Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

It is a  common struggle for us Christians to try to understand our role in prayer in light of God’s sovereignty. There is sometimes two extremes when we look at God’s sovereignty and how it relates to our prayers. On one hand you have the person that sees no need to pray since God has already decreed what will come to pass. On the other hand there are those who think that if we pray hard enough that we can somehow change God’s mind and cause him to act solely through our prayers, while neglecting the fact that he is sovereign. How do we harmonize these two concepts? I think R.C. Sproul does a great job explaining a Christians role in prayer in light of God’s sovereignty.

First of all, we need to establish that it is the sovereign God who not only invites us but commands us to pray. Prayer is a duty, and as we perform that duty, one thing for sure is going to be changed, and that is us. To live a life of prayer is to live a life of obedience to God.

Also, we must understand that there is more to prayer than intercession and supplication. When the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” they saw a connection between the power of Jesus and the impact of his ministry and the time he spent in prayer. Obviously, the Son of God felt that prayer was a very valuable enterprise because he gave himself to it so deeply and passionately. But I was surprised that he answered the question by saying, “Here’s how you ought to pray,” and gave them the Lord’s Prayer. I would have expected Jesus to answer that question a different way: “You want to know how to pray? Read the Psalms,” because there you see inspired prayer. The Spirit himself, who helps us to pray, inspired the prayers that are recorded in the Psalms. When I read the Psalms, I read intercession and I read supplication, but overwhelmingly what I read is a preoccupation with adoration, with thanksgiving, and with confession. Take those elements of prayer, and what happens to a person who learns how to adore God? That person is changed. What happens to a person who learns how to express his gratitude to God? That person will now become more and more aware of the hand of Providence in his life and will grow in his sense of gratitude toward God. What happens to the person who spends time confessing his sins? He keeps in front of his mind the holiness of God and the necessity of keeping short accounts with God.

But can our requests change God’s sovereign plan? Of course not. When God sovereignly declares that he is going to do something, all of the prayers in the world aren’t going to change God’s mind. But God not only ordains ends, he also ordains means to those ends, and part of the process he uses to bring his sovereign will to pass are the prayers of his people. And so we are to pray.

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2 thoughts on “Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

  1. What about Moses praying for the Isrealites when God was set on destroying them? God relented. This particular topic has been on my heart recently as well, and the Moses pleading to God incident comes to mind often.

  2. Jesse says:

    That is an excellent question Christina. In Exodus 32:14 the bible says that the Lord relents, or changes his mind, after Moses intercedes for the Israelites. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, We have to acknowledge that the bible is crystal clear that God is immutable, omniscient, omnipotent and sovereign. Second, nothing can thwart his divine plan as he has sovereignly decreed it in eternity past. So what are the implications if God did in fact change his mind because of Moses’ intercession? It would seem that in Exodus 34 Moses counseled God on what he should do; Moses revealed to God that destroying the people would be a bad idea. This would call into question God’s perfect knowledge and wisdom. So what does Exodus 32:14 mean? The language used in verse 14 is called anthropomorphic which means to attribute human characteristics to non-human things. You see this all throughout the bible when God is described as having hands, feet, eyes, etc. So we see this language being used in verse 14 as God is described as relenting. Also, when we see passages that refer to God changing his mind it usually reveals God’s divine intention and not his unchangeable divine decree. Intentions retain a conditional element and do not necessarily bind the speaker to a stated course of action. He had not decreed to destroy the Israelites in that moment but the passage shows us in anthropomorphic language that when we pray and repent God will remove his threat of punishment and judgment. That is why James 5:16 teaches that the prayer of the righteous man avails much. It does not avail everything but it does avail much. So does prayer change God’s mind? No. Does prayer change things in general and have an affect on life? Absolutely. God’s sovereignty is not an excuse for fatalism nor is our responsibility to pray an excuse for open theism. Consider this quote from an unknown author: “God consistently deals with people on the basis of his changeless character and people’s responsible moral choices, which he omnisciently included in his eternal plan. In the short scheme of things it appears God is reacting to his creation. But, in the long run, nothing falls outside the divine blueprint. God has some built-in contingencies in his sovereign plan which he is in complete control over all of the time. For example, God’s declarations of judgment would come true provided situations remain the same (Ex. 32:9-14; Is. 38:1-6; comp. Jonah 3:4 with Jonah 3:10). However, it is people who change, not God. His purposes, plans, and promises will stand forever. As truly sovereign, he ordains the means as well as the ends. Moreover, God is not bound to use the same strategy to accomplish his purposes. Some things God permits, while other things he directly performs. This is not to say that if God had it to do all over again, he would do things differently. Only, God brings about some of his good purposes conditionally or indirectly, while others he unconditionally or directly accomplishes.”

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