God’s Goodness and Greatness: – Implications for Prayer

Another response to God’s character should be a lively prayer life. In fact, this is part of worship. Prayer is an obvious response to God’s goodness. God is love and so prayer is about a relationship with him, knowing God and knowing that he loves to hear us. We can be confident that a good and loving God will answer.

Prayer as the Right Response to God’s Goodness and Greatness

Prayer is the right response to a wise God. We want to learn from him. He is the source of all knowledge and wisdom. He is the only one we can turn to for trustworthy advice. We are right to seek his guidance.

Prayer is right because if God is sovereign, then he is the only true source of goodness, love and wisdom. He is the only one who can work in our lives, so we need to go to Him.

Prayer reminds me that I am not on my own. Secularism says “we are on our own. It’s just the human race left to sort things out by itself.” Prayer says that this is a lie.

When I pray before I prepare a sermon, I remind myself that this isn’t just an intellectual exercise and when I pray before I preach, I’m saying that I’m not just going to share my own thoughts in a sort of lecture. Instead, when I preach, I want to share God’s Word. I want people to have an encounter with the Gospel. So I pray.

When the church leadership team meets, secularism says that it’s just a committee, a group of men and women making the best decision we can. When we pray, we say “No, this is more than that. We are meeting believing that the Holy Spirit is present. God will guide us so that His will is done.”

A Problem for Prayer

However, it seems that God’s sovereignty poses a problem for prayer. We say that prayer changes things, but does it? We tell people to pray and trust God to answer and act, but will he respond to our requests?

Carson presents the dilemma this way.

“If prayer changes things, how can we believe that God is sovereign and all knowing? How can we hold that he has his plans all worked out and that these plans cannot fail?”[1]

Yet, when we come to the Bible, we find the great heroes of faith talking with God on the basis that they do expect prayer to change things.

This means that “Those who pray in the Scriptures regularly pray in line with what God has already disclosed he is going to do.”[2]  So, for example, Daniel, when he is reminded of God’s promises and purposes, exactly because He believes that God is sovereign and will accomplish his plan, prays.[3]

Equally, we find Abraham pleading with God to relent from the destruction of Sodom. Similarly, Moses, when faced with God announcing his intention to wipe out the idolatrous people at Sinai, does not fatalistically accept it but instead, pleads with God for mercy.[4]

Abraham, Moses and Daniel seem to act on the basis that prayer does have an effect: that it really does change things.  Daniel is working on the basis that although God intends to do something and has said that he will do it, the action in some way seems to be contingent upon Daniel responding in prayer and exercising faith in God’s covenant promises. Abraham and Moses work on the basis that God’s declaration of intent is an invitation for them to intercede and that God will respond favourably to his intercession.

So how does prayer to a sovereign God who is both good and great work?  Well, if we really want to know that, then what better place to go to than Jesus’ teaching on prayer?

What does Jesus say about prayer?

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that on one occasion Jesus took his followers up into the Hill country and spent time teaching and training them about the nature of God’s kingdom, what it means to be a disciple, his radical interpretation and application of the Law and the secret of true contentment. This training session has become known as The Sermon on the Mount and during it Jesus says,

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,     may your name be kept holy. 10 May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth,     as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today the food we need, 12 and forgive us our sins,     as we have forgiven those who sin against us. 13 And don’t let us yield to temptation,     but rescue us from the evil one.”[5]

Jesus starts by telling us how to pray. He says “take a look at the pagans around you who don’t know the true and living God. How do they pray?” Answer, “with lots of noise and repetition.” And Jesus says “Well you don’t need to be like that.” RT France explains,

“The term for ‘Gentiles’ is the same as that used in [Matthew] 5:47 …to denote the world outside the disciple community. The emphasis here is not so much on their not being Jewish as on there being religious outsiders, people who do not understand what it means to know god as a heavenly Father. So instead of trusting a Father to fulfil their needs, they think they must badger a reluctant Deity into taking notice of them (c.f. the expressive modern term ‘God botherer’)… It is not necessarily purely mechanical, but rather obtrusive and unnecessary. It assumes that the purpose of prayer is first to demand God’s attention and then inform him of needs he may have overlooked.[6]

In other words, we end up with just as unhealthy an attitude to prayer when we fail to recognise God’s sovereignty.

