Predestination, Providence, and Prayer
Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 14, 2010
Fr. Thomas Hopko explains how our acts, especially our prayers, are included in God's predestination based on His foreknowledge, and how our free-will actions, particularly our prayers, contribute to God's providence in our lives.
Very often the question is asked about predestination. Is there predestination? Does God predestine things to be the way they are? That, of course, would raise the issue of divine providence. In other words, are things ordered by God to be the way they are, and is there a providence of God that we should realize that we are part of, that we are within, and that even at some point we would hope to try to have insight into and to understand?
In addition to the issue of predestination and providence, there is the issue of prayer, particularly, petitionary prayer, prayer in the technical sense. There is prayer relative to praising God or thanking God, glorifying God, but, very specifically, we want to ask the question: What difference does it matter whether or not we pray? And very specifically, how do we understand, when we pray for certain things, or when we pray for certain people, or when we make very particular petitions and requests of God, how does that fit into the understanding of predestination and providence?
This is what we would like to think about now a little bit. Of course, this has to do with all kinds of issues. It has to do with the issues of sickness and disease, and life and death; it has to do with natural calamities. Are earthquakes predestined by God? Does he make them happen in certain times and certain places?
This would beg, of course, the larger question of the relationship of God to the created order, the relationship of God and the world, or God and creation. I am going to speak about that, specifically, when I deal with the Darwinian revolution. How do we understand the interaction of God and creation, particularly the natural order: he animals, the plants, the universe, and then the emergence and the appearance of human beings made in the image and likeness of God? We will discuss that at another time, but let us today focus on these three things: predestination, providence, and petitionary prayer.
First of all: predestination. It is a clear teaching of Holy Scripture that there is predestination, without any doubt. God predestines things to be the way they are, according to his divine foreknowledge, and in the Holy Scripture, those two issues are always together—foreknowledge and fore-ordering, or predestining, or “predestinating,” as it says in the King James version.
There is a foreknowledge, that God knows all things—real, possible, eventual, all that could be, all that would be—and that God really does have that knowledge. He has that knowledge before he even creates. If God is going to create, he knows what is going to happen in his creation. He knows it because he is God.
Some people could say, “How could God know what is going to happen before it actually happens?” The answer is, because He is God, and God knows all things, and he knows all things so perfectly that he knows not only what people would do, but he knows what they will do, and he knows what people will do in every single detail of their life, in every single breath that they breathe, and every single act that they make. This is what it means to be God.
Some people could say, “That is just totally nonsensical. You cannot know something before it actually happens.” We would say, “Oh no, that is not true. God knows things, and for God there is no before and after.” It is not like God knows before. God knows all things out of his eternity. He knows all realities, all eventualities, all that would be, could be, how people would act in every certain situation.
That is simply an understanding of what it means to be God, and that God creates the world with that knowledge, and all of the things that will happen, or could happen, or might happen, or if things were different, would be different—we believe that all of that is in the mind of God. We speak humanly of the mind of God, but God does not have a mind; he is a mind; he is beyond a mind. God is beyond anything that we can imagine.
Scripture definitely teaches us, and the Revelation teaches us, and anyone who has an experience of God knows that that is what it means to be God. If God were not that way, he would just not be God. He would be acting like creatures act, bound by time and space, bound by limited information, bound by waiting to see, actually, what people will say and do, in order to know how to respond to that.
The Christian claim is certainly that God has “foreknowledge.” That is a technical term in scripture—foreknowledge—that he fore-knows all things, and that all things that happen, they happen according to his foreknowledge. It is on the basis of his foreknowledge that he makes his plan, that he works out his plan in relationship to creatures, who are free.
Here we want to say a very important thing. Some people say, “If God has the foreknowledge, then everything has to be absolutely the way it is. It cannot be different. If God knows today what is going to happen on earth tomorrow, then it’s got to happen, because that is what he knows.” Here, I would say that simply shows very poor thinking, because you can look at it a completely different way, and you have to. You have to say, “Things do not happen because God knows them, God knows them because they happen.”
For example, if tonight I go to church, and God knows from all eternity that I will go to church, freely, voluntarily, I will get outside and walk up to the monastery, or I will jump in my car and drive up to the monastery; God knows whether or not I will freely do that. If, in fact, I won’t go—if, in fact, I will stay home because I have a stomach ache, or I stay home because I fell asleep, or I stay home because I have some work to do and I choose to do that rather than go to church, then that is what God knows.
My action determines God’s knowledge, and that is very important. God knows things because I will freely do them. I don’t do them because God knows them.
