One challenge related to prayer: God’s omniscience

March 6, 2013

Foster’s book is a masterpiece on the subject.

In my sermon on Sunday, I said that one obstacle we face in developing the kind of prayer life that Jesus wants us to have is believing that we are doing it wrong—praying incorrectly, praying selfishly. I hope I disabused my congregation of that idea!

Obviously, there are other obstacles that hinder prayer. One is God’s omniscience: the idea that God already knows what we’re going to ask (and what we need), so why bother telling him what he already knows? Once again, Richard Foster handles this objection nicely in his masterful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.

The most straightforward answer is that God likes to be asked.

We like our children to ask us for things that we already know they need because the very asking enhances and deepens the relationship. P.T. Forsyth notes, “Love loves to be told what it knows already…. It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”[1]

That sounds good, of course. My wife doesn’t need to say she loves me for me to know that she loves me, but I like hearing it. I tell each of my three kids nearly every day that I love them, although usually they have no reason to think that anything has changed in our relationship since the last time I told them.

There is, however, a theological doctrine at stake in this discussion: God’s impassibility. Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have said (including heavyweights like Augustine) that human beings can do nothing to affect God in any emotional sort of way. God is unchanging, therefore nothing we do has the power to change God. To believe otherwise, they say, is to shrink God down to human-size, to make God in our image.

I cling to the idea of impassibility when I feel as if my sin has “let God down.” No, Brent. You don’t have the power to affect God in that way. Who do you think you are? How powerful do you think you are? Besides, disappointment almost kinda sorta implies that God expected more from me, as if God were surprised at how badly I behaved—and how is that possible for a God who already knows, from all eternity, everything that I (and everyone else in the world) will ever do? God’s impassibility seems to affirm God’s omniscience.

But not so fast… We are made in God’s image, which means that God ought to be at least a little like us. More importantly, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, certainly wasn’t impassible: He allowed the money-changers in the temple to make him angry. He allowed the death of his friend Lazarus to make him weep.

We could sidestep this objection by saying that in his humanness, Jesus didn’t have omniscience, and so these events were able to surprise him—that outside of time and space, God wouldn’t respond this way.

I’m not so sure… After all, the Bible itself has no trouble depicting God as emotional— just like us, except without sin. It even depicts God being surprised. At what point should our loftiest theology conform to scripture? By the way, one thing I admire about John Goldingay’s excellent Old Testament commentary series, For Everyone, from Westminster John Knox, is that he lets the Bible speak for itself without spackling over the rough patches with neat and tidy theology.

For me, the larger issue is the nature of love itself—God’s own nature. Isn’t love about reciprocity, give-and-take? Can’t we imagine that our loving God—even in his omnipotence and omniscience—freely chooses to limit his power and knowledge in order to have a relationship of give and take? Richard Foster thinks so:

Besides, I am not so sure that God knows everything about our petition. It seems that God has freely chosen to allow the dynamic of the relationship to determine what we will eventually ask. The fact that God is all-knowing—omniscient, as we say—does not preclude his withholding judgment on matters in which the decision depends on the give and take of relationship… For now, be encouraged that God desires authentic dialogue, and that as we speak what is on our hearts, we are sharing real information that God is deeply interested in.[2]

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 181.

2. Ibid.

5 Responses to “One challenge related to prayer: God’s omniscience”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Random thinking here. First, I most heartedly agree that actual scripture passages must prevail over any abstract “theology.” Second, God would never direct us to take useless acts (“Pray without ceasing.”). But there are passages that speak of God’s “calling the end from the beginning,” so there must be some way to interpret both passages consistently (even if we are not up to the task ourselves).

    I think I got this partial reconciliation from C.S. Lewis. What God foreknows he will do is based in part on what he foreknows we will ask him to do. The timing of our asking is not determinative of the timing of God’s decision-making. So, since we are not privy to God’s decision-making, it is “as though” what we are asking does in part determine what God decides to do (or what he already decided to do based on what we would ask for).

