The Sovereignty of God in Prayer
Basic Facts about Prayer and Sovereignty
BASIC FACT NUMBER ONE: Believers in both the OT Scriptures and the NT Scriptures had no problem believing in both the absolute sovereignty of God and the necessity of prayer.
In Daniel, Chapter 9, the prophet fervently prays for the very thing that he is positive the sovereign God is going to accomplish. Daniel is told the exact time that God is going to fulfill a prior prophecy made through Jeremiah. Notice that Daniel's knowing exactly what God was going to do and the precise time that He was going to do it, in no way kept him from pleading with God to actually accomplish what had been promised. In fact, the exact opposite is always true! The more certain we are about God's sovereign promises and providence, the more we will plead for the very things we know belong to us in His covenant.
The first recorded prayer meeting in the early church after the day of Pentecost is a classic illustration of the biblical relationship of the sovereignty of God and prayer. Let us read the text in Acts 4:
23 And being let go, they went to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them. 24 And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: 25 Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? 26 The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. 27 For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, 28 For TO DO WHATSOEVER THY HAND AND THY COUNSEL DETERMINED BEFORE TO BE DONE. 29. And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, 30 By stretching forth thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of thy holy child Jesus." 31 And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:23-31).
This special prayer meeting was in response to the first great persecution of the church. The apostles were beaten and told to never again preach in the name of Christ. Verse 23 tells us "they went to their own company" and reported all that had happened. They did not set up a committee nor did they gather the clergy together. The whole church discussed the matter and the whole church acted together.
Verse 24 gives us the response of the church to the horrible situation they were facing. Is it not amazing that they did not begin their prayers the way we would probably have done? They started by worshipping God and reminding Him of His greatness and sovereignty. When our personal world is about to collapse, we usually do not begin our prayers by calmly saying, "Lord, You alone are God. You created all things and right now You are in perfect control of all things and every person." No, we rush into God's presence, blurt out our problem, and tell God to do something quick or the whole cause will be lost. Why is it so important that we begin our prayers with true worship and praise?
First of all, God is worthy of our worship regardless of what our problems are. Secondly, it is only fitting that we always remember that entering God's presence is an amazing privilege. Remembering these truths will put both God and our problems into the right perspective; forgetting them will make us so self-centered we will insult God with our prayers.
Suppose you had received a bad deal from the local authorities in your community and you kept appealing for redress to higher authorities, all the way up to the President of the United States. Suppose the president himself agreed to see you. When the door to his office opened, would you rush in and say, "Do you know what those crooks in my town did to me? You are the President. What are you going to do about it?" No one would dare act like that. We would, first of all, sincerely thank him for tak ing the time to see us because we realize who he is. We would say, "Mr. President, I am amazed that you, the President of the United States, would condescend to hear my personal complaint. I sincerely and deeply appreciate this honor and privilege." W hen we started to think about the problems that he must deal with daily, we might even begin to feel ashamed that we were so distressed about such a minor problem. Actually, we might be so filled with awe that we would forget what our problem was! My p oint is that we often treat God with far less respect than we would a human authority. The early church knew better.
The third reason that it is good to begin our prayers with worship of God and praising Him for His greatness and sovereignty is that it will bring our blood pressure down twenty-five points. If all we see is the problem, we are sure to lose sight of Go d's power and control. Who are these insignificant human authorities in comparison to the God who made heaven and earth? I am sure you can begin to see that the early Christians consciously prayed from a carefully laid foundation of faith in God's abso lute sovereignty! They first reminded themselves and God that they were confident of His power and decrees. Dr. Lloyd-Jones suggests that this is why God shook the building (vs 31). It was as if God said, "I like the way you pray. I like your confide nce in my power and I will give you a little sample of it to reaffirm your faith," so He shook the building, literally! Yes, He can shake anything and anybody; He can shake a whole empire and cause it to crumble.