In human life you could have an analogy of that. For example, if you have a very wise person, a very wise person can predict another person’s behavior. A wise person could say, “If Joe gets in this situation, this is surely what he will do.” Why? Because he knows Joe. He knows Joe very well. He knows his attitudes, he knows his behavior, so he knows that: “Oh, if that ever happens, Joe is going to be furious.”
In a human way, a wise person knows that only on the basis of what he actually knows. He knows Joe, he knows that if this or that happens, this is how Joe is most likely to behave, and you might even dare say, it is how Joe certainly will behave, but that’s not the way God does it. God doesn’t do it because He just knows what people will or will not do because He knows how they are, but God really knows the actual acts.
For God, there is no past, present, and future. All knowledge of God is in God before anything even happens. All the whole knowledge of creation, the whole knowledge of everything that could be, and would be, and how it will be, is in the divine mind of God before anything creaturely even exists. That would be a dogma of ancient Orthodox Christian faith; there is no doubt about that.
But what we want to see now is that things do not happen because God knows them, God knows them because he knows they will happen. He knows what we will freely do, but our freedom is incredibly important. It is essential to remember that. If God decides to create angels and human beings, and, in some sense, even animals, but certainly let us just focus on human beings—if God creates human beings with freedom, that we can pick and choose to decide what we do or do not do—like whether I’ll go to vespers, or whether I won’t; whether I will help my neighbor, or whether I don’t; whether I will tell the truth, or whether I will lie; whether I will be kind to someone, or whether I will be mean—I have that actual freedom.
Some writers, in fact some very important Christian writers, will say, “God will never violate the freedom of his creature. Once he gives the freedom, he will not violate it.” But I think that we would have to go a step further, on the basis of Scripture and understanding of Scripture in the Tradition of our Church, by our great spiritual teachers, and that is that it is not simply the case that God will not violate our freedom. We have to say something stronger. We have to say, “God cannot violate our freedom.” God cannot force us to do anything at all. He simply cannot do it.
He can do things in the natural order, for example, cause me to break my leg or something like that, but God cannot determine, in any way, how I will relate to my leg being broken—how I will act, what I will choose, what I will do. We have this sovereign freedom given to us by God, that he not only will not violate, but he cannot violate.
What we want to focus on now is that God knows all those things. He makes us free and he knows what we will freely do, in any given circumstance, under any given possibility, within any given condition or situation, God literally knows what we will or will not do, and he knows what we will or will not do before we actually will or will not do it. But he doesn’t cause us to will it, or not to will it.
The first thing that we want to say is that there is foreknowledge, as we say in our created language, “foreknowledge,” “preknowledge.” However, we might say, if we were speaking even more carefully than Holy Scripture, it is not even foreknowledge, it is just knowledge. It is foreknowledge as far as we’re concerned, because we are in time, but it is not foreknowledge as far as God is concerned. God is outside time, so for God it is simply knowledge. It is not foreknowledge, it is just “knowledge.”
The scripture speaks about “foreknowledge,” previously existing knowledge, as far as we are concerned. It also speaks about an “eternal council.” It also speaks about a plan from before the foundation of the world. It also speaks about God knowing and hearing our prayers before we even say them—God knowing what we are going to do even before we do it. These are classical teachings of Holy Scripture.
I am just going to read now, just to set the stage for our further reflection, some of the key places where this is said in the New Testamental scriptures. We will stick with the New Testament. For example, on the day of Pentecost, when the Apostle Peter preaches the very first sermon in Christian history, and he speaks about the Holy Spirit being poured out because the Messiah has been crucified and glorified and that the Day of the Lord is on its way, this is what is written. This is what Peter says, according to the Book of Acts; it’s the second chapter (Acts 2:22-24). He says:
Men of Israel, hear these words. Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God, with mighty works and wonders and signs, which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know, this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
What does Peter say? He said all this has happened by a “definite plan,” and by the foreknowledge of God. In other words, God so loved the world that he sent his son into the world to be crucified and to die and to be put to death by human beings—betrayed by the Jews, killed by the Romans. God knew all this. But the Jews’ rejection—or at least some of the Jews, the leaders of the Jews, certainly not all the Jews; Jesus, himself was a Jew—the leaders of the Jews: the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the lawyers—God knew what they would do before they did it. It was according to his own plan, he even planned it this way. Knowing that it would happen, he made a plan around it. He knew that Christ would be crucified, and he knew from all eternity that he would raise him up from the dead. You have this already in the Book of Acts.
In the letter to the Ephesians, this is called “the eternal plan of God,” that was hidden even from the angels and revealed in the Church, and it is a plan hidden from before the foundation of the world. Now I will read from Ephesians, the first chapter (Ephesians 1:3-4):
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.
