By Matt Waymeyer
The story is told about a small town in the south. For many years, this town had been “dry” in that no alcohol was ever sold or served there. But one day a businessman in the area decided to build a tavern. In response to this new tavern, a group of Christians from a local church became concerned and planned an all-night prayer meeting to ask God to intervene. Shortly after the prayer meeting that night, lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.
In the aftermath of the fire, the owner of the tavern sued the church, claiming that the prayers of the congregation were responsible for his loss. But the church hired a lawyer to argue in court that they were not responsible. After his initial review of the case the presiding judge began the trial with an official statement. He said: “No matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear: the tavern owner believes in prayer, and the Christians do not.”
It is very easy to dismiss the power of prayer, isn’t it? It is very easy to drift into thinking that prayer is a nice sentiment, but ultimately a waste of time because it doesn’t really make any difference anyway. For some people, this kind of dismissal arises from unbelief or doubt that God really can answer prayer. For others, however, the question that paralyzes their prayer life is this: If God is sovereign, why pray? In other words, if God will simply do what He wants to anyway, why offer prayers of petition and intercession? Why bother requesting that God do such and such when everything has been ordained by Him beforehand? If prayer consists of pleading with God to change His eternal purposes, isn’t such an undertaking feeble at best and arrogant at worst?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but Scripture is not silent on this issue. My purpose here is to examine the Bible’s teaching on the sovereignty of God and the prayers of man with the goal of answering the question, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” This will be done by briefly defining what it means that God is sovereign and then by offering five answers to the question of why people should pray.
God Is Sovereign
When people make plans, it is not uncommon for those plans to fail or to be thwarted in one way or another. In contrast to His creatures, however, Almighty God always brings about that which He has purposed. In a word, God is sovereign. Among other places in Scripture, this truth can be seen clearly in the words of Isaiah 46:9, where God demonstrated His superiority over the Babylonian idols by declaring:
Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure”; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.
In this passage, God indicates that He both purposes what He desires to happen and then actually brings those purposes to pass. In other words, God providentially brings about in time and history what He has sovereignly ordained in eternity past. As the apostle Paul writes, God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
The truth of God’s sovereignty over His creation is taught throughout Scripture. The psalmist declares, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Psalms 135:6; cf. Psalms 115:3; Daniel 4:35); Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand;” and Proverbs 21:1 states, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” As W. Bingham Hunter writes, “From a biblical perspective, your world-history book should be prefaced with 2 Kings 2:25: ‘Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In the days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass’” (The God Who Hears, 49).
1. God has commanded us to pray.
The most obvious reason to pray is that God has commanded us to pray. This is evident throughout the Scriptures. Jesus taught His disciples how to pray in Matthew 6:9, introducing the prayer with the words, “Pray, then, in this way” (v. 9). Afterward, He instructed His disciples to be persistent in their prayers (Luke 11:5). In Luke 18:2, Jesus told them a parable “to show that at all times they ought to pray” (Luke 18:1). And upon arriving at the Garden of Gethsemane, He instructed them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40).
The apostle Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 1:17); he instructed the Philippians, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6); he charged the Colossians, “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4:2); he wrote to the Ephesians, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf…” (Ephesians 6:18); and he urged Timothy “that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (1 Timothy 1:1).
The point is clear: God has commanded us to pray, and our response to this command must first and foremost be one of obedience. Even if we never reach a clear understanding of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the prayers of man, the fact that God has commanded it should be enough to move us to pray. When God promised Abraham a son through whom he would become a great nation (Genesis 21:12) but then commanded him to sacrifice that very son (Genesis 22:2), Abraham bowed the knee of submission before His Creator and “by faith” simply obeyed what was commanded of Him (Genesis 22:3; Hebrews 11:17). The believer who asks the question “Why pray?” must follow his example and do the same.
Matt Waymeyer is a regular contributor to Expository Thoughts. He is a husband and father of five and an Instructor in Bible Exposition and New Testament at the master's seminary in Sun Valley, CA.
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Expository Thoughts is a blog dedicated to accurately understanding the Bible, ministry, and culture. Fellows include: Editor-in-Chief: Dr. Paul Lamey, Pastor of Preaching at Grace Community Church, Huntsville, AL; Dr. Matt Waymeyer, Instructor of Bible Exposition and New Testament at The Master's Seminary, Sun Valley, CA; Dr. Randy McKinion, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Shepherds Theological Seminary, Cary, NC.