Let’s talk about prayer.
I mean, prayer changes things, right? After all, that’s what prayer is. We present our requests to God and he responds. God answers prayer. We’ve known this since Sunday school.
But it also raises some sticky questions. Like, does God change his mind? If God responds to prayer, does that mean he alters his sovereign plan in response to our requests? Or is God like the ultimate chess player – a Kasparov on steroids – answering prayers by outsmarting the devil, the universe, fate, karma, or whatever else he has to outsmart?
To prevent us from drifting into heresy or having our brains explode from exhaustion, let’s look at the Scriptures.
Prayer Does NOT Change Things
In one sense, prayer doesn’t change things. God really is sovereign, and he rules the past, the present, and the future. One common heresy (“open theism”) is that God doesn’t know the future and only responds to it like a chess player.
Scripture is pretty clear that this isn’t the case. God knows the future (the word “future” doesn’t really apply to God since he is omnipresent, but you get the point).
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’
Throughout the Old Testament, God routinely told the people of Israel EXACTLY what would happen. In Jeremiah 25:11-12 God spoke to Israel through Jeremiah, telling them that they would be exiled to Babylon:
This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.
This was foreordained by God. It wasn’t a mystery to him. He wasn’t hoping that Nebuchadnezzar would invade Israel. It wasn’t on God’s life-goals list.
It was a sure thing, set in stone, absolutely going to happen.
Our prayers don’t alter God’s sovereign plan. It’s not like we pray and God says, “Woah, hey now! Didn’t expect that one. Okay, gotta change things quickly. Time to shift things around. Let’s see, I’ll put this here and this here and…”
God isn’t the ultimate project manager, trying to juggle the lives of 7 billion people as they make their choices apart from his sovereign plan. He has planned and ordained history, and he knows precisely what will happen.
My prayers don’t change the wise, good, sovereign plan of the King.
Phew. Thank God.
Prayer Changes Things
But in another sense, prayer really does make things happen. Scripture is clear that God wants us to pray and that he really and truly does respond to our prayers.
Scripture makes it clear that prayer changes things. In James 5:13-15, it says:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
The logic here is pretty simple. If you’re sick, call the elders to pray for you and God will hear and answer that prayer. On the flip side, if you don’t pray the prayer will not be answered.
When Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed:
Now, O my God, let your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayer of this place (2 Chronicles 6:40)
Our Father wants us to pray. He loves when we come to humbly with our requests. He’s a good God who loves to bless his children, and he really and truly does respond to our prayers of faith.
Charles Spurgeon said:
My heart has no deeper conviction than this, that prayer is the most efficient spiritual agency in the universe, next to the Holy Ghost.
God isn’t a sadistic freak who loves to manipulate our emotions. He’s a good God who invites his children to pray.
Prayer changes things. Phew.
Embracing The Mystery
Let’s acknowledge that we don’t know how these things work together.
God’s complete sovereignty and my free will and responsibility don’t really make sense to me. I can’t logically reconcile them. When I do try to reconcile them, I usually end up reducing things to heresy.
My Western, Enlightenment-influenced brain doesn’t like mystery. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I think that if I can’t explain something it must not be true.
Frankly, that’s pretty stupid.
God is God. He is infinitely above me, and his ways are most certainly NOT my ways. How could I possibly think that I could comprehend the workings of the One who sustains all things by the power of his word. I can barely change the locks on my front door, let alone understand how God works.
Yeah. That’s lunacy.
I know two things, and both give me immense comfort.
NUMBER ONE: My good God rules, controls, and ordains all things for my good and his glory.
NUMBER TWO: God invites me to pray to him and promises to respond to my prayers.
That’s enough for me.