Why should we pray if God is sovereign? If God already knows all things and has willed all things, what difference does it make if we pray or not? Can our prayers make any difference to the plans He already has?
The Bible clearly portrays God as One who knows the end from the beginning. Such is His omniscience of everything. He knows and willed all things and no counsel of the Lord will be abandoned or set aside. He accomplishes it, no matter what happens. The difficulty for us is about the purpose of prayer itself. If our prayer changes God’s purposes from good to bad, He changes and it is for the worse. If His plans change from bad to good because of our prayers, He was then bad to begin with. If prayer doesn’t change God, why pray?
We can look at what Jesus did when He was on Earth. Jesus being God didn’t need to pray. But when He took on the form of a man, He did what every man would do in relation to God. He read the Scriptures, relied on the Holy Spirit and prayed often. Notice that Jesus exhibited immense trust and dependence on God at each stage of His life.
When God prayed
Jesus, being the God-man, showed the world an example of the dependence that man needs to have as he relates to God.
- He spent a whole night in prayer before choosing the apostles. He engages in it, knowing fully well that one of those whom He will choose will betray Him.
- He spends time in prayer before doing His public ministry. He shows us the importance of being in God’s presence before being in ministry.
- He spends time in prayer before being transfigured in front of His disciples. He does it so that His disciples can truly understand who He is.
- He prays before he raises Lazarus from the dead. He does so because hey wants to communicate the fact that the resurrection of Lazarus is proof that the Father sent Him and hears Him.
- He prays between the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on water (Mark 6:46). He does it so that the 12 apostles will realise who He is (the One who has the words of eternal life).
- He prays in the upper room discourse and then in the garden of Gethsemane before His arrest.
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus prays that the Son may be glorified. That was the plan of God for all of eternity. Jesus kept reminding His disciples about His upcoming rejection, crucifixion and resurrection. In the garden of Gethsemane, He prays that the hour might pass from Him and for the removal of the cup. However, the next thing He acknowledges is that the Father’s will must happen, just as He had taught His disciples to pray. He puts His desire aside to see the will of the Father take place.
In this instance, Jesus’ prayer hasn’t changed anything that the Father has decreed. What happens is that by praying and reaffirming His desire for the Father’s will to be accomplished, He is better prepared to face the upcoming challenge of suffering. Prayer enabled Christ to be a better sufferer.
This is not an exhaustive list but we see that Jesus was a man of prayer. We must realise that all that the Father planned for Jesus (His miracles, ministry, transfiguration, betrayal, suffering at the hands of sinners, death etc.) were all decreed by God in eternity past. They were all prophesied about in the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus, being the God-man, used the discipline of prayer as a means by which God’s will may happen.
A better question
So, it’s not so much what changes when we pray, but who. Prayer changes the person who prays, not the God whom He prays to. God has ordained prayer as a means to let His will be accomplished. As noted, our prayers don’t change God’s will. Rather, God’s will is accomplished by the means of prayer. Here are a few things that happen to us as we pray.
- Prayer enables us to engage in continual reliance on God for each spiritual and physical activity we do, just like Jesus did. When we rely on God to help us overcome temptation, He uses our prayer to supply us with a spiritual strength to overcome temptation. Jesus also taught His disciples to rely daily on God for physical needs as well.
- Prayer helps us be at peace with any act of justice that He will administer on His people. Initially, Habakkuk prayed for God’s judgement on Judah because he assumed that God wasn’t listening to his petitions about the wickedness of Judah. When God told him that he would use Babylon to punish Judah, Habakkuk expresses his inability to process that information and questions God’s justice. When God gave him perfect clarity on how he would judge Babylon, Habakkuk expressed his growth in knowledge of God and made his peace with the destruction that would happen all around him. Habakkuk found his joy in the sovereignty of God, even though all that sustained the economy of Judah would be destroyed. What’s striking in all of the changes happening in Habakkuk is that it happens through a constant conversation with God in prayer.
- Prayer helps us to depend on God to accomplish what He has already decreed. God had already ordained that the fourth generation from Jacob’s lineage would go through slavery in Egypt and come back to Canaan to occupy the land that God had given them (Genesis 15). However, in chapter 26, Isaac and Rebekah experienced a 20-year period of barrenness. Isaac prayed to the Lord and He enabled Rebekah to conceive with twins, one of them being Jacob. This happened while Abraham was alive, so we can assume that Abraham advised Isaac to depend on God in prayer in order to avoid making the mistake Abraham did when he took Hagar. So, God’s plan, revealed in chapter 15, is accomplished without an act of disobedience to God by means of prayer in chapter 26. This prayer never changed God’s plan or decree. It only facilitated the execution of God’s plan.
- Prayer enables us to come to terms with physical suffering in our life. As we pray about the matter, God continues to convince us that He may not remove those sufferings and that they are for our good. This answer to our prayers helps us to see the positive side effects of whatever God has allowed us in our lives. He assures us that His grace will be with us.
Paul’s prayer to God for the removal of the thorn in his flesh invited this answer: My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). As a result of this prayer and its reply, Paul’s outlook on his infirmities — namely, reproaches for Christ, persecutions, distress — drastically changed. It helped him embrace the aforementioned things wholeheartedly.
- Prayer helps us to entrust and cast all our burdens on Him. This includes all that we need to live in this world. This way, we are relieved of the sin of worry and anxiety that plagues us because we lack faith in God.
In short, it makes a lot of difference when we pray — but the difference happens within us, not in the will of God. It changes us to be more like Him. In other words, the measure of effectiveness of our prayer is not whether what we prayed for actually happened or not. It is to see how much more we have been conformed to Jesus and His image.