Sunday, July 10, 2011
Sermon: If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?
A sermon by Dr. Ray Pritchard of Keep Believing Ministries given January 1998 (source link here).
When we surveyed the congregation last year several people asked this question. I would suppose that most Christians have wondered about it at one time or another. Certainly skeptics have thrown it in our faces to discourage us from seeking the Lord in times of crisis. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I myself have wrestled with this issue on more than one occasion.
Perhaps the place to begin is by sketching the question in more detail. Here are five statements that I believe we can all agree on:
1. God knows all things. We call this aspect of God’s character his omniscience. It speaks to the fact that because God is God, he knows all things that could be known-past, present, and future-and he knows them all at the same time. That means that God is never surprised and that he never learns anything new.
2. God has committed himself to provide for his people. In fact, I think we can state the position even more forcefully than that. God wants to provide for us, he intends to provide for us, and he will provide what we need. In Philippians 4:19 Paul assures us that “God will meet all your needs,” which is the New Testament version of Psalm 23:1, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” David also said in Psalm 34:9, “Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” God promises that “I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint” (Jeremiah 31:25). When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” do we not pray to a God who has promised to give us all the bread we need precisely when we need it? The whole record of the Bible teaches us that God is the Great Provider, which is why one of his divine names is Jehovah Jireh-“The LORD will provide” (Genesis 22:14).
3. God has invited us to bring our needs to him. We are told to ask, to seek, to knock (Matthew 7:7-8). Why? Ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you. In Psalm 81:10 the Lord promises, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” This is where prayer becomes intensely personal. Our Heavenly Father-who already knows our needs-invites us to make our needs known through prayer.
4. We don’t know what we really need. We think we do, but we don’t. Or to be more accurate, we know part of our needs, but not all of them. Our perspective is inevitably limited by our own experience, desires and personal knowledge. Romans 8:26 says that “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” How true that is. Recently I was presented with a problem involving a couple whose marriage has been in a crisis situation for many years. I can honestly say that I have prayed so much for this couple without a positive result that when I try to pray now, I don’t know how to pray for them effectively. That’s why the most basic prayer is always “Thy will be done.” But God knew that we would often be baffled in prayer so he sent the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us. He prays for us when we don’t know how to pray for ourselves or for anyone else.
5. God knows what we need before we ask him. Matthew 6:8 says this very plainly: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” That means we don’t have to impress God, use big words, or pray long prayers. We don’t have to repeat ourselves when we pray and worry about getting all the details correct or throw in flowery language when we pray. Since God knows us through and through, he knows our needs better than we do. When you pray, you aren’t informing God of anything. He knew your need before you bowed your head.
But that brings us back to the original question. If God knows everything before we pray, and if he truly wants to provide for us anyway, why bother praying at all? Isn’t prayer just a waste of time? Or you might say it this way: If God has ordained all things, won’t he do whatever he’s going to do, with or without my prayers?
With that as background, I’d like to consider four answers to the question, If God is sovereign, why pray?
1. We do not pray to inform God of anything.
This may be obvious but it needs to be stated anyway. When you pray, you aren’t informing God of things he wouldn’t otherwise know. The Bible tells us that he numbers the stars in the sky, the sand on the seashore, and the hairs on your head. He even calls the stars by name (Psalm 147:4). Ponder that for a moment. Billions and billions of stars and he knows the personal name of each one. Think how easily you get flustered on Sunday morning trying to remember that person you met last week. I’m sure there is no one in our church-including me-who knows the names of everyone who attends our three services each Sunday morning.
But God does. He not only knows all the people in this church, he knows everyone attending every church everywhere in the world today. More than that, he knows the names of all 5.7 billion people who call planet earth home. But even beyond that, he knows the names of everyone who has ever lived here and everyone yet to be born.
If God knows all that, and it’s not even a strain for him, do you think he’s going to be surprised that your gall bladder is acting up again? Do you think he doesn’t know about your crabby boss or how you gained 10 pounds in the last month?
In case you doubt me, listen to the words of Psalm 139:1-4.
