Why pray to a sovereign God?

Alison Payne | Jun 3rd, 2010

Why pray if God has already determined what will happen? If we trust in God's complete sovereignty, can we also believe that our prayers are at all meaningful? At the heart of this question is the problem in seeing God simultaneously as sovereign and personal. By not seeing these two characteristics together, this misunderstanding can have a negative impact on the way we view the power and importance of prayer[1], why we pray and how much we pray. However, as Don Carson points out, the Bible constantly drives us to prayer, so much so that our theology must be radically faulty, if it drives us away from prayer.[2]

A right view of prayer comes from a right view of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, such that these two truths are not held to be mutually exclusive or contradictory.[3] Both of these truths are supported by numerous passages in the Bible. One classic example is Acts 4:27-28. On the one hand, Herod and Pilate here are clearly responsible for crucifying Jesus, yet on the other, it is the Father's will that the Son goes to the cross. It is important therefore to avoid definitions that are not supported by the Bible. For example, the idea that freedom must involve power to act against God's will, when freedom is more appropriately related in the Bible to the idea of humans behaving in line with their own desires.[4]

A right view of prayer will also involve understanding that God is sovereign, but that he is also good. As such God stands behind good and evil asymmetrically.[5] The working of good can be credited to him, but not the working of evil.

Finally, a right view of prayer will require an appropriate understanding of the nature of God, that he is both transcendent and personal, and therefore is completely free to act and act in our favour.[6]

To make sure that our view of prayer is biblical, it is important to study how God's sovereignty and human responsibility function in the passages of the Bible where prayer is mentioned. Those who pray in the Bible often do so according to the plans that God has already revealed. For example:

  • Daniel 9:2-19 - Daniel is well aware that the period of the exile is about to end and so he prays for what he knows to be God's will, that God would be true to his character and keep his covenant.
  • Exodus 32:12 - Moses prays to God, trusting in the promises that he knows God has already made, namely to make Israel into a great nation.
  • Ezekiel 22:30-31 - God expects his people to intercede with him. This is part of God's plan to relent from bringing destruction.
  • Mark 14:35-36 - Jesus at Gethsemane prays that his Father's will may come to pass, despite wanting to be spared the impending suffering of the cross.

Thus, we can see in these examples that a sure knowledge of God's sovereignty and purposes does not deter prayer, but actually encourages it.

Furthermore, James 4:2 and 5:16 claim that we do not have because we do not ask, and that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. These passages seem to eliminate the possibility that prayer is a useless activity. Prayer actually brings about change.

Nevertheless, such prayers are not outside God's sovereignty. Though our prayers may bring about change, they do not do so to the surprise of God. Rather, they are God's appointed means of bringing about his purposes. The reformer John Calvin states that the very things we are asked to pray, are the things God has already promised to us.[7]

Prayer is thus a way for God's people to articulate their faith. Prayer is acknowledging that we trust God with the things we are praying for, and know that he cares for us and will keep his promises. Calvin outlines the benefits for

God's people that come from the act of prayer, including:

  • the discipline of putting all things before God in prayer
  • the ongoing reception of his gifts with gratitude and the reminder of his kindness
  • the confirmation of his providence, that his promises never fail and he is ever ready to help his people.[8]

Prayer, therefore, also brings glory to God as we give him credit and honour for being the sovereign God who cares for us and is able to act towards us in mercy.

As Psalm 145:18 says, God is near to those who call on him. God wants us to recognise the things he generously gives us as answers to prayer. So too, Psalm 34:15 speaks of God caring for his people, yet at the same time does not diminish the exercise of faith in prayer. The act of praying declares that God is the sovereign ruler of the world and that we depend and rely on him for all things.[9]

We therefore see that our understanding of the power and significance of our prayer stems from our view of who God is and how he interacts with his world.

As Carson helpfully writes,

It is worth praying to a sovereign God because he is free and can take action as he wills; it is worth praying to a personal God because he hears, responds and acts on behalf of his people.[10]

[1] D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation – Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992), 147.

[2] Carson, 166.

[3] Carson, 148.

[4] Carson, 155-6, 157.

[5] Carson, 158.

[6] Carson, 159-60.

[7] John Calvin quoted in Prayer (Sydney: Matthias Media,1996), 6.

[8]. See P. J. Jensen, 2006. Notes from a sermon titled 'What Happens When we Pray' given at St Andrew's Cathedral, 13 March 2005. See also J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1961).

[9] Calvin, 8-9.

[10] Carson, 165.

First published in the Autumn 2007 edition of SALT magazine.