Article by Marshall Segal Staff writer, desiringGod.org
If seeing and embracing the sovereignty of God causes us to pray less, we have not yet understood his sovereignty, or prayer. Providence does not make prayer optional or incidental, but vital and indispensable. Not because God couldn’t do it another way — God does all that he pleases however he pleases — but because the sovereign God has chosen, precisely and wisely, to hang many of his plans on the prayers of his people.
Did anyone love and herald the absolute sovereignty of God like the apostle Paul? And yet he says in 2 Corinthians 1:11, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” He also calls believers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18).
The pages of Scripture, and of history, are filled with the power and necessity of prayer, because the all-powerful God has chosen to hear and answer prayer.
Pray Because God Is Sovereign
The early church certainly didn’t feel any tension between the sovereignty of God and prayer. His sovereignty, in fact, became the great foundation and incentive for prayer. When they lifted their voices together in the midst of persecution, they laid themselves in the sovereign hands of God: “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . .” (Acts 4:24). And they didn’t stop at creation, but relished his sovereignty even in the worst horror and injustice of history:
Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27–28)
And the fact that God sovereignly made, predestined, and orchestrated all things did not keep them from asking him to do something new in their lives. In the very next breath, they pray,
And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29–30)
They did not take his plan (or their own boldness) for granted. They didn’t wait around for God to heal. They didn’t presume their prayers made no difference in his providence. No, they prayed because they knew that prayer is a vital part of his sovereign plans. They knew that prayer really changes things, that the sovereign God had always planned to answer prayer.
“Providence does not make prayer optional or incidental, but vital and indispensable.”
Notice what God does in answer to their prayers. “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:23–31). First, he answers their specific request. They spoke the truth with the boldness they had prayed for. But beyond answering their immediate prayer, God shook the building in which they had prayed. Why did he do that?
It seems the sovereign God wanted to tell them how much he loved to hear them pray, and just how eager he was to answer.
“Here then is the design of prayer,” A.W. Pink writes, “not that God’s will may be altered, but that it may be accomplished in his own good time and way” (The Sovereignty of God, 172). We do not pray as if God needed anything from us, “since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath” — including our prayers — “and everything” (Acts 17:25). We pray because God meets real, deep, desperate needs in the world through our prayers. And because he meets real, deep, desperate needs in us when we pray.
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, briefly highlights six great benefits of praying to a sovereign God (3.20.3). These are not reasons that we pray, but simply the happy fruit of a lifetime of bowing before the throne of providence. Why might God decide to run so much of the world and history through prayer? In part, because he longs to bless his needy, finite, chosen children — and to bless us far beyond our meager expectations and imaginations.
So, besides the realities that God really does answer prayer and that he commands us to pray, what other blessed reasons do we have to pray to our sovereign God?
First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.
Few things will fuel our desire and love for God like prayer. And few things will deplete our spiritual resolve and passion like prayerlessness. Notice the mingling of joy and prayer in Psalm 37:4–7:
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act. . . .
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Delight in God spills over in prayer to God — being still in his presence, committing our way to him, and laying out the desires of our heart before him (the psalm itself is a prayer). And prayer in God increases our delight in and desire for him. Prayer also consistently reminds us that, in Christ, we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19).
Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Greater communion with Jesus increases the effectiveness of our prayers, often simply by aligning our hearts and requests with his. And when our hearts are aligned with his — when we are most satisfied with God and his glory — we will seek, receive, and enjoy more of him, especially in prayer.
That there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.
Faithful prayer exposes shortsighted, selfish, or earthly desires in us. When we bare our heart before God, we often feel just how misplaced our longings can be. James warns us about the danger of these wayward impulses:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? . . . You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:1–3)
How do we make war on these rebel desires? James continues, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:7–8, 10). And how better to humble ourselves (acknowledging how wayward our desires can be), submit ourselves (recommitting all we are and have to God’s desires), and draw near to him, than to pray?
“As we ask, receive, and rejoice, he gets more and more glory.”
Praying to a sovereign God also reminds us that even our noblest and purest desires and requests may go unanswered. His providence assures us that if he does not answer, whether immediately or ever, it is because he has a better plan. As painful as unanswered prayers can be, they are far more bearable (even strangely precious) when we know that the God who loves us is pervasively and meticulously in control of all things, working them for our good.
That we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand.
Prayer can make us all the more aware of all that God is doing for us and around us. And that awareness multiplies our reasons for thanksgiving. The apostle Paul makes this connection explicit: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11).
Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). He gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25). Prayer opens our eyes wider and wider to all that he gives — specifically to what he gives in answer to prayer, but then far beyond our prayers to all the unasked-for blessings he showers on us.
That, having obtained what we were seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.
When was the last time God clearly answered one of your prayers? Can you remember a time when something you prayed for actually happened, and the circumstances left you concluding that it happened because you prayed? For that moment, heaven peeks through the clouds of all that we suffer and endure to remind us that we have an almighty and attentive Father. My wife and I just experienced a moment like that, after months of praying for a particular breakthrough in our family.
“Prayer not only exposes the kindness of God and inspires greater gratitude to God, but it also deepens our joy in God.”
For anyone in Christ, the kindness of God is not a marginal or occasional experience. It is the entire atmosphere of our experience — all of our experience. And it will always be so. God saved us “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). Answered prayers are brilliant flashes, like bolts of lightning, announcing the ever-present, never-exhausted kindness of God.
Every time we pray, we invite another glimpse, another sensation of his surprising gentleness and affection, another occasion to awaken our selfish, impatient, grumbling hearts to his kindness.
That use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness, confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to help his own.
When we pray, we take God at his word — that he will listen, that he will answer, that he will never fail us or send us anything that is not ultimately good for us, that he will fulfill all of his promises, including his promises about prayer. Jesus says to his disciples,
I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. (Luke 11:9–10)
When we pray, we take each of those promises seriously. We expect our heavenly Father to give us good gifts (Luke 11:11–13), either what we asked for or whatever would be better for us.
So, prayer proves the faithfulness of God as he answers our specific prayers (in his wisdom and timing) like he said he would. Prayer also allows us, however, to prove every other promise of God. Calvin says, “To us nothing is promised to be expected from the Lord, which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayers” (3.20.2). One way prayer serves the providence of God and our joy in him is by inviting us to plead with him to do all that he has promised in Scripture.
That at the same time we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers.
God has made prayer to serve and magnify joy. Jesus says precisely this when he tells his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23–24). Prayer not only exposes the kindness of God and inspires greater gratitude to God, but it also kindles our joy in the gifts God gives, which then inflames an even greater joy in God as the Giver. Answered prayers are kindling for inflaming true and lasting happiness.
And as our joy in God grows, his glory rises higher and higher in our life. We believe that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So, if prayer kindles a warmer, more intense satisfaction in our souls, it also exalts the wisdom, power, and worth of God. As we ask, receive, and rejoice, he gets more and more glory, which is the one grand purpose of history and each of our roles in it.
So, if God is sovereign, why would we pray? The more we explore the dynamic and vibrant marriage between providence and prayer, the more we will ask instead: How could we not pray?
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis.