by Geoffrey Stertz
Does God hear and answer the prayers of his saints? Is prayer for the sake of the saint or of God or both? Does God change his plans on account of the believer’s prayer? Can God, who is immutable, change at all? Is it possible to consider him to be consistently loving in regards to answering prayer when his will has already been established? Since God already knows what is going to take place, is there any valid reason to pray?
There is one other significant question. How does prayer relate theologically to God’s omniscience? The purpose of this article is to examine this question and attempt to determine how prayer relates to the omniscience of God. The article will expand on the question of this relationship, trace the topic briefly through both the Old and New Testaments, and investigate how it has been handled throughout church history. Finally, the author will present a theological and practical conclusion on the matter.
How Prayer Relates to the Omniscience of God
Certainly as one explores any infinite attribute of God, he is left with gaps in his theology due to the finiteness of his understanding. One should be cautious in adopting a theology of God that does not recognize the depth of God’s being. Such attempts at theology have led some to veer toward ungrounded philosophy rather than biblically-based theology. These gaps, if come to correctly, should not frustrate the Bible student but rather deepen his appreciation for the fact that God is great and his greatness can forever be explored. However, rather than simply come to an understanding that gaps exist, the goal of the theologian should be to further define where the gaps exist.
Prayer is not only personal and regular for the believer, but it also defines the believer’s relationship to God to some extent. If a believer views prayer simply as a duty, his prayer life may be consistent, but it also might be consistently dull and shallow. If another views prayer as a means merely to achieve his desired goals, he may view it similarly to this author: “What counts is knowing who you want to be and asking for it. Through a simple, believing prayer, you can change your future. You can change what happens one minute from now.” It does not take long to realize how important it is for the believer to have a proper understanding of how his prayer relates to God.
A specific aspect of this understanding is how one views his prayer in relation to God’s omniscience. Christ states in Matthew 6:8 that God knows the things the believer needs before he asks God for them. In 6:32, Christ similarly says that the believer need not be anxious about his needs because God knows them before the believer even asks. Not only does this raise the question as to the point of asking God for one’s needs (since he already knows), but it also questions the reason to anticipate getting what one asks for (since God’s foreknowledge already establishes the future). Without a proper understanding of how prayer relates to God’s omniscience, a believer may come to the conclusion that his relationship to God is of little meaning because what he prays for is not going to make a difference. Commenting on the teachings of Augustine, R.C. Sproul summarizes the dilemma in these two sentences: “If God is sovereign over the actions and intents of men, why pray at all? A secondary concern revolves around the question, ‘Does prayer really change anything?’”
A Biblical Discussion of the Relationship Between Prayer and God’s Omniscience
When coming to the Bible to answer this question, the primary goal of the believer should not be to search for relevance in his prayer life with God. Instead, one should first search for a biblical understanding of prayer and then determine how God’s people have related to him through prayer.
After the Fall, Scripture records very little of man praying to God until the time of the patriarchs. Cain cried out to God for mercy to be delivered from his situation and God answered his prayer (Gen 4:13–15, 24–25). Besides this, however, little exists regarding prayer before the flood. L. Paul Moore gives the example of Noah:
It is noticeable, in the matter of prayer or intercession, that after the Lord had revealed to Noah His purpose of destroying the whole earth with a flood, Noah does not attempt to plead with God, or to intercede for the ungodly. We are well aware that he was “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5) and that his preparing an ark was in itself a bold testimony to the revelation he had received from God. But Noah attempted no intercession God-ward!
When Abraham is introduced, however, the communion between God and man is much different. Moore says, “With Abraham . . . begins this intimate converse, this free response of an obedient heart.” With the rest of the patriarchs, this type of communion is similar. In Gen 25:21 Isaac prays for Rebekah to have a child and the text says, “The LORD was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.” Bruce Waltke explains the use of the niphal verb for the entreating of Yahweh:
The tolerative Niphal often involves the element of efficacy: what the subject allows to happen can indeed be carried through. Thus Paul Joüon glosses nidraš as “‘to let oneself be questioned,’ and that efficaciously so that it practically means ‘to answer’ (when speaking of God); nizhar, ‘to let oneself be warned’ and that efficaciously and so practically ‘to bear in mind the warning’; nôsar, ‘to let oneself be corrected, to be corrected’; ni‘tar ‘to let oneself be entreated (efficaciously), to grant.’” The tolerative is often used of the deity.