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
That would appear to be total knowledge of every aspect of your life. Nothing you can do or say is a surprise to God. He knows your secret thoughts, your hidden motives, your unspoken dreams, and he knows what you are going to say before you ever open your mouth.
I find this a liberating truth for the prayer life. It means I don’t have to yell or shout to try and make him understand. And I don’t have to go into some long explanation either. I don’t even have to repeat myself unless I want to. He got the message the first time. Actually, he got the message before I ever sent it.
2. We pray to express our total dependence upon our Heavenly Father.
I recently got some help on this point from a tape by R. C. Sproul, in which he quoted John Calvin, the great theologian of the Protestant Reformation. At one point while discussing the purpose of prayer, Calvin comments that prayer is not for God’s good, but for ours. That’s an amazing thought. Because God is God, he doesn’t “need” our prayers. But we need to pray. (Lest this point be misunderstood, I think Calvin means that God’s perfections are perfect in their completeness. While God desires our prayers, they do not “add” anything to who God is.)
Let me say that another way. God doesn’t need the information we give him, but he encourages us to give him the information anyway.
Perhaps an illustration would help. Picture a father watching his four-year-old daughter trying to put together a puzzle. She tries and tries but she just can’t get the pieces in the right place. Her father watches with great interest but he doesn’t interfere. Finally, she comes over and crawls in his lap and says, “Daddy, would you help me put my puzzle together?” He smiles and bends down and together they begin to pick up each piece. One by one they put the puzzle together.
Now why didn’t the father help his daughter earlier? For one thing, she didn’t ask for his help. For another, he wanted her to try on her own. And most of all, he wanted her to ask him for his help. When she did, he was honored and gladly helped her finish the puzzle.
Is this not a picture of how our Heavenly Father deals with his children? Although he longs to come to our aid, often he waits until we specifically ask him. Sometimes he wants us to come to the end of our own pitiful resources before he intervenes. When we cry out in despair, he is honored as we express our complete dependence upon him.
Every prayer is the cry of a child saying, “Help, Father, I can’t do this by myself.”
3. We pray because God is honored by our persistent faith.
I’ve already said that since God knows what we need before we ask him, we don’t have to repeat ourselves to get his attention. But that’s not the whole story. We all know from personal experience that not all our prayers are answered the first time we pray them. Sometimes we receive immediate answers, but often we must wait days, weeks, months, or even years before the answer comes. For instance, I know of many people in our congregation who have prayed for years for their loved ones to come to Christ. Some of you write down the same prayer request every single week-week in and week out. (I would add that it often seems the case that the more something matters to us, the longer we will have to wait for the answer to come. This is very often true when we pray for our loved ones to come to Christ.)
How long should you pray for your loved ones to be saved? My answer is simple. You should pray until God answers your prayers. Do you remember the story of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8? The woman kept coming back to the judge to plead her case. Because the judge was dishonest, he didn’t have time for her, but her persistence wore him down so finally he said, “I’m going to see that this woman gets justice before she drives me crazy.” Listen to the words of Jesus as he applies this story to our Heavenly Father:
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly (Luke 18:7-8).
Jesus isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge. But if an unjust judge can be swayed by the persistence of a widow, won’t God’s heart be moved by the persistent prayers of his people? The answer is yes. Persistent prayer moves the heart of God because it expresses such desperate dependence on him.
Sometimes it takes desperate circumstances to bring forth this kind of faith. Perhaps you’ve heard about the doctor who said to his patient, “There’s nothing I can do. It’s in the hands of God now.” “Oh, no,” the patient replied, “has it come to that?” Prayer reminds us that in the end everything depends on God and not on us.
James 5 gives us another wonderful example of the power of prayer. Elijah prayed that it would not rain and for three-and-one-half years there was no rain in Israel. He prayed again and the rains fell from heaven. Here’s the moral of the story in James 5:16, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” In the original language James used a word that means “to boil over.” Fervent prayers get God’s attention because they come from a heart that believes God’s power is unlimited.
