Thursday, May 10, 2012

Changing the future

In a previous post, I talked about how prayer can change the world: How our prayers have the power to cause things to happen which would not have happened otherwise. The Book of Daniel is a good example: It's a book of the Bible which would not be there without Daniel's prayer. But in church the other day I realized that it actually goes even further than that: Prayer even has the potential to change the future.

This was something that troubled me: How God's foreknowledge and providence interacted with our own free will. Most of the time, they don't seem to clash: God knows what we're going to do, but we don't, and we are therefore free to choose. But what about when God tells us? The main example for me was Peter and Jesus. Jesus explicitly tells Peter, twice, that Peter will deny him. There is no room for interpretation, no room for misunderstanding: Jesus tells Peter what he (Peter) will do, in the future, and from that point on Peter's actions are directly influenced by that knowledge.

This seemed problematic. Had Jesus deprived Peter of his free will? Had Jesus, in saying that to Peter, somehow caused it? It seems as though the foreknowledge of God is "safe," in a way, when it remains with God, separated from us. But when it enters our experience, it seems to interact with our free will in an unfortunate way.Once Jesus tells Peter, "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times," is Peter really free to not deny Jesus?


But then I went to church the other week, where the pastor talked about Hezekiah. In 2 Kings 20, Hezekiah falls ill from what has to be considered the worst boil ever. He's about to die. But wait! Here comes Isaiah! He probably has some good news, right?

Nope. Isaiah brings a message from God: Get your house in order, cause it's gonna be a bumpy ride. No. Wait. That's a song from Emery.

Never mind.

"Set your house in order, for you shall die. You shall not recover." From the very mouth of God comes a crystal-clear death sentence. Hezekiah is going to die. No if's, and's, or but's. Game over. No extra lives, no continue's, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Checkmate. Mousetrap. Hezekiah's battleship is as good as sunk.

Here, again, we have a distinct instance of God's foreknowledge descending from heaven and influencing our actions. In Peter's case, it influenced him to denial, and even pride: "Though they all fall away, I will not. Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you." In Hezekiah's case, however, it moves him to prayer. He turns his face to the wall, weeps bitterly, and prays to God to save his life. But what's the point? God has already said it, right? Surely that means it's set in stone, unchangeable.

Here's where stuff gets crazy. Isaiah hasn't even made it out of the palace yet. He's in the process of leaving,  in the middle court, when God speaks to him again, mere minutes after pronouncing a death sentence on Hezekiah. Isaiah has a new message for Hezekiah: "Thus says the Lord: I have heard your prayers: I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you.On the third day you shall go to the house of the Lord, and I will add fifteen years to your life."

Holy crap.

What? Whaaaaat? This is amazing! Hezekiah is about to die: God knows the future, and in the future, Hezekiah dies. That is what happens in the future. God isn't wrong. He isn't mistaken. He isn't lying. That is what the future holds for Hezekiah. The timeline for all of human history has Hezekiah dying, right there. Then Hezekiah prays for, what, five minutes? Isaiah hasn't even left the palace yet, so it can't have been that long. And BAM.

God changes the future. How crazy is that? To rub in what he's just done, he says, "I will add fifteen years to your life." The timeline for human history now has Hezekiah living another 15 years. The future is now that Hezekiah will live.

Isn't that awesomely awesome? Freaking amazing, is what it is. God is ready and willing to change the future. God is prepared to set aside something that was going to happen in favor of something else. And that means that his foreknowledge is not some dead, cold, predestined, uncaring lump: It's alive, and more than that, it's lively, energetic, dynamic. It's a foreknowledge that has free will built in.

And that means that Peter was not predestined to deny Christ. The possibilities are endless. He might have prayed. he might have recognized his weakness and begged Jesus to make him stronger. And God might have changed the future. But Peter was proud, and frightened, and he wanted so badly to be cool and independent and to show Jesus how strong he could be that he forgot, for a crucial moment, how weak he truly was.

Bottom Line: God can change the future, and he does take requests. Isn't that awesome?

A friend of mine asked me if God knew that he would change the future, and if he did, did the future then really change? This is a good question, and it took me a while to come up with the answer to it.

To say that God cannot change the future in a meaningful, real way is to say that God is trapped in the universe and unable to change it. It's to say that the future is set, and God is as helpless as ourselves in going through history. Therefore, God must be able to change the future, with all the dynamic action and decision that the word "change" implies. The actual workings of that change  involves time, eternity, foreknowledge, election, free will... all of this stuff is to big to comprehend. What we can understand, and rest in, is this: God listens to our prayers, and those prayers can affect how the will of God comes to pass in our world. God can change the future for us.


  1. Okay, just a quick half thought here, because I don't want to be too long winded...and you may have hit this in your own way already...

    I would say that to look at it as God knowing he would change the future is not exactly the right way to look at it. It has to do with something that is really more out of the reach of our ability to comprehend. I don't think that God sees the future (or the past... or time for that matter) in any form with which we are familiar. Rather, He would see all possible outcomes as one, and have the ability to discern and change between the current path which time is going by and any He would like to bring into play.

    There is more to that, but like I said, short...

  2. I like that a lot, Sean. Of course, that's valid from our perspective, but any language dealing with time is going to be slightly off when it comes to God. I agree with you in saying that it's really out of our reach. However we explain it, though, we can't let ourselves be trapped in the sort of determinism that can poison people's thoughts on prayer.