Prayer changes things. You find plaques promulgating this notion everywhere. You may have one in your home. Countless sermons have been preached, countless prayers prayed, under this assumption: "Prayer changes things."
Or does it?
If prayer changes things, how can we believe that God is sovereign and all-knowing? How can we hold that he has his plans all worked out and that these plans cannot fail? If not a bird falls from the heavens without his decree, if we live and move and have our being under his sovereignty, if he works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11), then in what meaningful sense can we say that prayer changes things?
Indeed, that is precisely why some people argue that God must be severely limited in certain ways. They reason something like this: "Frankly, it seems to us that although God is extraordinarily powerful, it is unreasonable to think he is all-powerful, absolutely sovereign. Surely that would reduce the entire universe to a toy, God's toy. We would lose our freedom; we would become mere puppets, chunks of matter moved around by a despotic Deity. If in that sort of universe we pray, well, we pray only if God has ordained that we pray; if we do not pray, God has ordained that, too. In either case it is hard to see how our prayers actually change anything. Certainly there is little point in encouraging people to be fervent or passionate in prayer: your encouragement has been ordained, and if they listen to you and offer fervent prayer that, too, has been ordained. The entire business becomes pretty phony. Surely there is no other reasonable option: we simply have to conclude that God cannot be utterly sovereign, absolutely omnipotent."
If God is not absolutely sovereign, goes this line of reasoning, maybe the reason he does not answer your prayers as you would like is that he can't. Suppose you are praying for the conversion of your sister. If God has already done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won't give in, why bother asking him to save her? Isn't it a little indecent to pressure God to do more when he has already done the best he can?
Or, one might reason that God is powerful, but somewhat aloof, unwilling to do very much until we ask him. Then, of course, he grants some requests but turns down others simply because he can't do any better.
So prayer does change things, after all – even if the price of these sorts of reasoning is that God is not as powerful, and therefore not as trustworthy, as we might have thought. In fact, if God is not really all-powerful, one might wonder, in darker moments, how we can be certain that he will make the universe turn out all right in the end.
Others argue that the only change prayer effects is within the person praying. Because I pray for certain things (they hold), I focus on them and strive for them, and I myself am changed. I may pray to do a good job at work, and because I am praying along such lines my determination is reinforced, I am slightly changed for the better, and the result may be that my work really improves. But the only immediate change effected by the prayer is in me. Put crudely, this means it does not really matter if God is out there at all. Prayer is nothing but a psychological crutch. Prayer is all right, but only for weak and insecure people.
Christians will never think along any of these lines, for such thoughts are basically atheistic. Ironically, some of us adopt a Christian version of the same approach. We, too, sometimes say that what prayer changes is primarily the person who prays, but we attribute this change not to psychology but to obedience. The only meaningful prayer, we may think, is, "Not my will, but yours be done." If that is answered, then we have become better attuned with the will and purpose of God, and that is a good thing.
Yet despite the importance of praying that God's will be done, it is certainly not the only prayer in the Bible. In the Scriptures, believers not only pray for themselves, they ask for things. They ask God to change circumstances, to give them things, even to change his mind. In many passages, as we shall see, we are told that God, on hearing such prayers, "relented" which is not much different from saying that he "changed his mind."
But if God changes his mind, why do other passages of Scripture picture him as steadfast, reliable, immutable?
Sad to tell, we are sufficiently perverse that we can find reasons for not praying no matter what perspective we adopt. Consider missions. If you believe that God "elects" or chooses some people for eternal life, and does not choose others, you might be tempted to conclude that there is no point praying for the lost. The elect will infallibly be saved: why bother praying for them? So you have a good reason not to pray. If on the other hand you think that God has done all he can to save the lost, and now it all depends on their free will, why ask God to save them? He has already done his bit; there's very little else for him to do. Just get out there and preach the gospel. Either way you have another reason not to pray.
You can really hurt your head thinking about this sort of thing.