Here, the apostle writes that God has chosen us, in Christ, and to be in Christ, and with Christ, and believing in Christ, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
He destined us in love; he destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood. (Ephesians 1:5-7)
Then he continues:
For he has made known to us, in all wisdom and insight, the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he has put forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:9-10)
Then he continues:
In him, according to the purpose of him (God the Father) who establishes all things according to the council of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined (or “predestined”) and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)
You have in this letter to the Ephesians this teaching that there is this plan, there is this council, there is this will, there is this destiny that God himself has decided. In that very same letter, we could also read in the second chapter, where the Apostle writes these words, when he is telling us (Ephesians 2:8-9) that “we are saved by grace, through faith, not by works lest any man should boast, it is a gift of God.”
But then he continues:
For we are his workmanship (his poem, his poema—I always liked that—“we are God’s poem”) created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
God prepared these good works that we are supposed to do, and that we will do, beforehand. He knew that we would do them. Or, those who do them, he knew that they would do them, and he knew it before it would happen, and this is part of his eternal plan and his eternal purpose.
I could go to the third chapter of the same letter to the Ephesians, and read these words (Ephesians 3:8-10). It says that:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles, the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery, hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (that’s the angels).
So what does it say? He says, it was made known to me to reveal and to bear witness to the plan of the mystery, hidden for ages in God, the creator, and that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the angels. Then he continues:
This was according to the eternal purpose which was realized in Christ Jesus, our Lord, the eternal purpose, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:11-12)
This is all an eternal purpose. It was before the foundation of the world. It was the mystery hidden from all ages. This is what is made known. There is this foreknowledge, and then there is this plan. Then there is this eternal council, and when we hear that expression, “eternal council,” we can’t help but remember how in the Scriptures when it speaks about the creation of man it says that the Elohim—the God, God, or the Gods—took council together, that there was a divine council, a divine plan.
The Hebrew scripture speaks a lot about the “divine council.” In fact, in Isaiah, Jesus Christ, one of his prefigurative titles is “the Angel of the Great Council,” the messenger of God’s great council, who comes to the world and makes known what God’s great council is for the whole of creation.
There are other places: Romans, for example. Let me read what it says in the letter to the Romans in the eighth chapter (Romans 8:28). He said this; St. Paul said this:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him and who are called according to his purpose.
God works together for good for all those who know him and who are called according to his purpose. Here we could say a few words about being called, because the Scripture speaks about those who are called, and those who are chosen, and those who are faithful. The Apocalypse, for example, speaks about the disciples of Christ being—I always liked it in Slavonic, it was called “zvanih, izabranih, i vjerni.” There’s even a title of a book with those words: Called, Chosen, and Faithful.
In fact, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who is the new head of the external affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate, his mother, when he was a small boy, wrote a book. The title of her book was these very words, in Russian, Called, Chosen, and Faithful. In Greek, I believe it would be “klitoi, eklektoi and pistoi.” In any case it does not matter, because in English, you have it very clear: called, chosen, faithful.
There is such a thing as “the elect”—not only those who are called, but those who are chosen: The chosen people, the elect people. This would also be the teaching of Holy Scripture, very clearly, that God calls and chooses, or he elects, or he appoints, those whom he knows will cooperate. He does not waste his divine energies. He knows whom to choose and whom to call.
He called the Jews because he knew that in Israel he would have people in each generation who would cooperate. He would have Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. He would have Moses; he would have the prophets. Most of the people would be apostate; most of the people would be sinners and idolaters, and God knows what, breaking the laws, but there would always be those people who would cooperate with God, and they are the ones whom he chose. They are the elect.
I think we should always remember that if people are elected, if people are chosen by God, there’s two things we must remember. They are chosen because they are willing, freely, to cooperate; freely to cooperate, like St. Paul. He was knocked down on the Damascus road and became the Apostle to the Gentiles because he was willing to be converted. He was willing. When he was knocked down he didn’t say, “Oh, I am having a hallucination; I thought I saw Jesus; I must be going crazy.” No, he was ready to respond. He was ready to convert. He was ready to surrender, but in his total freedom of his humanity.
Of course, our freedom even is supported by the grace of God. We cannot be really free unless the grace of God is in us, otherwise we are in the hands of the devil, and we are not free. But this mystery of human freedom, it remains forever, so God knows whom to choose.
So the first thing we have to say is, the elect are those chosen by God and called by God, that he knew would cooperate. Jesus teaches in the Scripture that in some sense, everybody is called. In the synoptic gospels it says “many are called.” Actually, it says, “the multitude are called.” In other words, God would call every human being, but only a few are chosen, only a few are elect, because not everyone is willing to cooperate with God. The elect are those who are freely willing to cooperate with God.
