Did God Do That? How Do We Pray and Make Decisions?


The first time I ever really had a frank discussion about the extent of God’s power and influence happened over breakfast with a friend. We always shared prayer requests with each other and prayed in such a way that we expected God to help us work toward a better course than our current one.

But if everything is set in stone due to God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty, what role, if any does prayer play? Are we just participating in a charade?

I imagine God saying: Thanks for playing along humans, but I’ve got this.

I’m not sure how anyone can live in a relationship with such a being if everything has a reason, everything is settled, everything is known. To make matters more complex, there are plenty of passages in the Bible where God changes his mind, responds to prayer, regrets decisions, and expresses heartbreak.

If God is able to move the chess pieces wherever he wants, why does it sound like he’s genuinely sad about the choices of his people to worship false gods? Hasn’t eternity past given him enough time to brace himself?

Is God just acting?

This is tricky, troubling, complex, and ultimately unknowable territory. I mean, who gets to really give the final word about “What God is actually like?”

The truth is that many of us pray expecting to team up with God in making this world reflect his desires and qualities. If we don’t pray for things to happen, they won’t happen. If we don’t ask his Spirit to help us live holy lives, we’re going to struggle. If we don’t reorient our minds through scripture reading, our minds will wander. If we don’t quiet ourselves in his presence, we will experience chaos.

We all believe deep down, no matter what our theology is on paper, that prayer and holy living changes something about our present and our future. We know that neglecting these things can be quite bad and even destructive for us.

So does everything happen for a reason?

Is God really in control?

Those are the questions I hope to dig into next week.

Your Thoughts

Does God actually change his plans based on our prayers?

11 thoughts on “Did God Do That? How Do We Pray and Make Decisions?

  1. Jeremy Scott

    I believe our prayers can change what God has planned, like Abraham with Sodom and Moses numerous times with Israel. Yet I think there are also times when God allows things to happen regardless of our prayers, such as when a loved one dies of cancer, or other tragedies. I think God wants us to pray not as if it is a wish granting service, but a dialogue with Him that opens us up to trust Him no matter what.

  2. Kathryn

    There are too many evidences in Scripture, like those you referenced, for me to believe that our prayers are just for the sake of praying. I have been reading Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” recently for a seminary class and he said a couple things about prayer that really struck me. One is that some people may attribute prayer to a coincidence, but Foster noted that coincidences happen a lot more often when people are praying than when not. Secondly, he discussed how neither Jesus nor the apostles and prophets ever said, “if it by thy will” when praying for others. That particular phrase has always gotten under my skin a little, especially when praying for things such as healing, etc. Foster discusses how the apostles and Jesus were very in touch with the Holy Spirit so they could pray confidently. He states there was never room for “indecisive, tentative, half-hoping ‘if it be thy will’ prayers” when interceding. So I think we should pray confidently for those things the Lord has placed on our hearts. I have to think that praying is more than just an exercise in obedience.

    I think prayer is powerful, and God can and does change his mind within his character, and while things may all happen for a reason, sometimes the reason might be because it’s a fallen world and people make bad choices because they are sinful. Yes, God ultimately weaves those mistakes and choices together for good in his ultimate plan, but Satan is on the prowl, and we can’t forget that, either.

  3. Donald

    I’ve heard it said that prayer isn’t about us changing God, but God changing us. Sure, I guess. But that doesn’t satisfy me. I find this question deeply intriguing. Not sure we will ever fully understand it, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts, Ed, in the upcoming days.

  4. Jennifer Lundberg

    I honestly don’t know and I have become okay with that. I have chosen to pray like it matters and truthfully, I have experienced God in my prayer life more because of it. I have never been one to believe there is one right plan, one right person, one right job. God is eternal, He is focused on the eternal. The circumstances are not what has to be right, they go away with this earth. I guess all that to say I think circumstances, career choices, relationships, houses, where we live, all that can change because those are just a means to an end.

  5. Jessica

    Oh Lordy, I am still a tad bit ruined in the prayer department thanks to Calvinism.

    I remember laying in bed, crying, so confused, and unable to pray for my atheist friend (who I had been intensely praying for for years) shortly after these doctrines had been crammed down my throat.

    But ultimately, I believe this:

    “There are plenty of passages in the Bible where God changes his mind, responds to prayer, regrets decisions, and expresses heartbreak.”

      1. Melinda Viergever Inman

        I agree. Yikes. This whole premise that everything is set in stone, so why pray, is not what we see in the Bible. I think that would be some non-biblical offshoot of Calvinism, something I’ve heard categorized as hyper-Calvinism, a taking to the extreme of any of Calvinisms tenets. It seems we humans often do this sort of thing!

        In scripture, God tells us to pray, people pray, and God changes his plan. Consider how many times God forgave Israel and stayed his hand when they repented. Consider Jonah. God told Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that in forty days they would be wiped out. That was the evangelistic message. These were the Assyrians, so that made sense to them. They repented and prayed. God didn’t wipe them out. Jonah was mad, because he didn’t want their prayers to move God (maybe he was a hyper-Calvinist). He wanted to see them wiped out.

        There are many examples, but just one more occurs in Philippians, where Paul tells them that through their prayers and the help of the Spirit of Christ his circumstances are turning out for the advancement of the gospel and his deliverance, one way or another (1:19-26).
        What if they hadn’t prayed? Would that have been it for Paul, no writing of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? Only God knows.

        I think it’s amazing that God wants to include us. Somehow he works out both our praying and our not praying for our good. His ways are beyond comprehension. He promises to do so because he is kind and he knows we’ll blow it, but he actually commands us to be a part of it and to pray. I have this suspicion that our praying might waylay some of those trials that end up provoking us to finally pray. Just a hunch.

  6. Paul VanderKlay

    To reiterate my point, the prayer question is hardly a question that arises from Calvinism. Philip Yancey’s book on prayer in many ways centers around these matters and I’d hardly consider him a prisoner of the Calvinist dungeon. :)

    I remember in Hebrew Class at Calvin Theological Seminary translating the passage “And God repented from the evil he was about to do to them.” Jonah 3:10

    That will twist your systematic theological noodle. :) You’ll find plenty of translations and study Bibles that wish to nuance this passage, but look it up in the old KJV. :)

    Part of the Reformed tradition (a better label than ‘Calvinism’) is the critique of our theological system based on the community wrestling with the Bible. We keep Reforming, and subsequent generations will continue to reform us I’m sure. :) pvk

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