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)?

This post offers some reflections on how our prayers intersect with God’s meticulous sovereignty. To set the stage, the first part sharpens our focus by suggesting some boundaries around how we think about prayer. I then offer thoughts on divine providence as it pertains to human activity and set forth a definition for God’s providence. Finally, I will draw out some practical implications from these observations.

Thinking about Prayer

  1. Prayer, at its most basic level, is an expression of our dependence upon God.
  2. Our purpose in prayer is to glorify God by seeing him actively accomplish his will here on earth. God, not us, must be the center focus of all our prayers and it is his will and not our own that we must pursue.
  3. Submission and solitude are essential ingredients in Jesus’ prayer life and should be in ours.
  4. Our intention in prayer should be that we recognize how God is working in and through circumstances, rather than merely change them.
  5. Thankfulness for God’s movement in the lives of our brothers and sisters allows us the opportunity to see God’s work in others and helps us avoid self-absorption.
  6. Prayer for knowing God better, gaining special insight into our eternal hope, and for power to live for God’s glory should govern all other requests.
  7. When we pray, we should emphasize a growing love for one another, pure and blameless living, and all that accommodates our maturity in Christ.
  8. A depth of insight into the limitless dimensions of Christ’s love for us can only be gained by prayer.
  9. God is more interested in us than in what we want and he occasionally denies our requests so that his glory and our good will be optimal.

How do these “boundaries” strike you? Are there others you would add or ones here that you would not agree with?

Thinking about Providence

  • How do you define “providence?”
  • How would you describe God’s control in the world and exactly how do our prayers intersect with God’s sovereignty?
  • How can God respond to prayer when his purposes are changeless?
  • Why, if God is all-wise and all-knowing, should he be prayed to?
  • Similarly, if God has already ordained the end from the beginning and the outcome of every event is determined along with the consequences of every human choice, why bother praying?
  • Do our prayers influence God to act in ways that he otherwise would not?
  • Do our prayers really cause things to happen?
  • Consider this definition: “Divine providence is like a fixed matrix consisting of a stream of related events through which God brings about precisely what he intends for the universe and from which he governs the world” (See Psalm 115:3; 33:10-11; Proverbs 5:21; 16:1-4; 9; 33; Daniel 4:34-35; Isaiah 14:24; 26-27; 46:10-11; Acts 4:27-28).

Prayer, as an element in God’s divine design, is an expression of our trust and reliance upon God’s providence and, therefore, is a means God uses to affect change for the accomplishment of his will. God does respond to the prayers of his people (Gen. 18:22-33; 21:17; 30:17; Ex. 32:14; 1 Chron. 14:14; Dan. 10:12; Mt. 7:7-11; Acts 4:29-3 1; 12:5-11).

Nevertheless, God has set some conditions for answered prayer, which include prayers offered in Jesus’ name (Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24). To pray in the name of Jesus is to enter the presence of God by the authority and reputation of Jesus rather than any individual authority (e.g., Acts 3:6; 4:7; 16:18; 1 Cor. 5:4). It implies a surrendering of all personal authority and privilege and a submission to the Lord Jesus’ authority. Therefore, humility and dependence are necessary prerequisites to effective prayer (2 Chron. 7:14; Jm. 5:16; 1 Pt. 5:6-7).

Another condition is praying according to God’s will (Mt. 6:10; 26:3 9; 1 Jn. 5:14-15). The fact that God knows in advance what we need before we ask (Mt. 6:8) suggests God’s provision is not so much in the answers, but in the prayers themselves.

God’s providential control is seen in governing the affairs of nations. He is the chief architect and ruler over the nations (Job 12:23; Ezra 1:1; 6:22; Ps. 22:28; 33:14-15; Pr. 21:1; 16:9; Dan. 4:34-35; Acts 17:26). Even in the midst of evil, God redirects the results of sinful human choices toward his ultimate purposes, whether his purposes are for blessing, discipline, or judgment (Gen. 37:28; 45:5; 50:20; 2 Kgs. 19:25; Is. 10:5, 12; 13:17; Jer. 25:9, 12; Ez. 14:9; Hab. 1:5-12; Rom. 8:28-29; Eph. 1:11).

As the sovereign, all-knowing Architect of the universe, he has an overall “blueprint,” known only to him, in which he has already engineered every effect from every cause and every consequence from every condition. In his perfect wisdom and almighty power, God’s conception and resolve is to bring about the precise goal which he intends for his creation. Ultimately, everything that comes to pass is what he has purposed, and everything he has purposed comes to pass (Is. 14:26-27; Eph. 1:11).

Like a conductor and composer, God has orchestrated each note and rhythm in the universe to perform his perfect masterpiece of history. The motif repeated in every refrain includes the prayers of the saints that serve to bring the grand finale to a climax when the chorus will one day sing:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

What questions do you have for God regarding his answers to your prayers? Is God’s will really what you want, more than having your requests granted? Which of these questions poses the most concern for you and why?

Thinking about Prayer and Providence

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.

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?

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

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