If God Is Sovereign, Why Pray? (pt. 1)
From Gospel Translations
How does the sovereignty of God relate to our daily lives? We understand from Scripture that God is sovereign, that He rules and reigns over all things for His glory and the good of His people. We also understand, having studied the Lord’s Prayer throughout this book, that God invites us to come to Him in prayer, bringing our petitions before Him.
As soon as we set these two ideas—the sovereignty of God and the prayers of His people—side by side, we run into a very sticky theological question. Objections are raised from every quarter. People say: “Wait a minute. If God is sovereign, that is, if He has ordained every detail of what is taking place in our lives, not only in the present but in the future, why should we bother with prayer? Furthermore, since the Bible tells us that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God’ (Rom. 8:28), shouldn’t we content ourselves that what God has ordained is best? Isn’t it really just an exercise in futility, and even arrogance, for us to presume to tell God what we need or what we would like to happen? If He ordains all things, and what He ordains is best, what purpose is served by praying to Him?”
John Calvin briefly discusses this question of the usefulness of prayer in light of God’s sovereignty in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
But some will say, “Does He not know without a monitor, both what our difficulties are and what is meet for our interest, so that it seems in some measure superfluous to solicit Him by our prayers, as if He were winking or even sleeping until aroused by the sound of our voice.” Those who argue in this way attend not to the end or the purpose for which the Lord taught us to pray. It was not so much for God’s good, as it was for our good. (Book III, Chap. 20)
Calvin argues that prayer benefits us more than it benefits God. We can see this readily enough, at least for some of the elements of prayer. Consider, for instance, the elements of adoration and confession. God’s existence is not dependent on our praises. He can get along without them. But we can’t. Adoration is necessary for our spiritual growth. If we are to develop an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father, it is essential that we come to Him with words expressing reverence, adoration, and love. At the same time, it is necessary for us that we mention our sins before His throne. He knows what they are. In fact, He knows them more clearly and more comprehensively than we do. He gains nothing by our giving Him a recitation of our sins, but we need that act of contrition for the good of our souls.
The intricate problem of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human prayers comes not at the point of adoration and confession, but at the point of intercession and supplication. When I see someone in need and begin to pray for that person, I am interceding for him. I offer my requests to God on that person’s behalf, pleading for God to act in His mercy, to do something to change that person’s situation. Furthermore, I do the same for my own needs, as I perceive them. However, the omniscient God already knows everyone’s situation, having ordained it. Therefore, are these prayers of any value? More fundamentally, do these prayers work? Do they ultimately have any impact on my life and on the lives of others?