Prayer is a beautiful means of God’s creatures being able to communicate with their creator, but it can also be a difficult topic to understand. For example, many questions I’ve either had myself or have come across include What is the purpose of prayer? Does prayer change things? How does God’s listening to and answering prayer jive with his sovereignty? How does prayer fit into God’s predetermined plan? A.W. Pink tackles these issues in The Sovereignty of God, doing an excellent job of explaining these questions in light of Scripture. It would be easy to write an entire book or series of books on prayer (Pink has, indeed, authored a book on prayer), and he necessarily limits his discussion of prayer in this chapter to how it relates to God’s sovereignty.
To think that prayer is a means of persuading God to change his all-knowing, all-powerful plan is clearly antithetical to Scripture. Believing that praying is a way for humans to get their own desires and shape their own destinies would effectively subordinate God to the will of man. But because of the truth of God’s sovereignty, this cannot be so. God does not change his plan or purpose because of human petitions (Daniel 4:35: …none can stay his hand or say unto him, what have you done?), because his purposes were planned according to his perfect goodness and unerring wisdom before the beginning of the world. What comfort would it be to pray to a non-sovereign god who is like a chameleon – always changing its color? This does not mean that God doesn’t answer prayer, but I won’t cover that until the second part of this discussion.
“Men may have occasion to alter their purposes, for in their short-sightedness they are frequently unable to anticipate what may arise after their plans are formed. But not so with God, for He knows the end from the beginning. To affirm that God changes his purpose is either to impugn his goodness or to deny his eternal wisdom.“
So why pray if, in his infinite goodness, sovereignty, and wisdom, our steps are already ordained by God? Pink helpfully lays out several reasons why and frames the purpose of prayer from the divine side instead of the human side. First, God has ordered prayer so that he will be honored with worship. Second, prayer is appointed by God for our spiritual blessing, as a means for our growth in grace. In this way, prayer is designed to humble us before a holy God: “Prayer, real prayer, is a coming unto the presence of God, and a sense of his awful majesty produces a realization of our nothingness and unworthiness.” Third, prayer is appointed by God for our seeking from him the things of which we are in need – things which God knows before we ask (Matthew 6:8).
Finally, God commands us to pray (“pray without ceasing,” 1 Thessalonians 5:17). But what is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and prayer since prayer is not intended to change God’s purpose or plan, nor to “move him to form fresh purposes.” To answer this, I’d like to use an analogy between prayer & God’s sovereignty God and evangelism & God’s election/predestination. If God has foreordained who is to be saved, what is the purpose of evangelism? The answer first is that God has commanded us to both spread the gospel to the world and to call upon his name in prayer. Further, much like God has ordained the preaching of the Word as the means of salvation, so has God decreed that some of his purposes will be carried out through the means of prayer:
“To affirm that God will not and cannot bring to pass his eternal purpose unless we pray, is utterly erroneous, for the same God who has decreed the end has also decreed that his end shall be reached through his appointed means, and one of these is prayer. The God who has determined to grant a blessing, also gives a spirit of supplication which first seeks the blessing.“
As Dan Phillips simply puts it:
If God says A, and a human says oh please, do B; and God says OK, I’ll do B, then He meant to do B all along — and meant to do it in response to human petition. Plus as an added bonus, He meant to do the petitioner good by involving him or her in the process. [emphasis his]
An example of prayer and God’s decrees/promises I have found powerful is that of Daniel, who knew that the Israelite captivity was to last 70 years, but when the end of the seventy years approached he did not just wait around passively. Instead he “turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3ff).
The design of prayer, then, is not for God to alter or change his perfect plan, but so that his plan may be accomplished in his own perfect way. The second part of this topic will be on what our attitudes and actions regarding prayer should be in light of this glorious truth.