Jacob, even with his scheming, prayed to the Lord for a blessing as well as deliverance from his brother Esau and received both. It appears, at least from the surface, that God graciously answered the prayers of the patriarchs.
The manner in which the patriarchs spoke to God is notable as well. Moore notes that the tone of communion between God and man in the Pentateuch in general is quite remarkable:
As one reads the opening books of the Old Testament, he is profoundly struck with the seeming ease with which God, the Holy One, approaches man, either to command him or to converse with him. One is just as profoundly struck with the freedom, sometimes verging even upon impudence, with which man replies to God. And, in fact, it is the very freedom of intercourse which, for the reader of Scripture, makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish prayer from intimate conversation.
Moses certainly exemplifies this type of communion from his first conversation at the burning bush to his speaking to God face to face in the tabernacle. Particularly interesting in Moses’ prayers is his intercession for Israel. While Abraham had an intercessory role with Sodom, Moses even more clearly stood in the way of God’s wrath to plead for his mercy on Israel. Victor Hamilton writes: “In language almost without equal for boldness in the Old or New Testaments, he urges God not to follow through on his intentions to wipe out his people (32:12).”
Interestingly, within the same story, Moses records that God “repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people” (Ex 32:14). Hamilton investigates the idea of God’s repentance:
The Old Testament uses the verb nāham (repent? relent? change one’s mind?) thirty-four times with God as subject. Two texts (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29) teach that God, unlike human beings, never needs to repent of sin. And he never repents of his choice of David (Ps. 110:4). But in the other thirty-plus passages that speak of God repenting/relenting, many times God is said to repent of “evil” (not sin!), which in a version such as the NIV is rendered as “calamity” or “disaster.” . . . In ch. 32 God’s words to Moses about Israel’s future are couched more in the form of threatened judgment than decree, and as such they invite and stimulate a prophetic intercessory response from Moses. Thus what God does in Exodus 32 is best characterized by mercy, than by change of mind.
Moving from the Pentateuch into the monarchy, one observes similarly that God’s plans do not change. In 1 Sam 15:29, Samuel told Saul that God “will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Yet, only six verses later, 1 Samuel recorded that God “regretted that he had made Saul over Israel.”
The regret or seeming change in God’s mind exists as somewhat of a mystery, but Robert Chisholm Jr. asserts that “not all statements of [God’s] intention are the same.” Chisholm contrasts “divine decrees” with “announcements” or “conditional statements” and concludes:
If He has decreed a certain course of action or outcome, then He will not retract a statement or relent from a declared course of action. . . . Statements about God not changing His mind serve to mark specific declarations as decrees. They should not be used as proof texts of God’s immutability, nor should they be applied generally to every divine forward-looking statement. If God has not decreed a course of action, then He may very well retract an announcement of blessing or judgment. In these cases the human response to His announcement determines what He will do. Passages declaring that God typically changes His mind as an expression of His love and mercy demonstrate that statements describing God as relenting should not be dismissed as anthropomorphic.
A parallel passage to the request made by Isaac in Gen 25:23 is found in 2 Chron 33:13, where Manasseh humbled himself before Yahweh after he had been captured by the Assyrians. In Manasseh’s prayer to Yahweh, the same tolerative niphal was used as in Gen 25:23. In both cases (Genesis and 2 Chronicles), the character prays, God “is intreated” (ESV “moved by his entreaty”), and God positively answers the prayer.
Most of the remaining notable passages in the Old Testament dealing with God’s omniscience and prayer deal more with the extent of his understanding rather than his response to prayer. Two passages in Psalm show the limitlessness of God’s knowledge.
In Psalm 139 David declares that God knows everything about him—specifically connecting God’s omniscience to man. In vs. 4 especially, David makes a remarkable statement regarding God’s knowledge. S. Edward Tesh translates the verse, “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.” He goes on to say, “This is the height of God’s omniscience as it relates to the human being. God is able to read the very thoughts of an individual before those thoughts can be expressed in audible words (millāh, ‘word’).”
After declaring that God has a name for every star, the psalmist states in Psalm 147:5 that God is great and of great power and then asserts: “his understanding is infinite.” As an example of his infinite knowledge, God chose and named Cyrus to be his instrument in Isaiah 45 more than a century before his birth.
