crash, but I would not have affected the free will of the driver in the wrong lane. “Yeah,” I said, “but I’m not God. If I was God, I could prevent the crash.” The priest had no answer to that. God could prevent people from being born who were destined for eternal torment. To fail to do so is about as hideous a thing as can be imagined. I see little sense in praying to a god who has already decided my fate; and the idea that an all-powerful being would somehow want or need me to pray – so much so that He predestined it – does not speak well of his all-powerfulness, and speaks better of what one would expect from a petty tyrant.
    After having confirmed our lack of free will and predestination given God’s all-knowingness, the author suggests that we should pray to achieve our desired outcomes – but if we’re going to do that, then God’s already predestined it, by knowing in advance whether we will or not.
    The thing is – free will might actually be an illusion. There is repeatable evidence indicating that the brain makes decisions before the conscious ‘self’ is aware of having made the decision. The brain in some cases, at least, makes decisions and then informs us after the fact in such a way that we think we (our conscious awareness) made the decision. One day we’ll know if we really have free will. The author may be correct, that we do not have free will – but for completely different reasons than he proposes.

    1. Jean-Marc Reply

      I love your comments, Patrick. I think they are really informative. Indeed, either
      i) We’re completely deluded, and thus, you’re working towards our understanding.
      i) You’re completely deluded, and thus, we need to explain ourselves better.
      In either cases, you put your fingers on the lines. Badly, in my opinion, but heh. It’s a start.
      My remarks:
      a) First paragraph mixes completely predestination and foreknowledge.
      b) Second paragraph takes out the first conclusion, and rubs it in the good direction until it feels really good.
      c) “If I was God” : well, you’re not God, and neither am I. For you, God doesn’t even exist. So, the whole argument relies on a necessarily false premise. Sure, it’s the author point of view. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
      d) See a).
      e) You can’t find “repeatable evidence” like you are trying to do. Don’t call any Libet experiment or alike, for they presuppose the conclusion they seek. It’s bad epistemology, and bad science. When I play the piano or write a letter, I don’t consciously think about EVERY SINGLE note or every single stroke of my letters. Does it make me unable to write? Or is it natural that our nervous systems anticipate actions? Your conclusion is botched as well : we may never know whether we have free will or not.
      I’ll make the same conclusion as yours : your conclusions may be correct, but your poor wordings and your wobbly reasoning are not the reason why they would.

      Keep working on them. A good atheist/non-believer is closer to be true with a clear mind, not a botched rhetorical argument. And I’m saying this in good faith. Take it or leave it, but most (if not all) of your comments here, while useful, are more than often driven by a clumsy agenda than a correctly shaped reason.

      Good luck, and be safe.

      1. Patrick Gannon Reply

        Thank you for your literary criticism Jean-Marc.
        What’s the difference between predestination and pre-knowledge when we’re talking about an all-knowing, supernatural being? If He has pre-knowledge, it’s predestined. How could it be otherwise? If Yahweh knows someone is going to Hell, then how could anyone change that? If they end up being saved, then Yahweh wouldn’t be all-knowing, He’d simply be wrong. How do you untangle the two?
        The “if I was God” line was proposed by the priest. I responded to his scenario. I didn’t originate it. He suggested that I imagine I was God, so if you don’t like that analogy, take it up with him. As for your statement that I am not God – there’s a whole bunch of New Age people who would disagree with that. They claim we are all God. That, however is just another belief lacking in objective evidence, as is the belief in the Abrahamic god whose foundation has been washed away (no 6 day creation, no global flood, no mass Exodus from Egypt, no Conquest of Canaan). I’m agnostic, so I don’t claim gods and afterlives don’t exist, I have no knowledge that such things exist and assign them a very low probability, but not zero. It’s possible, that there is a genocidal, slavery condoning, sexist, racist, homophobic, vengeful, wrathful jealous supreme being out there, but I find it so unlikely as to be dismissed in living my everyday life.
        I would agree that the Libet results continue to be debated, but the science is advancing, and I have confidence that we will continue to learn more and more. A number of other experiments and studies have advanced the knowledge without yet coming to firm conclusions – but that’s the way science moves forward. There’s plenty of reason to have an open mind on the subject and not simply believe that we have free will as most of us understand that term. I’ll go out on a limb and propose that most of the readers here have no idea that the concept of free will has been challenged by various experiments in neurological science. Part of my “agenda” is to raise the awareness of such things for those wanting to learn more. I would recommend Sam Harris’ intriguing and compelling short book “Free Will” as a good starting point, to begin a self-examination of the subject.
        I will grant you that I should have couched my conclusion that we will one day understand free will, in better language. It is my opinion that in time we will come to understand free will and consciousness. Eventually, scientists say we will completely map the entire human brain down to every single neuron and it will either act in accord with natural law, in which case there is no soul or supernatural effect, or iif it exists, it is completely moot as it has no effect in our physical matter reality, or it will be determined that particles are not acting in accord with natural law, and they are being affected, which means the force will no longer be supernatural as we will understand it from its effects on other particles – in the same way we know about dark matter. My money is on no effect, but the only reasonable position is a skeptical open mind – not belief. Believing things that our brains know that we don’t know, is lying to ourselves.
        Thank you again for your literary advice. I fire these posts off in between other tasks, and if they don’t contain the amount of literary detail you might prefer, I’m sorry – but give me a way to make a living doing this and I’ll up the level of quality in an attempt to meet your expectations. Indeed I use these post responses to try and share ideas that believers have seldom considered, in hopes that they might do some research themselves. I am delighted when someone attempts to prove me wrong, as that means they have done some research and the more of that we do, it seems to me, the less likely gods and afterlives become. Thanks to you, several people may learn who Libet is and look up his experiments and perhaps be drawn into more research, and not dismiss these important experiments out of hand, as you have. Libet experiments are not bad science. One may disagree with the conclusions drawn and criticize them – as some scientists do, but it is this very process that leads us to ever greater understanding and knowledge – and religion certainly doesn’t work like that!
        I noticed that you didn’t comment on Yahweh’s inability to heal amputees….

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