I firmly believe that one of the many ways God teaches and shapes His children is by setting a deep question before them to consider. That question can come from a book, fellow church member, family member, friend, co-worker or colleague, individual we spoke with in line at the grocery store, a hypothetical question posted on social media, or even a media production, such as a podcast, radio, or television show. As the greatest of teachers, when God determines that our thoughts in response are not sufficiently deep, He sets that same question before us again…and again…and again. This is true for all Christians, and especially true for pastors, who are called to teach and shepherd God’s people.
Earlier this week, during a conversation with a friend of mine, I was presented with a question he was pondering: “if God is truly sovereign, why does He want us to pray?” My friend wasn’t asking me to answer directly, but was merely discussing the fact he had been wondering about and pondering the question. Later in the week, the same question was asked to me directly by another friend, “if God is really God and He knows and has ordered all things in advance in His will for the world, what good is prayer?” The next day, the question came to me a third time from another individual, “Doesn’t prayer and the fact God listens and responds to prayer prove that we have free will in the world?” Finally, this morning, listening to a daily Christian podcast to which I’m a subscriber while working on some other projects, the podcaster was asked to respond to the question, “If God is sovereign, why do we need to pray?”
Given that this broad question is evidently on the minds and hearts of so many people, I felt led to consider it here and think through exactly what Scripture teaches us concerning prayer. Often, it can be helpful to frame the answer to a broad question along the lines of several, more specific questions. Accordingly, let’s consider three specific questions in relation to prayer.
Question 1: Why does God desire and call His people to pray?
God calls His people to prayer for several reasons. First, it is how we communicate with Him. As Dr. Wayne Grudem observed in his Systematic Theology, prayer is best defined as, “personal communication with God.” God speaks to us through His Word (the Bible) and we speak to Him by communing with Him in prayer. Second, God calls us to pray because we need the spiritual discipline and exercise of prayer in our lives. Prayer is a vital component of how our relationship with God is developed and how it grows over time. Just as human relationships cannot grow and flourish without communication, neither can a Christian’s relationship with God grow and flourish without prayer.
While God invites and desires us to tell Him our needs through prayer, He does not ask us to pray because He is ignorant of our needs. As Jesus taught us in Matthew 6:8, “…your Father knows the things you need before you ask him” (CSB). Why, then, does God ask us to carry our needs before Him? Why does He invite us to tell Him things He already knows? Isn’t that a horrendous waste of time? These are fair and appropriate questions to which Scripture provides deep and abundant answers. However, before exploring what Scripture says, consider the question from a human dimension. Assume for a moment that your spouse, sibling, best friend, or another person to whom you are close was fired and lost their job today. One of the co-workers with whom you are also a friend called and told you about it before they got home. Your loved one walks through the door and you ask them what happened. Why would you do that? Obviously, you weren’t ignorant of what had happened – you already had advanced knowledge of the fact they were fired. What’s the point in asking? The answer is evident – you care about that person. Not only do you want to hear his/her side of the story (of what happened), but you also want to extend to that person the reassurance that you love him/her, genuinely care for him/her, and you want to offer that person a listening and supportive ear to share his/her experience, decompress from the trauma of that event, and to reassure him/her that everything will be okay going forward. To simply look at that person as they walk through the door, say, “I heard about what happened – no use telling me about it,” and callously move on with life disregarding what they experienced would be cold, cruel, and heartless. We would hardly describe such treatment of one human being by another as reflecting anything we know of love. Why, then, we would expect God to act in this manner?
Prayer, as communication with our loving, holy God, has a restorative impact on our souls. The Apostle Paul reminded the church at Philippi, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7 CSB). Even psychologists, physicians, and other researchers practicing in secular contexts have repeatedly found that the exercise of prayer conveys physical, psychological, and relational benefits to those human beings who engage in the spiritual discipline. However, Scripture tells us that the benefits of prayer go far beyond those dimensions in human life. At the heart of prayer is a deepening relationship with God. Prayer is about communicating, yes. But that communication is not just an end – it is also a means to an end. Prayer is about knowing God – loving and having fellowship with Him. Prayer is about trusting God – knowing that He is God, that He knows all things, governs and orders all things, and cares for us through and in all things. Prayer is about strengthening our belief and faith in God – do we truly believe that He is who He says He is and He will do what He says He will do? Prayer calls us to faith and keeps our focus upon faith as we wait expectantly for the answers of God. As Jesus said, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22 ESV; see also Mark 11:24: James 1:6-8; 5:14-15).
