How does the sovereignty of God relate to our daily lives? We understand from Scripture that God is sovereign, that He rules and reigns over all things for His glory and the good of His people. We also understand, having studied the Lord’s Prayer throughout this book, that God invites us to come to Him in prayer, bringing our petitions before Him.
As soon as we set these two ideas—the sovereignty of God and the prayers of His people—side by side, we run into a very sticky theological question. Objections are raised from every quarter. People say: “Wait a minute. If God is sovereign, that is, if He has ordained every detail of what is taking place in our lives, not only in the present but in the future, why should we bother with prayer? Furthermore, since the Bible tells us that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God’ (), shouldn’t we content ourselves that what God has ordained is best? Isn’t it really just an exercise in futility, and even arrogance, for us to presume to tell God what we need or what we would like to happen? If He ordains all things, and what He ordains is best, what purpose is served by praying to Him?”
John Calvin briefly discusses this question of the usefulness of prayer in light of God’s sovereignty in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
But some will say, “Does He not know without a monitor, both what our difficulties are and what is meet for our interest, so that it seems in some measure superfluous to solicit Him by our prayers, as if He were winking or even sleeping until aroused by the sound of our voice.” Those who argue in this way attend not to the end or the purpose for which the Lord taught us to pray. It was not so much for God’s good, as it was for our good. (Book III, Chap. 20)
Calvin argues that prayer benefits us more than it benefits God. We can see this readily enough, at least for some of the elements of prayer. Consider, for instance, the elements of adoration and confession. God’s existence is not dependent on our praises. He can get along without them. But we can’t. Adoration is necessary for our spiritual growth. If we are to develop an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father, it is essential that we come to Him with words expressing reverence, adoration, and love. At the same time, it is necessary for us that we mention our sins before His throne. He knows what they are. In fact, He knows them more clearly and more comprehensively than we do. He gains nothing by our giving Him a recitation of our sins, but we need that act of contrition for the good of our souls.
The intricate problem of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human prayers comes not at the point of adoration and confession, but at the point of intercession and supplication. When I see someone in need and begin to pray for that person, I am interceding for him. I offer my requests to God on that person’s behalf, pleading for God to act in His mercy, to do something to change that person’s situation. Furthermore, I do the same for my own needs, as I perceive them. However, the omniscient God already knows everyone’s situation, having ordained it. Therefore, are these prayers of any value? More fundamentally, do these prayers work? Do they ultimately have any impact on my life and on the lives of others?
We have to guard against taking a fatalistic view of this matter of prayer. We cannot allow ourselves to dismiss prayer from our lives simply because it might not seem to have pragmatic value. Whether or not prayer works, we must engage in it, simply because God Himself commands us to do it. Even a cursory reading of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, reveals a deep emphasis on prayer, supplication, and intercession. It is inescapable that prayer is an expected activity for the people of God. Furthermore, our Lord Himself is the supreme model for us in all things, and He clearly made prayer a huge priority in His life. We can do no less.
But it is also true that Scripture teaches us that prayer does “work” in some sense. Let me cite three examples.
We all know that the apostle Peter boldly declared that he would never betray Jesus, that he was ready to go to prison and even to death for his Lord. But rather than praising Peter for his determination, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (). Luke’s account adds an interesting detail to this exchange. Jesus said: “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (). Jesus warned Peter that a time of “sifting” was coming in his life, that Satan was going to attack him. But Jesus was sure that Peter would turn from his sin and turn back to Jesus. How could Jesus be sure of that? Well, He had prayed for Peter, that Peter’s faith would not be shaken. Jesus was right—Peter did indeed turn back to Jesus and he did much to strengthen the brethren. Jesus’ prayer for Peter was effective.
Not only do we see the prayers of Jesus effecting change in this world, we also see the prayers of the saints working. In the early days of the church, Peter was thrown into prison, but the believers gathered for a season of intense prayer on his behalf. They poured out their hearts before God, begging God to somehow overcome the adversity of the situation and secure the release of Peter. You know what happened: While they were involved in this intense prayer, there was a knock at the door. They didn’t want to be disturbed from their prayer time, so they sent the servant to the door. When she went to the door and asked who was knocking, Peter answered and the servant recognized his voice. Overjoyed, she left the door closed and ran to tell the others that Peter was outside. The disciples refused to believe it until they opened the door and saw Peter himself standing there. God answered the prayers of His people, delivering Peter from prison by the help of an angel, but when he appeared at the house where the believers were gathered, these people who had prayed so earnestly for his release were frightened and shocked that God had actually answered their prayer. That’s the way we are so often; when God answers our prayers, we can hardly believe it.
