Posts Tagged ‘Roger Olson’

Sermon 08-20-17: “Anxiety and our Adversary”

September 15, 2017

The following sermon is the last in my sermon series on 1 Peter. It’s mostly about our adversary, the devil, who, Peter tells us, “prowls around (J)like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I begin my making the case for the reality of Satan and demons before talking about a couple of ways—through seemingly “small” sins (!) of pride and anxiety—that he gets a foothold in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 5:5-11

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

I have a friend from college. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a committed Christian and a Methodist. Many years ago, one of Steve’s good friends encouraged him to join a very secretive fraternal organization. Please note: I’m not talking about the Masons. My own father was a Shriner and a Mason. In fact, Dad was the Grand Poo-Bah, if you remember Happy Days—he was the “Potentate” of Shrine organization in North Georgia. So nothing I say should be interpreted as my being opposed to Masons or other fraternal organizations. But as Steve soon learned, the one that he joined was not benign.

So he joined this secret organization; he learned their rituals; and one day, he was “practicing” them, as he was taught to do, shortly before going on a hike in the woods. Now, Steve is a smart guy. Scientifically minded. An engineer. And he told me that shortly after performing these rituals, while he was on his hike, he saw an apparition of a demon, which chased him through the woods. He knew it was a demon. He was terrified. And get this: when he told his friend about what happened—the friend who persuaded him to join this organization in the first place—his friend said, “Oh, yeah. That’s happened to me, too. But that’s just some psychological phenomenon. There’s nothing to it. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? Well, Steve immediately quit this organization and these obviously occult rituals. All I can say is my friend is not a crackpot. Read the rest of this entry »

Should we say, “The Lord told me”?

June 19, 2017

I recently discovered a podcast produced by serious students of Wesleyan-Arminianism called “Remonstrance.” (For some reason, I’m unable to copy and paste a link to the podcast URL. You can search for it in the iTunes store or wherever fine podcasts are distributed.) It’s been a godsend for me: I’ve been slightly concerned over the past few years that my theological convictions have moved too far in a Reformed direction, especially as it relates to God’s providence and sovereignty. Also, it doesn’t help that my two favorite contemporary preachers are Calvinists.

Still, I’m only “slightly concerned” because, like Wesley, I’m a “man of one book”: I don’t invest anyone’s theology with any authority that doesn’t derive from its concordance with what God has revealed in scripture.

So what’s a Methodist pastor like me to do?

How about digging more deeply into my Wesleyan-Arminian roots and seeing if my current convictions are in line with what Arminius and Wesley actually believed (rather than what modern-day descendants of their tradition believe)? If you’re a layperson, you might wonder why I should need a podcast to help me with this. Didn’t I learn this stuff at my Methodist-affiliated seminary?

And the answer is “no.” While I knew that Wesley was an outspoken Arminian, we studied no original writings of Arminius himself. Moreover, while we read about the disputes that Wesley had with Calvinists like George Whitefield, we didn’t dig deeply into the theological ideas that undergirded those disputes—beyond shallow discussions about free will and double predestination.

And, no, none of us read Calvin’s Institutes, so who among us even knew what we were supposed to be rejecting and why?

Mostly, what we Methodists learned from mainline seminary is that theology isn’t something to get hung up about. (And we wonder why our United Methodist Church is on the brink of schism?)

All that to say, the purpose of the Remonstrance podcast is to dig deeply into the primary sources (and trusted secondary sources) to recover true Wesleyan-Arminian thought. I was relieved to learn, through a series of podcasts, that both Arminius and Wesley embraced meticulous providence and penal substitution. (Neither, by the way, believed in the “governmental theory” of atonement, which is popular in some Methodist circles today.)

So, with that in mind, I want to draw your attention to this blog post from fellow Arminian Roger Olson. He shares a personal experience that (he believes) was supernatural. He worries that too many of us evangelicals (maybe himself included) too quickly reject the supernatural.

I wrote the following comment (now awaiting moderation).

