The tension between God’s sovereignty and prayer seems to be an ongoing area of trouble for a lot of folks. I really want to write a lot more in this, but for right now, lets try to unpack just a couple of things.
The Scripture is loaded with these difficult statements on key issues. God’s sovereignty and our prayers are not the only place where this kind of tension shows up. Here’s a few more.
Is God angry with the sinner every day? (Ps. 7:11) or, Does “God so love” the world? (John 3:16)
Was Jesus truly human, or was He truly divine?
Is man incapable of choosing God, or is man called to decide to receive the offer of salvation?
Does God elect or does man will?
So when we get to a question like is God sovereign, or does He answer and work through prayer?, we’re not hitting on a problem Scripture doesn’t ask us to wade into in other places.
And the answer to all of the above (and probably a great number of similar items) is a decisive – yes! Yes to all.
But here, especially with soverignty questions, we Reformed folk need to be especially careful not to spill over into some form of fatalism. Its an easy thing to do. We do it sometimes just because we are lazy and don’t think it through enough. Or, we might fail to compare Scripture with Scripture and end up only hearing one set of verses on an issue. Then too, some go off a tad because of who they have read or been taught by. Whatever the cause, we need to be really careful here.
That Scripture puts what looks like two opposing views before us to wrestle with is really no wonder. The Bible is forcing us to deal with the eternal realm of God invading human time and space. There are points of contact where two truths which seem to be truly conflicting on the outside, perhaps even mutually exclusive from our view, are in fact found to be utterly and completely in agreement from God’s. The inscrutability of His wisdom constantly confronts us. And we have to be ready to bring our thinking into line with His revelation even when they seem to defy our normal course of logic.
Now specifically in terms of prayer, we have these two realities: 1-God sovereignly accomplishes all His will (Psalms 135:6 Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.). 2-God answers prayer, and we may be left without the benefit of things we might have had if we had prayed. (James 4:2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.).
And the initial answer to our dilemma rests in two things. 1-God’s sovereign will is secret, and we do not know it until it comes to pass. We encounter this in prayer and it leads us to thanksgiving, or the committing of a matter to His discretion. We don’t HAVE to know the details of what He is working out soveriegnly. So we use our time in prayer (at least partially) to remember His goodness to us, the things He has done and is doing, and when baffled as to how to pray have to have the confidence in His character to just let it rest in His hands.
It is God’s REVEALED will (as opposed to His sovereign or secret will) which is to govern our prayer lives most. And He instructs to be praying for His kingdom, for one another, for healing, for laborers to be sent into the fields, for the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, daily bread, deliverance from the enemy, and all those things He plainly loves to grant His children, not the least of which is relief from our anxieties.
2-We must remember that God not onlyappoints ENDS (what eventually DOES come to pass), He appoints the MEANS to those ends (HOW those things will come to pass). While He dwells outside of time, we do not. So He deals with us in space and time, the way we deal with one another. In this way, He invites us to join in with Him as He is carrying out of His will, via our participation in prayer.
You might ask then: “If I do not pray for the Lord to send laborers into the field, will any be lost who were ordained to eternal life?” And the answer of course is no. But that then raises two other questions. 1-“If God asks me to pray for laborers to be sent into His field, and I do not, will I lose both the opportunity to labor with Him AND lose out on what I could have had?” And the answer is an emphatic, Yes! 2-If God asks me to pray for laborers to be sent into His field, and I do not, how do I rightly call Him Lord, Lord?” Good question.
The key dynamic to living this out in a practical way is found in Ezek. 33:2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, 3 and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. 5 He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. 7 “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8 If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”
So here’s the deal. God’s sovereignty can never be used as an excuse for either our inaction, or any other from of disobedience. But it both can and SHOULD be a great encouragement to us, to pray and act knowing when we do so in concert with His revealed will – we have every reason to expect glorious results.
If you’re using God’s sovereignty as an excuse either to avoid a vibrant, daily prayer life – or to avoid obeying God in things you just don’t like – don’t do it. That excuse will not hold water my friend. Or, perhaps someone (maybe even the Devil) has suggested to you that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are somehow contrary to each other and that’s got you all tied up in knots about what you should or shouldn’t don’t go there either. God is sovereign, so you can be sure that when you are doing what His Word commands, it is NEVER just empty action.