A final Old Testament passage which is especially instructive regarding prayer and God’s response to it is Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 10. In this chapter, Daniel received a burdensome message that set his heart to pray. Three weeks later, after being in spiritual and physical distress, an angel came and spoke with Daniel and told him that his words were heard three weeks earlier. However, due to “the prince of the kingdom of Persia,” the messenger was not able to come. Nevertheless, what the angel told Daniel was that he came because of (NAS – “in response to”) Daniel’s words. Roger Peterson comments about this story:
This should be a lesson to all who pray. When a child of God has humbled his heart and prayed, his prayer has been heard, even though the answer may be delayed. So one should be encouraged by Daniel’s experience to keep on praying until the answer comes and the victory is won. Persistence in prayer pays.
The New Testament provides many additional instructions and insights regarding God’s knowledge and man’s prayer. However, many of the passages have at least some correlation to an already revealed truth in the Old Testament.
In the gospels, Christ states in both Matthew 12 and Luke 6 that God already knows what the believer needs before he asks for it. The believer is to seek the kingdom of God. The question raised here is, “If God already knows what a believer needs, what is the point in asking?” This question will be addressed later.
Also, in Matthew 11:21 when Jesus is pronouncing the “woes” on the unrepentant cities where he had done his mightiest works, he says that if Tyre and Sidon would have seen the works which he did in Chorazin and Bethsaida, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. This statement demonstrates not only that God knows what will happen, but the possibilities of what could have happened or would have happened based on different contingencies.
Finally in Matthew, Jesus makes an astounding statement in his teaching to the disciples about the withered fig tree. He told his disciples in 21:22 that whatever they ask in prayer they would receive if they have faith. Larry Chouinard remarks:
It follows that Jesus is not suggesting that faith guarantees the reception of anything one may desire. The promise necessarily assumes a commitment to the will of God, and a willingness to forgo individual rights for the sake of the purposes of God. Jesus is the paradigm par excellence of what it means to “have faith and not doubt.”
In John 21:17, Peter responds similarly to David’s statements in Psalm 139. After Christ repeatedly asks Peter if he really loves him, Peter says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Paul declared in Romans 8:26 that the Holy Spirit provides intercessory help for the believers in their weakness. Paul’s reason is that the believer does not know what to pray for as he should. It is interesting to think the Holy Spirit “cleans up” the prayers of the saints so that they are appropriate requests before God. Douglas Moo writes: “The wording of the clause indicates that it is not the manner, or style, of prayer that Paul has in view but the content, or object, of prayer – what we are to pray for.”
This inability to know what to pray for cannot be overcome in this life, for it is part of “our weakness,” the inescapable condition imposed on us by our place in salvation history. Therefore, Paul does not command us to eradicate this ignorance by diligent searching for God’s will or by special revelation. Instead, Paul points us to the Spirit of God, who overcomes this weakness by his own intercession.
Both Hebrews 4:12–13 and 1 John 3:20 indicate that God knows the thoughts of man’s heart.
Of all the New Testament books that stress the importance of prayer on the part of man, however, James is probably the most explicit. In the beginning of his letter, James urges the scattered saints to ask God for wisdom as they deal with their trials. However, he instructs them in 1:6 to ask in faith “with no doubting” and says that the person who doubts should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Basically, if the believer does not expect that his prayer can be answered, he should not expect to have his prayer answered. Peter Davids writes:
The author, then, concludes his description of this doubter with a strong condemnation: his divided mind, when it comes to trusting God, indicates a basic disloyalty toward God. Rather than being a single-minded lover of God, he is one whose character and conduct is unstable, even hypocritical. No wonder he should expect nothing from God! He is not in the posture of the trusting child at all. For James there is no middle ground between faith and no faith; such a one, he will later argue (4:8), needs to repent.
Later James says in 4:2–3 that the believer does not get the things he wants either because he does not ask for them, or because he asks for selfish reasons. Certainly God will not answer such prayers. James instead instructs the believer to humble himself; he goes on to promise that if the believer draws near to God, then God will draw near to him. From this passage it appears that God is ready and eager to respond and meet the believer’s needs, but chooses not to when the believer either does not ask or asks with selfish reasons.