Verses 25 through 27 are very instructive. Why did the church remind God of how David's prophecy concerning the world's hatred of Christ was so clearly fulfilled in the crucifixion? Everybody was against Christ. Every source of human authority purpos ed to destroy Him forever. The Christians were reminding themselves and God that they were at that moment in the very same situation that their Elder Brother had been in before them. He was hated and in trouble; they were hated and in trouble. However , just as Christ was safe in the hands of His Father, so were they. The cause was God's, not their own. They realized that they were only pawns and God Himself was the Master of the game.
Acts 4:28 is one of those verses that makes you want to shout. Exactly what did all the enemies of Christ do to Him? Why were they all brought together into one solid power block? Those early, persecuted believers reminded themselves and their God th at those wicked enemies did only "whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done." The NIV says, "They did what your power and will had decided before should happen." That, my friend, is confidence in the absolute sovereignty of God. You may talk about your "free will of man" or blame all the bad things on the devil, but in times of real trial you will lose your confidence without a grip on a sovereign God. Those besieged Christians saw no conflict between fervent prayer and God's sovereign decrees. They knew that nothing could have happened to them that had not been decreed by God, any more than it could have happened to Christ.
I just recently went through the worst experience of my Christian life. I was lied to and lied about. I watched people that I loved and trusted stick a knife in my back. I saw wrong prevail and the truth dragged through the mud. The philosophy of "t he end justifies the means" was used by professing Christians to lie and distort facts in order to get what they wanted regardless of the cost. Where was God while all of this injustice was taking place? He was the Master of Ceremonies and in control of the whole thing, just as He was at Calvary and just as He was in Acts 4 when the disciples were beaten. Nothing happened to me that my heavenly Father had not ordained. If I did not believe that, I could not help but be bitter and desire revenge. I f I said I was not deeply hurt, I would be lying. However, I can honestly pity some of the people who were the most dishonest and malicious. I can face both God and those who tried to do me in and know that I did the right thing and acted in the right way. The results always belong to God. His will shall be accomplished regardless of who appears to win today. My only responsibility is a conscience void of offense before God and men.
Do you think the believers in Acts, Chapter 4, believed they had done something wrong and felt guilty because of the bad results, or were they sure that they were in the will of God despite the attitude and persecution by the leaders? Can you imagine o ne of those nice, sweet, "peace at any price" people standing up and saying, "Well, you know, we really asked for a lot of this trouble by the way we went about our preaching. We should not preach those offensive doctrines that the Jews hate, and we sur ely should not have been so dogmatic." That may pass as "Christian love and godly wisdom" in this wishy-washy generation, but we all know it is an insult to the zeal and courage of those early believers who established truth on the earth with their very blood.
No, my friend, there is no contradiction between the sovereign decrees of God and fervent, believing prayer. Read the words in Acts 4 again and see that it was their confidence in the fact that God decrees all things that come to pass which gave those Christians the courage and faith to pray in time of affliction. It is in the text. Only a deliberate twisting of the words necessitated by a man-centered theology can get anything else out of this passage.
In verse 29, the people finally get around to asking for something. Isn't it amazing that they have been worshipping and praising God without asking Him to stop the persecution or kill the persecutors? It is even more amazing that when they do finally ask for specific help from God that they ask for grace to boldly keep on preaching the very same message that got them into trouble in the first place. They leave the persecution with God and pray for boldness to declare what they know is the truth of God, regardless of the results. My friend, that is real prayer. As you can see, real prayer is a joyful submission to a sovereign God to be used for His purposes. Little wonder that we are all half-scared to really cry to God to be used by Him, in His way, and for His glory. It is much safer to listen to someone like Jimmy Baker and pray for a new camper to use at the lake (be sure to tell God what color you want).
We could outline Acts 4:23-31 this way:
I. vss. 23-28 Confidence in God's sovereignty -The true foundation for prayer.
II. vss. 29-30 Asking for the right things -The true test of prayer.
III. v. 31 The felt realization of God's presence and power - The true answer to prayer.
BASIC FACT NUMBER TWO: Prayer can be used as a means of refusing to submit to what we know is the will of God!
