Providence and Prayer

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:16b–18).  

- James 5:16b–18

Any discussion of God’s sovereign providence invariably makes us ask, “Why, then, should I pray?” This is not an invalid question; if the Lord has already ordained the outcome of all things, how can our prayers change anything? Furthermore, God knows our needs before we ask (Matt. 6:8). Does praying for these needs that He already knows mean we believe that He needs updates from us?

In his Institutes, John Calvin concluded these questions are asked only because we do not realize that we pray more for our own benefit than for God’s (3.20.3). Consider prayers of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. Obviously, the Lord does not need for us to adore Him. He got along just fine without our worship before we were born. But if we were created to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever, we cannot fulfill our purpose if we do not praise Him. Similarly, our Father knows our sins, but “confession is good for the soul.” There is no greater relief than to confess your sins and thereby gain a new sense of God’s forgiveness. Finally, the Lord does not feel slighted if we fail to thank Him. Yet thanksgiving empowers our walk with God and deepens our sanctification by reminding us that every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17).

Supplication is that part of prayer where we feel the tension with providence most strongly. First, we must affirm that prayer cannot change God’s eternal decrees. In His hidden will (unrevealed to man), the Lord has already determined what will come to pass (Deut. 29:29), and nothing can alter this plan (Num. 23:19). Yet prayer does change things in one sense. Today’s passage tells us Elijah’s prayers affected Israel’s rain. God planned to end a drought and show Ahab His power, but this purpose was hidden from him beforehand (1 Kings 18). The Lord used Elijah’s prayer to reveal and fulfill His intent. 

We may not know God’s eternal decrees, but we do know that He really uses prayer to accomplish them. We must pray believing that our intercession impacts events because our sovereign Lord hears us and uses us to bring about His purposes. Whether He says “yes” or “no,” God works through our supplications to execute His plan.

Coram Deo

Divine providence should not hinder prayer. Instead it should make us eager to intercede for ourselves and others, because we know God makes use of our prayers to accomplish His will. Consider this example: If my wife is ill, how do I know that God has not ordained my prayer as the secondary means to heal her? Perhaps my supplication will lead to her healing. There are some things the Lord will not do if we do not ask (James 4:2), and so we must pray.

Passages for Further Study

1 Sam. 12:23
Ps. 65:2
John 14:13–14
Phil. 1:19

We Recommend

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343