Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts? : Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 10

Of all the philosophical and theologial questions that often arise for Christians when it comes to prayer, there is a good chance that pride of place goes to the inquiry issued in the title of this post. Indeed, the question "Why pray if God already knows (y)our thoughts" is both a good and popular one! Needless to say, there are a number of different ways that people answer this question. Without writing a book here or launching into a lecture on the history of this matter, I simply want to offer some of my thoughts.

First of all, I want to make two points: 1) There is actually an idea embedded in or underlying this question that the people asking it often don't realize is there, and 2) Once we are able to differentiate between the question asked and the underlying question, we can really start to arrive at some good answers. So, let me deal with point #1 here. The underlying question that exists beneath the surface of "Why pray if God already knows (y)our thoughts?" is usually this: "Why should I MAKE REQUESTS in prayer if God already knows what I'm going to ask for?" Do you see how that is different from the previous question?

In the second question--which deals with the underlying components--there is a sense in which the questioner is asking about God's knowledge of their own requests, that is, of their wants and desires. However, the first question can be taken differently and can place the emphasis back on God. Let me explain. As I continue to say, my definiton of prayer is: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. And so, with that definition in place, I have been arguing that the PURPOSE of prayer is to go to God, searching and seeking out His wants and desires. In other words and in the main, prayer is not really about us and our wants; God and His desires are the focal point.

If this is the case and if I am correct, then, in a way, the question kind of becomes moot. How? Well, if we are going into the prayer event always asking God about His wants and desires and how we might please and glorify Him, and if this is our constant approach and mindset and God is aware of that, then He is aware that our thoughts are centered on Him and His desires. In a way, it's like the bedtime routine I share with my daughter. Every night, she knows that I am going to ask her what she wants to hear a story about; she is keenly aware of this, so much so that sometimes, she'll set the context by saying "Daddy...storytime." She knows what storytime is, what it is all about and what to expect from it. Now, if the prayer event is ALWAYS about seeking God and His wants / desires (and for me personally, it is) and if that is ALWAYS our posture and approach, then God is well aware of the fact that we are coming for that reason. Heck, even I know that I am entering into the prayer event for that reason!

So, if this is the case, then how might it influence the other, underlying question, the one about requests: "Why should I MAKE REQUESTS in prayer if God already knows what I'm going to ask for?" Underlying my answer to this question is a sort of philosophical / theological ideal that functions like this: Of all the beings in existence, God is the "MOST" knowing! No other being has a knowledge or amount of knowledge that is comparable to God's knowledge and knowability. I reiterate: God is the "MOST" knowing being that has ever existed (and remains in existence). As you can see, this view touches on God's sovereignty and asserts that, indeed, God is sovereign over all. In the same way, God is the "MOST" relational being, the "MOST" powerful being, the "MOST" loving being and the "MOST" genuine being in existence.

Therefore, God's sovereignty remains intact--as it should--when we deal with the question raised above. In fact, I would argue that one would be hard-pressed to deal with this topic without addressing the matter of God's sovereignty. Okay, now that I have laid that out, at this point, I want to note that while God is sovereign, He also has choice. In fact, we might even say that of all beings in existence, He alone has the "MOST" choice. This is why I am reticent to call msyelf a "free will being". If humans had "free will", we would be free to do anything we pleased. Yet, our will is not free; there are clearly things humans cannot do. Instead of referring to myself as a free will being, I refer to myself as a being who has "freedom of choice". Thus, in regards to my life, I have the freedom to make choices about what I want to do and what I do not want to do. God on the other hand, is the only "free will being" as He is able to make choices and "will to happen" whatever He desires (of course, those desires flow out of His nature and character: Love).

Now, as we approach the main question here, I want to ask four minor questions: 1) Is God sovereign and thus, able to do whatever God chooses (as it is compatible with His nature and character)? 2) Can God choose not to use His power? 3) Can God choose not to be somewhere? 4) Can God choose not to know something? Let's deal with all four questions in the order I gave them. When answering the first question, we must say "Yes". And without saying much more, this just means that God can do whatever God chooses; He has that capability and it is this that makes Him sovereign. To the second question, we must also answer "YES". It is clear, from the Scriptural narrative and our experiences of the world in-general, that there are times when God, the MOST powerful being in existence, could use His powers but for some reason doesn't or just chooses not to. For question three, we might answer similarly: If God desires not to be somewhere (e.g. in the presence of sin or wherever), He doesn't have to be; God can choose not to be somewhere. Just as well, when it comes to knowing, God can choose not to know some things. In the Scriptures, God chooses not to know someone's sins after He forgives them, for example. There are numerous times in Scripture where God is open to the future and what may happen as a result of someone's choice(s).

Carrying this all over into the realm of prayer requests, I would suggest that while God already knows what He wants and desires, so that our relationship with Him can be 100% genuine, He has chosen not to know what we will request. I have many reasons for saying this, one of which is: If God chooses to know the past in an indefinite (full) sense (e.g. He no longer knows our sins or forgets them, etc.), then it makes sense that He would know the future in the same way (e.g. He knows what He wants but allows the future to be open for humans and their wants). On the same note, I would say that the "MOST" genuine form of knowledge is also one which allows for both genuine relationships to exist and happen. Thus, part of God honoring the fact that humans are created in His image (e.g. for genuine relationships with Him and others) is letting those relationships unfold as they may.

It would seem to me, then, that the "MOST" knowing being has chosen to know in a way that allows for the future to happen as it may all the while, knowing the present as it transpires and as He so chooses. Here, we must choose: Either God is genuine in terms of both relationships and the past, present and future or He is not. I argue that He is. This also means that I accept of view of the future that is indefinite in God's eyes. This also means that I hold a view which says that to know something that is not, is to, in a sense, "know falsely". Thus, if one claims to know the future, which has not happened, then it is really not "knowing" at all. The same seems true of God.

So, to answer the question simply: In praying, God is open to what you have to say, which also means that because He is the "MOST" genuine being in existence, He has chosen not to know this before you ask it but rather, to know it "as" you ask it. Having said all that, I would like to reiterate here that prayer is not really about or for, requesting "things". In a future post, I want to deal with this in relation especially to healing requests. But for now, I do want to say that when we have the urge to make a request, the request should first and foremost be about asking fo the presence of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus Himself said: "Why would you pray for 'things' when you can pray for the Holy Spirit?" In fact, I have recently stubmled upon a quote from Thomas Merton which is directly applicable here: "Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between ‘things’ and ‘God’...as if [God’s] creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God."

Think on these things.


Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)

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