Why bother praying?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Is prayer just a way of us telling God how he should run things? Some people use prayer to try to get what they think is right. But if it’s God's will, it will be done with or without prayer. So, what's the point of praying?

Answer: This is an interesting question… and your opening sentence made me laugh! But that’s because there’s a lot of truth in what you said. So, let’s discuss it.

Your question presupposes a strong view of God’s sovereignty — and there is nothing wrong with that! I love it that God is sovereign! But you said that if something is God’s will, it will be done with or without prayer — and I also agree — but how do things work when it’s God’s will that people have free will?

Logically speaking, free will has to affect God’s sovereignty — and it has the do it in a way that lets people truly steer their lives. The price of this, however, is that people will be allowed to steer their lives in directions that displease God — even to the point of murdering innocent people. Such sins have occurred throughout all time and all over the world. So, either God doesn’t exist or his sovereignty allows for free will. And if free will exists, it exists in a world where its consequences are fully realized.

Here’s the issue: if God’s sovereignty were so “tight” that people’s control over their lives was meaningless, I would agree with you. Why bother praying? But I would expand the concept. If creatures with free will are not in the mix, why would God bother creating anything? … I mean… what would he be trying to prove? He knows he can create things… and things like trees don’t care that he can create things… and we’d be like those trees… but we’re not. We are self-aware and autonomous beings. But autonomy has logical consequences for God’s sovereignty.

God cannot be totally sovereign over the actions of any creature that has true free will. What I am not saying here is that God is not sovereign. He created and sustains the universe… and he could destroy it at any instant. But even a God that powerful cannot have it both ways: he cannot create free moral agents — but then control them like puppets — and have them still be volitional creatures.

Let’s picture God’s sovereignty as a line graph, and let’s have the left side represent the strongest stand on God’s sovereignty — a place where human free will does not exist in any meaningful way. The Calvinists occupy that end of the line… and their view of God’s sovereignty is so rigid that they have to declare it to be “compatible” with free will. Why? Because it’s so obviously not… and left on their own, few people would define it that way.

Let’s move over to the right side of our graph. Here God’s sovereignty subordinates itself to the free will of human beings… although God is still fully sovereign. Nothing about him has changed. He can still do what he wants when he wants and to whom he wants. It’s just that what he wants is for us to run our own lives within the natural limits of creation… even if that involves driving over a cliff.

For people who are on the right side of the line (and this includes me), we lived self-directed lives in real-time… and in this world, prayer works as we think it should. Since we are living lives that are not predetermined in the day to day, prayer makes sense here.

Please note that my imaginary line works like one of those horizontal slide controls used to balance audio speakers. Sliding to the left selects the left speaker at the expense of the right speaker and vice versa. With this type of control, you cannot get 100% left speaker and 100% right speaker. You get a blend — and it’s the same way with God’s sovereignty and human free will. Selecting one necessarily deselects the other to some degree… and this part of our theology will always be a balancing act.

But no matter which side of this line you are on — and even though you are making choices is real-time — God knows everything you’re going to do. He’s omniscient, after all… and he’s not stuck in linear time like we are. But he doesn’t just “know” everything; he knows it all at the same time.

Doesn’t that put us right back where we started, though? What’s the point of praying if God knows our futures? Isn’t that a waste of time?

Not really… although it will be helpful here to figure out what prayer doesn’t do. Prayer doesn’t give God information… him being omniscient and all that. Also, we’re not supposed to use Word-Faith techniques, insisting that he jump through the hoops of a formulaic prayer-and-response paradigm. So, if we are not informing him or “testing” our faith by worldly gain, what are we doing? We are obeying God.

The Bible plain old tells us to pray (2 Chronicles 7:14Psalm 102:17Jeremiah 29:12Matthew 5:44Romans 8:612:12James 5:13). So, until Jesus comes back, we must at least pray as a matter of obedience. There’s more to it, of course… but there’s at least that. Here are a few issues.

First, it’s not reasonable to assume that we will always see the effect of our prayers. So, we should not rely on cause-and-effect-style feedback to validate prayer. We pray in obedience, in faith and in expectation… but we also rest in his wisdom and his timing.

Second, (and I’m working on the assumption that we want what God wants) we should encourage God in his work. Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who kept badgering the judge for justice (Luke 18:1-8) … the lesson being that God wants us to petition him for things like justice, too… even though we know it’s ultimately coming. God is the judge and the redresser of wrongs… and there’s nothing wrong with cheering him on.

Third, prayer isn’t about cause-and-effect… although prayers of intercession (and even imprecation!) have their place. It is about fellowship with God — communing with him — as you would with the most intimate friend (Genesis 5:22-24James 4:8). God does not want to do parlor tricks for us — jumping through the hoops of our requests. Mainly, he just wants to hang out with us — and no... I can’t figure out why either.

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