Moving to a didactic passage, James strongly encourages the people of God to pray:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up… . Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. ()
After these stirring words, which strongly emphasize the effectiveness of prayer, James goes on to speak of the prophet Elijah. He stresses that Elijah was a man just like we are—he wasn’t a super-saint or a magician. However, his prayers were extremely powerful. He prayed that God would stop the rain, and no rain at all fell for three and a half years. Then he prayed that God would send rain, and torrents fell.
Given these scriptural passages, and the many, many more that clearly show that prayer does achieve things, we are not free to say: “Well, God is in control. He’s sovereign, immutable, and omniscient, so whatever will be will be. There’s no point in praying.” Scripture universally and absolutely denies that conclusion. Instead, it affirms that prayer does effect change. God, in His sovereignty, responds to our prayers.
Others have questioned the efficacy of prayer from a more naturalistic consideration. They put forward the idea that we live in a world that operates according to fixed natural laws. It has been fashionable, in the past century or two, to think of God as merely the Architect and Creator of the universe, who set the universe in motion and decreed how it should operate, then stepped back and let it run without His direct involvement. This idea is almost like the Deist view that God made the world, just as a watchmaker makes a watch, then wound it up, so that it is now running by its own mechanism. He Himself makes no interruption, no interference, no intrusion into the plane of history.
That is not the God of Scripture. The sovereign God is the Lord of providence, who provides daily for His people and responds to their cries. The laws of the universe are not fixed, immutable, abstract, regulatory principles of inert nature. What we call laws simply refer to the ordinary and normal operations by which the sovereign God runs this planet. And that sovereign God is never at the mercy of His own creation. He is the sovereign God.
The fact that there are intricate mechanisms working in this world does not mean that God has to do an immediate miracle every time we pray for something. God is standing above the world and is orchestrating every molecule in that world, all of the so-called natural, normal, regulating causes. Therefore, God is able to answer prayer without in any way disrupting or interrupting the natural mechanism of the planet.
In fact, when we look at the miracles in the Bible, we see that some of them are wrought immediately—that is, without means, directly—while other miracles are wrought mediately—that is, by virtue of intermediary means. Think of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt through the Red Sea. What was miraculous about the parting of the waters of the Red Sea? It’s not miraculous for a great wind to blow; that happens all the time. It is certainly extraordinary, but not necessarily miraculous, for the wind to blow with such intensity that it creates a backwash of water in the sea. That has been known to happen without any sense of a miracle taking place. Yes, it was extraordinary, but it wasn’t necessarily miraculous.
What was miraculous about the parting of the Red Sea was that it happened on command. Moses held out his staff and the wind rose. The wind blows every day, but it doesn’t blow on my command. I can go to the seashore and command the wind to blow, and nothing will happen. Likewise, I can command the wind to cease on a blustery day, and again my words will have no impact whatsoever, but when the wind rose on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” and the wind stopped (). That was a miracle. But in the exodus we have means. We have water and we have wind. We have nature operating, but it is operating under the power of supernature, under the command of God in a crisis moment in the personal history of human beings. That’s what we mean by the special providential intervention of God to deliver His people. They prayed and God acted without breaking a law of nature. He can break the laws of nature if He needs to, but He doesn’t have to do so in order to answer our prayers.
Prayers as Means to God’s Ends
James makes a statement that is vital to our practical understanding of the relationship of God’s sovereignty and prayer. It is a statement that haunts me as I consider this question. He said, “You do not have because you do not ask” (). We must not understand reality as God working alone, as God being at center stage while we are mere puppets who have no active involvement in the plan of redemption. That is not Christianity or Calvinism. It’s a distortion. God brings to pass His sovereign ends by virtue of earthly and human means. This is the theological concept of concurrence, and it works as much in the arena of prayer as it does in the other areas that we have considered.
