When it comes to God’s sovereignty and prayer, it is enough for some people to know that 1. God is sovereign (in control) and 2. God commands us to pray. But there are others who struggle with seeing prayer as an Achilles heel for belief in God’s providence and sovereign control over all things.
In other words, they sincerely wrestle with the question, If God is sovereign, why pray?
All of us, though we may not verbalize the question, practically live out our implicit answers to this question in how we pray. I’ve seen this play out in my life and in teaching, both good and bad, I’ve received through the years. If God is immobilized by my lack of prayers or constrained by their content, I will pray with feverish anxiety, maybe in fear of forgetting something important or asking for the wrong thing. If my prayers only change me, my intercession for others end up short and passionless, “Do what you will, you know what’s best, amen” with faithlessness masquerading as faith in God’s sovereignty.
The question of “Then, why pray?” came up in church during a class on God’s sovereignty a few weeks ago, so I thought I’d share a few points here. They’re brief but may be helpful for some wrestling with the seeming contradiction of God’s sovereign will and our supplications in prayer.
1. Prayer is more than just asking for things.
Worshippers of God praise him in prayer because adoration is a natural and fitting response to seeing his greatness. We pour out our hearts before him in prayer not because he does not know our minds, but because he is a refuge for his people and he comforts us as we lay our burdens before him. We confess our sins in prayer not to inform him of what we did while his back was turned, but to receive his cleansing forgiveness and power to change.
Prayer is more than just asking for things and it is relational, not transactional. Even as we present our requests before God, our supplications are not so much like placing an order for Amazon as much as it is approaching our Father. We come to him with the longings of our hearts, trusting in his goodness and wisdom, knowing his love and care. Those who believe that prayer is pointless if God is in control do not yet understand our communion with God in prayer.
2. Scripture affirms that our supplications are effective as God responds to them.
Prayer changes us as we commune with God, but does not only change us. Scripture is full of stories of God responding to his people’s requests. Israel’s mass exodus from slavery is preceded by, “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Ex. 2:23-25) And the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal proved that, unlike false idols, Yahweh is the God who lives, hears and responds to his people. These are only two of innumerable Biblical examples.
In the New Testament, James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (Ja. 4:2b) Paul urges supplications to be made for all people and asks the churches to pray for him (1 Tim. 2:1, Eph. 6:19, Col. 4:3.) And Jesus himself straightforwardly says, “Ask and you will receive.”
3. God’s sovereignty does not negate the meaningfulness of my prayers, but rather upholds their effectiveness.
Scripture overwhelming attests to God’s sovereignty, or providence.* At the same time, it also attests to the meaningfulness of my actions, including my prayers. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably ordain 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. (WCF 3:1-2)
When we think of God as merely an actor in a pre-existing world, then his sovereignty seems to negate the effectiveness of our prayers. But remember that everything that exists is continually held together by his command and that fabric of the universe would completely unravel if he did not uphold it (Heb. 1:3). Therefore, “second causes” or what we may think of as “means” make a difference not in competition with but because of God. Our actions have consequences in the world because God upholds it. Our prayers are effective because and only because God himself establishes their effectiveness.
4. God has sovereignly ordained means.
Also, in believing that God has ordained all things, Christians believe that he ordains means. For example, though we believe that God has chosen how many days we have on earth, we still eat (Ps. 139:16). We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Well if God wanted me to live, I would,” because we believe God has chosen to use physical sustenance to prolong our days. God has not only determined outcomes in history, but the means toward these outcomes.
When it comes to prayer then, as one of my professors put it, What if God has sovereignly ordained your prayers as a means toward accomplishing his will on earth?
5. Ultimately, we pray not in spite of, but because we believe in God’s sovereignty.
R.C. Sproul has said, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Similarly, rather than feeling demotivated to pray because we know God is sovereign, Christians can pray in faith because God is in control of all things.
Our God is able to direct the will of earthly kings, so we pray for leaders in our home, work, and nations. He can make dead hearts live, and so we plead for him to grant salvation to hardened hearts. He is able to break the power of sin in our lives, families, and churches, so we plead for more grace to overcome. And he has chosen to do all this and more through the prayers of his people to the praise of his glory.
Nothing is outside of our Sovereign King’s rule and thus nothing is impossible for him. What great confidence we have in Christ to approach the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.
* Kevin DeYoung writes in, The Good News We Almost Forgot: “The Bible affirms human responsibility. But the Bible also affirms, much more massively and frequently than some imagine, God’s power and authority over all things. The nations are under God’s control (Pss. 2:1–4; 33:10), as is nature (Mark 4:41; Pss. 135:7; 147:18; 148:8), and animals (2 Kings 17:25; Dan. 6:22; Matt. 10:29). God is sovereign over Satan and evil spirits (Matt. 4:10; 2 Cor. 12:7–8; Mark 1:27). God uses wicked people for His plans-not just in a “bringing good out of evil” sort of way but in an active, intentional, “this was God’s plan from the get-go” sort of way (Job 12:16; John 19:11; Gen. 45:8; Luke 22:22; Acts 4:27–28). God hardens hearts (Ex. 14:17; Josh. 11:20; Rom. 9:18). God sends trouble and calamity (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20–23; Isa. 45:6–7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14). God even puts to death (1 Sam. 2:6, 25; 2 Sam. 12:15; 2 Chron. 10:4,14; Deut. 32:39). God does what He pleases and His purposes cannot be thwarted (Isa. 46:9–10; Dan. 4:34–35). In short, God guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of His will (Prov. 16:33; 20:24; 21:2; Jer. 10:23; Ps. 139:16; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11).”