“If God is not absolutely sovereign… maybe the reason he does not answer your prayers as you would like is that he can’t. Suppose you are praying for the conversion of your sister. If God has already done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won’t give in, why bother asking him to save her? Isn’t it a little indecent to pressure God to do more when he has already done the best he can?”[7]

This is the argument with which Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal at Carmel. Their god, Baal, is weak, limited by time and space and so they cannot be sure that he has heard them he is able to act. Or if he is able to act then:

“one might reason that God is powerful, but somehow aloof, unwilling to do very much until we ask him. Then, of course, he grants some requests but turns down others simply because he can’t do any better.”[8]

So Jesus insists that God is both willing and able to act. He’s not deaf nor ignorant of our needs nor aloof to our desires. Rather, he is fully aware. In fact, because he is the eternal God who knows everything, he already knows before we ask.

So, when I pray, I can approach God with confidence, knowing that He and He alone is the one who is able and willing to answer. As Calvin comments:

“But after we have learned by faith to know that whatever is necessary for us or defective in us is supplied in God and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom it hath pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, that we may thence draw us from an inexhaustible fountain, it remains for us to seek an in prayer implore of him what we have learned to be in him.”[9]

Prayer, then, is the place where we learn to exercise and declare our trust in God. Prayer is a statement of faith in God’s ability and desire to provide all that we need.  Mind you, that might still beg the question “why bother praying if God already knows what I need and already intends to act?”  Calvin anticipates such an objection and responds as follows:

“But some will say, ‘Does he not know without a monitor both what our difficulties are, and what is meet for our interest, so that it seems in some measure superfluous to solicit him by our prayers, as if he were winking or even sleeping until awakened by the sound of our voice?’ Those who argue thus attend not to the end for which the Lord taught us to pray. It was not so much for his sake as for ours.”[10]

The important line there is “It was not so much for his sake as for ours.”[11] The reason I should pray is not that if I don’t then God will not act, but rather that as I pray, I declare my trust in God and I learn to trust Him more.

Now on one level it looks like Calvin is saying that prayer doesn’t really change things, it changes me. That’s one way of dealing with the problem of prayer, sovereignty and change.  So some people

“argue that the only change prayer affects is within the person praying. Because I pray for certain things (they hold), I focus on them and strive for them, and I myself am changed.”[12]

 

The Christian learns to obey and this leads to a change in his heart or will. He learns to accept and to align with God’s plan.  Even an atheist can accept this notion of prayer having a form of psychological effect.[13] There is something in this. For example, when Abraham pleads with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, he does not save the cities from destruction, but God uses the conversation to reveal his will and his plan to Abraham. Abraham learns that God will do what is just and right by rescuing Lot from the City whilst still exercising justice against its wicked inhabitants.

But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? To be sure, Sodom and Gomorrah are still destroyed in that instance, but that’s not the only example of intercession. Let’s look at two more.

  1. At Sinai, God threatens to wipe out the Israelites. Moses intercedes and there is a change. God does not wipe the people out in the Wilderness.
  2. Jonah prophesies that God will destroy the City of Nineveh.  The people repent in sack cloth and ashes. God relents from his judgement. The city is saved.

We can surely safely assume that had Moses not interceded then Israel would have been wiped out and if the people of Nineveh had continued in their sin and not turned to God, they too would have been destroyed. Prayer changes things.

So what is going on?  I would suggest that we can helpfully think of prayer and God’s sovereignty in two ways.