What would you think of a farmer who, when the spring comes, sits on his porch in his rocking chair, folds his hands, and says, “Well, I sure hope we have a great harvest this year; I hope that it’s the plan of God to give us abundant crops”? He doesn’t plow the field. He doesn’t plant the seed. He doesn’t weed the rows. He sits there and waits for God to deliver him a harvest from heaven. That’s not how a farmer works. If a farmer ever did try to “farm” that way, I think it’s clear what would happen—his benefit from the hand of God would be zero. We are called to plow our fields. We are called to plant and to water. And this calling applies to our prayers.
It has been quoted a thousand times, that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves.” Of course, that is not from the Bible. But in a certain sense, the idea is correct. God calls us to work, to plow, to plant, to read, to study, to prepare. We do all of these things, but He brings the growth. What does Paul say? “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” ().
There’s a sense in which intercessory prayer, prayer of supplication, is a work. It’s certainly a pleasure, but it requires energy and time. God knows what we need before we ask Him, but He requires the work. He knows that we need bread before we ask Him for it, but He requires us to put forth the work of producing the materials by which our bread is given to us. If we lack the benefits of God’s hands in our life, it may very well be because we have not asked; we have not put forth the work of entreating Him in prayer.
Keeping Promises in Context
At this point, I need to sound a warning. In our day, many people have rediscovered the power of prayer. This is a good thing; there’s nothing more thrilling in the Christian life than to pray specifically, to express a desire, to make a request or a petition to God, and then see Him answer that request specifically and clearly. It’s nice to receive what we pray for, but the added benefit is the assurance we gain that God hears our prayers and answers them. However, some carry this to an extreme and jump to the conclusion that prayer is something of a magic wand, that if we do prayer with the right sound, in the right manner, with the right phrases, and in the right posture, God is obligated to answer. The idea seems to be that we have the capacity to coerce God Almighty into doing for us whatever it is we want Him to do, but God is not a celestial bellhop who is on call every time we press the button, just waiting to serve us our every request.
You might reply that the Bible seems to say that God is willing to give us virtually anything we ask for. You might note that Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (). You might recall that Jesus said, “Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (). You might even note that He said, “If two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven” ().
We must be very careful in our handling of these verses, taking care to interpret them in their context. Think about it—any number of people would like to see a cure for cancer. I’m sure that I could find at least a few people who would agree with me about this, so if two or three of us got together and agreed that a cure for cancer would be good, and then we prayed about it, would God be obligated to answer?
Jesus clearly said, “If two of you agree on earth concerning anything … it will be done,” but He made this statement in the context of a vast amount of information about authentic prayer that He had already given to His disciples. We cannot simply come to a text and pick out a verse without examining all of the qualifications our Lord gave in His full teaching of prayer. To do so is to risk ending up with a magical view of the matter.
One of the reasons we’re drawn into superstition and ungodly practices is that we are creatures of time. As a result of that fact, we’re anxious. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. My first prayer as a child was: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” That last sentence always scared me, the part about dying before I woke up. I didn’t know whether I was going to die before I would wake. Actually, not much has changed since then. I don’t know what this afternoon is going to bring into my life. I don’t know what tomorrow, next week, or next year is going to bring into my life, and neither do you. We live always on the edge of eternity, as finite creatures. And that puts anxiety into our souls.
Isn’t it interesting that one of the most lucrative businesses in the United States of America in the twenty-first century, a time of great educational advance, a day of exploding knowledge, continues to be the practice of astrology. I’ve said many times, I could ask my seminary students to name the twelve tribes of Israel, and I’d be very happy if they could name eight or nine. But I could ask them to name the twelve signs of the zodiac, and virtually every one of them, given enough time, could name all twelve. I don’t think that meant they were more into astrology than biblical history, but it did suggest that astrology is a phenomenon that is widespread in our culture. Why? Because we want to know the future.
That is not what living in Christian faith is all about. My tomorrow and your tomorrows are in the hands of God. We make our requests before Him and we trust our tomorrows to His sovereignty. I’m delighted that my future is not in the hands of the stars or the soothsayers. Rather, my future is in the hands of the will of the sovereign God.