    Finally, I agree there are passages speaking of God’s having emotions and “changing his mind,” and that because we are “made in God’s image,” how we are is some clue to what God is like (yet without sin). I’ve mentioned before my picture of God as the playwright and also an actor in the play. My take is that God participates in the play “as it goes along,” and that he acts according to his character when the play “gets to that point,” so that if he is encountering prideful sins, he gets angry; when he sees great faith, he can “marvel” at that; when Moses “begs for mercy” for the Israelites, God is pleased to avert the devastation he otherwise would be inclined to unleash, etc. All this is consistent with what God is doing with the “big picture” of the play based on partially the same reason that everything else is–he knows what HE will be inclined to do when the play gets to that point.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree with the idea that God’s foreknowledge of what we will pray affects God’s choices. I didn’t quite follow this part: “The timing of our asking is not determinative of the timing of God’s decision-making.” How could it not be if God’s decision-making is based, in part, on what he foreknows we will ask? God’s not going to answer our prayer before we ask, right? Or a hundred years after we die (in which case it wouldn’t seem “as though” God were answering our prayers, since the person praying would be in the grave).

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Good point, Brent. What I meant to convey is that it doesn’t make any difference ultimately whether God makes his decisions about answering our prayers “from the beginning,” because of foreknowing all things, or “at the time we ask,” his being the “actor on the stage” at the time. Either way, he is still taking into account our prayers when he decides what to do, either “in advance,” or at the time. Does that make what I am trying to say any clearer?

        I note one point of interest with respect to “before we ask,” however. Remember when Abraham’s servant returned to Abraham’s relatives to get a son for Isaac? Rebecca had to be “already on her way” for the prayer to be “instantaneously answered” in the fashion that it was. This certainly bolsters a “beforehand” view of prayer.

        I have a personal instance somewhat similar to this, which I don’t know if I shared before here or not. My family was having a reunion at a lake house a friend of one of my brother’s let us us. My parents were in one car and a brother, sister, and brother-in-law were in the next in caravan. Only my parents had the map to the complex maze of turns after the exit from the freeway. They stopped at an Arby’s, and then my parents drove out. However, after a bit my dad noticed that the other car was not following. He turned back at the next exit and went back to the Arby’s, but the car was not there. Not knowing what to do, he came on to the lake house. There we discussed options. No telephone there and this was pre-cell phone. We decided that my dad and I would drive back to the freeway and make a decision from there. I had to stop for gas on the way back. After we pulled over after passing under the freeway, we again discussed options. Finally I said, “Dad, I don’t know of a thing for us to do except for you to pray.” So my dad prayed, “God, I am sorry we were so stupid as to not have two maps. But now we are in a jam and we could really use your help.” As we opened our eyes, here came the other car down the off-ramp. (Turns out they had car trouble in the Arby’s lot, and drove back to a mechanic they had seen.) So, God was already working based on what and when we would pray.

  2. Lauren Miller Says:

    Brent, there is a line from the movie Shadowlands, when C.S. Lewis is asked by a colleague in reference to his wife Joy’s cancer, -have you prayed for her healing. And Lewis answers that in his prayers, he doesn’t strive to change God’s mind or actions, but through prayer, his ideas and thoughts are changed.
    I don’t know if this is scriptural, but I like to think that in that sacred space of our encounter with God, in bringing our petitions to God, He changes us. You used the image of a parent wanting a child to come to them so the parent can hear what is going on in the child’s life. In the same way God, hearing about our life can change our life.
    Yes, I know this doesn;t have anything to do with the topic you set out God’s omiscience, or at least I can’t suss it out if it does. I just like the thought,

    • brentwhite Says:

      Lauren, I agree that you’re onto something (or Lewis is) when you suggest that one important reason to pray is to allow ourselves to be molded or shaped by God. I’ve preached before that as we we grow in our relationship with God, what we pray for ought to conform more closely to God’s will. Thus, as we become more faithful Christians, we will find—voila!—our prayers being answered more often.

      This idea was put forward very succinctly in a sermon by a 19th-century theologian named Schleiermacher. But he took the idea too far by saying that “answered prayer” was only the happy coincidence of our wills aligning with God’s will. This may sometimes be a comforting thought for those of us who know the pain of unanswered prayer (and what Christian who’s been at it for a while doesn’t know that pain?), but it contradicts too much of what God has revealed to us in the Bible. (Scheiermacher, the father of “liberal Christianity,” was far more interested in harmonizing Christianity to Enlightenment claims than to the Bible.)

      From my perspective, our prayers sometimes change God’s mind—if you want to think of it that way. To be clear, God graciously allows his mind to be changed through our prayers—because, as I said in the post, this sort of give and take is the nature of a loving relationship. God will do things in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do.

      Your point is so important that I think I’ll pull this out as a separate blog entry. OK?

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