Chapter 3 of Why We Pray by William J. U. Philip, Published by Crossway, Copyright © 2015. posted with permission
Approaching the subject of prayer from the perspective of explanation—what prayer actually is, why prayer exists, and why it is possible at all—is much more encouraging than merely hearing exhortations to pray, because instead of focusing on ourselves, we focus on God. Thinking about what God does and who God is, is always far more encouraging than thinking about ourselves, about what we aren’t, about what we don’t do and what we should do more of.
So far, we have seen that we pray, fundamentally, because God is a speaking God. God calls out to us, and we answer. Despite our rebellion and infidelity, God did not keep silent. He called out to us supremely in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we answer him audibly by faith. We pray. We call God our heavenly Father only because we have been adopted into his family; we have become sons of God through the Spirit of Jesus Christ in our hearts, and we share that unique privilege of access at any time to the Father’s presence. Like the son of the president, we too, as sons of Almighty God, can enter unhindered, as it were, into the Oval Office of heaven to be heard, no matter how many “Do not disturb” signs there might seem to be on the door. We pray because we are sons of God in Jesus Christ.
A third reason we pray explains why our prayers can be meaningful and effective and purposeful in both time and eternity: we pray because God is a sovereign God.
The Logic of God’s Sovereignty
The logic of God’s sovereignty—at first you might think that doesn’t sound right, because it often seems to people that God’s sovereignty is actually a problem for prayer, not a reason for prayer. Christians often say things like, “Well, look, if God is really sovereign, if he knows all things, and if he’s predestined everything, then why should we pray at all? What’s the point of praying if God decides and controls absolutely everything? I can’t see the point of praying to a sovereign God.”
Well, let me just turn that around for a moment and put the matter another way. What would be the point of praying, of asking God to do things and make things happen, if he didn’t decide and control all things, and if he wasn’t absolutely sovereign over every power and authority in this universe and every other? What would be the point of praying if God couldn’t do the things we ask? If that were the case, then there really wouldn’t be any point at all, would there? Prayer to a God who wasn’t truly sovereign would indeed be a pointless exercise.
There is no point in lobbying the gardener at 10 Downing Street for a change in the law. He doesn’t have any influence. Nobody donates money to be able to sit next to that gardener at a special dinner. But people do expend a lot of energy to get access to the occupant of “Number 10,” the prime minister, and his government, precisely because in governing the nation, along with his cabinet ministers, he has sovereign power and authority to do things. Everyone knows that, which is why people want access to him. So it is with God.
The early church knew that perfectly well, which is why they prayed as they did in Acts 4. They were faced with the united opposition of all worldly powers, but they prayed to a sovereign God. Acts 4:24 tells us, “They lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord . . . ,’” which means he is the God who “made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them” and the God who spoke through the prophets long ago about exactly what was going to happen in the future, including the words of the psalmist David quoted here in Acts. The Bible reports, as the most natural thing in the world, the church offering urgent prayer petitions to a wholly sovereign God, who will nonetheless do “whatever your hand and your plan . . . predestined to take place” (v. 28).
Yet we do face what we see as a problem, because here, as in many other areas that pertain to our faith, the Bible can seem illogical.11 It seems unreasonable that if God is truly sovereign, then we can be held wholly accountable, wholly responsible for our actions. If we are truly and utterly responsible, then how can God really be wholly and completely sovereign? It seems illogical. Well, it is a problem of logic. But the Bible tells us that it’s a problem of our logic, not God’s logic. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his understanding is infinitely higher than ours, which means inevitably that we, as finite, created human beings, cannot fully fathom it.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:9)
We can’t fully understand it. It’s as simple as that; it is beyond us. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Acts 4 sees nothing at all illogical in stating that God’s enemies, in killing Jesus, were nevertheless doing exactly what God’s sovereign hand had predestined to happen. They “were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus . . . to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (vv. 27–28). The Bible sees no logical problem with that, even if we do, because it is conversant with a higher, divine knowledge far beyond our finite, human understanding. We can’t fully comprehend it. Of course we can’t; if we could we would be divine ourselves! But we are not divine; we are human, and we just have to accept that fact, however humbling it is, along with the limitations that go with not being God.12
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Well, that’s very unsatisfactory!” Certainly a skeptic might say, “That’s a typical Christian cop-out. It’s just nonsense! You can’t argue your logic, so you run off and take refuge in mystery, saying it is just beyond explanation.” I heard Anthony Grayling, the atheist philosopher, saying exactly that on the radio recently: “Oh, yes, you Christians, you fly away off, and you take refuge in mystery.” Richard Dawkins, too, says and writes very similar things.
