My first class at the Free University of Amsterdam shattered my academic complacency. It was cultural shock, an exercise in contrasts. It started the moment the professor, Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, entered the room. At his appearance, every student stood at attention until he mounted the podium steps, opened his notebook, and silently nodded for the students to be seated. He then began his lecture, and the students, in a holy hush, dutifully listened and wrote notes for the hour. No one ever dared to interrupt or distract the master by presuming to raise his hand. The session was dominated by a single voice—the voice we were all paying to hear.
When the lecture ended, the professor closed his notebook, stepped down from the podium, and hastily left the room, but not before the students once more rose in his honor. There was no dialogue, no student appointments, no gabfest. No student ever spoke to the professor—except during privately scheduled oral exams.
My first such exam was an exercise in terror. I went to the professor’s house expecting an ordeal. But as rigorous as the exam was, it was not an ordeal. Dr. Berkouwer was warm and kind. In avuncular fashion, he asked about my family. He showed great concern for my well-being and invited me to ask him questions.
In a sense, this experience was a taste of heaven. Professor Berkouwer was, of course, mortal. But he was a man of titanic intellect and encyclopedic knowledge. I was not in his home to instruct him or to debate him—I was the student and he was the master. There was hardly anything in the realm of theology he could learn from me. And yet, he listened to me as if he really thought he could learn something from me. He took my answers to his probing questions seriously. It was as if I were a son being questioned by a caring father.
This event is the best human analogy I can come up with to answer the age-old query, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” However, I must confess that this analogy is frail. Though Berkouwer towered above me in knowledge, his knowledge was finite and limited. He was by no means omniscient.
By contrast, when I converse with God, I am not merely talking to a Great Professor in the Sky. I’m talking to one who has all knowledge, one who cannot possibly learn anything from me that He doesn’t already know. He knows everything there is to know, including what’s on my mind. He knows what I’m going to say to Him before I say it. He knows what He’s going to do before He does it. His knowledge is sovereign, as He is sovereign. His knowledge is perfect, immutably so.
Though the Bible at times limps with human language expressing the idea that God changes His mind, relents, or repents of His plans, it elsewhere reminds us that these human-form expressions are just that, and that God is not a man that He should repent. In Him there is no shadow of turning. His counsel is from everlasting. He has no plan B. Plan Bs are “contingency plans,” but though God knows all contingencies, He Himself knows nothing contingently.
People ask, “Does prayer change God’s mind?” To ask such a question is to answer it. What kind of God could be influenced by my prayers? What could my prayers do to induce Him to change His plans? Could I possibly give God any information about anything that He doesn’t already have? Or could I persuade Him toward a more excellent way by my superior wisdom? Of course not. I am completely unqualified to be God’s mentor or His guidance counselor. So the simple answer is that prayer does not change God’s mind.
But suppose we ask the question of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our prayers in a slightly different way: “Does prayer change things?” Now the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” The Scriptures tell us that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). This text declares that prayer is effectual. It is not a pious exercise in futility. That which is futile avails nothing. Prayer, however, avails much. That which avails much is never futile.
What does prayer avail? What does it change? In the first place, my prayers change me. The purpose of prayer is not to change God. He doesn’t change because He doesn’t need changing. But I do. Just as Dr. Berkouwer’s questions to me were not for his benefit but for mine, so my time with God is for my edification, not His. Prayer is one of the great privileges given to us along with our justification. A consequence of our justification is that we have access to God. We have been adopted into His family and given the right to address Him as Father. We are encouraged to come boldly into His presence. (Of course, there is a difference between boldness and arrogance.)
But prayer also changes things. In practical terms, we say that prayer works. That which is effectual is that which causes or produces effects. In theology, we distinguish between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality is the power source of all causes. When the Bible says that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), it indicates that apart from God’s sustaining providence we would be powerless to live, move, or exist. All power that we have is secondary. It always depends upon God for its ultimate efficacy. Yet, it is real. Prayer is one of the means God uses to bring about the ends He ordains. That is, God not only ordains ends, He ordains the means He uses to bring about those ends.
God doesn’t need our preaching to save His people. Yet He has chosen to work through our preaching. He empowers our human preaching with His own power. In like manner, He has chosen to work through our prayers. He empowers our prayers so that after we pray we can step back and watch Him unleash His power in and through our prayers.
We pray expectantly and confidently, not in spite of the sovereignty of God, but because of it. What would be a waste of time and breath would be praying to a god who is not sovereign.