Brethren, I suspect we have come to one of the real problems in true prayer. We often try to use prayer to get around God's providence. We are unwilling to bow to God's sovereignty and dare to use prayer as a means of trying to get God to change His mind. True prayer is nothing less than a joyful submission to the will of our sovereign God! Have we not all been guilty of trying to get God to change His mind in a situation that goes against our flesh? What is even worse, we dare to call our whimper ing to God to get Him to do what we want "prayer"! We actually try to use prayer as a means of refusing to submit to the clear, revealed will of God. Even the best of God's children are guilty of this awful sin. Let us look at a classic case in the li fe of Abraham:
And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do..... (Gen 18:17).
In this verse and the context, we see that God informs Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom. Abraham is told exactly what God is about to do. However, Abraham is not in agreement with God's purposes and decides to "pray" to God in the hopes of ch anging His mind. The dialogue is a beautiful illustration of the point I am trying to establish. Notice the exchange between Abraham and God:
23 And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24 Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? 25 That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? 26 And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. 27 And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: 28 Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: w ilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. 29 And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. 30 And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. 31 And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lo rd: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. 32 And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not de stroy it for ten's sake. 33 And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place. Gen 18:23-31
Now remember that this dialogue took place as a direct result of God revealing to Abraham His purpose to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is not in agreement with what God is about to do. Verses 23 and 24 make it appear that Abraham's only concern is for the reputation of God. Did Abraham have the faintest notion that there were fifty righteous people in Sodom, or do you think that his only concern is his nephew Lot? It is interesting to note that neither God nor Abraham ever mention Lot by name even though both knew that he was the real concern in Abraham's heart. Notice that God revealed that He was going to destroy both Sodom and Gomorrah, but He only mentions Sodom in His response to Abraham. Why mention Gomorrah when Abraham's only interest is in Sodom?
God graciously condescends to Abraham's terms and agrees to spare the city if there are fifty righteous people found. That should end the matter, but Abraham decides to "pray" some more. He first of all acknowledges how humble he is and then proceeds to show how deceitful he is. Verse 28 is a classic example of twisting the facts and loading the dice. The first request is to spare the whole city for the sake of fifty righteous people. If Abraham wants to drop off five, then he should have said, "W ill you destroy the city if forty-five are found?" However, he frames the statement in such a way that the question is not forty-five but only a matter of five. It is like saying, "Lord, would you quibble over a mere five people?" Abraham sets up the equation backwards. At the end of verse 28 God corrects Abraham's math and promises not to destroy the city if "forty-five" righteous can be found.
We would surely expect Abraham to be satisfied and ready to be quiet. Not so! Abraham is determined to impose his will on God and correct God's purposes. As you read verses 29 through 32 while Abraham goes from 45 to 40, to 30, to 20, and finally dow n to 10, you wait for the hammer of Almighty God to fall on this insignificant gnat for his impudence! However, that never happens, not even when Abraham piously says, "I will speak yet but this once." He has already done that five times. Why doesn't the hammer fall? Simply because God is Abraham's friend and God dearly loves him. God is longsuffering with His children. He knows that Abraham's nose is out of joint, and He surely sees through the whole facade of Abraham's prayers. However, God is concerned with changing Abraham's heart and attitude. Notice that in the KJV, verse 33, God calls this exchange "communing." I would call it "badgering," but then, I am not as powerful or as gracious as God.
This illustration teaches us that one (but not the only one) function of prayer is to change us. God did not change His purpose but He did use Abraham's prayer to change Abraham's attitude. Prayer changed Abraham. We all sometimes try to use prayer t o get God to change His mind, instead of gladly submitting to His sovereign purposes. On the other hand, God often, instead of clobbering us with His absolute sovereignty, which He has every right to do, will allow us to vent our fears and disagreements t o show us how unreasonable we are acting. Did you ever blow something out of proportion that had been done to you? You kept nursing it inside of you and it kept getting bigger and bigger in your mind. You had, in your mind, an ironclad case against th e person for what he had done. Finally you told someone how terribly you had been treated, but the more you tried to explain why it was so bad, the more your ironclad case fell apart. You began to realize it was really a small thing that should have be en dropped. You knew that you were making a fool of yourself by trying to justify your feelings, and you wished you could shut up because of how ridiculous you appeared for feeling as you did. It took the "verbalizing" of the event to make you objective.