But also, the other thing about the elect is, they are willing to suffer. If you are chosen by God, you are chosen to suffer. If you are appointed to God, you are appointed to suffer with him, even to die with him. I once heard a Calvinist teacher, a very wonderful man, Samuel Terrien. He was a linguist and he wrote about the Old Testament. He wasn’t much of a theologian or an exegete; he was more like a linguist.
He was writing about the Psalms and about Job, and he wrote a wonderful little book about the Magnificat, and he said this: “Calvinists like to boast about being the elect or not the elect, and irresistible grace and all that, but one thing is for sure. However you understand all that, if you think you’re chosen by God, then you know you’re appointed and chosen for suffering.” You are chosen for witness. You are chosen for death. You are chosen to co-suffer with him. So you cannot brag about anything, except perhaps your willingness to die with him.
Being elect is not to get blessings. To be chosen is not to get great earthly blessings, “Oh, I am chosen.” Oh, no, no, no, if you are chosen, you are chosen to bear the cross. You are chosen to suffer with the Christ. That is what it means.
But here, unlike the Calvinists, we Eastern Orthodox ancient Christians would never say that God arbitrarily chooses some and makes them elect, and he could choose anybody He wants. We do not believe in irresistible grace. We believe grace is resistible. We do not believe that the “sovereignty of God” means he could make anybody into St. Paul if he wanted to. That is simply not true, because our freedom is involved.
We do not believe in what is usually called double-predestination, whoever teaches it. I do not know if Calvinists do or not; you’d have to ask them. I would just put it this way: If anyone believes that God can arbitrarily, as it were, by his own will and sovereignty, choose anyone to be anything he wants them to be, and make them to be what he wants them to be, and predestine them to be saints and holy people, without their cooperation, their synergia, without their own freedom, that is simply not true. That is absolutely not true.
And we would never say, “Once saved, always saved.” You could know God and know Christ and then return like a dog to the vomit. You could know Christ and claim to believe and be baptized and have Holy Communion, only to crucify again the Lord of Glory. Read I Peter. Read Hebrews 6, chapter 6. Read the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 10. It is all there, about the possibility of apostatizing, even after baptism, let alone after creation, or after some type of conversion experience.
That freedom remains until the coming age, and even in the coming age we remain free, except that in that age, it will be determined clearly whether we choose God or not, and really want to be with God, and then gladly, hopefully, at that age, there will be no more temptations. The struggle will be over. We will have made our choice, so to speak, and our free will will be exercised, and then it will be stably in God, without the ability of falling away in the age to come. The demons will be controlled. The evil people will be separated from the good, and so on, but in this world it’s still all mixed up, so we can go back and forth, and forth and back.
But in any case, the point that we would have to know is: God would want to call everybody. He does, in some sense, call everybody, but He does not choose everybody, because not everybody is willing to cooperate. That would mean, also, as I just said, that not everybody would be willing to suffer with him, to suffer with him and for him, and on account of righteousness’ sake.
We have written here in Romans (Romans 8:28): “We know that in everything, God works for good, with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” He calls them according to his purpose. Listen to these words. These are perhaps the most important scriptural words that I will say on this podcast. He says; St. Paul writes (Romans 8:29-30): “For those whom he (God) foreknew, he also predestined.” I am reading the RSV.
For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren, and those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified (or “made righteous”), and those whom he made righteous (or “justified”), he also glorified.
Isn’t that marvelous? God foreknows, and on the basis of his foreknowledge, he predestines, or he destines, and then he calls. He calls those who are predestined because he knows they will respond to him, they will respond to him, that they are capable of being with him. Those whom he predestines he also calls, and those whom he calls and chooses, he make them righteous, he justifies them, through Jesus Christ. And those whom he justifies, he also glorifies. We would say, even going further, he deifies, he makes divine through divine grace, he sanctifies.
Here, you definitely have the teaching that God’s predestination of creaturely behavior, human behavior, is based on his foreknowledge. He knows what we will or will not do, and then he makes a plan on that basis. Then he calls everyone to participate in that plan, but he knows those who will participate with him positively. They are the elect, they are the chosen. They are chosen to suffer with him and to be with him in their earthly life. He knows how they will react in any given situation, and that is why he predestines them. Those are the people, then, who become justified by faith, justified by grace. By faith and grace they are made righteous by God, and then they are sanctified and glorified by God as well. That is how it works.
