Open Theism and Past-Directed Prayers

A past-directed prayer is one that petitions God either (1) to have brought about some state of affairs at some time in the past or (2) to bring about some state of affairs (now or in the future) that would require God to have brought about some (other) state of affairs at some time in the past.

Praying HandsIn this paper (submitted for publication in this forthcoming book) I argue that past-directed prayers can be answered by God only if God has foreknowledge of our future free choices, and therefore any evidence of answered past-directed prayers constitutes evidence against open theism (which denies God’s foreknowledge of future free choices). I also suggest (to complete the argument) that there appear to be actual cases of answered past-directed prayers. In the penultimate section of the paper, I make reference to a remarkable story related by Helen Roseveare in her book Living Faith. Her account is too long to quote in full in the paper, but since it’s such a striking (and encouraging!) testimony I thought I would reproduce it here instead (see below).

Constructive feedback on the paper is welcome!


Source: Helen Roseveare, Living Faith, Christian Focus Publications, 2007, pp. 56-58.

On other occasions, material goods were given rather than cash — but equally, the right goods at the right time. One night, I had worked hard to help a mother in the labour ward, but despite all we could do, she died, leaving us with a tiny premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter. We would have difficulty in keeping the baby alive, as we had no incubator (we had no electricity to run an incubator!) and no special feeding facilities. Despite living on the equator, nights were often chilly, with treacherous draughts. One pupil midwife went for the box we used for such babies and the cotton wool they were wrapped in. Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle. She came back shortly, in distress, to tell me that, in filling the bottle, it had burst. Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates.

“And it is our last hot water bottle! ” she exclaimed.

As in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk, so in Central Africa it might be considered no good crying over burst hot water bottles. They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.

“All right,” I said. “Put the baby as near the fire as you safely can; sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from draughts. Your job is to keep that baby warm.”

The following noon, I went to have prayers with any of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me, as I did most days. I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby.

I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the burst hot water bottle. The baby could so easily die if it got chilled. I also told them of the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.

During prayer time one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt conciseness of our African children.

“Please, God,” she prayed, “send us a hot water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby’ll be dead; so please send it this afternoon.”

While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of corollary, “And, while You are about it, Would You please send a dolly for the little girl, so she’ll know You really love her?”

As often with the children’s prayers, I was put on the spot. Could I honestly say, “Amen?” I just did not believe that God could do this. Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything. The Bible says so. But there are limits, aren’t there? And I had some very big “buts.” The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending me a parcel from the homeland. I had been in Africa almost four years at that time, and I had never, never received a parcel from home; anyway, if anyone did send me a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle? I lived on the equator!

Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door. By the time I reached home, the car had gone, but there, on the veranda, was a large twenty-two-pound parcel, all done up with paper and string, and bearing U.K. stamps. I felt tears pricking my eyes. I could not open the parcel alone, so I sent for the orphanage children. Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot. We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly. Excitement was mounting. Some thirty to forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box.

From the top, I lifted out brightly coloured, knitted jerseys. Eyes sparkled as I gave them out. Then there were knitted bandages for the leprosy patients and the children looked a little bored! Then a large bar of soap — and the children were probably more bored! Then a box of mixed raisins and sultanas that Would make a nice batch of buns for the weekend. Then, as I put my hand in again, I felt the could it really be? I grasped it and pulled it out yes, a brand-new, rubber, hot water bottle! I cried. I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.

Ruth was in the front row of the children. She rushed forward, crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly too!”

Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully dressed dolly. Her eyes shone! She had never doubted.

Looking up at me, she asked: “Can I go over with you, Mummy, and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?”

That parcel had been on the way for five whole months. Packed up by my old GCU class, the leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator, and one of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child m five months before in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year-old, to bring it “that afternoon.” Can God still perform miracles? Is He the same yesterday, today, and forever — in Israel, Africa, and anywhere else where He finds living faith? Indeed He can and is!

One Response to Open Theism and Past-Directed Prayers

  1. Great topic and very encouraging story on answer to prayer. I believe you are right to say that upon further examination many answers to prayer are really PDPs.
    Tim Miller