Lastly, James focuses on prayer again in chapter 5, by addressing the problem of what to do when a believer is sick. After he instructs his readers to have the elders to pray over and anoint the sick individual with oil in the Lord’s name, he says that “the prayer of faith shall save” him and then “the Lord shall raise him up.” These phrases together are remarkable in that one says that the prayer saves the sick and the other says that the Lord saves the sick. This demonstrates a compatibilistic understanding of how God relates to the believer, specifically in prayer. John MacArthur calls the prayers “a channel for God’s power.”
Throughout this passage, the focus seems to be on the prayer of faith that is effective. Certainly the glory goes to God, but the language used here puts a great amount of weight on the prayer.
Discussions of Prayer and God’s Omniscience Throughout Church History
While the topic of prayer and God’s omniscience can be found throughout church history, much of what has been written regarding prayer is more on the devotional or pastoral level. Nonetheless, notable men in church history provide valuable insight into the discussion and also show how their theology of God’s sovereignty works itself out practically in the matter of prayer.
Augustine recognized the seeming contradiction of praying for something of which God already knows we have the need. He writes:
What is the use of prayer at all, if “our Father knoweth” already “what things we have need of”? . . . If so, Lord, why should I so much as pray at all? Thou wouldest not that I should use long prayers, yea rather Thou dost even bid me to use near none at all. . . . He would have thee ask that thou mayest receive, and seek that thou mayest find, and knock that thou mayest enter in. Seeing then that our Father knoweth already what is needful for us, how and why do we ask? why seek? why knock? why weary ourselves in asking, and seeking, and knocking, to instruct Him who knoweth already?
Augustine obviously acknowledged to some extent the omniscience of God, especially as it relates to prayer. However, he left these questions unresolved. Using the imagery of the door on which the believer knocks, he wrote that the believer may not always get what he asks for. This he attributes to the benevolent sovereignty of God toward the one praying:
For this cause is it closed, not to shut thee out, but to exercise thee. Therefore, brethren, ought we to exhort to prayer, both ourselves and you. For other hope have we none amid the manifold evils of this present world, than to knock in prayer, to believe and to maintain the belief firm in the heart, that thy Father only doth not give thee what He knoweth is not expedient for thee. For thou knowest what thou dost desire; He knoweth what is good for thee. . . . Do not then hesitate to ask; ask, hesitate not; but if thou receive not, do not take it to heart.
However, Augustine did not simply view prayer as an exercise without any effect. He concluded in a sermon on Matthew 17:19: “Whilst we live pour out our groans before the Lord our God, and endure the evils, that we may attain to the things that are good.”
Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, has much to say about prayer. He writes:
To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father. For there is a kind of intercourse between God and men, by which, having entered the upper sanctuary, they appear before Him and appeal to his promises, that when necessity requires they may learn by experiences that what they believed merely on the authority of his word was not in vain.
Calvin, while without a doubt believing in the absolute sovereignty of God, did not see a conflict between God’s sovereignty and the ability of man to have a meaningful part in God’s plans. He even said that believers, through prayer,
invoke the presence of his [God’s] providence to watch over our interests, of his power to sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us into favour, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him to manifest himself to us in all his perfections.
However, Calvin also raised the question about the use of prayer since God is omniscient. He wrote:
But some one 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 aroused by the sound of our voice?
Calvin responded to this by stating that prayer is not so much for the sake of God as it is for the sake of man. He said that asking God is beneficial for the believer because (1) it causes him to seek God passionately, (2) it keeps him seeking the right things, and (3) it prepares his heart to receive God’s benefits with thanksgiving. He then concludes that once the believer receives the request for which he petitioned the Lord, his faith is strengthened and he is incited all the more “to long more earnestly for his [God’s] favour.” He concluded:
It is very absurd, therefore, to dissuade men from prayer, by pretending that Divine Providence . . . is in vain importuned by our supplications, when, on the contrary, the Lord himself declares, that he is “nigh unto all that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth” (Ps. 145:18). No better is the frivolous allegation of others, that it is superfluous to pray for things which the Lord is ready of his own accord to bestow; since it is his pleasure that those very things which flow from his spontaneous liberality should be acknowledged as conceded to our prayers. This is testified by that memorable sentence in the psalms to which many others corresponds: “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry,” (Ps. 34:15).
Commenting on the effectiveness of prayer as displayed in James 5, Calvin writes: “Again, since God so often declares that he will give to every man according to his faith he intimates that we cannot obtain any thing without faith. In short, it is faith which obtains every thing that is granted to prayer.”