Question 2: If God is sovereign, does He actually hear and respond to our prayers?
To answer this question, we first need to acknowledge two absolute and implicit truths reflected in this question. First, God is sovereign – that is, He is God, who rules, reigns, and exercises His power over all things, and who is able to perfectly do and fulfill all His holy will. Second, God does hear and respond to our prayers, as Scripture makes abundantly clear. The difficulty implicit in this question is that if God’s will is absolute and will come to pass regardless of anything we do or say, what is the good of prayer? Can we actually change the mind of God or alter our own destiny through prayer?
We begin to find answers to this seeming dilemma as we consider what the Bible tells us concerning how God answers prayer. As he warns the church against worldliness and the corruption it brings, James reminds Christians, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2 ESV). Jesus taught His followers, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10 CSB). Clearly, God not only invites His people to pray but promises that He will respond to our prayers when we do.
Not only this, but God demonstrated His responses to prayer in remarkable ways throughout biblical history. In Exodus 32, in response to the heinous sin of Israel in creating and worshipping the golden calf, God declared that He would destroy Israel because of their terrible sin. “And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:9-10 ESV). That would seem to be the end of the story, right? God had spoken – no more Israel. Their doom was decreed, and their fate sealed. But then, Moses went to prayer. Exodus records the intercessory act of Moses:
“But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” (Exodus 32:11-13 ESV).
The moving, selfless, and compassionate act of Moses to intercede for a people who had been so difficult and hard to lead from the very beginning of his calling and charge to shepherd them is moving enough all by itself. But what is truly astounding is the response of God to the passionate plea of His servant: “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14 ESV).
Now, we’ve got a real dilemma. God declared destruction. Moses fervently asked Him not to destroy. And then God answered and relented of the destruction that He himself declared.
How can God be sovereign – the absolute, undisputed, unchallenged, unmovable, unshakable, perfect, holy, righteous, omnipotent God of the universe – if His mind could be changed and His judgment altered by the pleas of a mere human being – even one as great as Moses?
The answer is that Moses’s prayer fulfilled what God had planned and intended to do for His people all along. God is not only omnipotent – all powerful – but also omniscient, meaning that He is all-knowing, seeing and understanding all things about the past, present, and the future. There is no item of knowledge outside of His possession. He knew what Israel had done in the depths of their sinful rebellion – He was the one who informed Moses about this on the mountain before decreeing His judgment (Exodus 32:7-8). Seeing perfectly down the timeline of history both before and after it happened, He knew what Israel had done, He knew what Moses would do, and He knew what He would do in response.
So, are we merely puppets on a string? Some form of grand theatrical production strung along by God for His own divine entertainment? Once again, fair questions, but the answer is definitively no. God is not stringing along His creation is some cosmic opera for His own entertainment. Rather, He works perfectly in and through our circumstances to strengthen our faith in Him, guide, direct, and shape His people into who He is calling us to be, and to bring glory to Himself through the process. Applied to the context of Exodus 32, why did God tell Moses He was going to destroy Israel when He knew He would not ultimately do so (at least Israel in its entirety – 3,000 would meet their ultimate judgment when Moses came down from the mountain to behold the horrors they had wrought – Ex. 32:28)?
The answer is found in how God was shaping Moses as their leader – and how He is shaping us, in turn, by studying this passage. Intercession is the deepest form of love and compassion for others. Despite their difficulty – their “stiff necked” nature, as God strikingly described it – God was shaping the love, compassion, and devotion of His own heart for His people in His servant whom He called to lead them. Would Moses have went to intercessory prayer without God’s declaration of judgment and destruction? The answer is certainly not. Yet, by warning Moses of the dire consequences that would befall Israel because of their actions, He deeply ingrained in His servant and His people several vital truths in a single experience: the holy and righteous character of God, His desire to see that character reflected in His people, the terrible and destructive consequences of sin when that desire is not reflected in His people, and the depth of God’s love and compassion for His people in hearing the prayer of Moses and relenting of His decreed destruction of them.