The Bible insists that we pray, urges us to pray, gives us examples of prayer. Something has gone wrong in our reasoning if our reasoning leads us away from prayer; something is amiss in our theology if our theology becomes a disincentive to pray. Yet sometimes that is what happens. The slightly ingenuous but enthusiastic believer may have more experience at prayer than the theologian who thinks a lot about prayer. Or again, sometimes when a Christian develops an increasing appreciation of "the doctrines of grace”– truths that underline God's sovereignty, freedom, and grace – one of the first results is a tragic decrease in the discipline of prayer. That was part of my own pilgrimage at one point. The fault was not in the doctrines themselves, but in me and in my inability to mesh them properly with other biblical teachings.
God's Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
In this chapter I want to take some steps that have helped me to think about prayer a little more biblically than I used to. Although I am far from the kind of maturity in prayer I would like to achieve, these biblical reflections have helped me not only to think about prayer but to pray. I shall begin by articulating two truths, both of which are demonstrably taught or exemplified again and again in the Bible:
1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never funcÂtions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.
2. Human beings are responsible creatures – that is, they choose, they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; but human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God's sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent.
My argument is that both propositions are taught and exemplified in the Bible. Part of our problem is believing that both are true. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.
We might begin by glancing at the large picture. Proverbs 16 pictures God as so utterly sovereign that when you or I throw a die, which side comes up is determined by God (16:33). "The LORD works out everything for his own ends – even the wicked for a day of disaster" (16:4). "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps" (16:9). "Why do the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him" (Ps. 115:2-3).
According to Jesus, if the birds are fed it is because the Father feeds them (Matt. 6:26); if wild flowers grow, it is because God clothes the grass (6:30). Thus God stands behind the so-called natural processes. That is why biblical writers prefer to speak of the Lord sending the rain, rather than to say, simply, "It's raining" – and this despite the fact that they were perfectly aware of the water cycle. The prophets understood the sweep of God's sway: "I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps" (Jer. 10:23). "The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths" (Ps. 135:6). The passage (Eph. 1:3-14) is as strong as any: God "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:11). In some mysterious way, and without being tainted with evil himself, God stands behind unintentional manslaughter (Exod. 21:13), family misfortune (Ruth 1:13), national disaster (Isa. 45:6-7), personal grief (Lam. 3:32-33, 37-38), even sin (2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:21ff.). In none of these cases, however, is human responsibility ever diminished. Thus although it is God in his wrath who incites David to take the prohibited census (2 Sam. 24:1), David is nevertheless held accountÂable for his actions.
The second of my two statements is no less strongly supported in Scripture. There are countless passages where human beings are commanded to obey, choose, believe, and are held accountable if they fail to do so. God himself offers moving pleas to incite us to repentance, because he finds no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Isa. 30:18; 65:2; Lam. 3:31-36; Ezek. 18:30-32; 33:11). In his day, Joshua can challenge Israel in these words: "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. . . . But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (Josh. 24:14-15). The commanding invitation of the gospel itself assumes profound responsibility: "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. ... As the Scripture says, 'Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame'" (Rom. 10:9, 11). Of course, none of this jeopardizes God's sovereignty: only a few verses earlier we find the apostle quoting Scripture (Exod. 33:19) to prove that "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden" (Rom. 9:18).
Hundreds of passages could be explored to demonstrate that the Bible assumes both that God is sovereign and that people are responsible for their actions. As hard as it is for many people in the Western world to come to terms with both truths at the same time, it takes a great deal of interpretative ingenuity to argue that the Bible does not support them.
In fact, not only does the Bible support both these truths in a large number of disparate passages, both truths come together in many passages. We have space to mention only seven.
After the death of their father, Jacob's sons approach Joseph and beg him not to take revenge on them for having sold him into slavery. Joseph's response is instructive: "Don't be afraid. Am 1 in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
We shall best understand what Joseph says if we carefully observe what he does not say. Joseph does not say, "Look, miserable sinners, you hatched and executed this wicked plot, and if it hadn't been for God coming in at the last moment, it would have gone far worse for me than it did." Nor does he say, "God's intention was to send me down to Egypt with first-class treatment, but you wretched reproÂbates threw a wrench into his plans and caused me a lot of suffering."