First of all, we can think of prayer as God saying to us, “Come and walk with me. I want to talk with you and show you what I’m going to do.”  He allows is into a conversation. He draws us into his sovereign plan.[14]

Secondly, we can see prayer as one of the many ways that God chooses to fulfil his sovereign plan through human actions. For example, in the Bible:

–          God uses Assyria and Babylon to fulfil his plan to judge rebellious Israel

–          God used the prophet Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repentance so he could demonstrate his mercy and compassion

–          God used the Pharisees to hand Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified

In each case, God used human agencies to accomplish his will.  They had the responsibility to act in line with God’s plan. In that sense, the end goal was contingent upon their actions. Their actions “changed things.” However, God was still sovereign; his plan was still going to be accomplished.

Today, God uses every day witness, pastors, preachers, church planters and evangelists to proclaim the good news. If they choose not to go and tell, then people will not hear. And yet, God is still sovereign and his Gospel is and will be proclaimed.

Prayer fits in with that. God chooses that the process by which he will accomplish his plans is that he will move us to pray and to ask him to act.   He does things this way so that we learn to depend on him. We realise that we don’t accomplish things by human might and power. Instead, it is God who changes things, God who heals, God who provides, God who saves.

So, in summary

–          We pray because we know that God wants us to pray. He has chosen to act through our prayers.

–          We pray with confidence knowing that God knows our needs even before we ask.

–          We pray with confidence knowing that God is both willing (good) and able (great to answer our prayers and provide what we need for his glory.

Prayer – a little bit more than that

So, we pray because there is a real sense in which prayer works. Prayer does changes things. We pray because as we see God at work changing things in response to our prayers, we change too. We learn to trust him more, we learn to love him more and we learn to obey him more.

However, I’m not completely satisfied by this yet. We’re still focusing on prayer being about asking and interceding. A big part of prayer is just that.  In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for

–          God’s name to be honoured – made holy

–          God’s will to be done

–          God to provide our daily needs

–          Forgiveness from sin

–          Protection and deliverance from evil

–          Guidance

Yet, even if all of those things weren’t there, then prayer would still matter.  Why? Well, simply because prayer is about more than asking. Prayer is about a relationship.

I have a relationship with my wife and so I communicate with her. Of course, sometimes I ask her things. I ask her for information: “What’s happening today?” I ask her to do things: “Could you pick up some milk on the way home?” I ask her for things, e.g. when she asks me what I’d like for my birthday.

But asking is not the sole purpose of communication and conversation. I also smile at her, tell her I love her, laugh at her jokes, tell her jokes, praise her beauty and achievements, express sadness, comfort her and receive comfort, say thank you and say sorry.

Yes, prayer changes me, yes prayer changes things, but prayer also changes or grows my relationship with God. Prayer enables me to draw closer to him, to love him more, to know him better as I gain insight into his will and purpose. In other words, I pray because “God is love.” In prayer, I experience that love and respond back to God with love for him.  In intercession, I express the truth that because God has first loved me, I also love others.

Prayer gives us a foretaste now of the deeper communion we will experience with Him in eternity. There will be day when we won’t need to ask him to change things, no suffering to grieve over, no coming wrath to plead about.  And yet, the conversation will go on.

[1] DA Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Nottingham. IVP Baker Books, 1992), 145.

[2] Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 162.

[3] See Daniel 9.  See also Ephesians 1:17-19 for a New Testament example of prayer in response to a sovereign god. See Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 172.

[4] Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 163.

[5] Matthew 6: 7-13.

[6] RT France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids MI.: Eerdmans, 2007), 240.

[7] Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 146.

[8] Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 146.

[9] Calvin Institutes, III.XX.1 (Beveridge, 2:146).

[10] Calvin Institutes, III.XX.3 (Beveridge, 2:147).

[11] Calvin Institutes, III.XX.3 (Beveridge, 2:147).

[12] Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 146.

[13] Carson, Spiritual Reformation, 147.

[14] Recognising here the constraints of talking analogously about God. The eternal God is timeless and so his will isn’t subject to the process of chronological time.

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