I was delighted to learn that a co-worker had just read C. S. Lewis’ “The Efficacy of Prayer” in which he states:

[God] allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will. “God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.”

I was unaware of this essay by Lewis so I took some time to read it and, needless to say, it was rich. It reminded me of a study series I did on God’s providence and our prayers. Part 3 from that series is re-posted below.


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 parent-child 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 but we do have the privilege of beckoning God to help us in our time of need.

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!!

I’m indebted to the following resources for many of these observations:

Spread the word (please & thank you) 

3 Comments

  1. Hey Paul,

    I just stumbled across your blog, interesting stuff. I hope I am not coming across crass because I mean to be constructive, but if I’m understanding this post correctly, prayer is just something God foreordained that we would pray a specific request at a particular time and God “responds” to that request by bringing about whatever he foreordained to do after the request. Our request is simply the divine instrument whereby God brings about whatever he eternally ordained—our request never influences what God decides to do.

    Doesn’t this strike you as … oh, I don’t know, not very relational to say the least? If nothing we do really affects God in anyway, that he’s so strongly immutable and meticulously micromanages every detail in the universe, then I don’t see what the point is of Him involving us when he has things going exactly the way he wants them without us. It seems like merely theater, a puppet show for God. Where does the verse “you have not because you ask not?” come into play. Why is really implied in verses like Ezek. 22:30 where it seems God’s purpose that Israel have an intercessor like Moses or Abraham pray so that he need not pour out judgment? It seems his purpose was thwarted there. Why would he be seeking for someone to do something to change a situation that he eternally foreordained to happen?

    Or what about the verse in James – ye have not because ye ask not? What seems to be implied is we have not because we ask not because God did not determine to use us as his instrument to because it wasn’t God’s will that we be guided, healed, delivered, etc.

    What do we make of God appearing to change his mind in response to Moses’ intercession in Ex. 32, or King Hezekiah’s request for healing in 2 Kings 20.

    Why would God tell Jeremiah to stop praying for the people if his prayers had no real change on the divine life (Jer. 7:16, 11:14) How can our prayers be said to avail much if they don’t really avail any change upon God?

    Or why did God give Israel a king when they asked for one, when he said he did not want them to have a king? 1 Sam. 8

    On Calvinism, I don’t see how these verses make any sense of prayer, or how we can really even say we have a relationship with God…Relationship seems to imply give and take, or at least it would seem that way using common sense.

    Thanks,

    Erik

  2. Greetings, Erik, and thanks for browsing by my blog.
    Appreciate your comments but will be brief in my response at this time.
    1. What do we make of of Matthew 6:8 where Jesus states God knows what we need before we ask him? This knowing in advance how things turn out seems to be a necessary prerequisite to effective and efficient sovereignty and providence.
    2. What’s wrong with a God who micro-manages if he is only good? Given my bumblings through life, I prefer someone who is in both wholly benevolent and in full control to ensure the greatest good is achieved.

  3. Beautiful post on prayer.I believe that prayer is an open communication with the God.Prayer has all the power to change the world.But it is also true that “Prayer does change things in the world, but it does not change God and his purposes”.Prayer is the way to satisfy yourself that God definitely complete all our wish.And most important it is the strong way to connect to the god.God has already plan for each person in this world and it is sure that this plan will never be changed because of our prayers.But prayer gives us comfort and satisfaction that God is With us and He listen what we want to say Him.When we pray to Him we are we are wholly dedicated our self to Him and this feeling Give us comfort and security that He is Exist and He is around us.at last i just want to say that their is no other way than prayer to make relationship with God.I am really very happy that i find your site.Thank you for sharing this informative post with us…

    God bless you always,
    Emma Bail

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