I would like to read also one more passage from Scripture, also from the letter to the Romans, and I will read another one from I Peter, too, just for the record, but in Romans 11, chapter 11, you have also the teaching of God’s foreknowledge. St. Paul is speaking here about the people of Israel. He said:
I ask then, has God rejected His people? (And he answers:) By no means! I, myself, am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleaded with God against Israel? (and so on)... and there will be a remnant chosen by grace. (Romans 11:1-2, 5)
God foreknew everything about Israel. He chose Israel on the basis of foreknowledge. The Messiah is the Messiah of Israel. The Logos of his God is incarnate as a Jew. The whole process of salvation is among the Jews. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is of the Jews.” That is an absolute dogma of Christianity. We are grafted to Israel. We become, we are a part of Israel.
The gentiles are grafted to fill up the number of those who are fallen away, so that all Israel would be saved. “All Israel” means those who believe in the Messiah. It does not mean biological flesh and blood. All Israel will be saved—in other words, those who are called and are chosen, because they believe, and because they freely give themselves over to God.
In the letter in the Holy Scripture, I Peter—there’s a letter in Holy Scripture, I Peter where you have the same kind of teaching. The letter begins like this:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the dispensation in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, chosen and destined by God the Father, and sanctified by the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ, and for the sprinkling with his blood. May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Peter 1:1-2)
What does he say? Chosen and destined, destined and chosen, according to his eternal knowledge, with their own freedom, so that they would participate with him and be his servants. In that same letter, in that very same chapter, you have later on, in the 20th verse of the first chapter, this is what the Apostle writes:
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things, such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot, he was destined before the foundation of the world, and was manifest at the end of times for your sake. Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21)
What does he say? He says, “We were ransomed by the Lamb (that is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, without blemish or spot), who was destined before the foundation of the world, and was made manifest at the end.” The end-times is when the Christ comes, of course. We are now all in the end-times. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The end-times have come upon us.”
In the Apocalypse, I won’t read it from the text, but there is a text in the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, also about how the Lamb of God is suffering from before the foundation of the world, even somehow crucified from before the foundation of the world, as far as God Almighty is concerned. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, “God has all of this in front of his eyes from all eternity.” He’s not ignorant of anything. However, he’s got to deal with our freedoms, and, knowing what we will freely do or not do, he makes his plan.
If we wanted to define “divine providence”—I used to like to define “divine providence,” when I taught in seminary, as “God doing the best he can with what he’s got, and what he’s got is us.” In other words, God doing his best with us, in our freedom, and we are very volatile people. Some are very faithful, and they are with God. Others are not faithful at all, and they apostatize, and they hate God and they fight against God.
Most of us, or at least a lot of us, are waffling back and forth. Sometimes we are with God, sometimes we are against God. Sometimes we believe in him, sometimes we doubt him. Sometimes we surrender to him, sometimes we flee away from him. But God knew all that. He knew all that from all eternity, and here is the point; the point is: he makes his plan on that basis. That is what he does. He orchestrates the whole thing, and he orchestrates it according to what we will or will not do, and how we will or will not be, at any given moment.
Obviously, no computer in the world could process that data, because it would have to process all possibilities, as well as all actualities. Only God can do that. Only God can do that. But knowing all that, in his supreme omniscience, God then designs his plan, and all of creation is even involved in that plan. Sometimes I dare even to think—I may say this when I think about Darwinianism, I am still thinking about all those things—that maybe even natural selection and all the strife in the natural order, God knew all of that, too. He knew all of that, too. He knew what it would take to have all the different forms of species and finally to have a human being who could have a brain and could be free and spiritual and be in God’s image, and shaped by the hands of God through this whole bloody, terrible process that might even be called evolution. Who knows?
But in any case, the theological point is absolute, and it is, in my opinion, beyond doubt, as a teaching of the Church. People may doubt the teaching, but the teaching is very, very clear: God designs everything on the basis of his knowledge, his foreknowledge. Then he calls all to be with him, and then he selects the elect, whom he knows will cooperate with him freely. That’s how it works.
What about prayer? What about prayer? Because we’re praying all the time, right? We’re saying prayers; we are asking God for things. We are asking God for all kinds of things, things that we should ask for, and things we shouldn’t ask for. According to Christ, we should only ask for what belongs to everlasting life, believing that God will take care of all the rest and give us what we need, including sickness, disease, suffering, and whatever it may be.
But we do pray. We can pray, for example for healing. We can pray for another person to be forgiven. We can pray for a person to be converted. We can pray for dead people to receive mercy before God when they are standing in judgment after they have died. We Orthodox believe all these things. Why? We believe that prayer is effective, and it is effective because God hears our prayers before he even creates the world! That’s the point.