God often does the same thing with us. He patiently listens to us until we begin to see how ridiculous we are in trying to get Him to change His mind. As a result, our whole attitude and the content of our prayers are changed. We are humbled and brou ght to bow in worship to whatever His providence brings. We also praise Him anew and afresh for His sovereign patience with us.
This brings us to the next point in our discussion of prayer.
BASIC FACT NUMBER THREE: It is not wrong for us to pray what has been termed "selfish prayer."
Is it wrong to ask God to keep my children safe as they travel, or that He enable them to find good employment? If my wife goes to the hospital for surgery, is it wrong to ask God to make the operation a success? In all of these cases, I have no knowl edge of what God has decreed. Abraham may have been less than honest in the way he prayed, but was it right for him to be concerned for Lot and entreat God for his safety? Is it right for us to be concerned for the safety of loved ones and pray for the ir well-being? Perhaps another biblical illustration will help us. Let us look at David and one of his prayers:
13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. 14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme , the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. 15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. II Sam 12:13-15.
You will remember that David had committed both adultery and murder. God sent Nathan the prophet to David, and through his message God convicted David of his awful sin. In the above verses, God clearly reveals what is going to happen. The child is go ing to die. As in Abraham's case, David has a clear revelation of God's will or decree. David still feels constrained to plead with God to spare the sick child:
16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. 17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.
Was David wrong in praying as he did? Had not God said that the child would die and therefore it was a waste of time to pray, or does that conclusion not necessarily follow? We learn a great lesson about prayer from this incident in David's life. The child died in spite of David's plea. You will remember that the servants were afraid to inform David of the child's death. They thought his state of mind might make him do something foolish. When David perceived the truth he asked, "Is the child dead ?" When the servants said, "Yes," the Scripture tells us what David did:
20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.
The moment David realized that the child was dead, he totally accepted God's providence. He first worshipped God and then proceeded to get on with his life. David's servants were amazed. They expected David to weep and wail and carry on in an uncontr olled manner. They questioned David, and we see in David's answer the heart of this lesson in prayer that we are studying:
21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. 22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I faste d and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? 23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
What is David is saying? What is the attitude of his heart as he pleads with God to spare his child? David is saying this: "As long as that child had breath, I prayed to God alone as the only One who could keep him alive. God was pleased to answer m y prayers with a `no.' I said, `Blessed be the name of the Lord' and got on with my life. I will bow in humble faith to God's sovereign providence." David may not have said out loud, "nevertheless, not my will but Thy will be done," but that attitude was certainly in his heart as he prayed. You and I may pray for whatever our heart desires, as long as we can sincerely leave it up to God to decide if the answer should be yes or no. I am aware that this is contrary to the basic premise of the current , typical teaching on prayer, but it is biblical. Even our blessed Lord had to pray, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done." Are we greater than our Master?
Perhaps it would be well to give one more illustration of this clear, biblical principle. In my booklet on "The Sovereignty of God In Providence" I spent a good deal of time in the Book of Habakkuk. That whole book is a classic example of the principl e of prayer that we are discussing. In the first few verses Habakkuk challenges God's apparent inactivity. When God informs the prophet that He is about to send the Chaldeans to invade and mop up the nation of Israel, Habakkuk does exactly what Abraham did. He tries to convince God that this would be inconsistent with His character of holiness. Of course we realize that Habakkuk also does not want to see Israel nearly destroyed. After God reminds Habakkuk that "the Lord is in His holy temple," the prophet's whole attitude changes. Listen to a real prayer from a confident heart:
1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. 2 LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy . . . 13 You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot. Selah......16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait pat iently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle i n the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. 19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. Hab. 3:1,2,13,16-19.