What Joseph says is that in one and the same event the brothers intended evil and God intended good. God's sovereignty in the event, issuing in the plan to save millions of people from starvation during the famine years, does not reduce the brothers' evil; their evil plot does not make God contingent. Both God's sovereignty and human responsibility are assumed to be true.
2 Samuel 24
We have already mentioned that God in his anger incites David to number the people, and then when David performs this proÂhibited action David is conscience-stricken and must ultimately choose one of three severe judgments that God metes out. The result is that seventy thousand people die.
It is important to remember that the Bible insists that God is good, perfectly good. "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (Deut. 32:4). "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). Heaven echoes with the praise, "Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy" (Rev. 15:3-4).
Yet on the other hand, there are numerous passages, like this one in 2 Samuel 24, where God is presented as in some way behind the evil. The evil does not just happen, leaving God to splutter, "Whoops! I missed that one; it sort of slipped by. Sorry about that." Thus God sends certain people a "strong delusion" so that they will believe the great lie (2 Thess. 2:11); he seduces Ahab's prophets, so that their prophecies are rubbish (1 Kings 22:21ff.); ultimately he stands behind Job's sufferings. The story of Job is important when we reflect on 2 Samuel 24 and God's incitement of David to sin by taking a census. The reason is that in 1 ChroniÂcles 21, where the story is retold in a slightly different way, it is Satan and not God who incites David to number the people. Some readers think this is an intolerable contradiction. Certainly the emphasis is different, but it is not a contradiction. Similarly in Job, one could either say that Satan afflicts Job, or that God afflicts Job: the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Of course, this introduces all sorts of difficult questions about secondary causality and the like. My sole point at the moment, however, is that God is presented as sovereign over David's life, including this particular sin in his life, while David himself is not thereby excused: David is still responsible for his actions. Both propositions are assumed to be true.
This passage is typical of many in the Prophets. God addresses the crudest superpower of Isaiah's day: "Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets" (10:5-6). The context makes clear that the people against whom God is sending the Assyrians is none other than his own covenant community. God is angry with his people for their sin, and so he is sending the Assyrians against them. Even so, God here pronounces a woe on the Assyrians in connection with this mission. Why? Because they think they are doing this all by themselves. They think Samaria and Jerusalem are just like the capital cities of the pagan nations they have already overthrown. Therefore when the Lord has finished his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem (that is, when he has finished punishing them by using the Assyrians), he will say, "I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes" (10:12). "Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it?... Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing flame" (10:15-16).
Here we find God using a military superpower as if it were nothing more than a tool –an ax or a saw – to accomplish his purposes of bitter judgment. But that does not mean the Assyrians are not responsible for their actions. Their "willful pride" and their "haughty look" and above all their arrogance in thinking they have made themselves strong are all deeply offensive to the Almighty, and he holds them to account. They may be tools in his hands, but that does not absolve them of responsibility.
In the context of the "Bread of Life" discourse, Jesus declares, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (6:37). This means, on the one hand, that all of the elect, all of God's chosen people, are viewed as a gift the Father presents to the Son, and, on the other, that once they have been given to Jesus, Jesus for his part will certainly keep them in: he will never drive them away. That this is the meaning of the last part of verse 37 becomes especially clear when we follow the argument into the next few verses. "I will never drive [them] away," Jesus says, "for I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day" (6:37-39).
Thus God is seen as so sovereign in the process of salvation that the people of God are said to be given as a gift by the Father to the Son, while the Son preserves them to the last day when (he promises) he will raise them up. Nevertheless, this does not make these privileged people automata. The next verse can describe these same people in terms of what they do: "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:40).
Both of our propositions are assumed to be true, and neither is allowed to diminish the other.