Jesus said God knows what we need and hears our prayers before we even say them. You could say, “Well, why bother saying them?” If we don’t bother saying them, then God doesn’t hear them. He doesn’t have anything to hear. But what he does hear beforehand, he hears because we actually freely do it. Think about that. Think about that. It is very important, because what that means is the whole providence of God depends on what we do—whether or not we pray, what we want, what we hope for, what we are trying to live by, and what we actually do.
Of course, we pray to God not so much to get God to do stuff, we pray to God so that He would show us what we’re supposed to do. Then of course, we can pray to God, for example, for healing, but we also have to say, “Nevertheless, your will be done,” because we know darn well it was God’s plan not to keep his son Jesus alive in this world, but to let him get crucified. We know that it is God’s plan that some people would die young, some people would live to be old, some people would suffer, other people wouldn’t. That is all part of God’s inscrutable, unsearchable plan.
In the letter to the Romans even, St. Paul says, “How inscrutable his ways, how unsearchable his plan for the human mind.” When St. Anthony the Great even asked God about this, when St. Anthony in the second saying in the Desert Fathers he says to God, “Why are things the way they are?Why are things the way they are? Why are some people suffering and other people seem not to be? Why is it that some people are physically sick and other people are never sick a day of their life, it seems, until the day they die? Why is it that some live [to be] old, and some die young? Why is it that some suffer immensely, and others don’t suffer physically at all? Why is it some are rich and some are poor? Why are some strong and some weak? Why are some intelligent and some, their brains do not work so well?” God said to Anthony, “Anthony, pay attention to me. It is of no benefit to you, at all, to know anything about these things. This is my business. I have designed it as I can, given how you guys really are.”
How people are depends on how they are humanly. If there are people who are born into sinful, awful families and are abused, that is their providence and God has to deal with that. God can intervene, but he can’t intervene destroying human freedom. He can make people drop dead; he can make the earth open and swallow up people; he can let the sun stand still and part the Red Sea if he wants. He could also heal physical diseases, if he wishes. He can cast out demons when we are controlled by alien powers. But he cannot touch our freedom. That we have to sovereignly give him, by his grace. We have to pray, “Give us the grace to be free. Give us the grace to be with you.” Even that is a grace, but it is inexplicable how it works.
Nevertheless, it is also the teaching that a man like St. Anthony, once he surrendered totally to God, and once he had insight through the cross of Christ, through the revelation of God in the plan that was hidden from all ages and is now made known of the crucified and glorified Christ, he actually had insight into what St. Maximus the Confessor will later call “the divine judgments and the divine providence,” “the divine providence and the divine judgments.”
That would be a teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church for sure, that holy people, who are totally surrendered to God, who really believe in God, who really serve God, who really are ready to suffer for God, and who pray to God more than they breathe, they can actually understand divine providence. They can actually even predict the future. They can know what God is going to do or not do. God can reveal that to them. They can come to know it.
Anthony the Great, himself, actually, came to be able to understand the divine judgments and providence. That is possible, even for a creature, by God’s grace. However, this is an insight into God’s inscrutable plan, and most of us do not have that insight, or else we have it in hindsight. We look back and say, “Oh, yeah, now I see why God’s hands were in that. I see why that had to happen. I see why that person had to die,” or “I see why that person was healed,” or whatever, but still, we cannot know that without divine illumination, without the grace of God coming in us and showing us, without us surrendering ourself—our mind, our soul, our heart—to God.
Getting back to prayer, the claim would be this: God hears our prayers before we even make them, and they become part of divine providence, so whether I pray or don’t pray: that changes everything. How persistently I pray: that changes everything. My prayer actually, so to speak, in Christ, and by God, actually becomes a power and a presence in other people’s lives.
I may pray for someone who doesn’t even know me. Someone may say, “Please pray for my cousin who is sick.” I don’t know who that cousin is. Or even more, “Pray for him to be converted. He is living in sin and evil and he is destroying his life. Pray for him to be converted.” Why would I bother doing that? I just got through saying he’s free. Nevertheless, God tries to work with people to lure their freedom to believe in him. He does things so that they will freely come to know him if they voluntarily wish to.
If I pray for a person, I add, so to speak, the power of my prayer to God’s activity in the life of that person. All of our prayers affect other people by way of God. They do not affect other people directly. It is because we, through God, through the Holy Spirit, become a power and a presence in other people’s lives because of our prayers.
That is why some people could even say, “I know that I have been saved by the prayers of my mother.” St. Augustine, for example. “How could those tears and prayers go unanswered?” Well, they could’ve. He could have remained a lecher and a lascivious fool, but he did not. He surrendered to the grace of God in his life, which is not irresistible. He could have resisted it.
