Why should we pray if God has fixed the future? If God has predetermined every event, how do we reconcile that fact with the power of prayer to actually change things (James 5:16)?
The answer is found in a right understanding of God’s providential determination.
Determinism ≠ Fatalism
It’s important to distinguish between determinism and fatalism. Most Calvinists believe in a form of determinism—that is, God has determined every single event. At each moment there is only one possible future: the future God has determined. This is not to be confused with fatalism. Fatalism is the view that our choices don’t affect the future. Some Christians, both Calvinists and non-Calvinists, think of God’s providence in this incorrect way: “If God has determined every future event, then my choices don’t affect the future.”
Fatalism is both philosophically and theologically impoverished. It holds that God fixes some, but not all, future events in place.
Suppose God has determined to heal Sally of cancer three months from now; it will happen and cannot fail to happen. The event is fixed. But so is every other event leading up to that moment—including the prayers offered on Sally’s behalf.
God not only ordains ends, he also ordains means. He plans the destination and the entire journey to get there. When God determined that Christ would die on the cross, he also determined the means by which he was killed, the means by which he was delivered to the authorities, and the means by which he was betrayed. God governs all events in his universe—including the “small” ones leading up to the “big” ones.
What happens in the future, then, does depend on what we do and pray in the present.
Prayer Changes the Future
Some things have happened only because they were prayed for; they would not have happened if they were not prayed for.
‘We must never presume God will grant us apart from prayer what he has ordained to grant us only by means of prayer.’
In both Scripture and our experience, God responds to prayer. Moses prayed for food and water for the Israelites (Exod. 15 and Num. 11), Hannah prayed for a child (1 Sam. 1), and Elijah prayed for drought and then rain (1 Kgs. 18–19). The events God had already determined came to pass. But God also determined that Moses, Hannah, and Elijah would pray for those events, such that the events would not have taken place if they did not pray for them. Sam Storms puts it well: “We must never presume God will grant us apart from prayer what he has ordained to grant us only by means of prayer.”
To say we don’t need to pray because God has determined all outcomes is as ridiculous as saying we don’t need to take medicine, work for a living, or look for a spouse because God has determined all outcomes. It is true God has determined all outcomes, but God has also determined the means by which those outcomes will take place.
To say we don’t need to pray because God has determined all outcomes is as ridiculous as saying we don’t need to take medicine, work for a living, or look for a spouse because God has determined all outcomes.
If God has determined a woman will be healed of cancer, then he has also determined the prayers on her behalf, not to mention the birth of the oncologists who would operate on her and the opening of a medical school in the region. Prayers are one of the many means God determines.
God Ordains Our Prayers
Similarly, if God has determined that Sally will decide to follow Christ in 2017, then he has also determined the births of the people who will share the gospel with her and the prayers offered on her behalf. As C. S. Lewis explains:
The event [in question] has already been decided—in a sense it was decided “before all worlds.” But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering. . . . My free act [of prayer] contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity or “before all worlds”; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time-series.
Again, God determines both the ends and the means, including the prayers we offer. And he’s ordained his interventions to be in response to faith-fueled petitions.
Put simply, God gives us the privilege of including us in his work.
If your understanding of God’s providence leads you to pray less, then you need to rethink your understanding of God’s providence.
If your understanding of God’s providence leads you to pray less, then you need to rethink your understanding of God’s providence. There are events that will not happen, souls that will not be saved, and relationships that will not be restored unless we pray for them. Our prayers make things happen.
That insight alone should bring us to our knees.