After powerfully presenting the unique example of Jesus Christ (2:6-11), Paul writes, "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (2:12-13). The meaning of these verses has been disputed, and this is not the place to engage the disputants. On the face of it, however, Paul's meaning may become a little clearer if we recognize what he does not say.
Paul does not tell his readers to work out their own salvation, since God has done his bit and now it is all up to them. Still less does he tell them that God does everything, so that all they need is to become supremely passive: "Let go and let God" or some equivalent slogan. Rather, he tells them to work out their own salvation precisely because it is God working in them, both at the level of their will and at the level of their actions ("to will and to act according to his good purpose").
Not only is the truth of our two propositions assumed, but God's sovereignty, extending so far that it includes our will and our action, functions as an incentive to our own industry in the spiritual arena.
A similar argument is displayed in Acts 18, where God's election becomes an incentive to evangelism. Paul arrives in Corinth, doubtless a little discouraged from the rough treatment he has sufÂfered as he has made his way south through Macedonia into Achaia. Now, in a night vision, the Lord speaks to him: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city" (18:9-10). The prospect of the conversion of many people, a prospect ensured by God's purposes in election, is what gives Paul stamina and perseverance as he settles down in Corinth for extended ministry.
I first understood something of that argument when I was growing up and beginning to ask difficult questions. My father was a church-planter in Quebec. At the time, there was very little fruit. An exceedingly prosperous French-speaking evangelical church in Quebec during that period might have had twenty or thirty core people. Many is the time my father preached to a crowd of twenty. At one point, several Americans who had proved remarkably effective in ministry in French West Africa came to Quebec to look the situation over. One or two managed to convey the subtle message (without, of course, being so crass as to articulate it), "Shove over, you guys, and we'll show you how it's done."
Not one of those missionaries stayed. All left within months. I was old enough to ask my father why none of them remained to help. He quietly explained that they had served in areas where they had known great blessing, and it was hard for them to envisage working in an area where there seemed to be such dearth. I pressed my father further: why then did he stay? Why shouldn't he go some place where the power of the Lord was abundant? Why commit yourself to working where there is so much to discourage, and so little fruit? He gently rounded on me: "I stay," he said, "because I believe with all my heart that God has many people in this place."2
Of course Dad could have gone to his grave without seeing any of this fruit. But in the Lord's mercy, the harvest began in 1972. From a base of fewer than fifty evangelical churches, many hundreds sprang up. Where a major evangelistic effort in a metropolitan area might have drawn a few hundred people to hear the gospel, thousands began to attend. But the point is that this is merely another illustration of what Paul understood in Acts 18:9-10: God's sovereignty in election, far from discouraging evangelism, becomes an incentive to get on with the task. Once again, both of our propositions are assumed to be true.
This passage in Acts is the most revealing of the seven I have briefly discussed.
As it opens, Peter and John, freshly released from arrestâ€”an arrest that is an omen of worse persecution to come report on their experiences to "their own people" (4:23), that is, to Christians living in Jerusalem. Their response is to pray. They begin their prayers with an affirmation of God's sovereignty: "Sovereign Lord . . . you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them" (4:24). Not only do they confess God as the Creator of the universe, they quote a psalm that affirms God's continuing sovereignty over the nations, even when those nations rebel against him: "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One" (4:26, citing Ps. 2:2). In this psalm, God is not flummoxed by such opposition: "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them" (Ps. 2:4).
The Christians praying in Jerusalem doubtless remember that context. Even so, they do not quote the entire psalm. Having mentioned the kings of the earth and the rulers gathering together to oppose the Lord and his Anointed One, they think of the most shocking instance of this rebellion against the God who created them: "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed" (Acts 4:27). The early Christians understood that the most wretched fulfillment of Psalm 2 lies in the events leading up to the cross. An ugly conspiracy to pervert justice and gain political advantage was nothing other than a conspiracy against God himself, and against his "anointed one," his Messiah.
