“The Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” (Ex 32:14)
If you’re going to think about prayer, and if you’re reading your Bible carefully, sooner or later there’s an important question that might rub up against you: Does prayer really make a difference to a sovereign God?
It’s hard to read your Bible and come to any conclusion other than God is totally and utterly sovereign. He is in control of all things, everywhere. Moreover, his plan for salvation has been in place since ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph 1:4). He’s not sitting up in heaven, nervously wondering if things will turn out okay. Everything proceeds just as he planned. God is not a human being, that he should change his mind (1 Sam 15:29).
And yet, repeatedly throughout the Bible, God’s people’s are told to pray. We’re told to present our requests in all situations. But why? If God is totally sovereign – if he is working out his plans and purposes in the world, and if nothing and no one can derail those plans – why bother with prayer?
We can’t deal with this massive topic in one short reflection, so let’s deal with this over a couple of days.
To begin with, what solutions to this supposed ‘dilemma’ have been proposed? I guess one obvious response is to stop praying. If that’s your response, well, please go back and read your Bible. Go back and read the rest of this series on prayer. Pray that God would help you to pray! At the end of all that, if you still think responding to God’s sovereignty by not praying is a right, biblical response, something is seriously missing. Prayer is commended and commanded over and over and over again in the Bible. Using God’s sovereignty as a reason for abandoning prayer is probably just the lazy man’s excuse. God knows what we need before we ask, yet Jesus still tells us to pray (Matt 6:8).
Alternately, some attempt to dismiss the other side of the equation, claiming that God is not really sovereign. We can’t go into this in detail now – this is a short post on prayer, not a massively long post on ‘predestination’. But to put it bluntly, this option is just as unbiblical as the first. The truth of God’s complete sovereignty comes up again and again in the Bible. It’s just everywhere, in big and small ways. As a tiny sample, I’d suggest reading Proverbs 16:9, Proverbs 21:1, Matthew 10:29-31, Romans 9:6-24, Ephesians 2:1-10, Acts 13:48 and Ephesians 1:3-6. God is in charge.
Perhaps the most common solution to the question, ‘Why pray if God is sovereign?’ is to tweak the purpose of prayer. The argument usually goes something like this: “Yes, prayer changes things – but what it really changes is not God, but us! When we pray, our minds and our wills are transformed and changed so that they align properly with God’s will. That’s the real change – that’s why we pray.”
It sounds pious, and there’s certainly some truth in it. But it’s far from the whole story. In fact, when put in the kind of stark terms I used above (as it often is), it becomes decidedly unhelpful. Does prayer change us? Yes. But does it change other things, as well? Absolutely! We’ll continue looking at this idea tomorrow, but for now, here’s how A.W. Pink puts it: “Prayer is the way and means God has appointed for the communication of the blessings of His goodness to His people.”
Heavenly Father, I thank you and praise you, because you are completely sovereign. And I rejoice that you delight to hear and answer my prayers. Please help me to understand how prayer coexists with your sovereignty, and help me to pray to you more as a result. In Jesus’ name. Amen.