Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

I wrote this paper a few years back, and its inconclusiveness STILL bugs me every time it comes to mind. I set out in attempt to "solve" the apparent contradiction between the purpose of prayer and God's sovereignty. In my opinion, I was extraordinarily unsuccessful. The BEST explanation I could find was J.I. Packer's definition of "antinomy" in the first few pages of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Yet there's something distinctly unsatisfying about writing the whole thing off as unsolvable.

Anyway, as may already be obvious, I started thinking about the issue again today, and now my mind's all tangled up in knots... So I am returning, once again to this little monster which likes to terrorize my theological structure. I'm posting a condensed version of the paper I wrote, basically representing the highlights of my "progress" thus far. Any comments, observations, criticism, whatever would be appreciated! But be forewarned that it's basically long and boring; if you read it anyway, you'll be my hero. =)


Prayer receives a lot of attention in the Bible, as well as in most churches today. It's part of every good Christian’s daily life, and is taught to children at a very young age. The common understanding is that a believer must inform God of his or her desires, as a son asks his Father for a favor. However, as one begins to understand the biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty, the question arises: Why do we pray? According to Matthew 6.8, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If, in fact, God has planned out each breath that every being takes, from the womb to the grave, then even his children cannot possibly change his mind, and therefore are wasting their time in prayer.

This being acknowledged, one still cannot ignore the fact that the Bible clearly instructs God's followers to pray to him. How do we deal with these two truths side by side? We will start with the notion that there cannot possibly be a contradiction between God’s sovereignty and the biblical mandate to pray, and work backwards from there.

A Brief Discussion of Providence / God’s Sovereignty:

The idea that God is completely and absolutely sovereign should not need to be too thoroughly discussed here, based on the assumption that anyone who considers himself a Christian has already come to this conclusion for himself. In his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J.I. Packer explains that when Christians pray, God's sovereignty is the basis of all prayers. The pray-er asks for things and gives thanks for things, because he or she recognizes that God is the author and source of all good, past, present and future. Although this theology is understood by most Christians, many of them have not worked through all the implications of believing in a totally sovereign God.

It would be possible to spend some time elaborating on the Calvinist/Armenian debate, also known as the argument of predestination. However, this discussion would not result in any clarification of the purpose of prayer, as neither the Calvinist nor Armenian views provide explanations on this topic. The question stands unaffected within the bounds of either doctrine:

If the Calvinist believes God is sovereign over the wills of all creatures, and is perfect in his sovereignty, then what is the purpose of prayer? In his book Praying, Packer describes God's perfection: “What this means is that God could not be better from any standpoint than in fact he is. He is not lacking anything or deficient in any way or needing any improvement.” So who is man to offer advice to God? Many philosophers thought this through centuries before John Calvin became known for his views. Aristotle saw God as the primum movens , the “Unmoved Mover.” Immanuel Kant called it "an absurd and presumptuous delusion" to think that one person's prayer might deflect God from the plan of his wisdom. After all, it is impossible to better a perfect Being.

On the other hand, if the Armenian believes that God does not interfere with man's ability to make decisions on his own (free will), then what is the purpose of prayer? Why pray to a God who is (by choice or otherwise) powerless to change the situation?

Although it is possible that this question of the purpose of prayer be asked in an Armenian setting, for sake of argument here, it will be asked in a Calvinist one. Based on the number of times in Scripture that God presents himself clearly interfering with the “free wills” of his creatures, the assumption will be that God is completely sovereign in every circumstance.

The Biblical Portrait of Prayer:

Does God Change His Mind?

To take this a step further, it is clear that Christians pray (or do not pray) certain prayers based on their view of who God is. Views range from a caring grandfather, to a dirty cop, to a powerful and merciless judge. A great example of two opposite views derived from the same text can be found in Job. On one hand, you can take God's speeches in chapters 40 and 41 as God saying to Job, "I'm bigger and stronger than you! Look what I can do that you can't!" And in the end, Job heaves a big sigh and says, "Okay, you win, you are bigger than I am. I give up!" And then the Devil catches Job's eye and winks at him. And Job winks back. They both know the answer now: Humor the Big Bully.

The opposite view is, of course, that in these speeches God is trying to show Job is omnipotence, which should cause Job to rejoice, and take refuge in his God. This is the more popular view among Christians: that God is all-powerful, and he is on our side. But how does this fit in with the doctrine of God's constancy?

Numbers 23.19 simply states, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” Malachi 3.6 makes it clear, “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” James 1.17 also agrees, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” These verses all point to God's constancy; He is unchanging, and unchangeable.

