Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sovereignty and Prayer

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Where if Your Trust?"  Click on the title to find the audio.]

In Isaiah 36, the impending attack of the Assyrians on the city of Jerusalem brings Hezekiah to his knees...quite literally.  Repentant and knowing his need of the Lord, Hezekiah prays in Isaiah 37:16-20 concerning the Assyrian threat and taunts.  Then, in verses 21-22, God responds to the prayer of King Hezekiah: "Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him..."

God's answer might be summarized by these words: "Hezekiah, I am sovereign.  I brought this army to your doorstep, and I will keep them from overtaking you."  Think about this.  This is the sovereign God whose hand brought the Assyrian army to the doorstep and whose hand will keep them from overtaking Jerusalem says to Hezekiah.  Yet, it is also the God that heard Hezekiah's prayer and responded, "Because you have prayed..."

How can God be both sovereign and responsive to our prayers?  If God knows what we need and when we need it...and He already has His intervention planned...then why pray?  These are honest questions that many people ask.  This was the answer I expressed Sunday in my message: "God has ordained that His purposes in this world will be accomplished, and He has ordained that they will often be accomplished through the prayers of His people.  As we pray, God works His marvelous, sovereign plan for us and for His world."

Recorded in Prayer by Philip Yance is a challenge once given to C.S. Lewis by Kurt Vonnegut: "...if [God] is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn't He already know what is best?  And if He is all-good won't He do it whether we pray or not?"  Here is Yancey's explanation of Lewis' answer.  "In reply, Lewis said that you could use the same argument against any human activity, not just prayer.  'Why wash your hands?  If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without your washing them...Why ask for the salt?  Why put on your boots?  Why do anything?'  God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms.  God chose a different style of governing the world..."  God has ordained that our actions...including our prayers...are woven into the fabric of His sovereign rule over all things.

Another form of this answer is found in a short devotional from John Piper in his book, A Godward Life.  In one of the chapters, titled "Prayer and Predestination," Piper writes a fictional conversation between "Prayerful" and "Prayerless" (hearkening back to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress).  Their conversation covers this very topic, and I share it today, in its entirety to remind us all that God's sovereignty does not negate the need to pray...it stimulates it!  [The following is taken from pp. 144-146 of Piper's book.]

Prayerless: I understand that you believe in the providence of God.  Is that right?
Prayerful: Yes.
Prayerless: Does that mean you believe, like the Heidelberg Catechism says, that nothing comes about by chance, but only by God's design and plan?
Prayerful: Yes, I believe that's what the Bible teaches.  Job prays, "No purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (42:2).  There are lots of texts like that.
Prayerless: Then why do you pray?
Prayerful: I don't see the problem.  Why shouldn't we pray?
Prayerless: Well, if God ordains and controls everything, then what he plans from of old will come to pass, right?
Prayerful: Yes.
Prayerless: So it's going to come to pass whether you pray or not, right?
Prayerful: That depends on whether God ordained for it to come to pass in answer to prayer.  If God predestined that something happen in answer to prayer, it won't happen without prayer.
Prayerless: Wait a minute, this is confusing.  Are you saying that every answer to prayer is predestined?
Prayerful: Yes it is.  It's predestined as an answer to prayer.
Prayerless: So if the prayer doesn't happen, the answer doesn't happen?
Prayerful: That's right.
Prayerless: So the event is contingent on our praying for it to happen?
Prayerful: Yes.  I take it that by contingent you mean prayer is a real reason that the event happens, and without the prayer the event would not happen.
Prayerless: Yes, that's what I mean.  But how can an event be contingent on my prayer and still be eternally fixed and predestined by God?
Prayerful: Because your prayer is as fixed as the predestined answer.
Prayerless: Explain.
Prayerful: It's not complicated.  God providentially ordains all events.  God never ordains an event without a cause.  The cause is also an event.  Therefore the cause is also foreordained.  So you cannot say that the event will happen if the cause doesn't because God has ordained otherwise.  The event will happen if the cause happens.
Prayerless: So what you are saying is that answers to prayer are always ordained as effects of prayer, which is one of the causes, and that God predestined the answer only as an effect of the cause.
Prayerful: That's right.  Since both the cause and the effect are ordained together, you can't say that the effect will happen even if the cause doesn't, because God doesn't ordain effects without causes.
Prayerless: Can you give some examples?
Prayerless: No.
Prayerful: I agree.  Why not?
Prayerless: Because the brightness of the sun comes from the fire.
Prayerful: Right.  That's the way I think about answers to prayer.  They are the brightness and prayer is the fire.  God has established the universe so that in large measure it runs by prayer, the same way he has established brightness so that in large measure it happens by fire.  Doesn't that make sense?
Prayerless: I think it does.
Prayerful: Then let's stop thinking up problems and go with what the Scriptures say: "Ask and you will receive" (John 16:24), and "You do not have, because you do not ask" (James 4:2).


May knowing that God ordains to accomplish great things through the prayers of His people fuel the fire of our prayers!