So God has a plan for how the world is going to go, right? "God's in control" is what we say when the world is falling apart. We're comforted because we know that God has a plan that can't be derailed. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.'"
But then there's prayer: Petitionary prayer, specifically. Where we ask God for something in the hope that he will give it to us. But wait. What about the plan? How does that work with prayer? Does prayer even matter? What's the point of asking for something if it's already been decided what's going to happen? But the Bible specifically links the answering of the prayer to the prayer itself (James 1:5, 1 John 5:14, Daniel 10:12). So what about the plan?
This is a problem (click there if you want to see the problem articulated by dinosaurs). In a nutshell, the question is this:
Does God already know that the prayers were going to be made? If so, was the prayer made out of free will or was it predestined from the beginning? How does prayer interact with God's predetermined will for human history? Does prayer really matter?
The only answer that seems to, well, answer the question has to do with time and eternity. The answer--the only answer I have found that is satisfactory--is found, as is so often the case, in the writings of C. S. Lewis.
In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes from the perspective of a senior demon advising a younger demon, and at one point he focuses on how to discourage people from their prayers by introducing to them this very problem. The answer, Lewis believes, is so very obvious once you stop thinking of Time--a series of successive events, some past, some future--as the way things actually are. One you realize that God is not bound by Time--that time is something that belongs strictly to created beings--the answer is clear.
Speaking of weather, in particular, then making the jump to time/reality/free will overall, Screwtape says:
"What he ought to say, of course, is obvious to us; that the problem of adapting the particular weather to the particular prayers is merely the appearance, at two points in the human's temporal mode of perception, of the total problem of adapting the whole spiritual universe to the whole corporeal universe; that creation in its entirety operates at every point of space and time, or rather that their kind of consciousness forces them to encounter the whole, self-consistent creative act as a series of successive events.
Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy's nonsense about "Love". How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it."
The way we experience reality is a series of successive events, one after another: 6:00 a.m. is followed without fail by 6:01 a.m., and no amount of effort can prevent the eventual progression to 6:02 a.m., nor wind the clock back to 6:00 a.m. But that is merely a way of seeing reality, not reality as it really is. God sees everything as it really is: NOT as a series of linear, successive events, but as one utterly cohesive NOW. Thus God does not have to "wait" to experience 6:00, 6:01, and 6:02 in succession: He experiences them all at once, without confusion. (This is important: Otherwise God would be bound by time just as much as we are.) Thus the results of an answered prayer for rain made at a particular point in world history--say, June 4, 2012--would be visible and present in the world long before the prayer was even thought of. Because we experience reality through time, it seems to us as though the effect comes before the cause. But in actuality, God has merely seen the prayer and adjusted reality in the same cohesive, unbounded, endless Now.
Here's what is so unbelievably cool about this: God has so designed creation so that free will and divine providence can coexist without clashing or elimination. Free will is not absorbed into divine providence, making free will essentially meaningless because it was planned "from the beginning." But neither does free will overthrow divine providence and mean that God really has no control over anything. By the grace of God, they coexist in perfect balance--Our all-powerful creator designed the universe so that we, like him, could have free will.
So God receives the prayer, which was made of our own free will. He acts on that prayer in His divine sovereignty. And so, by the love and grace of God, the prayers of the saints find their way into the divinely ordained workings of the universe, ranging from celestial battles (Daniel 10:12) to the day-to-day requests of seemingly unimportant people (1 John 5:14). Here's the really important bit: This seems to be the only possible way prayer can work. This seems to be the only possible way prayer can matter, the only possible way prayer can be both free and meaningful. Any other way ultimately results in prayer being unmeaningful as something that was always going to happen, or as something meaningless because God's plan cannot be changed, and the Bible never treats prayer like that. Prayer is treated as something that may or may not happen, that has consequences for not being made and consequences for being made. It is always shown to be a free action that effects the will of God. And this, to me, seems the only way that is possible.
I appreciate you guys bearing with me on this. This was a tough post to write, and it is probable that some parts remain unclear, confusing, or outright erroneous. If you are unsure of something, or even if you vehemently disagree with me, let me know. Proverbs 27:17: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." I want to be sharpened.
So come at me, bro.