So is that what we’re doing in speaking this way about a higher logic, a “hidden wisdom of God” far above the “wisdom of men” that trumps even the greatest “wisdom of this age”? (see 1 Cor. 2:5–8).
No, that is not what we’re doing. When we say that there are things beyond us that we cannot understand, we are expressing something called “humility.” We are simply saying that we, as human beings, are not omniscient, all knowing; and we’re not arrogant enough to assume that unless we can understand something absolutely and completely, then it can’t possibly be true. By contrast, what atheists such as Anthony Grayling and Richard Dawkins and others seem to be saying is, “If it’s beyond my understanding, beyond my powers of reasoning, then it can’t possibly be real.” I don’t know about you, but there are lots of things beyond my understanding that are nevertheless true. I can’t understand relativity theory, and I doubt if you can either. (There might be some reading this who can, but not very many!) I cannot understand the theory of general relativity, let alone special relativity, but I don’t thereby totally reject it. I have got good reason to trust Albert Einstein and others like him, even though it is way beyond my level of mathematics and physics. I accept that there may well be a higher intelligence at work than mine.
Humility is something we recognize as necessary in all kinds of ways at all different levels in our lives. Just think of a young child who asks her mother for ice cream on a hot day. She knows her mother loves her. So she expects her mother to give her ice cream, and indeed, she has good grounds for this belief since she has experienced exactly this situation often before. It’s very logical to her childlike mind. But if the little girl keeps on asking for more and more ice cream, there is going to come a time when Mother is going to say, “No, you can’t have ice cream.” At that point the child may get upset, perhaps even cry. “It’s illogical!” says her little brain. “Why is Mommy not giving me ice cream anymore? Doesn’t she love me?” It is beyond the child’s logic, which says, “If one ice cream is good and two ice creams even better, why on earth is a third ice cream not better still and coming my way?”
Well, there’s a higher logic at work than the child’s limited reasoning—mother’s logic. The mother has a loving, protective understanding that knows, despite her daughter’s protests, that limitless ice cream, far from being loving indulgence, will very likely make her daughter sick in the short term and obese in the long term. (Thank goodness for mother’s logic. Father’s logic isn’t always the same; it’s usually good for an extra ice cream or two, especially if Dad gets to join in.)
Now, this same principle applies when it comes to our understanding of God. By definition, if God is God and we are creatures, his children, sometimes his good and perfect wisdom will seem, for us, totally impossible to fathom. It may seem illogical, as though all reason has broken down. In reality, it is simply a matter of our incomplete knowledge and limited experience in contrast to his complete knowledge and infinite experience.
We cannot be the arbiters of God’s logic. Instead, we need simply to think about the Bible’s unembarrassed handling of these matters and humbly seek to trust the divine wisdom that Scripture reveals to us. If we cannot understand all things, it doesn’t mean they cannot be true, even though we cannot always see how one thing may be true at the same time as another. Sometimes we are told by somebody we trust completely that something which we ourselves can’t properly fathom is really true. Surely the logical thing to do in such circumstances is to trust that we have good grounds to believe it is indeed true and accept it as true. Similarly, for the Christian believer, when the Bible tells us that two apparently contradictory things are nevertheless true, and when we have the personal assurance of the Lord Jesus Christ that all God’s words can be trusted, we can trust him without needless doubt.