It is obvious that Habakkuk's confrontation with God in prayer radically changed the prophet's whole perspective and attitude. He learned that God was always in control and always working out His own purposes and in doing so He uses everybody, includin g the wicked Chaldeans, to accomplish His purposes. Verse 2 is real prayer. Verse 13 shows a true understanding and application of God's purposes in history. Ultimately, everything that happens involves the people of God. Verses 6-19 shows a man wors hipping in wonder and awe. Habakkuk knows his nation is about to be judged, but he has faith and hope that God will bring good out of it all, as well as glory to Himself. That is the right way to pray, and such prayer is sometimes possible only after G od has used our wrong prayers to change us and our attitude.
BASIC FACT NUMBER FOUR: Prayer is ASKING, not TELLING God what to do.
Real prayer must be seen as asking, but we cannot see it in this light until we realize that God has every right to say no. When prayer is understood biblically, it is seen to be an attitude as well as an act. It involves the response of the heart to revealed truth as well as words of petition. Let me mention a few things that prayer is not.
1. Prayer is not giving God advice and telling Him what to do, when to do it, and who to use to accomplish it. All of this is to treat God as if He had no plan of His own to resolve the problem.
2. Prayer is not giving God information that He did not have before we prayed and gave it to Him. Have you ever "prayed" and carefully explained to God exactly what was happening, and when you were finished you felt, "Now God really understands what i s going on and will be in a position to see the wisdom of my advice!" How conceited can we be?
I'm sure you heard of the man who felt led to pray for the families of the people killed in a plane crash. He stood up in a prayer meeting and said, "Lord, I ask you to bless the families of the people who died in that plane crash over in . . . (and t he man forgot where the crash had occurred) . . . in, ah, ah . . . Lord I forget where it happened, but I'm sure You know. It was in all the papers this morning." I wonder if anyone felt like saying, "I hope God got the right edition of the paper." We may smile at that story, but do we not betray the same attitude when we feel "now Go has the real story" after we have prayed?
By the way, nothing proves our faith as much as how we feel and act after we have prayed. We say that we "give up" and cast our burden on God. We confess to Him that the matter is in His hands. So we say! However, in reality that is often not the ca se. We "give up to God" and then proceed to manipulate every situation we can. We "let go" and then scheme for all we are worth. We "roll it on God," and then push and pull with every means that our flesh can conceive. You cannot pray in faith and sc heme in the flesh at the same time.
Jay Adams has an excellent illustration showing this truth. A certain man was always depressed and complaining about everything. His friends learned never to ask him, "How are you?" unless they had a free hour to hear his many problems. One day a fri end met the man and he was smiling and rejoicing. When asked why he was so happy, the man replied, "I do not have a single worry in the world." "Well," said his friend, "that is something new for you. Whatever happened that enabled you to get rid of a ll your worry?" The man replied, "I found a fellow that could worry better than I could, and I pay him to do all my worrying." His friend said, "Well it sure seems to work. How much do you pay for this service?" The former worrier said, "I pay the ma n $500.00 a week." His friend exclaimed, "How in the world can you ever raise that kind of money each week?" "Oh," said the man, "that is his worry, not mine." I am sure you see the point. If we give God the problem, we must give Him all the problem.
How often do we lay something before God and pick it up again when we leave His presence? How often do we give it to God and then worry about how He can possibly find a way to do anything about it? Our problem is that we can't see how God can possibly do what we want Him to do in the situation.
Let me make three clear statements that define biblical prayer. They will show us why real prayer is so difficult for us. We often try to get God to agree with what we want instead of honestly seeking to know and bow to His sovereign will.
1. True prayer is a frank admission that God is sovereign. When we really pray we admit that the thing is in God's hands alone. We are saying that tomorrow, and all it brings, is not under our control but under His control. It is in His hands and not ours.
