Why do Christians pray? If God is sovereign, and He is executing His plan according to His Kingly freedom, then why does it matter if we pray?
After all, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8), so it’s not as if He needs us to instruct Him as to what He should do. When we pray, we are bringing our tiny perspective to a God that knows everything about every inch of the Universe (Job 38). If I’m praying that my kid will win his basketball game and a Christian parent in the opposite bleacher is praying the same for his kid on the opposing team, then are the prayers we send to heaven competing like our kids compete on the court?
If you really think about it, whenever people pray, could you say that they are actually competing with God? When Christians pray, are we trying to convince an all-wise King to do something that He hadn’t already planned to do without us to advise Him? Is our will in a given situation competing with God’s will? Why ask things of a God who already knows what to do better than we do?
The question becomes sharper when we consider that God is already (and always) more loving than we are. Goodness and love are at the core of His being, so it is not as if He needs us to convince Him to be better than He is. In prayer, we bring our limited goodness to a God who defines the very meaning of love (1 John 4:8). Wouldn’t we do better to simply be quiet and watch Him unfurl the events of this world, including everything that impacts each of our lives?
In view of God’s sovereignty, why pray? Before answering, let us establish the premise of the question, namely, that God is absolutely sovereign over all things.
There are systems of philosophy that do not begin with this premise. In fact, most do not. Because we all experience ourselves making choices, choices that have consequences and for which we are responsible, many philosophers assume that our creaturely will is truly free. God has not decreed everything that comes to pass. Man is master of his own destiny. This view that asserts the autonomous will of man, not the autonomous will of God, is actually a bedrock of almost every religious or philosophical system on earth. There is, accordingly, a strong tradition within Christianity that vigorously upholds the free will of man. This Christian free-will tradition often goes by the name of Arminianism, named after a Dutch professor of theology who died in 1609, but it goes as far back as the early church fathers.
The contrasting view, called Calvinism, named after the man who (along with Luther) was a primary leader of the Protestant Reformation, also goes back to the early church fathers (like Augustine) and, I would argue, the Apostles and Prophets themselves. Calvinism is known for its assertion that God (not man) elected a particular people before the foundation of the world, predestining them to receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But this view of how God saves according to His sovereign choice is only part and parcel of a larger assertion, namely, that all things happen according to God’s sovereign decree. So, whether it be in the salvation of a sinner—our most pressing concern, or any other matter whatsoever, Calvinism asserts that God has decreed everything that will come to pass.
Is Calvinism biblical? Is it true? The answer to these two questions is necessarily the same. And yes, the Bible teaches that God has a sovereign Decree.
“The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). The certainty of God’s plans are juxtaposed in the preceding verse to the plans of the hearts of man, which are far from certain, far from autonomous. “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples” (Psalm 33:10). There is only room for one absolutely free will in the Universe, and according to the Scriptures, it does not belong to us.
Even the most wicked scheme that humankind has seen through to completion was not outside the foreordained plan of God. According to the willful decisions of Pontius Pilate, Herod, the Jews, and the Romans (each one operating according to the individual desires of their own hearts), the only innocent, the infinitely valuable, the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, was hung to die upon a cross. Although they had creaturely wills that chose according to their desires, they did “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). So, in short, the Bible teaches that God has a sovereign decree, and man’s creaturely will is compatible with that decree. Man is held responsible for his choices, since he chooses according to his desires. But God is absolutely free as He executes His plan.
The Westminster Confession adequately summarizes the Bible’s teaching. “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.”
If this view of God’s sovereignty is allowed, established by Psalm 33:10 and Acts 4:28, as it could be by Genesis 50:20, Isaiah 10, and a host of other passages, then it raises questions about prayer, to which we now return. If God already has a sovereign decree, then why pray?
First, It is important to realize that God ordains prayer. That is to say, He commands and prescribes it. The so-called “phone-number of God (33-3)”, taken from that famous verse, Jeremiah 33:3, is a simple and direct command to pray, notwithstanding the complexities of our theological understanding. “Call to me and I will answer you.” The command is clear. What’s more, the prescription is accompanied by a promise. We are to pray, and here is what He will do: answer. So, communication between the Holy One and His creatures is not only allowed, not only encouraged, but even commanded, and rewarded.