But then he came to believe that a big part of the grace of God in his life came because of the petitions of his mother, and that she was part of that conversion process, even a crucial part. When we cooperate with God, we become God’s co-workers for the sake of the salvation and the healing and the well-being of the whole world and of other human beings.
The point here is this: Whether we pray or whether we don’t pray is a big difference, and it is never too late to pray for anything. My father is dead, for example; so is my mother. In fact, today is my mother’s birthday. If my mother had lived, today she would have been 100 years old. She was born in 1910. Today is her birthday. She would have been 100. Happy birthday, Mom!
My mom has departed this life; so has my father. I pray for them every day. I say, “God, give rest to my parents, receive them into paradise. May they accept your divine glory.” Some folks would say, “What are you wasting your time for? They’re dead, it is over.” But I say, “Over for whom?” It is not over for God. I’m still in space and time. I am on the planet earth. They are buried in the cemetery in Endicott, New York—their bodies are, anyway.
Their life is in the hands of God. But if I pray for them, I believe God heard the prayer, not only before they died; he heard the prayer before they were born. He heard the prayer before I was born. He heard the prayer before he created the whole world. He heard the prayer before there was anything, and he shaped and designed his whole divine providence on the basis of my prayer, whether or not I prayed—and your prayer and everybody’s prayer and the prayers of the whole universe and the actions of the angels and the demons and the good and the evil.
All of that is part of the story. All of that is part of the plan. But as far as God is concerned, he is doing everything he can, the best he can, to work it together for the salvation of each one and all of us together, if he could pull that off, because he desires for everyone to be saved. He calls everyone, but only some are chosen, because only some are willing to cooperate, to have synergia with God, by God’s own grace.
So, we should not think of prayer and petitionary prayer like, “Oh, if I pray one more time, I will get that job,” or, “If I make one more prayer for my dad, he’ll get to go to heaven.” It’s not quantitative. It’s not quantitative, but it’s the whole thing taken together, how it works mysteriously, but it does work.
We should not also think that we are in some kind of interaction with God, like we say a prayer, then God reacts, then God acts, then we say a prayer. One time I was explaining this in a talk, and one of our grandchildren, Benny, heard it, and after it was over he said, “Oh, Grandpa, I really liked your talk.” He said, “I liked best the part about ping-pong. I liked when you said God goes ping, and we go pong-pong-pong-pong.” I said, “Oh, Benny, you paid attention to my talk.”
What did I say in my talk? What I said was this: We’re not playing ping-pong with God. It isn’t like he goes ping, and we go pong, and we go ping, and he goes pong, and we go ping-pong, ping-pong, back and forth. He sees if we pray, and then he acts, and then we pray, and then he acts, and one more prayer, then he does something. That’s not the way it works. That is not the way it works.
How does it work? As I said in the talk that Benny liked so much, if we have to speak about it, and try to understand it, I think we have to say that God goes ping! from all eternity, with one big, huge ping! that reverberates in the life and the being of every single creature in the whole universe, certainly on the whole planet earth—every human being, every plant, every animal, and so on. God’s act is there from all eternity, and in some sense, it is one act for everybody. It has its very particular aspects for each particular creature and human being, but it is a divine act that comes out of the divine eternity based on the divine foreknowledge.
But then, that act is experienced by us in time. So that’s why I said in my analogy that God goes ping! from all eternity, and then we creatures go pong-pong-pong-pong-pong-pong-pong-pong—every day of our life. We are reacting-responding, responding-reacting, reacting-responding, asking, in relation to what God is doing, and how we understand it.
So our side is limited. Our side is in time. Our side is in space. Our side is conditioned by the actual conditions of our life which involve all the actions, and prayers, and behaviors, and speeches, and everything of every other human being that ever lives. We are all interconnected, but we’re all interconnected in this plan of God that comes out of the divine foreknowledge from before the foundation of the world. That’s how it works.
Our prayers are very, very meaningful. As I already said, our prayers actually determine how divine providence is going to be, because God takes into consideration our prayers. He takes into consideration our acts. He takes into consideration our words. He takes into consideration our deeds.
Let’s use another example. Looking at things this way, we would say this: My speaking to you through this podcast right now is part of divine providence. God knew from all eternity that on this day, I would get in my room, turn on the recorder, and talk to you, and I would reflect in your ears about divine foreknowledge, predestination, providence, and prayer.
