Why do we pray for specific intentions when God already has a ‘plan’ for us? So if He won’t change the plan, do we truly have free will?
These two questions have at least two separate issues: the nature of God’s plan in relation to our prayer and the reality of God’s knowledge in relation to
human free will. The key to answering both issues is the recognition of God’s plan as an eternal plan and not simply earthly in nature.
First of all (and this may be a shock), the point of praying is not to “change God’s mind.” Rather, prayer is in itself an act of being in relationship with God – who is all good and is perfect love. Offering prayers for specific intentions certainly is one manner of praying, wherein we bring before God our own perceived needs or those of others who have asked for prayer. However, as with other types of prayer, the end goal of such prayer for particular needs ought never to be divorced from God’s will of perfect love – as prayer is always meant to seek what is true, good, and beautiful: God Himself. In offering prayer intentions, we hopefully understand that some things are against the very nature of prayer – such as praying that another be harmed.
Sometimes, however, it may appear as though the perceived answers to our prayers have led God to change his mind (such as when a forecasted storm does not come). However, such moments are not God changing His mind. Rather, such prayers being “answered” are more properly attributed to God’s providential care, wherein all things in the world are allowed (even evil things) so that the true good of God’s people (that is, their salvation) might be offered and brought to greater completion. In His providence, God indeed has the ability to divert or eliminate storms (remember Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, or Luke 8:22-25 when Jesus calms the storm on the sea). Such does not change His plan; it more aptly is seen as a means of Him revealing His power, that we might be drawn closer to Him in faith, accepting His invitation of salvation more fully. Likewise,when it appears that God doesn’t answer our prayer (according to our expectations, anyway), it is not as though He has turned His back. For example, when we pray for a miraculous healing and none is granted according to our expectations, it is not as though nothing happened; for even in such moments, God invites us closer and can draw us into deeper faith in ways we may not immediately see. In this way, it is not a matter of God changing His plan as much as it is our opening up to even greater possibilities – greater even than earthly healing.
Given these explanations of prayer intentions being answered, hopefully you begin to see the true beauty of free will. God’s plan must be seen in its proper light not as a hard and fast script for the world; it is instead pointing toward the salvation of all souls. Within that end goal, each human person has the capacity to say “yes” or “no” to God’s plan. God in no way controls this decision. That He knows how it ends does not annihilate our free will – it instead confirms it. Think of it this way: God loves us so much that He wants us to be able to love Him back instead of forcing Himself upon us. Though He knows every decision we will ever make, His providential care once more allows it as it can be used to either draw us more deeply into His love (when we choose the good and benefit) or be a means to call us back (when we choose evil and reap its consequence). Has His plan of salvation changed? No – what is different is our own acceptance or rejection of the invitation. If we say “yes,” we are drawn closer; if we say “no” we move away from Him by our own choosing. What is the same in all instances is His will to lead all people to salvation.
Thus, the common link in these considerations is that God’s plan is singular in His desiring our salvation. What is variable is our willingness to accept the invitation and to cooperate with Him. Furthermore, when things beyond our control happen (for good or for evil) it is not as though God changed; it is His providential care at work inviting us to say “yes” to Him in any and every circumstance, that salvation might be accomplished in us.