When you think about it, we have to do that in all kinds of different ways in our daily experience, based on far lesser authorities than the words of God. I was listening to a radio discussion recently about the great breakthrough in physics, when scientists finally understood that light is both a wave form and made up of particles. That was apparently inconceivable to people. I don’t think I really understand it myself; how can light consist of particles and also be a wave? Perhaps you can understand and explain it. But the fact is that it took a long time for even exceptionally bright scientists to be able to grasp that apparent paradox, and it was a great breakthrough when they did. I still can’t fathom it fully, but I believe it; planes fly in the air, and spaceships go to the moon, and other extraordinary things can happen because they are true.
Likewise, the Bible tells us, God is both wholly sovereign, and at the same time we, as human beings, are wholly responsible for our actions in relation to him. I can’t fathom that fully, but I believe and trust Jesus Christ and his apostles enough to believe that it’s true. We’ll focus more specifically in a moment on how the Bible applies this higher wisdom of God’s sovereignty to our thinking about our prayers. But first, let’s think briefly about how it applies more generally in terms of the logic of the sovereignty of God in salvation.
The Logic of God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
Prayer, as we’ve already seen, is simply one expression of salvation. Restoration of prayer is an integral part of the restoration of our true and right relationship with God, which is salvation—eternal life in the presence of God. So the question of how our prayers play a meaningful part in things with a sovereign God is really a subset of the question of our responsibility for faith if God is wholly sovereign. That bigger issue can often seem problematic. It’s an apparent contradiction, because the Bible is very clear that both things are true.
First, the Bible is absolutely clear that we are responsible for our sins. We must repent, and we have a responsibility to do so in response to the command of the gospel. That was Jesus’s repeated message right from the start of his earthly ministry: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). It was the apostles’ message, likewise, after him: “Repent . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” cried Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). All through the apostolic ministry the same refrain was heard: “Repent! Turn from your sins!” There is absolutely no doubt about that command.
Yet, second, the Bible is equally clear that we cannot do this very thing that we are commanded to do unless God, by his sovereign power, should cause us to repent. Repentance is something that God alone can give. Acts 5:31 says that Jesus was raised so that God might “give repentance” and forgiveness to his people. Ephesians 2:1 is just as plain when Paul is describing the process of salvation. He says, “You were dead in your transgressions.” Well, dead people cannot bring themselves to life, can they? They can’t do anything. Only God’s power can do that. As Jesus himself said, it is through his sovereign call alone that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). There is absolutely no doubt that true repentance comes only through the sheer sovereign call of God’s saving grace.
From a biblical standpoint, both things are true. It’s not either God is really sovereign, and therefore he must call people unto salvation, or we are really responsible and therefore must repent. The Bible is unambiguous; both are affirmed without doubt. God is sovereign, and we are responsible. A higher reasoning than the mere “wisdom of men” is at work.
That doesn’t mean it is illogical. Nor does it mean that we can’t grasp anything at all about how this can be so. In fact, we can. We can see how this works out, to a degree at least, even in our own experience of life, because the fact is that responsibility is not incompatible with authority; it actually flows from it. Notice that I am using the language of responsibility rather than of free will, which is a different thing altogether. Free will, in the sense of human beings being totally and utterly free (sometimes called “libertarian freedom”) to do exactly and totally as they please against God’s sovereign will, is not a biblical concept. That would be absolutely at odds with a truly sovereign God.
Human beings, according to the Bible, are wholly responsible for their actions, and that is not at all incompatible with God’s sovereign authority. A drunk driver doesn’t have free will. He is not free to drive with all his faculties. He is not free in that sense, but he does nevertheless bear full responsibility for his actions. If he kills someone, he cannot stand in the court and say, “Sorry, your honor, I was drunk, so I can’t possibly be held responsible for this accident.” That is laughable, isn’t it? That’s no defense; it is pleading guilty, and he is responsible precisely because he was drunk. He is responsible even though he doesn’t have free will in the sense of complete libertarian freedom to drive with all due care and attention. He is responsible because, like absolutely everybody else on the roads, he is in a relationship with authority, in this case with the law of the land.