In summary, while Calvin believes that prayer is primarily for the believer, he certainly does not assert that prayer does not in any way move God to respond.
Glenn Kreider surveyed Jonathan Edward’s theology of prayer. He shows that Edwards believed in the effectiveness of prayer both in his theology and in his practice, and that Edwards made prayer an integral part of his revivalistic work. After surveying his theology and practice of prayer, Kreider concludes:
Jonathan Edwards was convinced that God hears and answers prayer. He prayed as if he believed God would answer. He encouraged others to pray as if human prayers impacted the Sovereign of the universe. The reason for this practice seems clearly to be that Edwards’ view of God’s providence was that prayer was an essential means by which God’s purposes are accomplished in this world.
Augustus Strong observed various leaders throughout recent church history and commented as to their views of the effectiveness of prayer. “Prayer presupposes a God who hears and answers. It will not be offered, unless it is believed to accomplish objective as well as subjective results.” He was critical of those who treat prayer like “mere spiritual gymnastics,” because they do not expect God to hear and answer. He remarked that “Horace Bushnell called this perversion of prayer a ‘mere dumb-bell exercise.’”He also commented on William Hyde who wrote: “Prayer is not the reflex action of my will upon itself, but rather the communion of two wills, in which the finite comes into connection with the Infinite, and, like the trolley, appropriates its purpose and power.” He said that liberals like Harnack and Schleiermacher limited prayer to “general petitions which receive only a subjective answer.”
As for Strong himself, he especially investigated how or if prayer fits into the natural laws of the universe. He concluded:
When we remember that there is no true prayer which God does not inspire; that every true prayer is part of the plan of the universe linked in with all the rest and provided for at the beginning; that God is in nature and in mind, supervising all their movements and making all fulfill his will and reveal his personal care; that God can adjust the forces of nature to each other far more skilfully than can man when man produces effects which nature of herself could never accomplish; that God is not confined to nature or her forces, but can work by his creative and omnipotent will where other means are not sufficient,—we need have no fear, either that natural law will bar God’s answers to prayer, or that these answers will cause a shock or jar in the system of the universe.
Overall, Strong views the universe as designed by a moral God for moral creatures and finds no problem with God changing the laws of nature to answer the request of His own. He, like Calvin, sees the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s prayer but does not find them incompatible. Prayer, for Strong, does not lose its genuine relational quality simply because God knows what the believer needs.
Current Issues Pertaining to Prayer and God’s Omniscience
The major issue currently relating to prayer and God’s omniscience is open theism. C. Fred Smith says that the basic idea of open theism is that “God’s being is analogous to that of humans, and so God experiences reality in ways similar to the experiences of human beings.” How that relates to prayer concerns God’s ability to know and, consequently, affect the future. As well, the open theist denies the immutability of God believing that in order for God to respond to humans, he must change in some way. Clark Pinnock states that “the very concept of an act involves change.”
Part of the discussion, then, centers on one’s definition of “change” as it relates to God. Some go so far to say that God does not truly have emotions because emotion causes some sort of change within God. It also might suggest that God is somehow persuaded by the things men do because he has an emotional experience from them. Thus, some on the classical side have shied away from the idea of God emoting altogether.
When it comes to prayer, open theism argues that God, in the classical theistic view, cannot truly respond to the believer’s prayer because this, again, would cause God to change. This would also mean that he is ignoring his omniscience when he answers the prayer, because in order to truly “respond” he could not foreknow his response. Thus, Richard Rice (an open theist) concludes that classical theists “have truncated the understanding of God’s love and have given the world a concept of God that makes prayer incoherent and that stifles the possibility of a rich and dynamic relationship with God.”
Rice’s understanding, along with other open theists, does not correspond with classical theists, however. “Classical orthodox theology has always recognized that transcendence and immanence are both aspects of God’s being and of His relationship to creation.” Believers can have a real, dynamic relationship with God, even with his transcendence. Part of this relationship is God responding to human beings, including answering their prayers.
A Theology of Prayer and God’s Omniscience
From Scripture it is quite clear that God has no limit to his knowledge, including his knowledge of the future. In Isaiah 46:10, after declaring that there is none like him, God says that he is the One who declares “the end from the beginning, from ancient times things that are not yet done.” He is able to predict the future and bring specific things to pass.
