As I’ve said in previous posts, I believe God is sovereign. Not just vaguely in control, but possesses the freedom to do whatever he wants. “Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases,” declares the psalmist (115:3). God has the freedom to kill, make alive, harden hearts, condemn, regenerate, and send floods of water to (nearly) erase the earth’s population. God does all things to bring glory and honor to himself, as the prophet Ezekiel redundantly stated over 70 times.
So God’s in control. He ordains, he saves, he condemns, and he extends mercy to “whomever he wills” (Rom 9). So does prayer actually do anything? When humans pray, does it actually move God to act?
Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but I prefer the term “tension.” The Bible says that God has absolute freedom; the Bible also says that prayer moves God. And how it all works out, we don’t know. Consider the following texts:
“Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, 22 this is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him…” (Isa 37:21-22).
“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the LORD…and after that God was moved by prayer for the land.” (2 Sam 21:1 14)
“ David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. Thus the LORD was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel.” (2 Sam 24:25)
“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” (James 5:16-18)
Hezekiah and Jerusalem were saved from the Assyrians “because” the king prayed; God was “moved” by David’s prayers; and James argues quite explicitly that prayer doesn’t just do something, it “can accomplish much.” The very language that God chose to tell us about prayer is unambiguous. Prayer does not just teach us to depend on God (though it does do that), and prayer does not just acknowledge that God is in control (though he is). The Bible says explicitly and consistently that prayer is dynamic, it is powerful, and it can actually move the God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Does this sound totally outrageous? Or is it a no-brainer? I’d love to hear any pushback you might have. A lot of folks seem to either cling to God’s sovereignty or endorse the real power of prayer. It seems to me that the Bible firmly endorses both without explaining how it all works out behind the scenes.
Now, a confession. I believe this with my head, but not with my heart. I’ve got a plethora (cf., The Three Amigos) of other passages I can throw out to show that prayer moves God, and yet my prayer life does not reflect my intellectual endorsement of these texts.
Ugh! I’m 36 years old, I’ve been a Christian for 17 years, I have a Ph.D. in Bible, and yet my prayer life reflects spiritual infancy.