All true responsibility, when you think about it, actually presupposes a relationship of authority. It is authority that confers responsibility, and therefore also dignity and value, on people. If your boss gives you a task and says to you, “Now, look, John, I’m going to make you responsible for this,” you don’t say, “Oh, I can’t possibly be held responsible for this because my boss has the authority.” It’s because he has the authority to make you responsible that you are therefore responsible. That’s why you can be held accountable; you wouldn’t be responsible at all unless he had the authority to make you so.
It is in this same way that the Bible talks about our responsibility before a sovereign God with respect to his sovereign salvation. Salvation begins with God. He is sovereign; he has all the authority, and therefore he makes us responsible to respond to his command. He makes us responsible to his call of salvation. God speaks his saving word, and we will express either submission to that word or rebellion against it. We will respond either with what the Bible calls “the obedience of faith”13 or with the disobedience of unbelief, but either way we are fully responsible to God because he has sovereignly given us the responsibility to obey.
So the Bible’s understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation is not an either/or reasoning, but a both/and reasoning, which means that we can never say, “Oh, if God’s sovereign, I don’t need to repent. If I’m elect, well, I’ll be saved because God’s sovereign.” Nor can we ever say, “Oh, well, it’s not my fault. I can’t respond if I’m not elect, so how can God possibly hold me responsible?” No! Acts 17:30 tells us that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” His sovereign authority calls every single human being to account.
It should be no surprise, then, to discover that it is just the same when we think about prayer. We can never say, “God is sovereign, so we never need to pray,” or, “God is sovereign so there’s no point in praying.” No. Biblical logic says, “God is sovereign; therefore, not only can I pray but I must pray and I will pray. Just as it is both/and in the Bible’s logic of God’s sovereignty in our salvation, so it is similarly both/and when we think more specifically about the Bible’s logic of the sovereignty of God and our prayer.
The Logic of God’s Sovereignty in Prayer
First, let me deal with a very common, but I think quite an unhelpful, view of prayer. It’s summed up by an aphorism that is quite common among evangelical Christians: “Prayer changes things.” I am sure you have heard that often, and I have probably said it unthinkingly myself at times. It sounds good, of course, and like many aphorisms, there is some truth in it. But as so often with evangelical clichés, underneath this quite pious-sounding phrase there lurks a defective view of God, because it smacks of trying to persuade God to do something that he otherwise won’t do. People repeating this phrase rather assume (and, in fact, sometimes assert quite plainly) that God won’t work unless we pray, or (worse) God can’t work unless we pray. Sometimes I’ve even heard people say, “God is helpless to do anything in this world unless his people are truly praying.” That implies that God is, in fact, impotent without the help of our prayers, which really is quite blasphemous, when you think about it for more than a moment.
If you keep pushing in that direction, you end up with the god of what is called “open theism,” a theological belief that God can’t really know or control the future, because he is contingent on the choices that people make. Such thinking de-gods God. It flatly denies the witness of Scripture, reducing God to a being like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, dancing to our tune and at our beck and call. That view holds that God is not the sovereign Lord of the universe; rather, he cooperates with us to serve us, to answer our prayers. But if that were the case, the future would be dependent not on God but on us, because it’s all about what we ask God to do. That’s not biblical Christianity at all; in fact, it is simply paganism.
If we seriously take the whole of Scripture and its many constituent parts as a witness to God, we cannot possibly hold to this kind of view of our prayers changing and manipulating God, as though he were dependent upon our petitions. Indeed, reading just a few verses from Isaiah 46 blows this notion of a nonsovereign God completely out of the water:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,”
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isa. 46:9–11)
You could almost pick at random passages from the prophet Isaiah and from many other parts of Scripture that totally dispel any sense of this idea that God won’t, or far worse, can’t, do things without his people’s prayers. It simply doesn’t fit with the overwhelming biblical data. So if we mean by the phrase “Prayer changes things” that prayer takes control of God and his thoughts and his ways, I’m afraid that just won’t do at all.
