If God Is Sovereign, Why Pray? (pt. 4)
Continued from If God Is Sovereign, Why Pray? (Part 3)
God’s “Natural” Laws
Others have questioned the efficacy of prayer from a more naturalistic consideration. They put forward the idea that we live in a world that operates according to fixed natural laws. It has been fashionable, in the past century or two, to think of God as merely the Architect and Creator of the universe, who set the universe in motion and decreed how it should operate, then stepped back and let it run without His direct involvement. This idea is almost like the Deist view that God made the world, just as a watchmaker makes a watch, then wound it up, so that it is now running by its own mechanism. He Himself makes no interruption, no interference, no intrusion into the plane of history.
That is not the God of Scripture. The sovereign God is the Lord of providence, who provides daily for His people and responds to their cries. The laws of the universe are not fixed, immutable, abstract, regulatory principles of inert nature. What we call laws simply refer to the ordinary and normal operations by which the sovereign God runs this planet. And that sovereign God is never at the mercy of His own creation. He is the sovereign God.
The fact that there are intricate mechanisms working in this world does not mean that God has to do an immediate miracle every time we pray for something. God is standing above the world and is orchestrating every molecule in that world, all of the so-called natural, normal, regulating causes. Therefore, God is able to answer prayer without in any way disrupting or interrupting the natural mechanism of the planet.
In fact, when we look at the miracles in the Bible, we see that some of them are wrought immediately—that is, without means, directly—while other miracles are wrought mediately—that is, by virtue of intermediary means. Think of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt through the Red Sea. What was miraculous about the parting of the waters of the Red Sea? It’s not miraculous for a great wind to blow; that happens all the time. It is certainly extraordinary, but not necessarily miraculous, for the wind to blow with such intensity that it creates a backwash of water in the sea. That has been known to happen without any sense of a miracle taking place. Yes, it was extraordinary, but it wasn’t necessarily miraculous.
What was miraculous about the parting of the Red Sea was that it happened on command. Moses held out his staff and the wind rose. The wind blows every day, but it doesn’t blow on my command. I can go to the seashore and command the wind to blow, and nothing will happen. Likewise, I can command the wind to cease on a blustery day, and again my words will have no impact whatsoever, but when the wind rose on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” and the wind stopped (Mark 4:39). That was a miracle. But in the exodus we have means. We have water and we have wind. We have nature operating, but it is operating under the power of supernature, under the command of God in a crisis moment in the personal history of human beings. That’s what we mean by the special providential intervention of God to deliver His people. They prayed and God acted without breaking a law of nature. He can break the laws of nature if He needs to, but He doesn’t have to do so in order to answer our prayers.
Prayers as Means to God’s Ends
James makes a statement that is vital to our practical understanding of the relationship of God’s sovereignty and prayer. It is a statement that haunts me as I consider this question. He said, “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2). We must not understand reality as God working alone, as God being at center stage while we are mere puppets who have no active involvement in the plan of redemption. That is not Christianity or Calvinism. It’s a distortion. God brings to pass His sovereign ends by virtue of earthly and human means. This is the theological concept of concurrence, and it works as much in the arena of prayer as it does in the other areas that we have considered.
What would you think of a farmer who, when the spring comes, sits on his porch in his rocking chair, folds his hands, and says, “Well, I sure hope we have a great harvest this year; I hope that it’s the plan of God to give us abundant crops”? He doesn’t plow the field. He doesn’t plant the seed. He doesn’t weed the rows. He sits there and waits for God to deliver him a harvest from heaven. That’s not how a farmer works. If a farmer ever did try to “farm” that way, I think it’s clear what would happen—his benefit from the hand of God would be zero. We are called to plow our fields. We are called to plant and to water. And this calling applies to our prayers.
It has been quoted a thousand times, that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves.” Of course, that is not from the Bible. But in a certain sense, the idea is correct. God calls us to work, to plow, to plant, to read, to study, to prepare. We do all of these things, but He brings the growth. What does Paul say? “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6).
There’s a sense in which intercessory prayer, prayer of sup- plication, is a work. It’s certainly a pleasure, but it requires energy and time. God knows what we need before we ask Him, but He requires the work. He knows that we need bread before we ask Him for it, but He requires us to put forth the work of produc- ing the materials by which our bread is given to us. If we lack the benefits of God’s hands in our life, it may very well be because we have not asked; we have not put forth the work of entreating Him in prayer.
Excerpted from The Prayer of the Lord by R.C. Sproul.