Why Pray if God is Sovereign? [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_BannerFollowing 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.

Dear ______,

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,

Matt

The Mystery of Prayer to a Sovereign God, part 2 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)

If the first part of the mystery of prayer to a sovereign God focuses on relationship with God, the second part of that mystery relates to God’s invitation for us to join Him in His work in the world. The activity of prayer is intricately united with God’s invitation to join Him in Kingdom work.

At the beginning of the story of our world, Adam and Eve relate to God in unbroken fellowship. Their creation in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and their calling to steward the earth (1:28) is woven together through their interactive communion with God (2:15-17; 3:8). In the ideal state of the original creation, prayer was a natural part of both human relationship with God and human work with God in the world.

That same reality is part of the mystery of prayer to a Sovereign God now. God’s purposes in the world are and will be worked out in creation, and human beings are invited by God into His work. When we are reconciled to God in relationship through Jesus Christ, our interactive communion with God is restored. Yet it is not merely relationship with God that is reconciled, but our commission to stewardship of the earth with God that is likewise restored. This renewed commission includes the call to be witnesses to Jesus (Acts 1:8) and to make disciples of Jesus from all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). Yet all our external activity with God toward these ends must be woven together by the interactive communion with God that we call prayer. This was the intention in the original creation and it is the redeemed intention within God’s kingdom now.

It is for this reason that Jesus not only calls His followers to go and make disciples of Him, but also invites them to pray: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). While God is sovereign over all the cosmos, He invites ordinary human beings like you and me into the kingdom work through prayer. This is not a little thing, but a great thing with God. Prayer is not unnecessary, but that very necessary thing without which we will never move forward with God. As the evangelist R. A. Torrey wrote: “We are too busy to pray, and so we are too busy to have power. We have a great deal of activity, but we accomplish little; many services, but few conversions; much machinery, but few results.”[1]

Sovereign God,
  I seek to know You
  and I seek to serve You.
May my life of prayer
increase my relationship with You
  and intensify my service unto You.
Let Your kingdom come
  and Your will be done
in me as I grow as Your child
  and through me as I grow as Your witness.
All for Your glory
  I prayer these things.
Amen.


[1] R. A. Torrey, How to Obtain Fullness of Power (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1982).

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

The Mystery of Prayer to a Sovereign God, part 1 [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_BannerThe Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)

One pervasive problem of prayer is how our prayers relate to the sovereignty of God. If God is all-knowing and rules over all the cosmos, then why should we pray and what effect do our prayers have upon God and the universe? Over the next few days, we will explore this important challenge of prayer.

The starting point for this reflection is our firm belief that God is both the Creator of all the earth (Genesis 1-2) and the King over all the earth (Psalm 29:10). The cosmos has its origin in God and is sustained by God (Psalm 24:1-2; Colossians 1:17).  There is nothing that is hidden from God because God knows all things (Psalm 147:5; Hebrews 4:13).

If this is true, then why should we pray? The first way to answer this question derives from our relationship with God. We pray to the Sovereign God because He wants us to enter into relationship with Him. The entire Bible testifies to this, especially the great covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Furthermore, the very reason Jesus came as incarnate Messiah was “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) in order to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10).

Reconciliation is all about restoration of relationship. Our relationship with God is established through Jesus Christ and infused with vibrant interactivity by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15).

It is in prayer that we communicate with God, both establishing and strengthening our relationship. As John Piper writes, “Prayer is the nerve center of our vital fellowship with Jesus.”[1] Like two friends who grow in relationship by talking over a meal, or two spouses who communicate over great distances through phone calls, our prayer life with the sovereign God breathes life into the relationship we have with God the Father through Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –
  the Sovereign, Triune God –
thank You for reaching me
  when I was lost in the dark territory of sin.
Before I ever gave a thought to You,
  You thought of me and rescued me.
I thank You and praise You.
  I worship You and offer my life to You.
Grant me the gift of knowing You more
  as I learn how to pray to You, my good God.


[1] John Piper, Desiring God (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986), 145.

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

Five Elements of Waiting on God

In preparation for my message this past weekend on Joseph from Genesis 40-41, I noticed something striking about the timeline of Joseph’s journey.

Joseph was sold into slavery at 17 years of age according to Genesis 37:2. By the end of Genesis 41, Joseph is 30 years old (41:46). Two years pass between the end of chapter 40 and 41 (41:1), so roughly 10-11 years of Joseph’s life were spent in Potiphar’s house or in prison. It is likely that the majority of that time was spent in prison. Many of us grow tired waiting a day or two, or a week, or a month for God to show tangible answers to prayer. We wait for a response but grow tired when our waiting stretches for months or even years. If you are in that place take comfort from Joseph’s life. His descent into suffering left him in a holding pattern for nearly thirteen years. I’d like to share five elements of waiting on God that we can see from the life of Joseph and throughout Scripture. While his list is not exhaustive, I do believe that these elements are critical to us actively waiting on God.

