Your question touches upon a mystery too deep for the human mind to penetrate. The Bible says that God has a predetermined plan for the whole universe and every individual in it. It also teaches that prayer changes things. How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory ideas? The answer is that we can’t. We simply have to affirm by faith that, in some way we can’t comprehend, both statements are true.
Scripture does represent God as absolutely sovereign and completely in charge of every detail of His creation. There can be no doubt about this. “Remember the former things of old,” says the Lord in Isaiah 46:9-11. “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’ … Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.”
At the same time, the Bible affirms that “the effective and fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). It also provides many examples that illustrate the point. “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours,” writes James, “and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (verses 17 and 18). We are told that God responded to Abraham’s persistent intercessions for the city of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33). He also added fifteen years to the life of King Hezekiah in answer to prayer (II Kings 20:1-11). No wonder the Psalms declare again and again that the Lord hears us when we call (see, for example, Psalm 66:19).
What does all this mean? How do we weave these apparently contradictory threads of evidence together into a single coherent message? The Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most important and definitive documents of the Reformed wing of the church, is helpful at this point: “God has freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Chapter III, section 1). Prayer, as we see it, is one of those “second causes.” Strange and wonderful as it seems, the efficacy of prayer is “established” by God’s “unchangeable” decree.
Exactly how this works is something we can’t possibly explain. But we can hazard a guess as to why the Lord has designed the world this way. Since the day He put Adam into the Garden of Eden to tend and cultivate it (Genesis 2:15) it has been His intention that mankind should assist Him “in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (J.R.R. Tolkien). In other words, God wants us to participate with Him in the outworking of His eternal plan.
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