One of the most wonderful mysteries in the universe is that prayer changes things.
God has so arranged his world that we have the ability to make significant choices, some good and some bad, which affect the course of history. One means God has given us to do this is prayer—asking him to act. Because he is all-wise and all-powerful, knowing "the end from the beginning" (Isa. 46:10), he's able to weave our requests into his eternally good purposes.
At this point our thinking can seriously go astray in one of two directions.
The first is to say, "If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and if everything is preordained, then he's going to do whatever he wills anyway and thus our prayers can't have any significant effect. Sure, they may help us psychologically, such that talking to God helps us get things off our chest that may help us feel better, but prayers don't count for much in the grand scheme of things. So why bother?"
Here there's an overemphasis on God's absolute sovereignty.
The second route, though different from the first, ends up in the same place by denying the usefulness of prayer. Here's the objection: "If human beings are free to make up their own minds, then God can't be absolutely sovereign; he must take risks such that human decisions can thwart his purposes, so there are severe limits to what we can ask for without undermining human freedom. If, for example, you have been praying for your sister to become a Christian, and God has done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won't surrender to him, why bother asking God to save her? It's out of order to pressure God to do more than he can do. So just give up on prayer."
Here the emphasis rests on a certain understanding of human freedom ("libertarian").
Taken at face value, both objections appear to have some force, but only because they employ a strange "logic" that goes beyond Scripture. It's always foolish and dangerous to play up one aspect of what the Bible teaches at the expense of something else it equally affirms. The God of the Bible is presented as the one who rules over all; he's all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful. He isn't surprised by anything we may think or do. On the other hand, Scripture also presents human beings as responsible moral agents who make significant choices, doing what we desire to do ("freedom of inclination"). God has chosen to relate to us personally without compromising the fact that he is God.
That said, Scripture describes the sovereign God as "repenting" or "relenting" in response to human prayer. Take Exodus 32, for instance. At this point in salvation history, the people of Israel have broken the Ten Commandments by building and worshiping a golden calf. Incensed, God vows to wipe them out. "I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people," he says to Moses. "Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation" (vv. 9-10). But Moses steps into the breach and reminds God of his promises, arguing his reputation will be brought into disrepute for saying one thing—"I will save the people"—and doing another—destroying them, appearing to renege on his promises to Abraham. Moses appeals to God as the sovereign king to show mercy (vv. 11-13). And that's exactly what happens: "Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened" (v. 14).
The theoretical problem raised by a belief in the efficacy of prayer to a sovereign God is acknowledged by C. S. Lewis, who helpfully places it within the wider context of God using certain means to achieve desired ends:
Can we believe that God really modifies his action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if he chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead he allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of his will. "God," said Pascal, "instituted prayer in order to lend to his creatures the dignity of causality." But not only prayer; whenever we act at all he lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God's mind—that is, his overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including prayers, of his creatures.
Our problem in trying to see how prayer "works" is that we often have a wrong view of God in relation to his world. Often we think of God like Bruce Almighty, sitting in a celestial office and feverishly dealing with all the requests that arrive: "Mrs. Green prays her husband's cancer be cured," "Mr. Young prays his wife might conquer alcoholism," and so on—with a million more worthy requests. It's seems to be in line with God's will that Mr. Green be healthy and Mrs. Young be sober. But what if both get worse? Does this mean that God doesn't answer prayer?
The tangled web of humans living in a fallen world makes things more complex. At times, the good ends God desires arise from certain evils. So at one level, cancer is an evil, part of the curse on a rebellious world. God sometimes does answer prayers for healing (and in one sense all healing is divine in that God is working providentially). But we also must recognize that since we're mortal, all people die sometime. What's more, other prayers may be offered and answered that can only be answered if there's not healing—like gaining patience through suffering or an increased focus on the world to come. Maybe Mr. Green's son has turned his back on God, and through his father's illness he'll return. So in order to "answer" one prayer, the return of the son, God doesn't "answer" the other, complete healing. God alone knows what is best.
As Jesus Did
Therefore, we're called to pray as Jesus did. As a result of our prayers, some things will happen that wouldn't otherwise. And we're responsible for whether we pray or not. Because God is a personal God, he invites us to share in his work through prayer. As Bruce Ware puts it, "God has devised prayer as a means of enlisting us as participants in the work he has ordained, as part of the outworking of his sovereign rulership over all. . . . The relationship between divine sovereignty and petitionary prayer can be stated by this word: participation."
God has the power and wisdom to use our prayers as he sees fit and to do what we could never imagine. If he weren't all-powerful, there'd be little point in praying. If he weren't all wise, it'd be dangerous to pray; after all, who'd want to ask an all-powerful but foolish person to do anything? But God is both perfectly wise and infinitely powerful, which is why you and I can pray with confidence.
This article has been adapted from Melvin Tinker's book Intended for Good: The Providence of God (InterVarsity).
Melvin Tinker is the senior minister of St John's Newland in Hull, UK, and is the author of several books.