2. Prayer is a joyful surrender to God's sovereign purposes. We are acknowledging that God has the right and power to do whatever seems good to Him. We are saying that regardless of what God does tomorrow, we know it is part of the "all things" in Rom ans 8:28.
3. Prayer is earnestly pleading with God for grace to glorify Him regardless of what He does. We are really saying, "Father, give me grace to trust you and act like your child whether you say yes or no."
I remember using the above definitions for a message in Montreal. A lady got angry and did not come back to the meetings for three nights. When she came back, she said to me, "Mr Reisinger, last night was the first time I have gotten a good night's sl eep for over two years." She proceeded to tell me what had happened. Her son had gotten involved in drugs. She had covered and lied for him. She had wept over him and gotten angry with him. She had threatened and pleaded and promised. She had come to her wits' end. She said, "Last night I got down beside my bed and put my son in God's hands. I told Him that He had every right to destroy my son and use him as an example of the folly of drugs. I pleaded with God to save my son and felt assurance that regardless of what happens, I was going to trust God. I went to bed and slept for the first night in two years."
In this lady's case, God was pleased to save her son about three months later. It does not always happen that way. However we must learn to put our lives, our jobs, and our children in God's hands. They are there, whether we like it or not. Our comm itment of them to God in heartfelt prayer is merely learning to rest in faith in God's sovereign providence.
I repeat, isn't that one of the primary reasons that real prayer is so hard? Is it not a fact that we find it impossible to fervently pray about something that we are pretty sure is not going to come out the way that we want it to come out? Isn't that part of James' accusation to us concerning our attitude toward tomorrow? We know what we want to happen in our business and in our life we already have it planned out. It is difficult to get into that "nevertheless, not my will but your will" attitude of heart. It is far easier to just say, "Lord, bless the plans that I already have figured out." Real prayer is acknowledging that we realize our own insufficiency and need. We are confessing our total dependence upon God for each day and all it brings. We should always remember what James says, especially when we don't pray:
13 Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." 16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16.
James is saying, "You either do not pray about your plans, or else you plan without considering my sovereignty." Earlier we saw that James accuses us of either not praying at all or praying amiss with a concern for only our own selfish desires. When a ll that we are concerned about is God blessing our plans and ideas, it is nigh onto impossible to really pray sincerely.
BASIC FACT NUMBER FIVE: A belief in the sovereignty of God will not hinder real prayer, but instead it will foster it.
It is a belief in free will that kills biblical prayer. Free will preaching may produce what Hosea called "howling on our beds," but even that will not last very long. I venture to say that you have never been in a prayer meeting where anyone believed in free will or denied God's sovereignty and prayed accordingly. I remember one deacon in my first pastorate who constantly tried to pray from the perspective of his free will theology, but could never do it consistently. Every week he would say, "Lord, I know you love everyone in the entire world exactly alike. You love every person in the USA. You are trying to save every soul in our state. I know you love everyone in the town of Lewisburg (by this time he was talking more slowly). Lord, I know you love everyone living on Third street. You love both of my neighbors." Now about this time, the man would begin to cry and say, "But Lord, they will not listen to the gospel. They will not come to church. Oh, Lord, send your Holy Spirit and convi ct them. Oh, God, begin to draw them to yourself." The next week it would be the same routine. That dear man never did see that he was constantly forced to acknowledge God's sovereignty before he could pray (the first part of his oration each week was really not prayer, but preaching to me).
Isn't it amazing that Christians forget all about man's so-called free will when they get on their knees? Don't we all love the absolute sovereignty of God when we are calling on His name in desperate need.
