If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?
June 21, 2012
“I listen more than I talk.”
That’s how a well-known pastor described his prayer life in a sermon I heard recently. It was the reason he gave that arrested my attention.
“After all, it seems like God is going to do whatever he wants to do anyway.”
There are various ways to respond to that statement, including simply nodding your head in agreement. If we don’t dispute the sovereignty of God (and we don’t), then where and how does prayer fit into God’s plan? Or why should we bother praying if God has already determined the answers before we start to pray?
I suppose that most Christians have wondered about that question at one time or another. Certainly skeptics have thrown it in our faces to discourage us from seeking the Lord in times of crisis. I confess that I have wrestled with this issue on more than one occasion.
If God is sovereign, why should we pray at all? Many years ago I listened to a tape by R. C. Sproul on this topic that helped me greatly. Here are seven statements that will help us think wisely about this question:
1. God invites us to ask for what we need.
We are told to ask, to seek, to knock (Matthew 7:7-8). Why? Ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. In Psalm 81:10 the Lord promises, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” This is where prayer becomes intensely personal. Our Heavenly Father-who already knows our needs-invites us to make our needs known through prayer.
2. We don’t know what we really need.
We think we do, but we don’t. Or to be more accurate, we know part of our needs, but not all of them. Our perspective is inevitably limited by our own experience, desires and personal knowledge. Romans 8:26 says that “we do not know what we ought to pray for.” Have you ever felt you’ve “run out of words” when you pray? That has happened to me on more than one occasion. I remember one couple that seemed to be in a perpetual crisis situation. I had prayed so much for them without a positive result that finally I ran out of prayers. I didn’t know what to say anymore. I didn’t know how to pray for them effectively. All I could say was, “Lord, have mercy,” because I couldn’t think of any other words. Sometimes we face the same issue when we seek God’s guidance. Often we are so confused that we’re not sure what we should be asking for. And sometimes we are so weary that words will not come to us.
We don’t pray to give God information he wouldn’t otherwise know.
Rarely can we be absolutely sure what God wants to do in a particular situation. After we have made our requests to God, especially regarding the crisis issues of life, we must cry out, “But Father, I don’t know what you want. And I want your will to be done even if it means my will is not done in this situation. I truly believe that you know best.”
That’s why the most basic prayer is always “Thy will be done.” But God knew that we would often be baffled in prayer so he sent the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us (Romans 8:26-27). He prays for us when we don’t know how to pray for ourselves or for anyone else.
3. God knows what we need before we ask him.
Matthew 6:8 says this very plainly: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” That means we don’t have to impress God or use big words or pray long prayers, We don’t have to repeat ourselves when we pray, and we don’t have to worry about getting all the details correct or throw in flowery language when we pray. Since God knows us through and through, he knows our needs better than we do. When you pray, you aren’t informing God of anything. He knew your need before you bowed you head.
4. We do not pray to inform God of anything.
This may seem obvious but it needs to be stated anyway. When you pray, you aren’t informing God of things he wouldn’t otherwise know. The Bible tells us that he numbers the stars in the sky, the sand on the seashore, and the hairs on your head. He even calls the stars by name (Psalm 147:4). Ponder that for a moment. Billions and billions of stars and he knows the name of each one. Think how easily you get flustered on Sunday morning trying to remember that person you met last week. If your church has multiple services on Sunday morning, you probably don’t know everyone in your own church.
Our greatest problem is not with God’s sovereignty but with our own sinful unbelief.
But God does.
He not only knows all the people in your church, he knows everyone attending every church everywhere in the world. More than that, he knows the names of all 6.8 billion people on planet earth. But even beyond that, he knows the names of everyone who has ever lived here and everyone yet to be born.
If God knows all that, do you think he is going to be surprised that your gall bladder is acting up again? Do you think he doesn’t know about your crabby boss or how you gained 10 pounds in the last month?
In case you doubt this, listen to the words of Psalm 139:1-3.
O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
That would appear to be total knowledge of every aspect of your life. Nothing you do or say surprises God. He knows your secret thoughts, your hidden motives, your unspoken dreams, and he knows what you are going to say before you ever open your mouth.