As for the apparent “coincidence” of thinking about your friend, I have no problem whatsoever believing that it’s supernatural. If we believe in the providence of external events (which I most assuredly do)—that God is constantly working through events in the world for his purposes—why wouldn’t we also believe in the “providence of our thoughts”? This is why, by the way, I don’t have a problem (with a few qualifications) with people who say, “The Lord told me…” or “The Lord showed me…” What they usually mean is, “I have an intuition, which I believe comes from God, that I should do this particular thing.”

Here are my qualifications: that we don’t elevate these intuitions to the same status as God’s revelation in scripture; that the intuition doesn’t contradict scripture; and that we recognize that we may be wrong or misinterpreting what the Lord is telling us.

What about you? How comfortable are you with Christians saying, “The Lord told me…” or “The Lord showed me…”?

“Waterloo sunset’s fine”

April 19, 2017

As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women.

– Song of Solomon 2:2

During my quiet times recently, I’ve been reading the Song of Solomon. This poem, among other things, celebrates erotic love between husband and wife without blushing. But notice I said “among other things”: traditionally, the Church (alongside Judaism) has also interpreted it as a celebration of God’s love for his people. This interpretation is completely in keeping the Bible’s many references to Israel and the Church as “the bride” or wife, with God (or Jesus) as the bridegroom or husband.

This interpretation has fallen out of favor over past hundred years or so as belief in the inspiration of the Bible has waned. Once you accept, however, that God has given us the exact Bible that he wanted us to have (which isn’t hard to do), it’s easy to accept that the Song of Solomon, in addition to describing erotic love between a man and woman, also describes God’s love for his people.

That being the case, think about what this means: God, like the man in the poem, wants you, desires you, is passionately committed to making you his own. For this to be true, we need to throw out that medieval nonsense about God’s impassibility—that God is incapable of feeling emotion—and embrace the full-blooded, biblical belief in God’s passionate love for us. As Roger Olson, among others, has argued, if God doesn’t experience emotion, then entire books of the Bible, like Hosea, make no sense.

At the risk of understatement, God not only loves you, he also likes you. Do you believe it? Or is this so self-evidently true that it doesn’t need to be said?

I don’t think so. In my own life, I fall into this trap in which I believe that God loves me—because of course that’s what God has to do—because of the Cross; thanks to Jesus, God has no choice but to “put up with me,” even though I’m a miserable sinner who fails him time and again.

Does this ring a bell with anyone else?

But suppose the Song of Solomon is true: God loves us like the man loves the woman in that poem. What are our sins compared to that? We all know (I hope) what it’s like to fall in love and have our love returned: in the eyes of our beloved, we are perfect—or at least perfect enough. Theologically speaking, isn’t this what Christ’s imputed righteousness means? There’s a sense in which we Christians are perfect in God’s eyes.

Here’s where this hits home with me: I am an ambitious person, and my ambition has not served me well. In fact, it’s harmed me badly. Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to achieve things, objectively speaking, of which other people will have no choice but to stand up and take notice. They will recognize me, appreciate me, praise me. “If only you accomplish this, Brent, then you will be somebody. Then you will be accepted. Then you will be loved.”

Of course, whenever I get what I think I need, I’m never satisfied.

But suppose the Song of Solomon is true: to say the least, I don’t need anything from anyone other than the One whose love for me is true. I have nothing to prove to him. Whether I succeed or fail, his love for me is undiminished. My value to him isn’t based on what I accomplish.

A thousand love songs other than the Song of Solomon express this truth, but nearly my favorite is “Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks. It’s the story of lovers Terry and Julie, who, the narrator observes, need absolutely nothing other than their beloved: “But they don’t need no friends/ As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset/ They are in Paradise.”

Dear Lord, let me fall in love with you the way you have fallen in love with me.

Roger Olson: “We all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us”

March 28, 2017

Roger Olson has a thought-provoking recent post on the state of hymn-singing in contemporary evangelical churches. He says that a predominant theme of hymns that he sang growing up—and which he often heard on Christian radio stations—is “friendship with Jesus.”

When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity (and here I definitely mean “evangelical” in the spiritual-theological sense, not the contemporary media-driven political sense!) these songs and this “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) was extremely common and deeply impacted and shaped my Christian spirituality and even my theology. I still tend to identify “evangelical spirituality” with that theme, motif, language. But it’s now extremely difficult to find in contemporary evangelicalism and Baptist life.

