Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Friday Q & A #38
Note: Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 31, 7:30pm for a live Q & A With the Pastors (occurring at the Downtown Campus and simulcast to the North Campus and South 501 Bldg).
Since God is totally sovereign, why pray specifically rather than only “thy will be done”?
This question was answered by John Beckman, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Bethlehem College and Seminary:
Why are my students tempted to ask me to lighten the workload in the courses I teach, but never ask me to lighten the snowfall or the traffic? The answer, of course, is that I have control over the former but not the latter. In the same way, God’s sovereignty should motivate us to pray about all things, since he has total control of all things. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). Praying “to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16) is a privilege that Jesus bought for us with his blood (Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 10:19–20).
But why pray specifically rather than just for God’s will to be done? I can think of four reasons:
- It gives God specific prayers to answer. This leads to God-glorifying thanksgiving (2 Corinthians 1:11) and builds our faith in future grace—our confidence that the next time we are in need, God will once again act on behalf of those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).
- It moves God to do things that he would not have done if we had not asked. James 4:2 says that “you do not have because you do not ask.” Paul expected to be released from prison in response to Philemon’s prayers (Philemon 22). God would have destroyed Israel over the golden calf if Moses had not prayed (Psalm 106:19–23).
- Obedience requires it. Our Lord Jesus taught us to pray both “thy will be done” and also to make specific requests (like having enough food to eat for today) in the same prayer.
- It follows the example of prayers in Scripture. Isaac prayed for Rebekah to become pregnant (Genesis 25:21), even though God had already foreordained that Abraham’s line would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12). Daniel prayed for the Jerusalem temple to be restored (Daniel 9:17–19), because he knew that God had already decreed that it would be restored at that time (Daniel 9:2–3). The disciples prayed for boldness and miraculous signs (Acts 4:29–30) because they knew that God had promised to do just that (Acts 2:19). Paul asked others to pray for him to have opportunities to preach the gospel (Colossians 4:3), because that was the stewardship that God had sovereignly given to him (Colossians 1:25–28).
- Doesn’t praying specifically contradict God’s sovereignty? No, it doesn’t, because prayers are requests to our sovereign king, not rubbing the lamp of a genie who has to do what we want. We can’t twist God’s arm. He can say “no” whenever he chooses.
- Doesn’t praying specifically contradict God’s foreordination of all things? No, it doesn’t, because when God ordains that something happens, he also ordains the means by which it will happen. In particular, when God chooses that something will happen, he often foreordains that someone will pray for it to happen. For more on this, listen to Joe Rigney’s sermon at Bethlehem on February 12, 2012.
- Doesn’t praying specifically come from a proud attitude that we know better than God? It could, of course, but it need not. The cure for this manifestation of pride is for all of our specific prayers to be tempered with the attitude that Jesus showed in prayer: When asking in prayer, have an attitude of wanting God’s will to be done rather than ours whenever the two differ (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 26:39). And when God says no, we must trust and rejoice that he has something better, as Paul did when God repeatedly said no to his prayer (2 Corinthians 12:8–9).
Pastor Sam Crabtree is Bethlehem's Pastor for Small Groups, North.