I find this a liberating truth for the prayer life. It means I don’t have to yell or shout to try to make him understand. And I don’t have to go into some long explanation either. I don’t even have to repeat myself unless I want to. He got the message the first time. Actually, he got the message before I ever sent it.
5. We pray to express our total dependence upon our Heavenly Father.
When R.C. Sproul discussed this issue, he quoted John Calvin, the great theologian of the Protestant Reformation, who said that prayer is not for God’s good, but for ours. That’s an amazing thought. Because God is God, he doesn’t “need” our prayers. But we need to pray. Calvin means that God’s perfections are perfect in their completeness. While God desires our prayers, they do not “add” anything to who God is. Let me say that another way. God doesn’t need the information we give him, but he encourages us to give him the information anyway.
God doesn’t “need” our prayers.
Perhaps an illustration would help. Picture a father watching his four-year-old daughter trying to put together a puzzle. She tries and tries but she just can’t get the pieces in the right place. Her father watches with great interest but he doesn’t interfere. Finally, she crawls in his lap and says, “Daddy, would you help me put my puzzle together?” He smiles and bends down and together they begin to pick up each piece. One piece at a time they put the puzzle together.
Now why didn’t the father help his daughter earlier? For one thing, she didn’t ask for his help. For another, he wanted her to try on her own. And most of all, he wanted her to ask for his help. When she did, he was honored and gladly helped her finish the puzzle.
The most basic prayer is always, “Thy will be done.”
Is this not a picture of how our Heavenly Father deals with his children? Although he longs to come to our aid, often he waits until we ask him specifically. Sometimes he wants us to come to the end of our own pitiful resources before he intervenes. When we cry out in despair, he is honored as we express our complete dependence upon him.
Every prayer is the cry of a child saying, “Help, Father, I can’t do this by myself.”
6. We pray because God is honored by our persistent faith.
I’ve already said that since God knows what we need before we ask him, we don’t have to repeat ourselves to get his attention. But that’s not the whole story. We all know from personal experience that not all our prayers are answered the first time we pray them. Sometimes we receive immediate answers, but often we must wait days, week, months, or even years before the answer comes. I know many people who have prayed for years for their loved ones to come to Christ.
Every prayer is the cry of a child saying, “Help, Father, I can’t do this by myself.”
How long should you pray for your loved ones to be saved? My answer is simple. You should pray until God answers your prayers. Do you remember the story of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8? The woman kept coming back to the judge to plead her case. Because the judge was dishonest, he didn’t have time for her, but her persistence wore him down so finally he said, “I’m going to see that this woman gets justice before she drives me crazy.” Listen to the words of Jesus as he applies this story to our Heavenly Father:
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly (Luke 18:7-8).
Jesus isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge. But if an unjust judge can be swayed by the persistence of a widow, won’t God’s heart be moved by the persistent prayers of his people? The answer is yes. Persistent prayer moves the heart of God because it expresses desperate dependence on him.
Sometimes it takes desperate circumstances to bring forth this kind of faith. Perhaps you’ve heard about the doctor who said to his patient, “There’s nothing I can do. It’s in the hands of God now.” “Oh no,” the patient replied. “Has it come to that?” It always comes to that sooner or later. Prayer reminds us that in the end everything depends on God and not on us.
James 5 gives us another wonderful example of the power of prayer. Elijah prayed that it would not rain and for 3 ½ years there was no rain in Israel. He prayed again and the rains fell from heaven. Here’s the moral of the story in James 5:16, “The prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective.” In the original language James used a word that means “to boil over.” Fervent prayers get God’s attention because they come from a heart that believes God’s power is unlimited.
In the end everything depends on God and not on us.
This doesn’t mean that you need to shout when you pray or that you have to weep or moan or stand or sit. Fervent prayer is simply prayer offered in earnest petition to God. It’s not the words that matter . . . or the length of the prayer . . . or the tone of your voice . . . or whether you stand or kneel or sit. What matters is that you really mean it when you pray.