  1. Waiting on God means believing God is still our God. Joseph’s words to the chief cupbearer and the chief baker help us see that even though he suffered he did not give up his faith that YHWH God is still God. This theme is echoed in the psalms: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation” (Psalm 62:1-2, ESV). In seasons of suffering we are tempted to put ourselves or other people or things into the place only God deserves. Certainly we need trusted friends and other resources during these times but we must hold onto the reality that God is still the King even in our suffering.
  2. Waiting on God means actively calling out to God. We cannot take for granted the power and vitality found by pouring our hearts out to God in prayer. “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry” (Psalm 40:1). When we call out to God, He draws near to us, even in the times of long waiting or extended suffering.
  3. Waiting on God means drawing strength from the Lord. Like a seed planted in the soil whose roots extend deep before any green breaks the soil’s surface, or like a dormant fruit tree draws nutrients before any fruit graves the limbs, so in our spiritual lives we must draw upon the strength that God gives. This is perhaps even more true in the extended times of suffering or waiting. We cannot make it without God’s strength. “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:30-31).
  4. Waiting on God means moving forward by faith even when we cannot see. We must move in obedience to what we already know and not do nothing. Joseph did not sulk in some hidden hallway or back room of Potiphar’s house or the prison when he suffered. Instead, we see that he stepped forward, eventually rising to responsible positions in both places. Wallowing in self-pity does not lead you there. Rather we must live out what the Apostle Paul wrote to an early church: “for we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
  5. Waiting on God means letting God build perseverance and maturity into us. An athlete who wants to become stronger must work to the very edge of their ability in order to move beyond that. The same is true with a pianist or an engineer or a businessperson. It is a life principle that growth comes through stretching ourselves. That same principle applies to life with God. We will not grow spiritual muscles or produce greater fruit for God in our lives without being stretched in our discipleship. The Apostle James writes about that truth this way: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Joseph experiences a transformation of perseverance and maturity that arises because he has actively walked with God in the midst of his suffering and waiting.

Joseph waits on the Lord and we see God do a new work in Joseph’s life. So, too, in our lives God will do new things in our lives as we wait upon Him in the midst of our seasons of suffering.

Four Aspects of Suffering in Joseph

josephs-coat-diego_velc3a1zquez-1630.jpgLet’s reflect on four aspects of suffering that we see in the life of Joseph:

  1. Joseph’s family dynamic brought suffering down upon him. Joseph did not choose to be born into the dysfunctional and broken family system of Abraham’s generations, but that was the context of his birth and growth. The tensions between Joseph and his brothers reflected the tensions between their mothers, Leah and Rachel, as well as with their father, Jacob. These tensions went back a generation before into Jacob and Esau’s broken interactions, as well as that of their parents Isaac and Rebekah. There was a social and relational brokenness that brought suffering down upon Joseph. We see and experience this in our own lives, when the cycles of family sin and brokenness bring suffering down upon us, even if we were not the cause of them. Suffering as a result of social, relational dynamics is real.
  2. Joseph’s personal attitudes and decisions brought suffering down upon him. Clearly, Joseph made decisions himself that brought suffering down upon him. The way in which he swaggered around, wearing that the regal robe given by his father, did not endear him to his brothers. The dreams, although given by God, were freely shared in a way that did not add anything good to his prospects. When Joseph’s brothers reacted with anger in a plot to kill him, some of this came from beyond him while some parts of it were a result of Joseph’s personal decisions. We also see this in life. There are any number of people who wonder why ‘bad things happen to good people’, while all the while ignoring the ways in which their decisions and attitudes have led to some of their suffering.  Suffering as a result of personal attitudes and decision is real.
  3. Joseph’s cultural context and systemic brokenness brought suffering down upon him. While it was the familial relationships and Joseph’s personal decisions that brought about the situation where he was thrown into a cistern by his brothers, it was the cultural context and systemic brokenness that brought rise to the slave trade route on which that cistern was located. As the Midianite traders passed by within the real systemic evil of slavery, Joseph suddenly found himself caught inside of suffering that was much bigger than his own sin and his family’s sin. The way in which sin, evil and brokenness worked their way into fallen systems that marked the culture of his day and time brought suffering down upon Joseph. Again, we encounter this in our own day were certain aspects of suffering come down upon us because we simply find ourselves caught in the midst of a web of cultural and systemic evil that we cannot avoid. Suffering as a result of our cultural context and systemic brokenness is real.
  4. Still, God was present and somehow at work in the midst of every level of Joseph’s suffering. While Joseph’s cultural context, familial dynamics, and personal decisions all brought suffering upon him, the account of his life in Genesis makes it clear that God was not imprisoned by these other aspects. Does God cause these things? No. Does God allow these things? Yes. There is no other way to be human in a broken world than to have the capacity to choose evil or good. The necessary result of this is the capacity for personal, relational, and systemic sin, brokenness, and evil to exist, even as truth, beauty, and goodness may also exist. Even when suffering comes down, God does not throw up His hands and say, “Well, I guess I cannot do anything about that now.” No, even in these different aspects of suffering, Joseph’s life tells us that God is somehow still present — “the Lord was with him” (Genesis 39:21) — and active — “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20). God’s power and presence in the midst of our suffering is real.

We do well to learn from Joseph to pay attention to all of these aspects of suffering. Many times we ask why suffering happens, and we should ask that question. However, when we drop one of these aspects of suffering out of our equation we often come up with partial or simplistic answers.

[This post is drawn from my message “Descending,” the first part of our series The Life of Joseph: God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering.]