I admit it; I struggle with the seeming loss of this theme, motif, and the “language of Zion” associated with it. This is not directly a doctrinal issue; it is an issue—for me—of evangelical spirituality. I happen to think (much to some others’ chagrin, I’m sure) that that language and theme and motif—that was so great a part of evangelical piety and worship—is part of modern evangelical Christianity’s essence. Yes, to be sure, it can be expressed in new and different ways, but to drop it away entirely seems to me to change evangelical Christianity itself with great loss.

So, for those of you who didn’t grow up with it (what I’m talking about here) let me be descriptive. In my home in the 1950s and 1960s “Christian radio” was almost always “on” except at night when we slept. It was our “background noise.” And in our church (and other evangelical churches we visited) the same “language of Zion” and theme/motif was central to everything. The theme/motif could be expressed something like this: “If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior you can enjoy a personal relationship with him that will enrich your life abundantly.” In my home and in most that I knew of (as “us”) Jesus was a real presence there. He was the unseen but truly experienced presence among us and with us.

While I didn’t grow up in a home like that, I experienced this theme/motif firsthand on church retreats and camps when I was in youth group. I probably feel as much nostalgia for first-generation “Christian rock,” which I still listen to, as he does for the Christian music of his youth. Nostalgia or not, however, I don’t think he’s wrong: I believe this theme/motif is actively discouraged in worship today.

For example, one of my seminary professors told a classroom full of pastors-in-training that we shouldn’t sing hymns that used first-person singular pronouns: our singing should always be “we,” “our,” and “us.” He made reference to the Lord’s Prayer, which is, technically, a corporate prayer. In the same way, all aspects of worship should be corporate.

Even then, when I was hardly reading the Bible—I was hardly a Christian—I wanted to say, “Yes, but what about the Psalms? That’s the church’s original hymnbook, and it’s filled with first-person singular pronouns!”

As I’ve said before, if I had to do seminary over again, I would have asked many more questions!

In the comments section of Olson’s post, a reader said that he missed singing the hymn “In the Garden”—a popular example of this “friendship with Jesus” theme. (We sang it two days ago at Hampton United Methodist Church!) In response, Olson wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I have heard evangelical and Baptist worship leaders bash it [“In the Garden”] as “too individualistic.” Well, you know (I want to say to them), we all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us. Death is very individual—even if there are friends and loved ones around us. I want Jesus there with me—but not only then. Then might be too late.


When we pray for discernment, what do we expect to happen?

September 8, 2016

In Roger Olson’s most recent blog post, “Evangelical Christian Thoughts about ‘Mindfulness,’” Dr. Olson asserts that genuine Christian prayer must include talking to God. From his perspective, if we’re not talking, we may be meditating, but we’re not praying.

Is he right?

If so, doesn’t this conflict with how we often talk about prayer? In my job as pastor, for example, I often ask laypeople to consider serving in lay leadership positions and on committees. Usually, they respond by saying something like, “Let me pray about it and get back to you.” I know I’ve responded this way when others ask me to make important decisions.

But what are we really saying when we say we’ll “pray” about a decision?

I suspect few of us imagine that God will tell us in an audible voice whether we should do something or not. So are we waiting to feel an intuition, a hunch, a warm feeling in the pit of our stomachs? And if so, am I right to be suspicious of this kind of “prayer”?

C.S. Lewis certainly would have been. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior tempter Screwtape urges his young apprentice to get his human patient to focus on his feelings when he prays. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy”—writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter—he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

These words convict me. I often judge the success of my prayers based on how I feel while praying, or shortly thereafter. So when I pray for discernment, how much of what I “discern” will depend less on the Holy Spirit and more on whether I’m “well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment”?

Once, while talking to a candidate for ministry, I told him he should seriously consider going to a particular seminary. He said, “I’ve prayed about it, and I just don’t feel that the Lord is leading me to go there.” Frankly, I thought he was mistaken. And I wanted to say to him, “Yes, but how do you know that my telling you this isn’t a part of the Lord’s guidance? Maybe the Lord is using me to get you to consider going to this seminary.”