Many years ago I heard a pastor speak at a youth worker’s rally in Long Beach, California. During his message he told how his wife had been involved in a terrible accident. As the ambulance rushed her to the hospital, he tried to pray but the only words that would come out were “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.” Looking back on that experience, he commented that it seemed like one of the few times in life he had ever really prayed.
Fervent prayers get God’s attention.
Many Christians have had the same experience. It sometimes takes a crisis to teach us that God is not impressed by long words, many words, fancy words, or loud words. What matters is that our hearts be focused on him. Fervent prayers move God to action because they come from persistent faith in the face of desperate circumstances.
7. We pray because he’s God and we’re not.
This of course is the first rule of the spiritual life. All prayer is based on this simple truth. He runs the universe, we don’t. We pray because he’s in charge and we’re not.
And here’s a crucial insight. When we don’t pray, it’s because we’ve forgotten who’s God and who’s not. A lack of prayer means we’re still trying to run the show. It’s a sign that we’ve decided we can handle things on our own.
And that brings us back to the original question. If God is sovereign, why pray? While chatting with a friend, I mentioned this question to him. He looked at me and said, “There’s an easy answer to that question.” I asked what it was, mainly because I wanted to be sure I knew it myself. “Because he commanded us to,” he replied. When you think about it, that is the ultimate answer. We pray because God has commanded us to pray, which means that prayer must be good for us.
Sometimes you see little signs that say, “Prayer changes things.” I believe that’s true. And the first thing prayer changes is us. It teaches us to depend completely on our Heavenly Father, and it reminds us that he’s God and we’re not.
Our prayers are part of God’s plan for the universe.
Why pray if God knows everything in advance? Because God has ordained that our prayers are part of his plan for the universe. Our prayers really do matter to God. In a sense God limits what he can do in the world so that he can work through our prayers. It’s not that God “needs” our prayers. He doesn’t. But in his kindness, he has invited us to join him in the great adventure of bringing his kingdom to this sin-cursed planet. Through our prayers, we partner with God in changing the world.
Our greatest problem is not with God’s sovereignty but with our sinful unbelief. The Bible says, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2 KJV). But Jesus himself invited us to ask God for anything that we need. So why don’t we pray more than we do?
Let’s wrap up this message with a very simple theology of prayer. Our part is to pray fervently, sincerely, and honestly, bringing our deepest concerns to the Lord. God’s part is to listen to our prayers and to graciously answer them in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
“Give Him No Rest”
Perhaps you are still not convinced. Let me share a passage I came across while reading the book of Isaiah.
“You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7).
“Give him no rest.”
Give who no rest?
The Lord invites his people to pray, asks them to pray, commands them to pray, begs them to pray. And then he says, “When you pray, give me no rest.”
Bang on the door of heaven.
This may be the most startling invitation to prayer in the Bible.
Give the Lord no rest when you pray. Bang on the door of heaven. Pray, pray, and keep on praying. Pray that God will hear and answer and move from heaven.
Don’t put any time limits on God.
Don’t think he will be bothered by your repeated requests.
Don’t say, “This is too small to bother God about.”
Don’t say, “I’ve prayed about this long enough.”
Wear him out!
He loves it when his children beg him to help.
Are you praying for a loved one to be saved? Wear him out!
Do you need God’s wisdom for a major decision? Wear him out!
Are you facing temptation and need God’s help? Wear him out!
Are your children struggling spiritually? Wear him out!
Do you seek a godly spouse for your granddaughter? Wear him out!
Are you praying for revival in your church? Wear him out!
Do you long to become stronger in your faith? Wear him out!
Don’t take “no” for an answer.
It almost sounds unbiblical or dangerous or possibly blasphemous. But if the request itself is godly and noble and pure and good, you have every reason to stand your ground when you pray.
Give him no rest.
Wear him out.
God calls us to pray. He invites us to pray. He commands us pray. He begs us to pray. He exhorts us to seek his face every day. We have been given unlimited access to the throne room of the universe. The King of Kings wants to hear from you. Don’t keep him waiting any longer.