Why Do We Pray if God Is Sovereign?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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Consider the following situation: A man’s young wife, the mother of their two small children, has been diagnosed with advanced cancer. As someone who believes in God, will he not pray for her healing? Why would anyone think that since God has a good and providential plan for all, that this husband would not pray for his wife to be healed? Certainly, he’d pray for her to experience healing, either directly by God or by divine providence through medical treatment. Even when he realizes that only God knows the eventual outcome of their situation, he’ll seek God, asking for Him to spare his wife. I can’t imagine any other response.

Still, we believe that God is sovereign. As the psalmist said, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3). This may cause an issue for some. How do we pray in light of God’s sovereignty? This is another example of an antinomy, an apparent contradiction that God fully understands but we, in our human understanding, cannot. So, even though we serve a sovereign God who ordains all that comes to pass, we should still pray. Here are three reasons to bring everything to God in prayer.

Prayer Is Commanded

To begin, we are commanded to pray. When the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray, using His model prayer, He said, “Pray, then, in this way . . .” (Matt. 6:9). The verb “pray” is a command, not an option. Before the parable of the persistent widow, Luke says Jesus’ purpose was “to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1), indicating that prayer was not an option but an expectation God has for us. Paul commanded, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). The verbs in both these verses are imperatives, showing that prayer isn’t a choice but a requirement for us. Yet these are just general commands to pray; there are also commands to pray for specific requests. Some of these include, for example, praying for workers in God’s harvest (Matt. 9:38), for governmental leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–2), for fellow believers (Eph. 6:18), for deliverance from temptation (Matt. 26:41), even for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6). The Bible does not say “pray if you understand how it works.” Scripture just commands us to pray.

Prayers Are Ordained

A second reason to pray is that the sovereign God has ordained all things, including our prayers. There are numerous biblical examples of God answering prayer. He gave water to Israel in answer to the prayers of Moses (Ex. 15:22–25; 17:4–7); the Lord gave Hannah a child in answer to her prayers (1 Sam. 1); God caused a drought and then sent rain in answer to the prayers of Elijah (1 Kings 18–19); God opened the eyes of a servant to see the Lord’s army in answer to the prayer of Elisha (2 Kings 6:17). There are many more examples in Scripture. Our presumption too often is that God only ordained these results.

But we must also presume that God, who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), also ordained these prayers. Of course, we believe in a God who determines all things but we are not fatalists. God not only determines the end result, He also determines every step on the way to the end, including prayer. So, if God chose to heal through medical treatment the cancer-stricken wife of the man mentioned above, we can also say that God determined to have her husband and others pray for her as well. God also, before time, ordained the training and development of her surgeon and oncologist. God’s providence works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Prayer Changes Us

Yet another reason to pray is that prayer changes us for the better. Unfortunately, people are overly concerned that somehow prayer changes God, or perhaps the mind of God. That can’t be true because God is unchangeable. He declares, “For I, the LORD, do not change” (Mal. 3:6). Unlike people, God adheres to His plans: “God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind. Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19 HCSB). It’s not God who changes when we pray—the big transformation actually comes about in us when we pray.

Some people like to object that God does indeed change His mind. They point to biblical examples where it seems God changed His mind in response to prayer, such as when God said He would destroy Israel and begin a new chosen nation through the descendants of Moses. Moses prayed, asking God to relent and “the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Ex. 32:14). Since God, in His sovereignty, had already determined this outcome, it is better to understand this phrase as an anthropomorphism, helping us to grasp the infinitely difficult concept of God’s sovereign response to human prayer. The Lord accommodates our inability to grasp this by using this figure of speech which attributes human attributes, like changing one’s mind, to God. Nevertheless, it is we who are truly changed by prayer.

When the Lord Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” (Matt. 6:11), His purpose was to teach us dependence on the Lord for our sustenance. Also, when He taught us to persist in prayer (Matt. 7:7–11), He reminded us that no earthly father would give a stone to a child who asks for bread or a snake to one who asked for fish. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matt. 7:11). The Lord Jesus is making the point that through prayer we can learn to trust God to do what is good and best for us. Similarly, the psalmist cried to the Lord in distress (Ps. 18:6), and when God answered and delivered him (Ps. 18:48), he was transformed. His experience in prayer moved him from fear and dread to a person of thankfulness and praise, saying, “Therefore I will give thanks to You among the nations, O loRd, and I will sing praises to Your name” (Ps.18:49).

Many times, when my children were young, they would ask me for a special treat or to take them to a Yankees baseball game or for some item, like a new bicycle. In fact, I always wanted to give those good gifts to my kids (if it was good for them). Yet I was glad that they asked me because this way they could learn to depend on me to be loving and to provide for them. Similarly, God has a good plan ordained for us but He wants us to learn to ask of Him, and in that way, we learn to depend on the kindness and love of our heavenly Father. Prayer transforms us into people who depend on our Lord for all that we need in life.

Final Thoughts

The last piece of advice I’d give about prayer is that we should stop trying to figure out how it works and instead trust that God hears us and wants what’s best for us. I learned this when someone very close to my wife and I, a young husband and father, suffered a life-threatening aneurysm. We cried out to God and begged for the Lord to intervene. I specifically prayed for a doctor that would know what to do and for this surgeon to be able to locate the bleed and close it. I prayed for this young man’s life. Amazingly, in this circumstance, God answered by instantly sending the right physician and providentially using her to save his life.

What I didn’t do at that moment was try to solve how prayer works. I wasn’t concerned with wondering what outcome God had ordained, and I didn’t ask why I should pray if God already knew the end. I believe in the providence of God, and I knew He was sovereign over life and death. I trusted that when I asked, He could deliver. Just as the psalmist said, “In my distress I called to the LORD, and He answered me” (Ps. 120:1 HCSB).

This is the truth about prayer. God doesn’t want us to engage in philosophical inquiry, speculating about what He has already ordained or to ask why we should even bother praying since God already knew the outcome. All that struck me, in that desperate hour, was that God expected me, as His child, to bring my desperate prayers to Him. And as I prayed, I sensed how unworthy I was to ask anything of God. But I was praying in the name of Jesus, my Redeemer, who alone is worthy. In His name, I could boldly present my request to the Lord.

We’re to pray to our Father as His distressed children, knowing, meanwhile, that He is in control and with the assurance that He will work everything for good. We’ll never truly understand the dynamic of prayer, but we do know that God asks us to cry out to Him. We rest assured that He always accomplishes His purposes. Even though we’ll never really comprehend it, we can agree with Charles Spurgeon who said, “Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscles of Omnipotence.”[1]

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Ravens’ Cry,” delivered January 14, 1866, Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 12: 1866, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons12/sermons12.v.html.

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