The Bible teaches that God is sovereign and providentially orchestrates all things. In the Old Testament even the unbelieving king Cyrus of the Persian Empire is called “God’s servant”, because he, unknowingly, carries out God’s purposes. In the Bible God is always pictured as in control of all things, even natural disasters, the throw of a dice and the feeding of birds. Here is the question: if all things happen according to God will, why should we pray (or do anything)?
William Carey, the famous missionary to India, was at a meeting of ministers in England to raise money for his missionary trip to India. One older minister stood up and rebuked Carey. “Sit down, young man”, he said, “if God wants to save the heathen in India he will do it without your help or mine.”
Does the sovereignty of God, like this older minister supposed, excuse us from prayer and missionary endeavour? In answering this question, we must ask two more questions:
1. What is prayer?
Prayer is speaking to God. Prayer is not magic, ritual or chanting; but simply speaking to God. Speaking implies words, meaning and rational thought. Contrary to what is happening in some Christian circles, prayer is not listening. We speak to God in prayer and God speak to us though his living and active word, the Bible.
2. Who do we pray to?
In prayer, we speak to God. One of the big reasons many don’t pray is that they have a wrong view of God.
The Force in Star Wars
The BBC News reported that more than 70,000 people in Australia have declared that they are followers of the Jedi faith, the religion created by the Star Wars films. The Jedi’s God is not personal; he is a powerful force or raw energy, like gravity. It’s no use praying to a force.
A magic genie
Others view God as a magic genie that you pray to before exams. When this God doesn’t answer your prayers in the way you want, you stop praying.
A daddy-long legs spider
According to this view, God is pretty harmless, catches the odd mosquito and helps out in odd ways, but is basically toothless. It’s no use praying because God can’t really do much.
A clock maker
God has created his clock (the universe) and set certain laws, like gravity, in motion, but is now A.W.O.L. It’s not much use praying because God is not listening.
A brutal dictator
Others views God as like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. God does what he wants and doesn’t listen to anyone. His rigid orders are always obeyed and his inflexible will is always done. It’s no use praying because God refuses to listen.
In contrast to these wrong views, what does the Bible say about the God we pray to?
a. God is sovereign
The Bible teaches that God is sovereign, all-powerful and in control of all things. Not some things, not most things, but all things. Nothing is outside his control and purposes. He works in all and through all.
The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16: 4, 9, 33)
Tim Keesee of Frontline Missions International wrote an open letter to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. Here is part of it:
“….I’ve spoken with a number of formerly committed Muslims who are now joyful Christians. Several of your erstwhile subjects told me that Islamic terror in the name of Allah was what broke their faith in the only religion they had ever known. Having rejected Islam in their heart, when they heard the gospel, they believed! They told me that the September 11th attack — what your mentor did — first opened their hearts to the love and grace that is in Jesus alone. And so, Osama bin Laden and his kind have been unwitting agents in the gospel’s advance. That’s why I said you can’t win.”
God is sovereign and even uses men like Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. Does this mean that what’s going to happen is going to happen and I can’t be held responsible then for my decisions?
b. God is personal
The Bible also teaches that God is very involved with the world. He hears our prayers and he answers our prayers. All though God is sovereign, our choices, decisions and prayers matter. We will be held accountable by God for our choices, decisions and prayers.
Acts 12 recounts the exciting story of Peter’s escape from prison. The Apostle Peter was thrown into prison for being a Christian. V5 tells us what happened: “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” The next thing we read is that there was a miraculous prison rescue with an angel, lights and chains falling off. Christians earnestly prayed and Peter was rescued. They didn’t say, “What’s going to happen will happen anyway, so why pray?”
The Bible teaches both that God is sovereign and personal. These truths run parallel to each other like railway tracks. Time after time in the Bible we see these truths working together.
Joseph, the prime minister
Both truths are demonstrated in the life of Joseph. In the book of Genesis we are told that Jacob had twelve sons but he favoured Joseph above the rest. Joseph’s brother’s decided to do a wicked, sinful thing and sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph’s life then took some dramatic turns: he was sold as a slave in Egypt; was falsely accused and sent to prison; while in prison he interpreted some dreams; Pharaoh heard about this and asked Joseph to interpret his dreams about a coming famine; and Joseph as a result ended up Prime Minister of Egypt. Joseph was able to store food and save the whole of Egypt and his brothers from starvation. In Genesis 50 Joseph’s brothers realise who he is and are very afraid:
Joseph’s words in Genesis 50:20 are very illuminating: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
Here we see the two truths: “You meant evil against me” indicates God is personal and our decisions matter. “God meant it for good…that many people should be kept alive” indicates God’s sovereignty and control over even sinful deeds.
Both these truths are also demonstrated in the conversion of lost people.
Sinners saved by grace
In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas were preaching the gospel to Jewish people who rejected their message. V46 says, “And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.
V48 describes the response of the Gentiles: And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.
God is sovereign and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Yet God is personal and the Gentiles exercised their wills by choosing to put their faith in Christ, they did not reject the message, but “believed”.
If you are a Christian, there came a time in your life when you heard the gospel, it made sense and you put your confidence in Christ to save you. But all the time, behind the scenes, Gods was calling you to himself.
The two truths that God is sovereign and personal must influence our praying. Here is an example of how it influenced the Apostle Paul’s praying:
Praying for an open door
Ephesians 1:11 is an important verse in the Bible that speaks of God’s control over all things:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.
Paul was convinced that God ordains, predestines and orchestrates all things according to His own purposes. Nothing and no-one catches God by surprise.
Yet in Colossians 4:3 we read one of Paul’s prayer requests:
Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ.
Paul wrote that God is in control of all things and that everything happens according to his will, but still asks his fellow Christians to pray that God would intervene and make an opportunity for gospel proclamation. God’s sovereignty, rather than stop Paul from praying, is the very reason Paul and ourselves can pray. Because God is sovereign he can open a door for the word. It is precisely because God is in control of all things and all-powerful that He is able (and willing) to answer our prayers. To be sure, if God was not sovereign and not all-powerful, then prayer would be of no use as God would be powerless to answer. If our salvation was our own choice, it would be futile to pray for the salvation of others. God’s Sovereignty drives us to prayer.
The original question: If all things happen according to God’s purposes anyway, why pray?
The answer: God, in his sovereignty, has appointed our prayers as a means to achieve his good purposes for the world, including reaching the nations for Christ.
If we were really convinced that God answers prayer, and that God does bring about remarkable changes in the world as a response to prayer, then we would pray much more than we do. If we pray little, it is probably because we do not really believe that prayer accomplishes much.
God’s sovereignty, rather than frustrate our praying, should fuel our praying.
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