Dr. J. I. Packer summarized it exceptionally well in his Concise Theology:
“There is no tension of inconsistency between the teaching of Scripture on God’s sovereign foreordination of all things and on the efficacy of prayer. God foreordains the means as well as the end, and our prayer is foreordained as the means whereby he brings his sovereign will to pass.”
God does not ultimately change His plan and will for the world based on our prayers. Rather, our prayers have been part of God’s plan and will for His world and His people all along!
Question 3: How, then, should we pray?
Jesus taught His disciples how to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 in what is famously known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” In His model prayer, Jesus taught His followers how they were to approach the Father in prayer, what they were to seek in prayer, and what they were to expect in prayer. While the Lord’s Prayer is beloved by all Christians and prayed widely and routinely by most (including myself), Jesus did not intend to relegate prayer to only those specific words and phrases contained in Matthew 6:9-13. Rather, He intended that they be a guide to model how we are to pray.
The teachings of Scripture on prayer are abundant, and volume upon volume has been written on prayer. However, God’s instructions on how we are to pray in light of how He desires us to pray and how He responds to our prayers can be helpfully summarized the following points identified by Dr. Grudem:
- Pray according to God’s will (1 John 5:14-15; Matt. 6:10; Matt. 26:39; John 15:7). Scripture helps us to discern and understand the will of God.
- Pray with faith (Mark 11:24; Matt. 21:22; James 1:6).
- Pray in and for obedience (Psalm 66:18; Prov. 15:8; 15:29; 28:9; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 John 3:21-22). We are to submit ourselves and our lives to what God desires of us and for us.
- Pray in confession of sins (Matt. 6:12; 1 John 1:9; Psalm 19:12; James 5:16).
- Pray in and for forgiveness of others (Matt. 6:14-15; Mark 11:25; Matt. 6:12, 14-15; Eph. 4:30).
- Pray in humility (James 4:6; 4:10; 1 Peter 5:5; Luke 18:11-12).We are to recognize that we are not God; He alone is. We are nothing without the grace, mercy, and love of God.
- Pray continually (Deut. 9:25-26; 10:10-11; Gen. 32:26; Luke 6:12; Luke 18:1-8; 1 Thess. 5:17; Col. 4:2). Prayer is to be a natural and ongoing discipline that marks our lives as followers of Christ – not a last resort “emergency button” to be pressed when we’re out of options.
Do you sometimes feel as if you don’t know what to pray for or how you should pray? God knows this and has anticipated it in His Word. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us, with inexpressible groanings. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27 CSB).
We need prayer. Not only do we need the prayers of others on our behalf; we need prayer ourselves – in our lives, in our own relationship with God, in our own walk with Him. While God has taught us many things about prayer in His Word, and we benefit greatly from the insights of those who have come before us and those whom God has called to lead and teach us concerning prayer, nothing we can learn about prayer is a substitute for prayer itself. God will teach us and instruct us how to pray, and God will hear and answer our prayers. But prayer must begin with itself – by communicating with our holy, loving, gracious God. As Dr. Packer so powerfully summarized:
“Christians who pray to God sincerely, with reverence and humility, with a sense of privilege and a pure (i.e., purified, penitent) heart, will find in themselves a Spirit-given filial instinct prompting prayer to and trust in their heavenly Father (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6), and a desire to pray that outruns their uncertainty as to what thoughts they should express (Rom. 8:26-27). The mysterious reality of the Holy Spirit’s help in prayer becomes known only to those who actually pray.”
Amen. “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1).
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 493.
 Lekhak, Nirmala, Tirth R. Bhatta, and Jaclene A. Zauszniewski. “Episodic Memory in Later Life: Benefits of Prayer and Meditation.” Journal of Holistic Nursing 38, no. 1 (March 2020): 30–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898010119898547; Hatch, T. G., L. D. Marks, E. A. Bitah, M. Lawrence, N. M. Lambert, D. C. Dollahite, and B. P. Hardy. “The Power of Prayer in Transforming Individuals and Marital Relationships: A Qualitative Examination of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Families.” Review of Religious Research 58, no. 1 (2016): 27–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43920134.
 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 203.
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 500-506.
 Packer, Concise Theology, 203.