Following the last two days of reflection on prayer and God’s sovereignty, today’s post is taken from a letter I wrote in response to someone asking me questions about why we pray if God is sovereign. I’ve found this to be one of the most regular questions people ask me about prayer and I hope this is helpful to you in shaping your own life of prayer in light of God’s power and reign.
Regarding your first question, on the reasons for persistent prayer, it seems like your question is just as much a question of whether prayer actually has any effect at all, or how it may have an effect. On the one hand, God is sovereign. On the other hand, God invites human beings into His way of working in the world. This is mysterious and presents a practical question about prayer. If God is sovereign, then why should we pray?
The first reason we pray, even though God is sovereign, is that Jesus commands us to pray. His statement “When you pray” (Matthew 6:5) assumes that we will pray and, as I read it, is a command that we should pray.
The second reason we pray, even though God is sovereign, is that God has ordered our prayers to have some effect in the world. Jesus’ invitation to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9) is not just a motto for Christians to do kingdom work but a basic theology of how God chooses to work through humanity in prayer. God has organized things within the cosmos so that our prayers have some meaningful effect.
The third reason we pray, even though God is sovereign, is that God reveals Himself to us as we pray. Jesus’ instruction on prayer goes like this: “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen…your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:6,8). We get to know God as we pray and persevering prayer on a specific topic with our Father reveals His mind and His heart on particular matters.
The fourth reason we pray, even though God is sovereign, is that God shapes us as we pray. Now, this is really a subset of the third point above, but I want to focus upon it specifically with a bit more detail. As we prayer in a persistent manner, we allow God to shape us – our desires, our loves, our thinking, and our activity – in relation to Him – His desires, His loves, His thinking, and His activity – in prayer. Prayer is transformational in relation to the world out there and our lives in here.
Now, to turn to your second question about how prayer influences God, I’d like to suggest two answers. The first is that, as I mentioned above, God has ordered our prayers to have some effect in the world. That is true in general, but also seems to be true in relation to God Himself. The second answer is a bit more complicated and relates to the nature of God. Christian theology claims that God is unchanging in His character. However, that does not mean that God is static. We see examples in Scripture where it seems like God does change His mind or repent about things (Exodus 32:14; Genesis 6:6) or is influenced to change His plans by human prayers (Genesis 18; Numbers 14). Another portion of Scripture tells us: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19).
So, what is going on with all of this? The amazing mystery is that God’s sovereign plans involve humans seeking Him in prayer and being involved in the world. Although we do not understand it, and God does not need us, our lives with God as His people involves us in the work in a way that God would not do without us. This is true in the wonders of evangelism or service, but it is also true in the ministry of prayer. There is a dance in which God is the lead dancer and we are invited as His bride to be the follower in the dance. Although the metaphor falters, there exists and unequal partnership between God and humanity in the dance of prayer. He leads, we respond, and the dance would not be the same with only one partner. The lead dancer sets up the pirouettes and the leans, but they would not happen were not the following partner there to yield to the lead dancer’s hand and rhythm. Do we change God’s mind? Not in the sense that we change another’s mind. In the currency of human communication, it seems that we change God’s mind and in the practicality of prayer it must be that way. However, God is still on the throne reigning over the earth even as we as His children are invited into the work of prayer on our knees assailing His throne.
I hope this helps in some way,