As we move into the New Testament, we find that the promises related to God answering prayer not only remain, but even seem to be intensified. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). And, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). And, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). And, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). These are amazing promises indeed. All the more reason to simply obey His command. God has ordained that we should pray.
Second, God ordains means as well as ends. When our minds try to reconcile the above promises of Jesus with the aforementioned teaching on God’s sovereign decree, it won’t be long before we feel like our minds are getting twisted in knots. Since I cannot fully untangle the knot for myself, let alone for anyone else, allow me to stop trying after suggesting one key point that has helped me at many turns. That is, God ordains the means as well as the ends.
It shouldn’t surprise us that God already knew everything that we would pray even before we ask. After all, He exists outside of time. And, as hundreds of predictive prophecies recorded in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament indicate, He knows the future as certainly as He knows the past. By contrast, we are time-bound creatures. So, we live in a cause-and-effect continuum whereby certain choices we make result in certain outcomes. But for God, what we see as means (often things in our present) and what we see as ends (often things in the future) are simply settled knowledge in His mind, known by Him because He has ordained them both. So, from our perspective, we pray and see a desired outcome unfold. But for God, He knew what we would pray (no matter what it is) and how He would answer. Both the means and the ends have been ordained.
Third, and finally, God deals with us according to His prescriptive will, not His secret will. This point is crucial, because although we are told that God has a secret will (a decree that governs the Universe), we are not told what that decree is. To us it is a secret. We are not accountable to it. We are not judged by it. We are not expected to live by it. Rather, we are called to live according to His revealed (prescriptive) will.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Recall that Peter spoke of two wills in God, one prescriptive and the other secret. “For this is the will of God” (Peter speaks prescriptively) “that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will” (Peter speaks of God’s secret will) “than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). Peter understood that God has two wills, or two kinds of willing.
One will of God is prescribed for us. That is what we have revealed to us in the Bible in the form of commands. God commands, for example, all men everywhere to repent of sin (Acts 17:30) and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16). This is the will of God by which we must live. And it includes the prescription to pray. The other will of God, like a larger circle that holds the prescriptive will of God like a circle within it, is secret. By definition, we cannot know it. So, we are not to live as if we can know it. So, for example, we are to broadcast the gospel far and wide, and indiscriminately. Why? Because we do not know the identity of the elect.
When it comes to prayer, then, we are to pray according to the prescriptive will of God. We should call on God for certain things because He commands us to ask for them. And we should fashion our prayers according to what the Bible reveals of His character and concern. For example, we should ask for things that are in keeping with the compassion and mission of Jesus Christ, as He is revealed to us on the pages of Scripture. Our job is not to try and figure out the secret will of God, but rather, to pray according to biblical concerns.
In conclusion, there is no contradiction between God’s having a sovereign decree and our responsibility to go before Him in prayer. If in our minds we allow Him to be who He is (the sovereign Ruler of the universe), we will find ourselves in no way restrained from offering meaningful prayers to Him. We will do so because we are told to do so. We will do so because we have a category whereby He is able to actually answer them while at the same time remaining sovereign and unchanged by them. Simply allow the Bible to define its own categories and live according to the jurisdiction which we have been given. He runs the Universe. We are called to pray.
Prayer is one of the most important aspects of our walk with Jesus. Even as we hear from Him in His Word, we need to take time to talk to Him from our hearts. Our theology should be God-centered enough that we avoid the trap of thinking that He needs our prayers to accomplish His plans. Yet our walk with Christ should be child-like enough that we avoid the trap of thinking we know more than we do. Is anyone sick? Let’s pray for healing. Are some lost? Let’s pray God brings them to Himself. Is there a church that wants to be used mightily by the Sovereign King? Let us join together and call upon His name in fervent prayer, asking that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.