However, considering this, what is to be made of other passages which speak of God changing his mind? Genesis 6.6 reports, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” Exodus 32.14 says, “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” 1 Samuel 15.11 and 35 say that God regretted making Saul king. In Hosea 11.8, God says, “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” Jeremiah 26.3, and Jonah 3.10 both also speak of God relenting of disaster which he previously intended. These verses seem to be contrary to verses that teach that God is unchanging. However, close examination of these passages reveals that these are not truly indications that God actually changes is mind. In the original language, the word that is translated as “repent,” or “relent,” is the Hebrew word, NAHAM, an expression, “to be sorry for.” Note that being sorry for something does not mean that a change has occurred; it simply means that there is regret for something that has taken place.

Consider that Genesis 6.6 declares that God had regret for creating man. The context of this passage is a description of the sinful state man was living in, and it was man’s sinfulness that triggered God’s sorrow, not man’s existence. Jonah 3.10 says: “He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened.” This is the same Hebrew word, naham. Why was God “sorry” for what He had planned for the Ninevites? Because they had a change in heart, and as a result, changed their ways from disobedience to obedience. God is entirely consistent. God was going to judge Nineveh because of its evil. However, Nineveh repented and changed its ways. As a result, God had mercy on Nineveh, which is entirely consistent with His character.

Another example of these two themes is in 1 Sam 15. It appears that Saul had grieved the heart of God by refusing to obey Him (13.7-14; 15.2-9 ). Verses 15:11 and 15.35 are unambiguous that God actually regretted anointing him to be king. While this in no way represents God as surprised at Saul's failure, it does fit in very well with the conditional nature of God's promises to Israel and to Saul in chapters 12 and 13. The declaration in 15.29 (as in Numbers 23.19) makes God's refusal to change His mind synonymous with God never lying. It declares the steadfastness of God's actions in a specific situation for which He has a declared purpose. So, when God has pledged himself to a set purpose, his pledge contains perfect integrity.

This is seen in chapter 13, where Samuel warns Saul after his first act of disobedience (in 13.7-9), “'You (Saul) acted foolishly,' Samuel said. 'You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.'” (13.13) Because the covenant God made with Saul was conditional (12.14-15), God's response to Saul's disobedience was not only just, it was expected. God clearly did not change his mind in this text. On the contrary he acted consistently with what he had promised from the beginning.

What can be observed from this passage, specifically the phrase, “God regretted,” is that God's emotions were stirred by the situation. John Piper clarifies, “So the repentance over Saul means not that he did not know what Saul would be like, but that he disapproves of what Saul has become and that he feels sorrow at this evil in his anointed king and that he looks back on his making him king with the same sorrow that he experienced at that moment when he made him king, foreknowing all the sorrow that would come.”

Does Prayer Influence God?

It is now clear that God does act upon certain decisions of man. It is not a change when he is consistently and righteously carrying out his covenant with his people. So, if our actions do provoke certain reactions from God, then comes the more personal question: “Do our prayers influence God?”

Abraham seems to barter with God in Genesis 18. In Exodus 32 Moses begs God not to destroy Israel after God had already made it clear that he had intentions of doing so. Verse 14 tells the results: “And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people." Did Moses change God's mind? There has been much debate about whether or not God ever did have any intentions of destroying Israel. In this case, one of two sides is taken: either a) God only said he wanted to destroy Israel, while in fact he never had any true intentions of doing so, or b) God actually had genuine intentions of destroying Israel, and Moses' powerful intersession influenced God to relent. To arrive at the first conclusion, one must consider a larger collection of texts, and weigh them all against each other in a formulaic fashion. Without this broader perspective, it would be natural to assume that Moses changed God's mind, after all, that is what the passage implies.

Consider the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15, in which God vowed to make his descendants into a great nation.In fact, Moses appeals to this promise as one of the key points in his prayer, demonstrating his dependence on God and His statutes. By listing off God's statutes like he does, he is declaring that God is, in fact, Master and Creator of all things, and if not, Israel is dust. Sure enough, God relents, and his covenant with Abraham continues, uncompromised. God in fact decided NOT to "change his mind" away from his original covenant.

Christ’s Model of Prayer

A similar illustration of prayer as the acknowledgment of one's dependence on God is the example Jesus gives to His disciples in “The Lord's Prayer” in Matthew 6. It starts with an acknowledgment of God's transcendence and holiness, (v. 9) and follows with a request that God's will be done on earth. (v. 10) Millard Erickson points out, “Prayer is not so much getting God to do our will as it is demonstrating that we are as concerned as God is that is will be done.”
Jesus prays like this himself in John 17, where he prays three times that his Father would let his cup pass from him, but each time noting that he would rather the Father's will be done than his own.

Other times too, throughout Jesus' teaching, he commands is followers to pray. In one instance, perhaps his most straightforward teaching on prayer, he simply says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open to you.” James echoes this truth in its negative counterpart,“You have not, because you ask not." These teachings enable us to pray with the confidence that our prayers are heard.