But the prayer of these Christians does not stop there. They realistically outline the blame to be laid at the feet of Herod, Pontius Pilate, and various Gentile and Jewish authorities, and then they add, "They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (4:28).
Even brief reflection demonstrates that any other alternative destroys the fabric of the Christian faith. Suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of after thought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God's intenÂtion was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus' atoning death on the cross? All of Scripture cries against the suggestion. Then should we conclude, with some modern theÂologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God's "power and will had decided beforehand should happen" then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed One to die in their place?
God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminÂish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God. At Calvary, all Christians have to conÂcede the truth of these two statements, or they give up their claim to be Christians.
Mystery and the Nature of God
If we agree, then, that the Bible frequently affirms or exemplifies the truth of these two statements, where do we go from there?
First, we refuse to think of these two statements as embracing a deep contradiction. Granted there is mystery in them, and we shall have to explore just where that mystery lies. But if we are careful about semantics, we can avoid setting up these two statements as if they were mutually exclusive. Christianity is not interested in tempting you to believe contradictory nonsense. It invokes mystery now and then; it does not invoke nonsense.
That means, for instance, that we must be careful with the notion of freedom. Many Christians today think that if human beings are to be thought of as morally responsible creatures, they must be free to choose, to believe, to disobey, and so forth. But what does "freedom" mean? Sometimes without thinking about it, we assume that such freedom must entail the power to work outside God's sovereignty. Freedom, we think, involves absolute power to be contrary that is, the power to break any constraint, so that there is no necessity in the choice we make. If we are constrained to choose a certain option, if what we decide is in fact utterly inevitable, then how could it be ours? And if not truly ours, how can we be held morally accountable?
Yet the passages we have just surveyed cry out in protest. To go no further than the last example: Herod and Pontius Pilate and the rest conspired together; they did what they wanted to do, even though they did what God's power and will had determined beforeÂhand should be done. That is why many theologians have refused to tie "freedom" to absolute power to act contrary to God's will. They tie it, rather, to desire, to what human beings voluntarily choose. Joseph's brothers did what they wanted to do; Herod and Pilate and the rulers of the Jews did what they wanted to do; the Assyrians did what they wanted to do. In each case, God's sovereignty was operating behind the scenes: the human participants, to use the language of the early Christians, did what God's power and will had decided beforehand should happen. But that did not excuse them. They did what they wanted to do.
The only reason for bringing this up is to insist that our two propositions, as difficult and mysterious as they are, can be made to look silly, even flatly contradictory, if we begin with questionable assumptions and definitions that are not borne out by the Scriptures.
Second, it is vital to see that God does not stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way. There are two positions to avoid: (1) Some suppose that God does not stand in any sense behind evil and (2) others think that God stands behind good and evil in exactly the same way.
In the first case, the thinking is that certain things take place in the universe, namely, every evil event, that are entirely outside God's control. That would mean there is another power, apart from God and outside the domain of God's sovereignty, that challenges him. In philosophy, such a viewpoint is called dualism. In such a universe, it is hard to be sure which side, good or evil, will ultimately win. We have already taken notice of enough texts to be certain that the Bible does not sanction this view of God.
The second view maintains that what God ordains takes place; what he does not ordain does not take place. If both good and evil take place, it can only be because God ordains them both. But if he stands behind good and evil in exactly the same way, that is, if he stands behind them symmetrically, he is entirely amoral. He may be powerful, but he is not good.
The Bible's witness will not let us accept either of these positions. The Bible insists God is sovereign, so sovereign that nothing that takes place in the universe can escape the outermost boundary of his control; yet the Bible insists God is good, unreservedly good, the very standard of goodness. We are driven to conclude that God does not stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way. In other words, he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. He stands behind good in such a way that the good can ultimately be credited to him; he stands behind evil in such a way that what is evil is inevitably credited to secondary agents and all their malignant effects. They cannot escape his sway, in exactly the same way that Satan has no power over Job without God's sanction; yet God remains mysteriously distant from the evil itself.
