Prayer has always been a hard topic for me. I have a difficult time getting my mind around exactly what prayer is, how it works, and what it accomplishes. I recognize that Scripture tells us to pray and that in Scripture we see much about prayer, but I always come back to my own uncertainties about having a conversation with God.
That is what we are doing when we pray. At its center, prayer is talking and listening to the God of the universe. Prayer is a place where the divine touches the mortal, and the temporal meets the eternal. It is a great mystery.
Here is a little background to my own personal prayer journey. I don’t like using words like “Calvinism,” “Armenianism,” or other man-made constructs to describe ideas about prayer. While I don’t like those words, they certainly have played into my thinking about prayer.
I believe God is absolutely sovereign. To me that is a foregone conclusion. If he was less than sovereign, then he would not be God. I also believe that man has free will, that he is a free agent.
However, God is not just sovereign. He is also good, pure, loving, just, and righteous. My point is that His sovereignty always works together with His other perfect attributes.
I believe man has free will in that he makes choices and affects things. This is called causality. Our decisions make things happen. I also believe there are many things that we have no control over – things like our genetics, when we were born, who our parents were, and a host of other things. I also believe that our control never negates God’s control.
We don’t have control over many things, but those things we do have control over, we are responsible for. I am controlling my fingers as I type this sentence on my computer. I did not control where the keys on the keyboard were placed, but I did control the work that led to this sentence. I am responsible for the words you just read.
D. A. Carson in his book A Call to Spiritual Reformation says, “God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God.” It is a great mystery.
My problem with prayer in the past has been that I have bounced back and forth between two extremes, that of only God’s sovereignty, and, to a lesser degree, that of only man’s free will.
Early in my Christian life I felt that if things were to happen, I had to be diligent and faithful in my prayers. I thought that, through some force of will, if I believed hard enough in my prayer to God, whatever I asked would happen. I saw this play out in Scripture with Matthew 21:22 saying that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Of course, this was connected with Jesus cursing the fig tree, but the principle seemed to be if I had enough faith that something would happen, then it would. Life quickly proved this notion wrong. Many times I prayed fervently with faith that something would happen, and it did not. I came to the conclusion that either there was more to it than I understood, or my faith was not strong enough. This placed all the responsibility on my shoulders. It was very discouraging.
From this place in my prayer life, I began to make the transition to focus totally on God’s sovereignty in my prayers. Prayer from this angle was much easier. My prayer times became rather brief. They rarely deviated from the following: “Dear God, Let your will be done in everything. Amen.” I figured that if God were going to to whatever He wanted to do regardless of what I did, then there was no point in praying anything except that His will be accomplished. That was a sure way to have my prayers answered.
As you might guess, this led to a prayerless life. If my prayers were not affecting anything, I saw no point in praying.
Truth to tell, I still battle this methodology sometimes, but then I see where Moses seems to change God’s mind, and that gives me hope. In Numbers chapter 14, God tells Moses that He is going to strike the Israelites with a pestilence and disinherit them, and that He would make a mighty nation out of Moses. Moses prays to God that He will not do this thing and gives reason why God should relent – and God relents.
I have heard the argument that God was just testing Moses, but, as it looks to me, if that was the case, God was lying. If he did not mean to eliminate the Israelites but only wanted to test Moses, His saying, “I will strike…” was a lie.
This got me to thinking that perhaps prayer, this conversation with God, is deeper and more mysterious than I imagined. Perhaps God, in His sovereignty, allows man free will, and our prayers actually affect the outcome in some way.
God is a personal God. He demonstrated that to us by becoming one of us. He wants us to pray. We are even told in James 5:16 that our prayers are effectual. In other words, our prayers are successful in producing a desired intended result.
Wow! When I look at prayer through that lens, it makes me want to pray more.
I know many of you are wanting to throw theological darts at me right now, or perhaps even a shoe or something. Some of you are dying to write an epistle in the comments. I think I will cut that option off. If you want to espouse your opinion, which is what I am doing, then create your own blog and send me a link.
More importantly, I want you to understand that if the pendulum swings one direction in our thoughts on prayer, then we become the master and God is some type of genie. If we rub the lamp just right, we get our wish (our prayers answered the way we want). If the pendulum swings in the other direction, then we become puppets with no volition, and each and every movement is completely controlled by the Great Puppet Master.
But somewhere in the middle, where a Holy, all powerful, all knowing, all mighty God sees us and loves us and allows us to reach out to Him through this process we call prayer, then mighty and wonderful things can happen. It is a great mystery. But to me, it is the mystery that make sense.
Let me leave you with five quick points on praying.
1. Set aside a time to pray each day.
2. In prayer: praise God for who he is, confess your sins, thank Him for what he has done, and humbly ask him for the needs you see in your life and the lives of others. This way of praying is also called the ACTS of prayer.
3. Remember this is a personal conversation, like a child to his father. Don’t pray on the surface; rather, go deep with your heavenly Father.
4. Don’t worry overmuch about how prayer works. As this article demonstrates, it can lead to inaccurate ideas on prayer. Instead, spend time in prayer. That, and study of God’s Word is the best way to learn the truth.
5. Keep a prayer journal that shows how God is dealing with you and your life and the world through your prayers.
I pray that God our Heavenly Father will open your eyes as well as mine to the truths of His Word. In the name of Jesus. Amen.