If God is sovereign, what is the purpose of prayer? He already knows what I’m going to ask and has already planned out what is going to happen. Does my prayer really matter or change anything?
Thank you for this practical question that touches on one of the most important aspects of the Christian life. Let me start by affirming that God is absolutely sovereign over the cosmic events of the world down to the tiniest detail of our lives. The Bible repeats this (Ps 115:3; Dan 4:34-35; Eph 1:11) and Jesus rejoiced in this (Matt 10:30; 11:25-27). Since God has written the script of history before time began, He is intimately aware of His people’s needs long before they bring them to Him. Jesus says this very thing in Matthew 6:8, “Your Father knows the things you need of Him before you ask.” But notice, Jesus doesn’t conclude from this that we shouldn’t bother praying. Instead, He moves directly into teaching His disciples how to pray better (Matt 6:9-13)!
Here is a principle that we must keep in mind at the outset: God’s sovereignty is never presented in the Bible as a reason for passivity (i.e. Don’t pray, evangelize, etc.), but always as an encouragement for expectant obedience (see Matt 11:25-30; John 3:1-18; Acts 4:7-30;2 Tim 2:10)! If we are using God’s sovereignty as an excuse for disobeying God’s commands, then we probably do not have an accurate understanding of this truth and we are certainly not applying it correctly.
But more directly to you question – “Is praying just a waste of my time, and more pointedly, a waste of God’s time?”
Absolutely not! Let me give you three ‘C’ words that remind us why we need to pray.
God commands it. Even if we don’t understand how God’s sovereignty and our responsibility work together, God’s commands are precious to His people and this should settle the matter in our hearts. God calls me to pray and so I should joyfully give myself to prayer (1 Thess. 5:17; Luke 18:1). Christians don’t obey God in order to earn His favour, but because they have it in Christ, and now desire to live in loving obedience to Him (John 14:15).
There are two things to say here:
First, Prayer changes things. Yes, even the Reformed person, who celebrates God’s sovereignty can say that, if they understand what they are saying. This is true because God has ordained the end and the means to accomplishing that end. God has ordained His grand purposes, but He has also ordained how He will accomplish those purposes. In His marvelous goodness, God has told us that one key means that He will use to work out His perfect plan is prayer! It’s as if God is saying, “I’m telling you this, so that you can pray with confidence knowing that you aren’t wasting your time!” Since prayer is God’s chief channel for distributing His gifts, Jesus tells us to pray for the Holy Spirit knowing that the Father delights to give Him to all who ask (Luke 11:9-13). Yes, God might not answer our prayers right away nor in the way we think He will, and yet He says, “Ask, seek, knock” and you won’t be disappointed. Ultimately, even when God says, “No” to our requests, it’s the answer of the greatest Father who so loves His people that He did not spare His own Son for them (Rom. 8:32). While we often cannot understand it, His willingness to give us the costliest Gift, helps us believe that this ‘no’ is for our greatest good (Rom. 8:28).
Second, Prayer Changes Us. This is one of the greatest blessings of prayer. When we go to God, we are not saying, “Lord, let me give You a little advice on how to run this world or my life.” The Christian doesn’t pray so that they can change God. They pray so that they are changed to have their will aligned with His. This is why the Christian, after pouring out their heart to God, often leaves off saying with Christ, “Not my will, but Yours be done!” Prayer changes us by puncturing our pride. It gives us desperately needed reminders that we aren’t God and that we are dependent on Him! And prayer changes us by promoting our praise. As we pray for specific things, we get to see the invisible hand of our Father at work in our lives and we have the opportunity to respond in praise when He answers our requests.
Really, when we think about it, this common question, “why should we pray?” is not the best question. Just think, what is prayer? In simple terms, it is talking to God. Think about the question again in those terms, “Why should we talk to God?” I hope we can see how offensive to our Creator and Sustainer this is.
God created us for the purpose of joyful fellowship with Him! The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by stating that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And enjoying God through saving fellowship with Him is the great goal of salvation. Peter tells us that “Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus died so that sinners like us could draw near to God and not be consumed! He died so that we might be able to go to His Father knowing we have access through Him to a throne of grace!
Friend, we all must lament how little time we spend in prayer. Yet again today, the greatest Being in all the Universe is inviting us into His fellowship. Let’s take Him up on His offer. Let’s be like Jesus and find regular times to get away from the bustle of life, to put away our phone, and to pray both alone and with other believers.