God knew that I would do that, and he planned it from all eternity that I would do that, and he gave me the capabilities of doing this, because it is part of my providence that I was born in a believing family. It is part of my providence that I was called, hopefully, to become a priest and a teacher. It is part of my divine providence that I had the teachers who told me all of this stuff that I am now telling you, because I did not make this up, I got it from my teachers at the seminary, and from the holy Fathers and the books I read, and reading the Holy Scripture. And it was God’s plan that there would be a Holy Scripture, and that there would be an Isaiah, a Jeremiah, an Ezekiel, a Daniel, that there would be Psalms, that there would be the Holy Scriptures, there would be the apostolic writers. All of this is part of the divine plan, but this whole providential plan at this particular moment in time, in my life and your life, is what has designed and caused us to be in touch right now.
And I am saying this on this day, and you are going to hear it on another day, because it has to be sent to John Maddex at Ancient Faith Radio, and they have to put it up on the internet. But all that is part of God’s plan.
And if, before I started talking I prayed to God, and I said to God, “God, illumine my mind, open my mouth, let me understand, don’t let me say stupid things, do not let me say wrong things, do not let me hurt anybody. If I do say wrong things, let them pass over the people’s heads, don’t let them harm them. Let nothing that I do harm those who love you, O Lord, or even those who hate you. Do not let me harm anybody, in any way. Let me say the truth. Let me deliver what is really the truth about reality as revealed to us by God in Christ and the Holy Spirit and all the apostles and all the saints.” I could make that prayer, and I believe that God hears that prayer.
And maybe when you are listening, you are praying, and saying, “God, let me understand this properly, and if that guy says something wrong, let me send him an email and try to correct him, you know, straighten him out.” In other words, this whole interaction is part of God’s plan, providential plan from all eternity, but what we want and how we approach it and how we pray about it is also part of the plan, and prayer is a big part of how it works, or doesn’t work, or works properly, or works wrongly.
So praying is absolutely essential. What is praying? Praying is creatures saying to God, “O God, we desire, and we want what you want. We want your will to be done. We want to be instruments of you. We want to be your servants. We want to be your children. We want to be with you.” Then God honors that, and then he can interact with us. But if we would not ask that, then God would have to act differently. God would have to keep acting to try to break through to get us to pray, and find ways to try to do that by his divine providence.
When we think of these things, then we know and believe that absolutely everything that happens is by divine providence, and whether it is good or bad depends on us, and how it works depends on us, and whether it is fruitful or not and not wasted, depends on us.
God doesn’t waste his activities. He knows how to act, he knows what to do, he knows how to design the whole thing. He knows how to bring it to the best possible conclusion so that the most possible creatures could be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, and enjoy the beauty and the glory of God forever and ever. God is doing all the best he can, and we have to do that, too, and a big part of it is our petitionary prayer.
So when we pray, God takes that into consideration from before the foundation of the world, and he acts accordingly. Sometimes he says “yes” to our prayer; sometimes he says “no.” If we ask for something specific, he might grant it, or he may not grant it, because he has another purpose in mind, and his purpose is always good. Everything works together for good.
But we must pray, and we must not only act in praying, but as the holy Fathers of the Church say, we have to become prayer. Our whole life should be a prayer, and when our whole life is a prayer—and every thought, word, and deed, and every breath that we have—then we are constantly co-fashioning the providence of God as his co-workers. That’s what’s happening. It’s an amazing thing. It’s mind-blowing. Think about it. But according to Scripture, and the Tradition, and the teachings, this is exactly what is happening. This is exactly what is happening.
So our prayer today should be, first of all, that, knowing that we are called by God to be his co-workers, his field, his people, his priests in the world, his prophets, we should pray to God that we would be chosen for that purpose, that we want to do that.
Then we would pray to God that we would be faithful to it, and that we would continue in prayer and work and fasting and everything we need to do to make the world to be what God in his divine providence wants it to be. But what we think, say, and do determines how that providence really is, because we are free. But God interacts with our freedom, and he himself, comes on earth. The Lord Jesus Christ is fully divine, the Son of God, and he voluntarily also acts in obedience to his father.
Jesus as a man is not constrained, even. He has to say, “Your will be done, not mine.” Jesus has to voluntarily go to his passion and death, but that’s the center of the divine providence—the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the glorification of the Son of God.
So there is a foreknowledge, there is a predestination, but it involves our freedom. It’s not just God deciding everything. He decides according to our freedom, together with our freedom. There is a foreknowledge, in which he knows what we will freely do. There is a predestination, according to what we will freely say and do and want and pray for. Then, that very predestination, that very providential way of human history, directly involves our behavior and our prayer, and our prayer is, of course, always connected with our deeds, with our actions.
It seems to me that this, at least somehow, is how the whole thing actually works.