I will never forget a dear lady in a Bible class I taught in Rochester, NY. I believe she loved the Lord, but she had never been exposed to the truth of sovereign grace. She greatly enjoyed the class in Romans until we came to the doctrine of God's sovereignty. She said, "This class is ruining my prayer life and I am not coming back." I said, "I do not blame you. However, I would like to know what I said that would have a bad effect on your prayer life." She replied, "This business about free will and the sovereignty of God. If what you say is true, then why should I pray?" I asked her what she had prayed for that morning (always good to check up!) and she opened her purse and got out a worn prayer list. That morning she had pleaded with God o n behalf of two nurses in an African country experiencing civil war. I said, "What did you ask God to do?" Without hesitation, the woman replied, "I asked God to keep my nurse friends safe. I prayed that neither army would hurt their ministry or the workers. I also prayed that none of the bombs or bullets would destroy any of the property." I looked at her in pretended amazement and said, "Did you really ask those things? How could you? All of those soldiers have free wills. Would it not be bett er to entreat an ambassador to try to intervene with the military in that country? Surely you do not expect God to control a whole war, every soldier, and every bomb and bullet, just to keep two people safe?" The lady was rather elderly and I do not th ink she followed me, but a lot of other people did. That dear saint of God had cried to a sovereign God that morning without questioning His power or thinking about the free will of sinful soldiers. She unconsciously knew God could control every soldie r, from the general down to the private, and direct every bullet and piece of shrapnel in answering her prayer and keeping her nurse friends safe. In her heart that dear lady was talking to the sovereign God.
It is amazing to me that new converts, especially those converted under the preaching of sovereign grace, have no difficulty with the sovereignty of God and prayer. Shortly after my daughter-in-law was converted, she attended a different church one Sun day when I was away preaching. I phoned that evening and asked her how she had enjoyed the service. Her answer was amusing. She said, "It was strange, Dad. The preacher sounded like he did not agree with you while he was preaching, but when he starte d to pray, he sounded like he agreed with you 100%." She was right. You may listen to many Arminian sermons (they come out of the preacher's mind), but you will never hear an Arminian prayer (real prayer comes out of the heart).
BASIC FACT NUMBER SIX: Prayer is essential because God has ordained it as one of the means to accomplish His decrees.
The question is not "can God do something without prayer?" but rather, "Has God Himself sovereignly decreed that He will use prayer as a means of accomplishing what He has ordained?" A real burden to pray does not begin with us, but with God. If you d oubt this, all you need to do is make a decision to have a burden and see if it works. Pick a missionary or any other person, and decide you will have a burden for them and their ministry. Your burden will last about as long as the dew lasts after the sun comes up. Has it not been your experience that real burdens are often those that you would not particularly choose? Sometimes God lays an individual on your heart with whom you have little relationship. You may not even like the person or you may have just recently met them. However, the Holy Spirit keeps bringing that person to your mind and you feel compelled to pray for them.
I remember a girl getting upset with me the first time she heard the truth of God's sovereign election. She said, "If I believed that, I would quit praying for my mother to get saved." Her statement gave me a hint that I decided to pursue. "Do you fa ithfully pray for your mother's conversion?" I asked. She had tears in her eyes, and answered, "I pray for her almost constantly. Sometimes at work I silently raise my heart to God and I feel myself beginning to cry and I have go to the washroom. I ha ve a real burden for my mother's soul." I said, "You did not mention your father. Is he a Christian?" "No," she replied. "How often do you pray for him? Have you ever shed tears pleading with God to save him?" She got a strange look on her face and said, "Now that you mention it, I rarely ever pray for my Dad, but I never fail to pray for my Mom." I smiled and said, "I think your Dad is the one you better worry about. I believe God is getting ready to save your mother. As long as you can plead to God with tears, you have every reason to believe that God's Spirit is moving you to pray. The Holy Spirit does not move us to pray in vain!"
I do not believe that girl could have worked up a real burden for her father, no matter how hard she tried. Likewise, she could not have been truly burdened to pray for her mother if God was not purposing to work in saving grace. God never burdens our hearts to plead for things that are not His will, and we can't arbitrarily choose what we want and then force God to include that particular thing in His purposes. This would mean that we control the world and run it with our prayers.
