If God knows everything—including all that will take place in the future—and if he is in charge of everything, a simple but powerful question might arise: is prayer pointless?
Unless God is somehow not sure of what he should do tomorrow, and needs us to twist his arm, it seems a reasonable question. After all, the future God already knows includes the prayers I will pray. For that matter, the “everything” he’s in charge of also must include my prayers themselves.
So is there a point to our praying? If so, what is it?
Some people get around the question by suggesting that God actually doesn’t know everything that’s going to happen in the future, that he is “open” to the future, whatever may come. But this is not much of a solution in a theological sense: it places too much of a limit on God, making him subject to time and events of the world. And God isn’t God if he is subject to anything outside himself.
Theologians have struggled through these matters before. (An essay by theologian Oliver Crisp on this subject was the motivation for me sitting down to put these thoughts together.) There are serious problems with the idea that I have a part in “changing God’s mind” or “convincing” God to do something. It is one thing to imagine that my child might ask (and convince) me to do something I hadn’t planned on doing, like going for a bike ride or making cookies. It’s quite another to assume God is like us in that way, on the lookout for suggestions and weighing competing options. But if prayer isn’t about convincing God, we’re back where we started: God knows what’s going to happen and plans to do it anyway, so why should we pray?
The Bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is at the heart of our prayers. Paul affirms this in Romans 8:26-27:
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
In other words, when we are in a relationship with God through Christ, with the Holy Spirit living in us, God is guiding our prayers. He already knows that I am going to ask for something tonight and that he is going to provide it tomorrow.
Great—but then what is the purpose of prayer. Theologians through the centuries (notably John Calvin) wanted to make this point: “God ordained (prayer) not so much for his own sake as for ours.” Calvin helpfully points us to six reasons why we should pray even though all things are known to God. We should pray:
- So that our hearts will get used to going to God in every circumstance as “a sacred anchor.”
- So that we don’t let our hearts wish for anything that we would be ashamed to share with God, and we’ll learn to let all our wishes be known to God.
- So that we will be ready to be grateful when his benefits are extended to us.
- So that after we receive from him, and are sure that he has answered our prayers, we will “meditate upon his kindness more ardently.”
- So that we will take great delight in the things we know God has given us through our prayers.
- So that we may realize that he is always our provider, “that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity.”
In a sense, what we see here is really a quite simple and profound thought: prayer is part of how God builds our relationship with him and our trust in him. It is one God-given way of practicing our trust in him. This is why, as Scripture affirms, we can say that God leads us in our prayers. He is the giver of all good things. By ordaining it that we should pray to him, we are learning dependence on him, learning to recognize that he is that good giver, and learning to trust him in ways we might not have done otherwise.
Answered prayer makes us say thank you to God for what comes our way. Answered prayer drives us back to our knees to ask God for whatever is needed. Answered prayer makes us want to find ways to look for what God cares about, and to want the things that he wants us to want. Answered prayer leads us to tell others what God has done. Answered prayer leads us to trust deeply that he knows our situation completely, and that he cares for us entirely.
Is prayer pointless? Prayer is the place where we begin to discover God’s heart, and let him align our hearts with his. Far from pointless, prayer is at the heart of our relationship with him.