A much better dictum is this: “Prayer is thinking God’s thoughts after him.” I remember my father putting it to me like that when I was a young child,14 and it really is a much healthier way of expressing the Bible’s reasoning about prayer. It tells us that prayer is not a sort of cold, mathematical logic but a warm relational understanding. Remember, prayer is the audible witness of a real relationship with God, and the truth about prayer is that God the sovereign Lord invites us into a place of privileged partnership with him, a real partnership in his business, if you like. And that’s what our prayers are. We follow after him, walking along with him, learning about his business and having a share in it.
We pray because we are God’s sons, and as sons, we have come to share God’s family business. That is what sons do; they share in the privilege of their birth into the family firm and therefore share the goals of the whole enterprise. Well, in the gospel, God has revealed to us his great business, his great purpose of salvation for this world in Christ. Not only that, but he has granted us a part, a real share, in the ongoing concern of his family business. We have a part in Almighty God and Sons, Unlimited, you might say. We have shared ownership of it because he has given it to us and called us to be involved. Now, we could, I suppose, rebel against that whole concern. But that would be as bizarre as someone promoted to junior partner in a big firm devoting himself to working totally against the ethos of the firm, setting himself at odds with the senior partner. It’s just ridiculous. The most natural thing, of course, is to throw everything into the vision, the ethos, and the goals of the company in which you have been made a partner.
That is just the way it is with us. God’s big picture, his great sovereign salvation, will surely become our great concern as well, because having become his sons, we increasingly think his thoughts after him. We increasingly share his heart’s desire and passion so that those things begin to fill our prayers, as we see exemplified in Paul’s prayers in the New Testament. Read them in Ephesians 1 and 3, for example. There he prays that believers will grasp the dimensions of the greatness of God’s salvation. He prays that there will be glory in the church in Christ Jesus forever. That is real Christian prayer; he is thinking God’s thoughts after him. He is praying in line with God’s purposes for all of history and for eternity. That doesn’t exclude, of course, prayer for small things or personal things or specific things. The same Paul writes to the Philippians saying exactly that: bring all your requests before God. Don’t be anxious about anything (Phil. 4:6). Nevertheless, even there in Philippians, the instruction about prayer is given in the context of having eyes set upon the great goal that is to come, the return of the Savior Jesus Christ from heaven. That is to be the context that colors their thinking. Real gospel prayer always does that, because real gospel prayer always thinks God’s thoughts after him. It has God’s goal in view.
That means we have to ask ourselves practical questions about where our prayer focus is. Whose thoughts are we thinking when we pray? In our church prayer meeting, is it all about small things—personal things, things to do with us and our present health or circumstances, or whatever else? Is that true in our personal prayers, in our family prayers? Or is it always, whatever we’re praying for, undergirded by a focus on the great issues of Christ and his coming kingdom, on thinking God’s thoughts after him?
It’s not so much what we pray for, whether it’s large or small things, but what motivates our prayer that really matters. We need to ask ourselves that. Is it all in line with the ethos, the great goal, of our Father’s business, just as it was in Acts 4? Those early Christians, when faced with real and present threats and imprisonment, did not pray, “Hear their threats and keep us from further threats,” though that is likely how we would be praying. “Hear their threats and keep us witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ”—that was their prayer. “May we keep on speaking the word boldly,” they prayed (see vv. 23–29). That was their chief goal because they were thinking God’s thoughts after him.
That is the sheer privilege of prayer, which is granted to us—to be involved in God’s great purpose of salvation as partners in his family business, because he is sovereign, and because he will accomplish everything he has purposed by his grace. We have been given the inestimable privilege of being part of the team that will not only accomplish the purpose but also share in the glory.
