Building Jerusalem

If God is sovereign, why bother praying?

We talk a lot about God’s sovereignty in our church. The reason for that is simple: if God is not sovereign, everything – and I mean everything – becomes a mere matter of chance and indifference over which God has no control.

If God is not in complete control, working all things according to the counsel of his will, then I have very little to offer people in my community. Life just sucks, there is nothing you can do about it, nor is there anything God can do about it, and then you die and, if God doesn’t have the means to control things here, how on earth he has any control over who or what gets into Heaven is beyond me. So, good luck with that too! In other words, if God isn’t sovereign over everything, he is impotent. If he is impotent, he probably isn’t worth the hassle of worshipping because there is no guarantee throwing your lot in with him will achieve anything in the long or short run.

But, of course, God is sovereign. The Bible says so. Not just sovereign over some, or even most, stuff. He is sovereign over everything. There is not so much as a single atom that vibrates without God’s say so. And that is extremely comforting. It means nothing can derail God’s plans and intentions. Not natural occurrences and not human thoughts or actions. Nothing can stop God’s will from coming to pass. It means even if your life appears to suck, God’s offer of salvation still holds. Jesus’ offer of the abundant life may still be yours. Eternal life and future glory can be obtained. True contentment and joy, even in the midst of otherwise pretty awful circumstances, can be received. How do we know? Because the sovereign God who cannot lie, does not change and who is sovereign over absolutely everything so his plans can’t fail promises us just that in Christ. For those who believe, such things are ours because God says so and nothing can stop his will from coming about. As Spurgeon said: the sovereignty of God is pillow upon which the Christian lays his head.

But that truth always throws up another question. It is one we get asked a lot. If God is sovereign over everything, and nothing happens that isn’t ordained by him, why do we bother praying? Why even ask him for anything? Some just want to know whether our asking for anything is worthwhile because God will do what he wants anyway. Others push it back to whether it’s even worth asking for salvation at all because God will do as he wills, right?

The latter question is simple enough. God will do what he wants. He will save whomever he wills. But those he wills to save he will also give the gift of faith. Those he wants to save are saved by grace alone through faith alone. That is, God’s initiative changing the desires and heart of the individual so that they express faith. If you don’t have a desire to ask God for salvation, it’s because he hasn’t given you that desire. If you do have a desire to seek his forgiveness and put your trust in Christ, it’s because God’s Spirit has been at work on your heart and given you the desire to believe. Prayer for forgiveness, then, is the outward expression of an already regenerate heart. God’s sovereign decree to save unilaterally works its way out in faith and repentance in the individual. One is the outworking of the other.

But the former question still bears answering. The Lord may bring us to a point of belief that is expressed in repentance and faith, OK. But now we belong to him, and particularly if we now know he is sovereign over all things, why bother praying given he’ll do whatever he wants anyway?

First, we should do it because he tells us to do it. You don’t have to look very hard in the Bible to see an expectation that God’s people will pray. Jesus tells us to do it. Ultimately, whether we know the reason why or not, that should be enough. God calls us to pray and so we should, trusting that he knows what is best for us.

Second, James tells us ‘you do not have because you do not ask’. This tells us clearly enough, there are some things we would have, that we don’t have, if we had prayed and asked for them. As John Piper once noted, ‘it doesn’t say there are things you don’t have but you’ll get them anyway because God has a plan. The text can’t mean the opposite of what it actually says!’ So, regardless of God’s ultimate sovereignty, the Bible is clear that there are things we might otherwise have if we had prayed for them. So, prayer makes things happen in the world.

Third, if God is sovereign but prayer makes things happen in the world, isn’t that contradictory? No. God folds our prayers into his sovereign plans. When you have a desire to pray, and your prayers are answered, that prayer has been prompted by the Holy Spirit. God prompts you to pray for the things he wants to give to you. Indeed, the mechanism God uses for making things happen in the world is the prayers of his people. God’s ends are to do X thing. But the means God will use to bring X thing about is the prayer of his people. This is why – despite God saying in 1 Kings 18:1 that he was going to send rain following a long drought – Elijah saw fit in 18:42-44 to pray for rain. God has already promised it, but the mechanism he was going to use to bring it about was Elijah’s prayer. If you doubt this is what God was doing, check out James 5:17-18 which says fairly clearly it was Elijah’s prayer that brought the rain about. God folds our prayers into his sovereign plans and makes them the mechanism by which things happen in the world.

Fourth, as we pray and see our prayers answered, God grows us in our faith. One of the evidences that prayer is God’s mechanism for effecting things in the world is that he frequently and clearly answers them. Every time God answers our prayers, our faith in his ability to work, in his sovereignty, in his goodness, increases. We see that ours is a God who is able and willing to answer prayer because he is sovereign. If he isn’t sovereign, he can’t do a thing about our prayers. But when he answers our prayers, we are given fresh evidence that our faith is in a sovereign God able to do what nobody else can.