On what basis did this person discern that he shouldn’t go to this seminary if not his own feelings? Is that O.K.?

What are your thoughts?

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.

If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?

June 11, 2016

satans_downfallMany years ago, theologian Roger Olson was instrumental in my own “conversion” to what he calls Satanic realism: the belief that spiritual warfare is real, and that the Satanic realm poses a real threat to us and our world. Granted, I shouldn’t have needed Olson to wake me up to this reality—I have the Bible, after all—but what can I say? I went to a seminary, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where most of the faculty believed that Satan was merely a symbol for evil, not an active force (along with his minions) working against God’s purposes in the world.

At the time, Dr. Olson recommended a couple of books that I read on the subject: Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (out of print, from Eerdmans) and M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Both of them had a profound impact on my ministry and theology.

At the time, I also talked to a trusted clergy friend who had done street ministry among junkies, prostitutes, and homeless people. With conviction and credibility, he described supernatural experiences that could only be understood in light of the demonic realm. I believed him.

Add to his personal testimony the testimonies of N.T. Wright, an intellectual hero of mine, and Olson, and I was convicted: the church in the West—Protestant or Catholic—has badly failed us when it comes to spiritual warfare. Christians in the Global South, by contrast, have rightly perceived the threat.

All that to say, I read Olson’s recent blog post, “Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism?” with great interest.

I am well aware of how shocked some of my readers will be by my asking the question. Am I not a modern/postmodern, enlightened Christian? Well, I ask myself that, too. But somehow I can’t avoid at least raising the issue and I’ll explain why.

What do I mean by “Western Christians?” Exorcism is not at all unknown even in mainline Christianity in much of the Global South and that is where Christianity is most vital. Most Christians in those parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical Christianity is exploding (mostly varieties of Pentecostalism) believe strongly in the presence and power of the demonic. While exorcism might not be an everyday occurrence, it is widely believed in and often practiced.

In Europe and North America, however, evangelical Christians—to say nothing of so-called “mainline Protestants”—have by-and-large abandoned exorcism and even talk of the demonic. We smile half-knowingly in amusement when we read or hear about Luther throwing his ink well at a “devil” who attempted to distract him from translating the Bible into German. We may read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Lettersand for a moment or two pay lip service to Satan and his minions. But rarely do we take it all seriously—as if it really mattered for us.

And yet…there is no escaping the fact that the New Testament is full of it. Full of what? Satan, demons, demon possession and exorcism. So-called “mainline Protestants” typically dismiss all that as primitive description of mental illness, epilepsy and Jesus’s therapeutic powers. Officially, Catholics are still supposed to believe in the reality of Satan and demons. There are certain priests who are trained and recognized as exorcists. Evangelical Protestants in Europe and North America (and I assume Australia) typically will not deny the reality of Satan, demons, demonic possession, and exorcism, but we typically relegate all that to “New Testament times” and “the mission fields.” For the most part, we don’t think it’s real “here.”

Are we Western evangelical Christians simply over reacting to extremes and succumbing to cultural accommodation by virtually ignoring the demonic powers and exorcism? Can/should we rediscover this New Testament reality without extremism? Is it possible to rediscover it without falling into extremism? (By “extremism” I mean blowing it out of proportion and going beyond anything biblical.) I don’t have any answers, just questions. I think it’s a conversation contemporary evangelical Christians in the West need to have.

I think the answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes. What do you think?

Ask Dr. Olson a question? You bet I will!

June 2, 2016

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you probably know how much I admire Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor (not to mention an Arminian Baptist), and his blog. He has a new post this week, “Ask a Theologian a Question,” in which he’s fielding questions from readers.

My question was of a nagging apologetic concern that I’ve had. Dr. Olson was gracious enough to answer. The key, I believe, is that God doesn’t merely want us to know that he exists. Mere knowledge hardly produces love, or self-sacrifice, or worship. Doesn’t it seem likely that many convinced atheists wouldn’t submit to the kind of loving, trusting relationship that God wants us to have with him, even if they had more tangible proof? Both the late writer Christopher Hitchens and English actor Stephen Fry, among others, have said they wouldn’t want the Christian God to exist, and if he did, they wouldn’t bow down to them.