I say "mysteriously" because how he does this is mysterious, for reasons still to be explored. In fact, it is the very mysteriousness of his control that prompts not a few biblical writers to wrestle in agony over the problem of evil not only the writer of Job, but Habakkuk, some of the psalmists, and others.
Third, and most importantly, our two propositions concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility are directly tied to the nature of God. If God were sovereign and nothing more, we might all become Christian fatalists, but it would be hard to carve out a place for human interaction with Deity, a place for human responsibility. If God were personal and no moreâ€”talking with us, responding to us, asking and answering questions it would be easy to understand how human beings are responsible to him, but it would be harder to grasp just how this sort of God could be transcendent, sovereign, omnipotent.
The wonderful truth is that God is both transcendent and personal. He is transcendent: he exists above or beyond time and space, since he existed before the universe was created. From this exalted and scarcely imaginable reach he sovereignly rules over the works of his hands. Yet he is personal: he presents himself to us not as raw power or irresistible force, but as Father, as Lord. When he speaks and issues a command, if I obey I am obeying him; if I disobey, I am disobeying him. All of my most meaningful relationships with God are bound up with the fact that God has disclosed himself to be a person.
Part of our problem is that virtually all that we understand by "personal" is shaped by our experience within time and space. We find it hard to imagine how God can be both transcendent and personal, even though we clearly see that the Bible presents him in just such categories.
So whatever mystery is locked up in our initial pair of statements, it is no more and no less than the mystery of God himself. Christians are prepared to accept certain mysteries. We confess that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God yet there is but one God. Christian thinkers across the ages have taken pains to show how there is no necessary contradiction in such an understanding of the trinitarian character of God, even if there are huge swaths of mystery involved. So also here: God is sovereign and transcendent, and he is personal.
Perhaps it is the way God apparently stands outside time and space that enables him to handle secondary causes the way he does. I do not know. What does time look like to a transcendent God? I do not know. I only know that the Bible speaks of his predestinating power and his foreordination of events, even though these are categories of time. I suppose that if he is to communicate effectively with us, he must graciously stoop to use categories that we can understand. But despite all the mysteries bound up with the nature of God, I perceive, on the basis of Scripture, that he is simultaneously personal and transcendent. He is utterly sovereign over his created order, yet he is nothing less than personal as he deals with me. Sometimes it is more important to worship such a God than to understand him.
What bearing does all this have on prayer?
Before answering that question directly, it is essential to draw one crucial lesson out of the previous discussion. Let us grant that the Bible insists that God is utterly sovereign, and human beings are morally responsible creatures; let us grant that God himself is both transcendent and personal. Let us frankly admit that this involves a significant degree of mystery. The question we must then ask ourselves is this: How can we assure that these complementary pairs of truths operate the right way in our lives? If there is so much mystery about them, will we not always be in danger of using these truths in a way that denies the mystery or contradicts something else we should know?
The answer is simple, but has profound effects. We must do our best to ensure that these complementary truths function in our lives in the same ways they function in the lives of believers described in Scripture.
For example, how does election function in Scripture? How should election function in our lives? It never functions in Scripture to foster fatalism; it never functions to douse evangelistic zeal. Repeatedly it functions to emphasize the wonder of grace (John 6:68-70; Rom. 9). It also functions, among other things, to ensure the certainty of spiritual fruitfulness among God's people (John 15:16) and to encourage perseverance in evangelism (Acts 18:9-10).
How do the constant exhortations to believe and obey function in Scripture? They never function to picture God as fundamentally at the end of his own resources and utterly dependent on us; they never reduce God to the absolutely contingent. Rather, they function to increase our responsibility, to emphasize the urgency of the steps we must take, to show us what the only proper response is to this kind of God.