This doesn’t mean that you need to shout when you pray or that you have to weep or moan or stand or sit. Fervent prayer is simply prayer offered in earnest petition to God. It’s not the words that matter … or the length of the prayer … or the tone of your voice … or whether you stand or kneel or sit. What matters is that you really mean it when you pray.
Many years ago when we lived in California, I heard a man speak at a youth workers rally in Long Beach. I remember that he spoke on Acts 12 and told the story of how his wife had been involved in a terrible accident. As the ambulance rushed her to the hospital, he tried to pray but the only words that would come out were “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.” It seemed, he commented, like one of the few times in his life that he had entered into the true spirit of prayer.
The same thing happened to me the night our first child was born. My wife Marlene had carried the baby for ten full months and there were some difficulties at the end of the pregnancy. She was in labor all night long but nothing seemed to be happening. Finally the doctor came in about 5:30 a.m. and said, “We’re going to take that baby now.” I knew from the look on his face that he felt things weren’t going well. Moments later they whisked my wife away and I was left alone. I tried to pray but the words wouldn’t come. The only prayer that passed my lips was, “Oh God, have mercy. O Lord, have mercy.”
I learned that night that God isn’t concerned about our words when we pray. What matters is that our hearts be focused on him. Fervent prayers move God to action because they come from persistent faith in the face of desperate circumstances.
4. We pray because he is God and we are not.
This of course is the first rule of the spiritual life. All prayer is based on this simple truth. He runs the universe, we don’t. We pray because he’s in charge and we’re not.
And here’s a crucial insight. When we don’t pray, it’s because we’ve forgotten who’s God and who’s not. A lack of prayer means we’re still trying to run the show. It’s a sign that we’ve decided we can handle things on our own.
And that brings us back to the original question. If God is sovereign, why pray? Yesterday I was chatting with John Tahl and mentioned my sermon topic to him. He looked at me and said, “There’s an easy answer to that question.” I asked what it was-mainly because I wanted to be sure I knew it myself. “Because he commanded us to,” he replied. When you think about it, that is the ultimate answer. We pray because God has commanded us to pray-which means that prayer must be good for us.
Sometimes you see little signs that say, “Prayer changes things.” I believe that’s true. And the first thing prayer changes is us. It teaches us to depend completely on our Heavenly Father and it reminds us that he is God and we are not. Prayer can change the course of men and nations.
Why pray if God knows everything in advance? Because God has ordained that our prayers are part of his plan for the universe. Our prayers really do matter to God. In a sense God limits what he can do in the world so that he can work through our prayers. It’s not that God “needs” our prayers. He doesn’t. But in his grace, he has invited us to join him in the great adventure of bringing his kingdom to this sinful world. Through our prayers, we partner with God in changing the world.
Our greatest problem is not with God’s sovereignty but with our own sinful unbelief. The Bible says, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2 KJV). But Jesus himself invited us to ask God for anything that we need. So why don’t we pray more than we do?
Let’s wrap up this message with a very simple theology of prayer. Our part is to pray fervently, sincerely, and honestly, bringing our deepest concerns to the Lord. God’s part is to listen to our prayers and to graciously answer them in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
God calls us to pray. He invites us to pray. He commands us to pray. He begs us to pray. He exhorts us to seek his face every day. We have been given unlimited access to the throne room of the universe. The King of Kings wants to hear from you. Don’t keep him waiting any longer.
Here’s a simple application of my message. It’s early in 1998 and no doubt you’ve been thinking about the year ahead. If God answers your deepest prayers this year, what will happen?
I’d like you to write down your top three prayer requests for 1998 in the space below. It doesn’t matter what the requests are so long as they represent things you really care about-either for yourself or for someone you love or for God’s work around the world.
My requests for 1998:
I encourage you to keep these three requests where you can see them every day. Pray about these things until A) the Lord clearly answers, or B) the circumstances change, or C) the Lord lifts the burden from your heart.
Remember, the Lord of the universe wants to hear from you in 1998. Don’t keep him waiting. May the Lord grant that we will experience more answers to more prayers this year than ever before.