There is a mystery to the way prayer works. Often the Biblical commands about prayer and the Biblical narratives about prayer seem to be at odds with one another. Prayer often feels like a two-sided coin.
This semester I would like to compare and contrast the different sides of the coin when it comes to the mystery of prayer. In so doing, I hope you can identify ways that you could grow in your own prayer life.
Free Will in Prayer
Those who emphasize man’s free will in prayer find support for their position in verses like this in Ezekiel, where God clearly says He acted a certain way because He could not find anyone to pray.
“I looked for someone 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 no one. 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.” Ezekiel 22:30, 31
Another popular verse is found in II Chronicles 7:14, where prayer (among other things) is listed as a condition for revival. Throughout the history books of Kings and Chronicles that is the narrative. Before there is revival, first there is prayer.
“… if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my faceand turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Truth and Pitfalls in Free Will
It’s hard to argue that our prayers don’t somehow really affect the world, that they move God to action. We read too many stories of God answering prayers in scripture. We’re commanded to pray repeatedly. Jesus himself “often withdrew to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16).” Things happen because we pray that would not have happened had we not prayed.
If that point can be argued, then the negative could be argued too. Meaning, certain things do not happen because we have not prayed. “You have not because you ask not (James 4:2).” This is where those in the “free will” camp can get into trouble.
They can live as if everything depends on whether or not they pray or others pray. If carried to its full conclusion, those who believe like this will carry around a lot of guilt because they never pray enough and if something did or did not happen, maybe they were to blame for having not prayed.
Sovereignty in Prayer
Those who emphasize the sovereignty of God in prayer find their support in verses like these in Romans, where we are told how we don’t really even know what to pray, but God still works all things together for his predestined purpose.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. Romans 8:26-29
Another popular verse is found in Zecharaiah, where God says He is the one who actually moves in peoples’ hearts to motivate them to pray in the first place. Those in the “sovereignty” camp say that if we pray at all it is only because God moved in us to pray in the first place.
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. Zecharaiah 12:10
Truth and Pitfalls in Sovereignty
It’s hard to argue that God is not larger than all of our prayers, that there is a Maker who is sovereign over the earth and not reliant upon our feeble prayers. We see God challenge Job’s small understanding of the world. We see a wise and loving God choose not to answer so many of our prayers, and we see Him so often work something good out of evil.
But if He is in charge of everything and going to do what He wants us to do, then why do we need to pray at all? This is where those in the “sovereignty” camp can get in trouble.
They can live pretty prayerless lives, believing God is going to do what He wants to do anyway. They miss out on the intimacy that comes from praying to God whether our prayers are answered or not. Their worldview can become very fatalistic and they are then prone to countless sins of omission.
A Helpful Illustration
Years ago I read an illustration that has helped me in some small way to hold on to sovereignty and free will in prayer. I wish I could remember where I read it so I could reference it, but I cannot.
Perhaps prayer is something like this.
A dad knows what He wants to do for his son. He wants to get him a bicycle for Christmas. He buys the bicycle in January and then mounts an eleven-month campaign to convince his son that he needs a bike. He points out bikes, how fun the look to ride, different colors, etc. At first, his son is not interested, but as the months go forward his desires change. Come November, he is asking his dad for a bike, the exact brand, style, color, and everything. Come Christmas morning, the son thinks He convinced the dad to get the bike but the dad knows He convinced the son.
This is over simplistic for sure, but it hints at the way God’s sovereignty and man’s free will both work together in prayer. Mysteriously both are true.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.