How does the repeated truth of God's sovereign providence function in Scripture? It never serves to authorize uncaring fatalism; it never allows me to be morally indifferent on the ground that I can't really help it anyway. Rather, the biblical emphasis on God's sovereignty functions in quite different ways. For example, it give me ground for believing that everything is in God's gracious control, so that all things will work out for good in the lives of God's people (Rom. 8:28).
We must deploy exactly the same approach when we come to prayer.
How does God's sovereignty function in passages of Scripture where prayer is introduced? Certainly it never functions as a disincentive to pray! It can forbid certain kinds of preposterous praying: for instance, Jesus forbids his followers from babbling on like pagans who think they will be heard because of their many words. "Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matt. 6:8). On the other hand, this prohibition cannot be taken as a blanket condemnation of all perseverance in prayer, since the same Jesus elsewhere urges that such perseverance is important (Luke 11, 18).
God's sovereignty can also function as an incentive to pray in line with God's will. Thus Jesus prays, "Father, the time [lit., hour] has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you" (John 17:1). This is important. The hour in John's Gospel is the time appointed by the Father at which Jesus will in fact be glorified by means of the cross, and thus returned to the glory that he enjoyed with the Father before the world began (John 12:23-24; 17:5). By saying that the hour has come, Jesus is acknowledging that his Father's appointed time has arrived. This does not prompt Jesus to say only "Your will be done." Still less does it breed silence: the hour has arrived and there is not much anyone can do about it, since everything has been ordained by my heavenly Father. Rather, Jesus' logic runs like this: My Father's appointed hour for the "glorification" of his Son has arrived; so then, Father, glorify your Son.
This sort of logic is not in any way unusual. Those who pray in the Scriptures regularly pray in line with what God has already disclosed he is going to do. A wonderful example is found in Daniel 9. Here we are told that Daniel understands from the Scriptures, "according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet" (Dan. 9:2), that the period of seventy years of exile was drawing to an end. A fatalist would simply have wiped his or her brow and looked forward to the promised release as soon as the seventy years were up. Not Daniel! Daniel is perfectly aware that God is not an automaton, still less a magic genie that pops out of a bottle at our command. God is not only sovereign, he is personal, and because he is personal he is free.3 So Daniel addresses this personal God, confessing his own sins and the sins of his people: "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes" (9:3). In other words, precisely because Daniel is aware of the promise of this personal, sovereign God, he feels it his obligation to pray in accord with what he has learned in the Scriptures regarding the will of that God. Most of the rest of the chapter records Daniel's prayer. Daniel reminds God that while Daniel and the children of Israel have sinned, God is the one "who keeps his covenant of love" (9:4), that God is "merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him" (9:9). "For your sake, O Lord," he prays, "look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. . . . O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name" (9:17, 19). In other words, he appeals to God to preserve the integrity of his own name, the sanctity of his own covenant, his reputation for mercy and forgiveness.
And the exile ends.
Perhaps the most startling passages that mingle God's sovereignty and God's personhood are those that speak of God relenting. While Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the tables of the law, the children of Israel succumb to the terrible idolatry of the golden calf. God is furious: "I have seen these people . . . and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation" (Exod. 32:9-10).
But Moses simply will not "leave God alone." The arguments in his intercession are remarkable, appealing to God both as the Sovereign and as the supreme personal Deity. Moses argues that if God carries through with this plan of destruction, the Egyptians will sneer that the Israelite God is malicious and that he led his people into the desert to destroy them. At the same time, Moses reminds God of his own sovereign promises: "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self [for there is none higher by whom to swear]: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever'" (32:12). In other words, if God destroys his people, will he not be breaking his own promises? How can a faithful God do that? In Moses' eyes, this is not an argument for pietistic fatalism simply trust the promises of God and everything will work out but for intercession. So Moses comes to the point: "Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people" (32:12).
"Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened" (32:14).
A casual reader might be tempted to say, "See? God does change his mind. His purposes are not sovereign and steadfast. Prayer does change things because it changes the mind of God."