However, as to how man relates to God through prayer, the believer must have some sense of understanding as to how his petitions and supplications are received by God. Does his prayer matter if God knows all and will bring it to pass? Does prayer affect God at all?
Some would argue that prayer is strictly for the one who is praying. Scripture is clear that God does not need the assistance of man as if he has some sort of deficiency of ability or opportunity. He is the I AM who self-exists. Thus, to some, the idea of God acting on the basis of a person’s prayer is inconsistent with his omniscience and self-sufficiency. John D. Hannah concludes in his discussion exploring prayer and God’s sovereignty:
Thus prayer is understood as primarily a means of grace, a vehicle of progressive sanctification. Prayer is essentially an act of worship wherein homage is given to God alone through praise, adoration, confession, or request. The purpose of prayer, while it points alone to God as the source of all benevolences, is a help for the saint to strengthen Christian experience.
Yet, to boil prayer down to simply an exercise of dependence for the believer does not reconcile with the overall teaching of Scripture. Nor does prayer appear to be simply a means to put one in a position of blessing. Rather, Scripture presents prayer as a means of relationship with God. God is certainly a God of relationships. Abraham is called a “friend of God” (James 2:23). Because he is thus, he desires the communion of his children. Proverbs 15:8 says that “the prayer of the upright is his delight.”
Not only this, but Scripture demonstrates God responding to prayer, at times as though the prayer “caused” or “allowed” God to act. Yet, when God acts, it is never against his will. James presents the fervent prayers of Elijah as the reason for the drought and the rain in his day. He even boldly asserts in 5:15 that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” As discussed above, God “changed” his plans for Israel as Moses interceded on their behalf. Hannah writes that prayer is a means (though not the only means) appointed by God for attaining one’s ends.One might add to that the ends of others as well as the ends of God, since the believer is called to pray for others and to pray that God’s will be done. Pascal wrote, “God instituted prayer to lend his creatures the dignity of causality.”
God sometimes accomplishes His sovereign purpose through the prayers of His people (Eze 36:36, 37; Jas 5:17, 18). Often what God does when a believer prays is bring that person into conformity with his will. To say, therefore, that prayer changes the one who prays to God is obvious. One would learn to trust in him to supply his needs. It is certainly true that the one praying experiences a change in his mindset and, perhaps, actions. However, that does not necessarily mean that the One being prayed to does not change his disposition.
Is it possible that when one uses the word “change” in relation to human thinking that he attaches with it the idea of development? Suppose a ruler was implored to act on behalf of one of his subjects or a father to respond to one of his children. One might think that if the ruler or father decides to act after being implored that something was added to his thinking that was not there before that caused him to act. That is, his thinking changed because he understood further the situation or was persuaded to act because further understanding was brought to light, influencing him to act. This implies that his thinking developed, thus changing his actions. This type of change is more along the lines in which open theists think.
However, this development is not necessarily the case in every situation. Suppose a child asks his benevolent father for nourishment and the father desires for his child to say “please” before the child receives it. The father’s desire is to give the child nourishment regardless of his asking or saying “please,” yet this is the father’s modus operandi. The father has chosen not to give to the child until he asks for it. Once the child says “please,” the father changes his actions toward the child and gives him what he asks. This type of change is not based on a development in thinking, nor does it require the father’s nature to change. He is perfectly consistent throughout the exchange.
This is very similar to Christ’s parable of the unjust judge, yet in a negative sense. Nothing that the woman said convinced the unjust judge to act, nor did the unjust judge develop in his thinking or nature. Rather, it was simply the persistent asking that caused the judge to act.
It is important to bear in mind that the believer’s prayers do not “control” or “manipulate” God. It is often the cry of the Reformed scholars that belief in the “power” of prayer or the “effectiveness” of prayer will lead one to think that God is on puppet strings and a believer can pull his strings to get what he wants. In light of Scripture, understanding God this way is certainly an erroneous view of the sovereign God. “To desire that God would answer all our prayers is to desire omnipotence without omniscience.”