Manchester United is probably the most famous football (soccer) team in the world, and Sir Alex Ferguson, their longest serving coach, who retired in 2013, one of the most successful, and admired, managers in the history of the game. In twenty-six years at the club, he won an astonishing thirty-eight trophies, including thirteen English Premier League and two European Champions League titles. During his reign only a brave man would have bet against Sir Alex Ferguson winning yet another championship. None doubted Sir Alex’s sovereignty, authority, and control over Manchester United. He was, supremely, the great architect of victory.
Well, just imagine that it is the very end of the season, with just one more league game to play. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, Manchester United, is ten points ahead. They are unreachable, and the last game is against a club languishing at the bottom of the league. It will almost certainly be a goal fest for United. Now imagine he has chosen you to play alongside his galaxy of stars in that last game, to finish the league, to wear the medal, to lift the trophy.
That’s just a faint analogy to the certain conquest in which God our Father has given us a part through our prayers. He has called us to join his team in a victory that is infinitely more certain. Remember Jesus’s own words: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38). Do you see what he’s saying? The sovereign Lord has decreed that the harvest is plentiful, that there shall be a great harvest for his kingdom. He is sovereign in salvation. Therefore, says the Lord Jesus Christ, we are to pray earnestly to him, the Lord of the harvest, that he will send out laborers through whom that harvest, which he has decreed, will be accomplished. We are to pray to be aligned with his thoughts, with his wonderful, gracious, merciful thoughts, and by doing so become a part of the accomplishing of that great goal.
We pray because God is sovereign and because, as his sons, we share in the glory of that purpose for the world.
Can you imagine, after being picked to play in that trophy-winning team, turning round to Sir Alex Ferguson and saying, “No, I can’t be bothered. It’s already in the bag—everybody knows who’s going to win. I’ll not bother”? Of course, you wouldn’t. You want to be on that pitch, and you want to hear that final whistle, having felt the sweat pouring off you and knowing the joy of playing. You want to hear the roar of the crowd as the final whistle approaches. You want to go up to the stand and get that medal and lift the trophy. You are thrilled at being a part of a historic victory, even though you know no other team in the league has got any possible chance of beating you. You want to be on the pitch.
That’s why we pray. God wants us to be on his pitch, thinking his thoughts after him, playing our part in a certain, glorious victory, the bringing in of the kingdom of his Son. And the more we think his thoughts after him, the more we’ll rejoice in talking about those thoughts with him, and with one another, in prayer.
So let’s thank God that as Christian believers, we can pray. Our God truly is sovereign. If he were not, we couldn’t pray at all.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion
1. Philip points out that God’s sovereignty could be seen as either a problem for prayer or a reason for prayer. Why might God’s sovereignty make us not want to pray? Why is God’s sovereignty, in fact, a reason why we should pray? In which light do you usually see God’s sovereignty—as an obstacle or an impetus for prayer?
2. What distinction does Philip make between free will and responsibility? How does that differentiation change the way you think about God’s sovereign authority over people and the role that individuals play in the process of salvation? How is our responsibility an expression of the dignity and value God places on us?
3. In what areas of life do you submit to someone else’s superior wisdom, possibly without even realizing it? Ultimately God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are an apparent contradiction that our finite minds cannot fully reconcile. What helps you come to terms with not fully understanding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility? How might thinking of God’s sovereignty as something we should logically submit to because of his superior wisdom change your prayer life?
4. Why is it unbiblical to say that “prayer changes things”? How does this phrase diminish God’s power?
5. In what ways is prayer “thinking God’s thoughts after him”? How have you experienced this phenomenon in your own life? How does this idea inform and flesh out the relational nature of prayer? Does thinking of prayer in these terms make you long for prayer or not want to bother with it?
6. How can you tell whether you are thinking God’s thoughts after him when you pray? How can you discern the motivation behind your prayers? Do you often ask yourself what motivates your prayers?
Chapter 3 of Why We Pray by William J. U. Philip Published by Crossway, Copyright © 2015 posted with permission