Why pray if God is sovereign? Does prayer change anything? Doesn’t God already know what I’m going to say (Ps. 139:4)? And isn’t it true that God declared the end from the beginning, saying “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:9-11)? If so, then why pray?
Many of us have wrestled with these difficult questions at some point in our lives. If we’re not asking them ourselves, someone is usually asking us! Any time the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility comes up—anytime the finite approaches the infinite—we find ourselves only able to look up at the pavement under God’s feet; like Isaiah, we can only look at the hem of his robe.
Nevertheless, here are five simple reasons for why we should pray fervently, “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18), knowing that God is absolutely sovereign:
1. Prayer is commanded in God’s Word
Jesus taught his disciples that “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:10). In the garden of Gethsemane, he told them to “watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). Paul makes it simple: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17); “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). The issue isn’t whether we think prayer does anything or not; the issue is one of our obedience. God commands us to pray; case closed.
2. Prayer is a mark of a true child of God
Those who are counted righteous by faith in God’s promises and belong to the family of God, “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). This means that true Christians will be characterized by prayer. I love how J. C. Ryle explains this: “Just as the first sign of life in an infant when born into the world is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again is praying.” How can we not talk to our heavenly Father?
3. Prayer changes us more than it “changes” God
God does not change; he is immutable! Yet prayer is how we admit and confess our need for grace. Prayer is how we can praise God and glorify him for his attributes. It’s how we learn to daily align and recalibrate ourselves with God’s will and ask for what he has promised us. It’s how we experience and nourish the fellowship we have with God in Christ. He speaks to us in his Word; we reply in prayer. John Calvin puts it this way: Those who argue that prayer is useless because God is sovereign “do not observe to what end the Lord instructed his people to pray, for he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours.”
4. Prayer is a means
Prayer is one of the foreordained means by which God brings his sovereign will to pass. From all eternity, God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass by the infinitely wise and holy counsel of his will. However, God not only ordains the ends but the means to those ends. Simply put, God has determined to act in response to the prayers of his saints just like he has determined to act in response to the preaching of the gospel. In this sense, while prayer doesn’t change God, our prayers most assuredly work to change things!
5. Prayer is an amazing privilege
God, in his mercy, has invited us to participate in his plans and share in the blessings of his saving purposes. While God alone receives the glory, we receive the benefits! Listen to R. C. Sproul on this: “Prayer, like everything else in the Christian life, is for God’s glory and for our benefit, in that order. Everything that God does, everything that God allows and ordains, is in the supreme sense for His glory. It is also true that while God seeks His own glory supremely, man benefits when God is glorified. We pray to glorify God, but we also pray in order to receive the benefits of prayer from His hand.”
Reframing the Question
In his remarkable chapter on prayer in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explains the necessity of prayer for the Christian life:
Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable… By so doing we invoke the presence both of his providence, through which he watches over and guards our affairs, and of his power, through which he sustains us, weak as we are and well-nigh overcome, and of his goodness, through which he receives us, miserably burdened with sins, unto grace; and, in short, it is by prayer that we call him to reveal himself as wholly present to us. Hence comes an extraordinary peace and repose to our consciences. For having disclosed to the Lord the necessity that was pressing upon us, we even rest fully in the thought that none of our ills is hid from him who, we are convinced, has both the will and the power to take the best care of us (3.20.2)
Since our Heavenly Father is sovereign, powerful, good, and faithful, the question needs to be reframed accordingly. The question is not, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” Instead, we should be asking:
Why not pray if God is sovereign?!