Believing that God responds to the prayers of his saints not only does not violate his sovereignty, but it is also directly in line with Scripture. Prayer does not only involve petitions and intercessions but also confessions and praises. John promises that if the believer confesses his sins, God is “faithful and just to forgive” him and “cleanse him from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). One would not argue that God’s granting forgiveness upon the believer’s confession is his manipulating God. Rather, God has so chosen to condescend to men in this manner. Similarly, Proverbs 15:8 declares that God’s delight is in the prayer of the righteous. This is not manipulation or “string pulling” to bring God delight through our prayers. While the thought of one’s prayers making the holy and immutable God happy seems impossible, it, nonetheless, is the way in which Scripture presents God operating.
As another scriptural example which often involves prayer, James promises that if believers “draw nigh to God,” he will “draw nigh” to them. This promise does not mean that one is pulling God’s strings when one’s actions “cause” God to draw near to himself. Rather, God has chosen to operate within the promises and conditions that he has given.
The tension seems to be of an unlimited God who limits himself. He is not limited by time and space, but when he became a man, he limited himself to these parameters for the sake of man. When he condescends to hear and answer one’s prayers, he is not limited by the content of our prayers nor by the time in which we pray them; he chooses, rather, to operate to some extent on these grounds for the good of man and ultimately for his own glory.
None of these, however, demands essential change in the Divine. Instead, he is unchanging in essence and character but chooses at points of time and in various ways to interact with limited creatures. Christ made himself in the likeness of men for the sake of men. It is not, as the open theist would like to claim, that God is somehow essentially like that of humans, because the whole revelation of God proclaims otherwise. However, he, at times, operates on what seems to humanity to be a finite level as he interacts with finite beings.
Leaders throughout church history have recognized the sovereignty of God in relation to prayer, but have equally recognized that prayer consists of a real relationship between God and man. God does not need man. However, man needs God. Thus, men pray. God affords the believer the privilege of seeing him respond to those requests he makes in time of need. The Lord, indeed, is nigh unto all that call upon him.
It is important that as one develops his theology of prayer that he does so based on both the precepts as well as the examples of Scripture. Attempting to develop a theology of prayer beginning from one’s theological framework and then moving to Scripture will not allow one to see prayer in a truly biblical light. Since theological battles exist relating to the topic, one must be sensitive to allow Scripture to shape his thinking. Some have strayed to one side or the other as they have tried to protect God’s sovereignty or defend man’s relationship with God. However, Scripture presents a balance and does not see either as incompatible.
Overall, it is a comfort to know that the omniscient and omnipotent God relates to man in an intimate way, as a good father does his child. As Mary exclaimed in Luke 1:48, God regards the “low estate” of his servants. Because of this blessed attention God gives to man, the believer can be confident that his prayers matter to God, that God’s Spirit helps the believer in his requests to God, and that God, in his time and in his way, will respond to those requests in love.
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Bruce Wilkinson and David Kopp, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000).
R.C. Sproul. Does Prayer Change Things? (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 8.
L. Paul Moore Jr., “Prayer in the Pentateuch Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 98 (July 1941): 335.
Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 385–90.
Moore, “Prayer in the Pentateuch Part 1,” 334.
Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 223.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “Does God ‘Change His Mind’?” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October 1995): 389.
S. Edward Tesh and Walter D. Zorn, Psalms (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2004), 479.
Roger L. Peterson, “A Study of Daniel’s Prayer Life in the Book of Daniel,” Central Bible Quarterly 21 (Spring 1978): 30.
Larry Chouinard, Matthew (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1997), 373.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 523.
Peter Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 75.
Whether the individual is physically sick or spiritually sick is debatable. See John MacArthur, James (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 276–79.
Augustine, Sermon XXX, On the words of the Gospel, Matt. xvii. 19, “Why could not we cast it out”? etc., and on prayer.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), 524.
John Calvin, 525.
John Calvin, 524
John Calvin, 524–25.
John Calvin, 531.
Glenn R. Kreider, “Jonathan Edwards’ Theology of Prayer,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160 (July 1941): 454.
Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 1963), 216.
Augustus H. Strong, 217.
C. Fred Smith, “Does Classical Theism Deny God’s Immanence?” Bibliotheca Sacra 160 (2003): 23.
Clark H. Pinnock and John Sanders, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 36.
Smith, “Does Classical Theism Deny God’s Immanence?” 25.
John D. Hannah, “Prayer and the Sovereignty of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (1979): 352.
Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 223.
D. Edmond Hiebert, Working With God Through Intercessory Prayer (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones, 1992), 1–3.
Strong, Systematic Theology, 216.