Do we really have some kind of control over circumstances by our prayers?

Exactly how do our prayers “influence” God to act if he is a God who never changes (Malachi 3:6)?

The first post sharpened our focus by drawing some boundaries around how we think about prayer. Part 2 offered reflections on divine providence as it pertains to human activity and set forth a definition for God’s providence. This final post in the series draws out some practical implications for understanding God’s providence and our prayers.

Do we have the right assumptions about prayer?

Often we believe that certain things will happen because we pray and, reciprocally, will not happen if we do not pray. We suppose there is a kind of cause-and-effect relationship between our prayers and God’s answers. Our prayers seem to cause or give rise to God’s answers. But are these assumptions correct? Consider:

  • In no way do our prayers coerce/manipulate God into doing something he’s not already determined to do.
  • We must couch our prayers in the context of a biblical relationship between Creator and created. Prayer is not an open dialogue among equals. For example, membership in a family is not symmetrical. Father and son are not equals —there is a hierarchy in human family relationships. Hierarchy, however, does not make the relationship any less personal. That our relationship with God is asymmetrical does nothing to depersonalize it. Nor does it indicate that God is manipulating us against our wills. Rather, prayer is a dynamic exchange between the Almighty God of the universe and you as a completely dependent creature that desperately needs his touch in your life. We simply don’t have the power to alter God’s plan or will for our lives.

Exactly how do our prayers, therefore, intersect with God’s sovereignty?

  1. If God is meticulously sovereign over every detail in the universe, then he ordains certain ends and also specific means to accomplish those ends. In some cases, prayer is the means that God has ordained to bring about circumstances that otherwise would not have occurred.
    “Prayers are useful in obtaining those favours which He foresaw He would bestow on those who should pray for them” (Augustine, City of God).
  2. Prayer is not a means of helping God decide between different courses of action, but a means in which God’s already settled decree affects our world. Some things God has purposed to accomplish despite human involvement while other things he has chosen to accomplish through human involvement, such as prayer. Simply put, God has determined to accomplish some things in response to our prayers. Just as God has ordained labor as a means of supplying our physical needs, so too God has ordained prayer as a means of supplying our spiritual needs (John Calvin).
  3. Consequently, God’s providence does not relieve us of the responsibility to pray. In fact, if prayer is a link in the sequence of events that God has ordained to bring about his specified intentions, then we’re not merely responsible to pray but highly privileged!
  4. Prayer, therefore, is God actively involving his followers in the process of advancing his kingdom in the hearts of men and women around the globe. Prayer is God’s invitation for us to join him in changing the world! It is the divine channel through which God’s free, predetermined favor should descend.
  5. Prayer does change things in the world, but it does not change God and his purposes. God’s will is never frustrated by our prayerlessness, yet our prayerlessness can be an instrument of discipline in God’s hand (see Joshua 9:14).
  6. When we pray according to God’s revealed will we can be sure God will answer positively (1 John 5:14-15).
  7. That God already knows what we need before we ask him is no hindrance to our prayers. God’s foreknowledge makes it possible for him to answer our prayers even before we pray (Isaiah 65:24). The certainty of the future, though determined by God, comes about through the free agency of human choices, including our prayers. Some of what God has determined to do he has chosen to do in response to our prayers.
  8. In some sense, then, prayer is instrumental, not causal. For example, we are saved by faith, not because of faith. So too, God’s will is accomplished by our prayers, not because of them.
  9. Since God is absolutely sovereign and has ordained the means as well as the ends, we have every incentive to be on our knees to Almighty God and gladly join him in changing the world for his glory! Such privilege we have!!

Which of these principles do you most agree with? Which did you find most troubling?

“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
(Acts 4:31)

I’m indebted to the following resources for many of these observations:
Providence and Prayer, The Providence of God by Paul Helm, and A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D.A. Carson.


  1. Paul,

    Thanks for this. I really appreciate it. Regarding #8 (prayers are instrumental not causal). Can you give another illustration to flesh this out a bit more?

  2. Hum….good question, Louis. As you know, illustrations break down and have limited use, as they often inadequately make a case. Having said this, consider: “I can get to my destination by taking this road, not because I’m taking this road.” Though there may be alternate routes, this chosen road is the most expeditious one and assists me with achieving my goal, which is to reach my destination by the most expeditious manner. Likewise, God has chosen the road of prayer as the most expeditious means of accomplishing his will on earth.

    Does this help?

  3. I’m not sure it does. Wouldn’t someone just say, “Because you took the right road you got here on time.” I think I’m getting hung up on the meaning of “cause.” Is this any better? If a lifeguard saves a drowning person with a lifeline it would be proper to say the lifeline is the instrument of the saving not the cause of it. The cause is the lifeguard who is using the lifeline as a means of saving the victim. Since you are more familiar with philosophy than I am would Aristotle’s four definitions of “cause” provide any clarity here?

  4. Ah…knew I should not have replied after a 12-hour drive and 15-hour back breaking day renovating a house! Funny that you mentioned Aristotle’s four causes since I had thought about these after I responded with my anemic illustration.

    I like your illustration of the lifeguard as it shows clearly the distinction between efficient/instrumental means and final ends/goals. Thus, using Aristotle’s four causes with your illustration we might say something like:

    1. The drowning person is saved because the strength of lifeline is sufficient to suspend the person above water (material cause).
    2. The drowning person is saved because the lifeline was offered by the lifeguard (efficient cause).
    3. The drowning person is saved because the lifeguard dispenses his duty as a lifeguard (formal cause).
    4. The drowning person is saved because everyone is committed to the value of saving life from unnecessary harm (final cause).

    Hum….could we apply these four causal distinctions to prayer? If so, how? Aristotle’s view of causation is quite revolutionary. He understood causation in terms of an “explanation” unto any given effect or result. He writes:

    1. “A thing is called a [material] cause in one way if it is a constituent from which something comes to be.”

    2. “A thing is called a [formal] cause . . . in another way if it is the form and pattern, that is, the formula of its essence.”

    3. “A thing is called an [efficient] cause . . . if it is the source or first principle of change or rest.”

    4. “A thing is called a [final] cause . . . if it is a goal, that is — that for the sake of which.”

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