Prayer in View of God's Sovereignty: A Biblical Antinomy

The last several pages have focused on two main ideas supported in scripture. 1) That God is sovereign, and 2) That he is affected by the prayers of his saints. Finally, a third truth needs to be added to the list: The first two truths do not contradict. Alternatively, they present what we will call an antinomy. Webster defines antinomy as: “a contradiction between two apparently equally valid principles or between inferences correctly drawn from such principles.” J.I. Packer modifies this definition to refer to a biblical antimony. He claims it is necessary to add the word “apparent,” (an apparent contradiction...) when speaking of two biblical truths.

Packer gives the example of light as a scientific antinomy. There is ample valid evidence to show that light consists of waves and an equal amount of valid evidence that light consists of particles. While physicists cannot understand how light can be both waves and particles, the evidence on both sides is too solid to be thrown out. Still, neither view can be reduced to the other or explained in terms of the other. So, in order to maintain intellectual integrity, physicists must hold the two seemingly incompatible positions together as true.

The antinomy at hand is this: God is Sovereign in his creation, and he is influenced by the prayers of his people. It might not make sense to the limited mind, but it is truth nonetheless. The Bible teaches both truths side by side, and the best thing to do is accept both of them.

The Beauty of Finite Understanding

The fact that we do not understand entirely causes us to be more dependent on the One who does know everything. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13.12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Our present incomplete understanding will one day be replaced with a much fuller understanding. So, it is sufficient to admit that some mysteries simply are not for us to understand, but for God to keep, for his good pleasure.

The Purpose of Prayer

Different Types of Prayer:

It would be impossible to pinpoint one concise purpose for which we pray. The Bible gives many reasons to pray, as there are many different situations in which to pray, and many different types of prayers are uttered as a result. J. I. Packer names a few: Brooding, praising, prayer “checkups,” asking, hanging on, and joining in. He explains that the Christian life is something like a hike in it's various stages with its varied challenges. He writes, “Viewed from the outside, the Christian life is a many-sided affair, involving moral integrity, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, a quest for wisdom, and much more. Viewed from the inside, however, it is essentially a heart religion, first to last, a quest for more of God and more of life, both here and hereafter...”

Naturally, the heart of man has many emotions. New passions come with new stages of life. So yes, there are many prayers, just as there are many seasons. A believer’s prayer life changes how he or she views life, joy and suffering. Through each season, believers express their complete dependence (and helplessness without) God through their prayer. Naturally, then, the prayers themselves will be as different as the people praying them. God, in turn is pleased with his children's allegiance to him, and his children are comforted because they know that their Father has heard their prayers, and has promised never to leave them.

Prayer as a War-Time Walkie-Talkie:

In John Piper's book, Let the Nations be Glad, he claims that we cannot know what prayer is for, until we know that life is war. Images of war are ubiquitous throughout the New Testament. Throughout the New Testament, we see images of the new Believers striving and struggling. The Greek word used here for striving and struggling is ag┼Źnizesthai, which is translated, “fight” when Paul talks about “fighting the good fight,” and encourages Timothy to do the same. In Ephesians 6.12-18, Paul talks about common (“civilian”) blessings such as truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith and salvation, and compares each one to a piece of armor. Piper explains, “Virtually every civilian blessing is conscripted for the war. There is not a warfare part of life and a non-warfare part. Life is war!” Notice how verse 17 leads right into verse 18. “Take... the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit” (emphasis added.) It is as if Paul is saying as you prepare for this war at hand, pray!

In John 15.16, Jesus gives his disciples a mission, to “Go and bear fruit.” In fact, he says that this is the very reason for which he has called them. The next words out of his mouth are, “So that whatever you ask the Father in my in my name, he may give it to you.” Why has the Father promised to answer their prayers? Because Jesus has given them a mission, to bear fruit. Piper gives this illustration of prayer as “War-time walkie-talkies:
“It is as through the field commander, (Jesus) called in the troops, gave them a crucial mission ('Go and bear fruit'), handed each of them a personal transmitter coded to the frequency of the general's headquarters, and said, 'Comrades, the general has a mission for you. He aims to see it accomplished. And to that end he has authorized me to give each of you personal access to him through these transmitters. If you stay true to his mission and seek his victory first, he will always be as close as your transmitter, to give tactical advice and to send in air cover when you or your comrades need it.'”

Even as this war rages, God has already secured his victory. So even as we fight. our prayers glorify him in the midst of the battle, because they put God in the place of all-sufficient Benefactor, and put us in the place of the need beneficiaries. C. H. Spurgeon called this our delightful partnership with God. “We obtain that which we so greatly need, and all that God getteth is the glory which in due unto his name.”

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