Prayer and Sovereignty
Following Joe Boot’s visit during July 2012, where he took a brilliant Q&A session giving a great defence of the Christian faith, I am following up on a couple of questions texted in that he didn’t have time to answer.
Why should we pray if God has a perfect plan for our lives, or does prayer change God’s perfect plan?
This question, and many like it, brings together 2 ideas that are found in the Bible and yet seem to us to conflict and be incompatible. On the one hand the Bible shows that God is sovereign over all things and “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11). That is to say, God has a plan for each of us and is making sure everything works out according to it. Yet on the other hand, we can and are expected to respond to different circumstances in different ways which seemingly alter God’s plan. If we repent, then God will not condemn us but will forgive us; if we pray, then God will change situations; if we seek God’s kingdom before everything else, then He will provide for all our needs. Our actions change things. And yet, to us, these 2 ideas seem logically incompatible.
Firstly, this is more of a problem for the modern Western mind than for many others in the world since we think in a logical fashion and struggle to accept mysteries and what seem to us to be contradictions. Unlike many in the East who embrace mystery (Eastern Orthodox Christians refer to Apophatism – the idea that God is not fully knowable), even encouraging it as a source of worship, we think in quite rigid logical categories of sense/nonsense, true/false and so on, so that ideas that seem to be incompatible are rejected as nonsense, simply because we cannot understand them: “Either this is true or that is true, but they can’t both be true”. For instance, scientists debate whether an electron is a wave or a particle, since they exhibit characteristics of both, and yet surely cannot be both. But Physicists are now concluding that electrons are best understood as straddling both categories, despite the questions that raises. While God has made us intelligent beings we must recognise that our knowledge is limited and some things will remain a mystery to us. The paradox of God’s set plan and our duty to pray for change is just such a mystery.
Secondly, we pray not only that circumstances might change but also that we might express to God our dependence upon Him in the challenges of life. When C.S. Lewis’ wife was ill with terminal cancer he said:
“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”
Prayer is much more than simply bringing our requests to God, but is aligning ourselves with his will, so that our despair and anguish is transformed into faith that trusts God through the pain and the trial. ‘Praying with faith’ is not merely optimistic praying but trusts that God will do what is right and good in every circumstance, even if that means not answering our prayer in the way we would like. Prayer is not merely the application of a formula: circumstance + prayer = changed circumstance, but is rather the working out of a relationship where we walk with God, as children with their father, whether or not we understand his ways.
Having said all of that, we do believe that prayer changes things. It makes a difference. Israel cried out to God and He rescued them from slavery (Ex 6); Moses raised his hands in prayer and God gave him the battle (Ex 17); God promised Israel that if they would turn from sin and pray, He would heal their nation (2Chron 7:14); Jesus said that if we will ask, we will receive (Jn 16:24); James wrote “you do not have because you do not ask God” (Jas 4:2). Throughout the Bible we are called to pray that God might intervene and change situations. Of course, God knows all that will take place and so he knows whether we will pray or not and so in that sense his plan does not change. However, that of course raises the question of whether another outcome was possible if we hadn’t prayed, although of course God would have known that too.
In the end it is a question of both faith and perspective. Faith, in that we believe all that the Bible teaches, whether or not we understand it. And the Bible teaches that God is working out his plan, and yet he calls us to pray in order to bring about change. Perspective, for God sees everything and therefore ensures that all things work out the way He intends, and yet from our earthly perspective our prayers can make a difference. When we pray, God answers: He heals the sick, He provides for our needs, He softens hearts, He opens doors for the gospel, He builds His church. We may not understand how prayer works, but the proof of history is that it does, so let’s do it!