Besides, as James says, even demons know that God exists—and shudder. As I imply in my question, I agree with Olson: Believing that God exists is our natural state of affairs. Evidence from history, not to mention scripture, bears this out.

(Click on graphic to expand.)


What’s wrong with believing that God speaks to us outside of scripture?

April 22, 2016

Roger Olson has been reading my blog! Just kidding, but he has a post this week on a topic that I wrote about a couple of months ago. He asks, “Does God still speak to us today—outside of the ways God speaks to us through scripture?” Olson believes that he does and gives a recent personal anecdote to illustrate one way that God has spoken to him.

In my recent response to a post by blogger Anne Kennedy, I wrote the following:

Having said all that, while Kennedy’s (and Cary’s) words serve as a helpful warning, I don’t buy in to their argument completely. For one thing, I’ve had those strong intuitions that God is “speaking” to me. Maybe that’s an understatement: I’ve felt as if God has zapped me with lightning sometimes. Maybe that’s not God’s “voice,” but it’s something! So perhaps the language we use to describe these intuitions is imprecise or inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us in some way through them.

Besides, God foreknew that we would have these strong intuitions, including how we would interpret and respond to them. Therefore, it’s no stretch to imagine that he uses them—as he does everything else—for our good. If we’re wrong, he’ll redeem this mistake too.

In my comment on Dr. Olson’s blog (awaiting moderation), I said that we evangelicals believe in God’s providence—that God guides us through external events in our lives. Why would it be difficult to believe that God guides us through internal events, such as our thoughts, intuitions, and even dreams? God is sovereign over those things, too, isn’t he?

But I share Olson’s word of caution: To say God speaks to us outside of scripture does not mean “with the same inspiration and authority as in Scripture.” I would also add—for the sake of many United Methodists who get confused about this—that what God tells us can’t contradict what God has told us through scripture, either.

What do you think? Does God speak to us outside of scripture?

Is the conquest of Canaan only an allegory?

March 22, 2016

In this recent blog post, Roger Olson tackles the age-old question of the Israelite conquest of Canaan in Joshua and Judges, with God’s apparent order for Israelites to “devote to destruction” inhabitants of many Canaanite cities. Olson assumes that God’s order amounted to genocide (I’m not convinced that’s the right word) and poses the question: If God ordered genocide back then, doesn’t that mean he could do so again? And if someone commits genocide today, as happens often enough, unfortunately, and claims that he’s acting under God’s authority, who are we to say otherwise?

It’s a strange question: We can have good reasons to believe that God wouldn’t do so today, and doesn’t do so, even as we believe that he did so long ago, when Israel was a theocracy.

But I wonder if Dr. Olson isn’t underestimating the problem. If he thinks it’s cruel, unmerciful—even wicked—on God’s part to order an Israelite to kill a Canaanite child, what does he think of a God who has the power to prevent the death of a child today yet chooses not to?

No wonder so many mainline Protestant types (not Dr. Olson, who’s evangelical and Baptist) accept some form of process theology or open theism, which says, in so many words, that God is unable to prevent suffering and death, at least to some extent, therefore he’s off the hook for it.

In seminary I wrestled with these ideas, too. But now that I’m older and wiser (which is to say I was really foolish in seminary, not that I’m very wise today), I take little comfort in the idea that God has so little control—not to mention that Bible flatly contradicts it, which matters more than my comfort (to say the least).

Even this morning, in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, I saw a fellow pastor post on social media that “God suffers with us.” For a certain theological camp, in which I believe this pastor resides, that’s about the best anyone can say, I guess: God suffers with us. Even if it’s true (and in the sense that God has compassion for us it certainly is), is that all God does?

“I hate it for you,” he would have God say, “but what can I do? My hands are tied.”