I am sure that some hyper-Calvinists will read this and say a loud "Amen." The only problem is that what I have said in no way justifies a cold heart that never prays! Let me make some very pointed remarks. I think they will help us to be sure that w e have the theology of God's sovereignty straight.
One: Prayer begins with God and grows out of His decrees or purposes.
Two: The Holy Spirit burdens people to pray for those things that God has ordained and is about to do.
Now if these two facts are true, and they are, then you and I can tell whether we are in the will of God and under His blessing by whether we have a burdened heart. My friend, if you shed no tears at the throne of grace, it proves that God is not using you. You are on the shelf or maybe you are not even converted! God is not accomplishing any of His gracious purposes through you simply because your heart is cold as an iceberg. I did not say that God was not accomplishing His purposes, but I did say that He was not using you to do it.
Follow me carefully for a moment. If God is the One Who burdens our hearts, and if He must either give us the desire of our heart or break our hearts by saying no, then where does that leave us if we have neither a burdened heart nor a broken heart? M y friend, burdens begin as we seek God's throne and ask Him to burden our hearts. We tell Him that we want to be used by Him. We plead with Him to interrupt our complacency and revive our hearts. We seek Him until we feel His Spirit moving in our hear ts. We ought to pray the following chorus:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart, and love that soul through me. And may I humbly do my part, to win that soul to Thee.
That chorus is acknowledging that the very desire and burden to faithfully witness must begin with God. It pleads with God to burden our hearts so that we will both want to-and be able to-love and pray and witness. Can any true Christian desire less?
No, my hyper Calvinist friend, you cannot get off the hook that easy. We will not let your cold heart hide behind a pile of theology books, even if the theology in the books is correct. Jesus told us to ask, seek, and knock. He promised that we would receive, we would find, and it would be opened to us. Are you receiving, and finding, and are opportunities being opened up to you? The single most important thing about us is, "What are we asking for, what are we seeking, and what are we knocking for ?" The moment we agree that God has sovereignly ordained prayer as a means to accomplish His decrees, then we should see that we are not being used by God if we are not earnestly asking, seeking, and knocking as part of that process. Let me summarize a nd repeat this last point with some personal questions:
1. Are we burdened to pray for anything specific? If not, then God is not using us to accomplish any of His gracious purposes.
2. Who are the specific people for whose salvation we feel burdened to pray? If there are none, then God is not using us to gather His elect to Himself.
3. How many groanings for revival has God heard from our congregation? James says, "You have not because you ask not."
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that we will cry to God for the things that we really want. That being true, our prayer life is a good barometer of the spiritual condition of our Christian life. When we really want something and plead with God with a burdened heart, then, as I said before, God must either grant the request or break our hearts and say, "No." Again, how often have we neither a burdened nor a broken heart?
4. If God opened the windows of heaven this very moment and poured into our hearts every single spiritual blessing that we have been burdened to pray for in the last month, how many of us would be precisely as spiritually empty then as we are at this very moment? If such is our case, dare we blame that on God's sovereignty?
I hope I have convinced you that a firm belief in the sovereignty of God in no way conflicts with, or in any way hinders, true prayer. To the contrary, nothing is so contradictory as believing in the sovereignty of God and not praying. I wish I could write the following words in gold and put them over the pulpit of every Calvinistic or Reformed Church (and also tatoo them on my own brain):
A day without prayer is a day that totally denies the sovereignty of God and glorifies the free will and self sufficiency of man.
Let me summarize this chapter. We saw that (1) the believers in both the Old and New Testament Scriptures never had any problem "reconciling" God's absolute sovereignty with the need to pray. They simply believed both truths. We noted that (2) prayer is often used as a means of trying to evade the clearly revealed will of God. We emphasized that (3) true prayer is asking God, not giving God information He did not have or instructions in how He should go about answering our prayers. We finished by stating that a day without prayer is a denial of our boast that we believe in the sovereignty of God. Let us continue with some positive statements about prayer and sovereignty.