Blog Post

If God never Changes, What Good is Prayer?

We’re living through dire times. The coronavirus has gone viral, we’re laid off from our jobs, forced to wear masks in public and – worst of all – we can’t go to Mass! As the weeks drag on, many have begun to ask that age-old question, “If God is unchanging, is our prayer doing any good?”

The answer to the questions is yes – but not because our prayer changes God’s mind. It’s because He foresaw our prayer from all eternity and worked it into His plan from the very beginning.

As explained by David Arias, professor of philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that “Divine Providence decrees from eternity not only which effects will come about in the created order, but also which created secondary causes will bring about these effects as well as the order in which these secondary causes will bring about these effects.”

This means that the plan God made for the outcome of this pandemic includes the “secondary causes” which are the prayers of His people. His plan for the outcome of this pandemic includes the prayers He knew we would make during this crisis.

“Human beings perform certain human acts, not in an attempt to change God's unchangeable providence, but rather in order to bring about certain effects, which God has ordained to follow from the human acts in question,” Prof. Arias explains.

In other words, our prayer really isn’t our idea.

“Before we ever decided to have recourse to prayer, it was willed by God,” writes the Dominican theologian Garrigou-Lagrange. “To conceive of God as not foreseeing and intending from all eternity the prayers we address to Him in time is just as childish as the notion of a God subjecting His will to ours and so altering His designs.”

As long as we’re praying properly, with humility, confidence, and perseverance, and are asking for the things necessary for our salvation, we are actually doing what God has willed from all eternity.

“Prayer is not in opposition to the designs of Providence and does not seek to alter them,” Father writes, “but actually cooperates in the divine governance, for when we pray we begin to wish in time what God wills for us from all eternity.”

Although it might seem as if we’re asking for God to bend His will according to our desires, it’s really just the opposite. The inspiration to pray is actually our will that is being lifted into the higher purpose of the divine will.

“Instead of one, there are now two who desire these things,” Father continues. “It is God of course who converted the sinner for whom we have so long been praying; nevertheless we have been God’s partners in the conversion…yet from all eternity He decided to produce this salutary effect only with our cooperation and as the result of our intercession.”

The consequences of this principal are enormous. Prayer not only changes things, it can change the very course of history – including the outcome of this pandemic. How much worse might it have been if none of us had prayed, if the faithful had not turned to God to plea for themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors? But He inspired us to pray for a speedy end, with minimal loss of life, so that we might participate in the end He willed for this crisis.

True prayer, when offered with the proper dispositions mentioned above, has been – and will be - unfailingly effective because, “God has decreed that it shall be so, and God cannot revoke what He has once decreed,” Father writes.

In order to wrap our heads around this truth, we have to let go of an erroneous notion that often secretly invades our prayer life – that we are the primary source of the effectiveness of our prayer rather than God. If we pray hard enough or often enough, we’ll somehow move God’s hand. It just doesn’t work that way.

Instead, our prayer must be founded in God as well as ourselves so that our prayer is co-operating with the plan God has in mind. Prayer should never be intended to bend God’s will to ours – it’s all about bending our will to His.

More simply, when it comes to our intercessory prayer, we should see God as a father who has already decided to grant some favor to his children and prompts them to ask him for it. Ask Him for everything, a healing, financial help, the conversion of a soul, but always with the most powerful of all caveats – “if it is your will.”

What about prayers that go unanswered? Is this because it is not what God wills?

Yes, it is very possible that we might be praying for something that is not God’s will, but Father Lagrange gives two other possible answers to this question. First, God may sometimes turn a deaf ear to our prayer “when it is not sufficiently free from self-interest, seeking temporary blessings for their own sake rather than as useful for salvation. Then gradually grace invites us to pray better, reminding us of the Gospel words: ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

A second reason may be that God is testing us to see if we will persevere in prayer. There are numerous examples of this throughout Scripture, most notably the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to deliver her daughter from a tormenting demon. “I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel…It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs,” Jesus said as if in rebuke.

As Lagrange points out, the woman’s enlightened response was “inspired undoubtedly by grace that came to her from Christ” when she replied, “the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.”

Even in prayer, God is at the helm directing our “little barks” according to His eternal plan. Once we absorb the truth of this intimate connection between prayer and the providence of God, we will realize that no force on earth is more capable of changing things than prayer.

This is true even when we’re praying for a miraculous healing for someone who dies in spite of our pleas. Far from being wasted prayers, these prayers were very much a part of the plan He had for the life of our loved one and we may only know in heaven what impact our prayers had on the eternal life of the person we prayed for – as well on as on our own souls.

Yes, prayer changes, which is why we should pray all the more fervently in order to play our designated part in fulfilling God’s eternal plan.

“Prayer is a supernatural energy with an efficacy coming from God,” Father Lagrange reminds. “It is a spiritual energy more potent than all the forces of nature together because it can obtain for us what God alone can bestow…”


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