So before Olson throws up his hands and resorts to an allegorical interpretation of the Canaanite conquest, I wish he had at least wrestled with some of the principles at stake in the question: God is the author of life and even death: “just as it is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). Even the death of a child, therefore, happens according to God’s will. This doesn’t mean that death is good, or that it isn’t, as Paul says, the final enemy which the cross and resurrection of God’s Son defeats; it doesn’t mean that God “ordains and renders certain” the death of humanity before he created the world. It does mean that God foresaw death as a necessary consequence of creating this world and decided that a world in which people die—even his only Son Jesus—is preferable to any other world. It also means that God uses death as an instrument of his judgment, even as he has the power to redeem it, which he does all the time.

Indeed, the Bible tells us that the Canaanites were being judged for their sins. (See God’s words to Abraham way back in Genesis 15:13-16.)

One objection here is, “Yes, but what about children? Aren’t they being judged for their parents’ sins?” And the answer is, yes, they are. And this happens all the time, then as now: Take the Exodus story, for instance: Did those Egyptian children in the Passover deserve to die for their parents’ sins? We can all think of instances when children suffer and die because of the sins of their parents—or other adults. Whether God directly causes it or merely allows it to happen, the difference isn’t nearly as great as many people often imagine, as I’ve argued on this blog repeatedly.

Moreover, we all deserve death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But we can be confident that children who die before they reach an age of moral accountability will be saved. As always, heaven is real, and any discussion of theodicy—whether, in the end, God will see to it that justice will be fully and finally done—must include an afterlife.

And do I need to point out that Good Friday and Easter mean that God loves us too much to let death have the last word?

All that to say, unlike Olson, I believe that the conquest of Canaan is literal history (because the authors of the Bible intend for us to take it that way). Is there something I haven’t considered? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

In order to answer prayers in the future, God often begins in the past

July 28, 2015

In a fascinating two-part series of posts beginning with this one, Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor, grappled with this question: “Does it make sense to pray that God would change something that’s already happened in the past?”

The answer seems obvious: No. But not so fast…

He gives an example of a time that his mother left her purse on top of her car and drove off. Naturally, at some point, the purse fell off. When she arrived at her destination, she realized what happened. She retraced her route, but the purse was gone. Someone had picked it up.

At this point, he said, she gathered some people from her church. They prayed that the purse would have been picked up by a Christian person who would return the purse to her without stealing anything. Even as a child, he said, this prayer made no sense to him: the purse was already picked up at that point—and whether that person was a Christian or not was already settled, even though his mother and her church friends were ignorant of the person’s faith or character. To pray that the person would be a Christian was potentially a prayer to change the past.

He gave an example that hits closer to home for most of us: Suppose someone is awaiting the results of a biopsy. Does it make sense, at that point, to pray that the person’s biopsy would be negative? After all, at that point the person already has or doesn’t have cancer. That we don’t know the results of the biopsy is beside the point. So this kind of petition is potentially asking God to change the past.

Then, in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerum, Olson says if God could change the past in this way, why not pray, for example, that the Holocaust would never have happened?

Many of his readers voiced a conviction that I share: In order for God to answer our prayer petitions in the future, God often has to begin answering them in the past—which requires that God, in his foreknowledge, already knows what we’re going to pray from eternity past. If God has foreknowledge, which he does, this isn’t a problem.

For example, suppose a friend is facing surgery next week. We begin praying today that our friend would have a successful operation. What does it take for that to happen? A skilled surgeon, for one thing. While our prayer is for a future event, in order for God to grant our petition, God would likely have had to begin “answering” it perhaps 20 years earlier—when the surgeon was in medical school sitting in a lecture hall. Or perhaps earlier than that, when a particular author of a medical textbook was writing something that pertained to our friend’s medical problem, which the surgeon, then a medical student, read and understood. Or earlier than that, when that author was himself grappling to understand the intricacies of the human body and this particular disease.

It boggles the mind to imagine how God, in his foreknowledge and omnipotence, can weave an intricate thread of cause-and-effect in the past that leads to a successful surgery next week. From my perspective, however, God would do this sort of thing all the time—unless God’s normal way of intervening in our world is to constantly suspend or override the laws of physics in a miraculous way.