By: C.J. Moore
Throughout the entirety of Scripture, God’s people are taught of God’s providence, which J.I. Packer defines as the “continued exercise of that same energy [of creation] whereby the Creator, according to His own will, keeps all creatures in being, involves Himself in all events, and directs all things to their appointed end.” The crux of God’s providence is that God is in control. He is sovereign over all events in the universe.
We see this in the book of Genesis, when God provides for fallen man by sustaining human life in general (Gen 3:20), when He preserves the lives of Noah and his family (Gen 6-8), when He makes and keeps a covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 15; 17), and when He gives divine provision for Jacob’s family through the events of Joseph’s life (Gen 37-50). This is why Joseph is able to say at the end of Genesis: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).
We see God’s providence in the book of Exodus. He provides a leader, Moses, to deliver Israel from bondage and slavery (Ex 1-15). He provides sustenance for his people in the wilderness (Ex 15-16). He helps Israel overcome their enemies (Ex 17). He gives the Law, which allows His people to know Him more and live according to His ways (Ex 20).
God’s providence can be seen elsewhere in the Old Testament as well. It’s there in Joshua 1, when God encourages the new leader of Israel to “be strong and courageous,” since He will be with him (Josh 1). It’s there in 1 and 2 Samuel, where we see the establishment of David’s lineage, in spite of Saul’s rebellious reign. It’s there in Isaiah and Jeremiah, where God sovereignly accomplishes His purposes in spite of the rebellion of His own people. It’s there in Jonah, when God uses the belly of a fish to save people in a foreign land. It’s there in Job, when God permits Satan to test Job, yet restricts the way in which he is allowed to do it. It’s there in Lamentations, where things like calamity (Lam 1:13-15) and death (Lam 2:20-22) are attributed to divine causation.
In the greatest way, God’s providence can be clearly seen in the New Testament story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. John 1:29 shows that Jesus providentially steps into this world to save man from his sin. Jesus’ incarnation is itself the coming of the kingdom of God (John 3:3). In Acts 2:23, Peter preaches that Jesus was “delivered up... according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” although it was “lawless men” who “crucified and killed him.” Herod and Pontius Pilate, though they had their own roles in the crucifixion of Christ, are said to have done only what God intended for them to do – whatever He had “predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).
However, God’s providence is not the only thing clearly seen throughout the entirety of Scripture. Though it seems contradictory, God’s people are also commanded to be a people of prayer. In 2 Chron 7:14, we are taught that change was to come by God’s people humbling themselves and praying. In Isaiah 55:6, we are told to “call upon God while He is near.” In Matthew 6:6, Jesus communicates an expectation that his disciples should pray. When teaching them how to pray, He doesn’t say, “If you pray,” but rather, He says, “When you pray.” In Mark 11:24, Jesus says to “ask in prayer,” and “it will be yours.” James commends us to “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16). Paul tells us to “continue steadfastly in prayer,” (Rom 12:2) and to “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18). This is the same Paul who wrote in Romans 8:28 that for those who love God, “[All] things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose,” and the same Paul who said the salvation of God’s people was an event determined, by God’s providence, “before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:1-11).
All this leads us to the common and frustrating question that many Christians will face at some point in their lives: If God is sovereign, why pray? If God has determined, in His omniscient power, all things that will take place, what need is there for a Christian to pray? Does it do anything? In philosophical fashion, I’d like to answer this question with a question:
If God isn’t sovereign, why pray?
Our hope and assurance in prayer is that we have a God who both can and will do something about our needs and requests. Our God has the power to do anything He wills. What’s more, He knows what we are going to ask before we even ask it. He somehow sovereignly uses our asking to accomplish His purpose in concurrence with us, His people. In some way, God uses our prayer as a means to His end. When asking, “Does prayer change anything,” though we don’t know how, we can emphatically answer: “Yes!”
Though it is a mystery to us, our understanding of Scripture leads us toward two, separate conclusions. First, God’s plan is definite and fixed. God is unchanging, and His ways are unchanging. Nothing happens that surprises God, for all that happens is determined by Him. But second, we are also taught and commanded by God to be a people of prayer. Let us, then, be resolved to agree with R.C. Sproul on these matters: “Regardless of whether prayer does any good, if God commands us to pray, we must pray. It is reason enough that the Lord God of the universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, commands it. Yet He not only commands us to pray, but also invites us to make our requests known.”