But such a conclusion would be both one-sided and premature. If God had not relented in his declared purpose to destroy the children of Israel, then, paradoxically, he would have proved fickle with respect to the firm promises he gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On the other hand, if God is to remain faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs, then, as Moses realizes, God cannot destroy the Israelites, and he must therefore turn from the judgment he has pronounced against Israel. It is that very point Moses is banking on as he prays.
We gain additional insight into God's relenting when we compare the prayers of Amos, a true prophet of God, with the prayerlessness of false prophets. Amos learns of God's threatening judgments against the people, and he passionately intercedes on their behalf: "I cried out, 'Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!'" (Amos 7:2). Amos's prayer proves effective. Twice we are told, "So the LORD relented" (7:3, 6). By contrast, God berates the false prophets of Israel precisely because they do not intercede for the people. "You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel [an idiom that means they have not interceded with God on behalf of the people] so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the lord" (Ezek. 13:5). No one was seriously interceding with God: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD" (Ezek. 2:30-31).
The extraordinary importance of these passages must not be missed. God expects to be pleaded with; he expects godly believers to intercede with him. Their intercession is his own appointed means for bringing about his relenting, and if they fail in this respect, then he does not relent and his wrath is poured out. If we understand something similar to have happened in the life of Moses, we must conclude that Moses is effective in prayer not in the sense that God would have broken his covenant promises to the patriarchs, nor in the sense that God temporarily lost his self-control until Moses managed to bring God back to his senses. Rather, in God's mercy Moses proved to be God's own appointed means, through intercessory prayer, for bringing about the relenting that was nothing other than a gracious confirmation of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The really wonderful truth is that human beings like Moses and you and me can participate in bringing about God's purposes through God's own appointed means. In that limited sense, prayer certainly changes things; it cannot be thought to change things in some absolute way that catches God out.
Of course, we are circling around the fundamental mystery, the mystery of the nature of God. This God presents himself to us as personal, and so we can pray to him, argue with him, present reasons to him, intercede with him. But he is also sovereign, the kind of God who works in us not least in our prayers! "both to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13). His sovereignty does not diminish his personhood; that he is a person does not diminish his sovereignty. He is always not less than sovereign and personal.
The perverse and the unbeliever will appeal to God's sovereignty to urge the futility of prayer in a determined universe; they will appeal to passages depicting God as a person (including those that speak of his relenting) to infer that he is weak, fickle, and impotent, once again concluding that it is useless to pray. But the faithful will insist that, properly handled, both God's sovereignty and his personhood become reasons for more prayer, not reasons for abandoning prayer. It is worth praying to a sovereign God because he is free and can take action as he wills; it is worth praying to a personal God because he hears, responds, and acts on behalf of his people, not according to the blind rigidities of inexorable fate.
It is also helpful to remember that the prayer we offer cannot be exempted from God's sovereignty. If I pray aright, God is graciously working out his purposes in me and through me, and the praying, though mine, is simultaneously the fruit of God's powerful work in me through his Spirit. By this God-appointed means I become an instrument to bring about a God-appointed end. If I do not pray, it is not as if the God-appointed end fails, leaving God somewhat frustrated. Instead, the entire situation has now changed, and my prayerlessness, for which I am entirely responsible, cannot itself escape the reaches of God's sovereignty, forcing me to conclude that in that case there are other God-appointed ends in view, possibly including judgment on me and on those for whom I should have been interceding!
In short, despite the fact that God's nature is in many respects profoundly mysterious to us, we shall not go far wrong if we allow the complementary aspects of God's character to function in our lives the way they function in the lives of his servants in the Scripture. Then we will learn the better how to pray, and why we should pray, and what we should pray for, and how we should ask. We shall discover that the biblical emphasis on God's sovereignty and on God's personhood, if they function in our lives properly, will serve both as powerful incentives to prayer and as direction for the way in which we approach God.
This is an excerpt from A Call To Spiritual Reformation by D.A. Carson. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1992. Chapter 9. Pages 145-166.