Prayer and Sovereignty


I received this wonderfully thoughtful note from a friend today regarding my recent sermon on the persistent widow whose story is told in Luke 18:1-8. Here is my friend’s request:

Pastor Matthew, you mentioned in your sermon yesterday, in your discourse on the parable, “If one person prays, then think about if a multitude of Christians pray about something what might happen”!  Here is where I get a bit lost.  If God is sovereign, and He is, then what influence can we as mere humans accomplish with prayer?  Can we “force” God to do something He wasn’t going to do before “multitudes” prayed about it?  If we can, then is He still sovereign?

Here is my response to this very good question:

My friend . . . it is so good to hear from you. THANK YOU for reaching out, and for your steadfast encouragement.

I wrestle with the very same things regarding prayer. On one hand, God is sovereign, and so how is it I might push Him, so to speak, to conform to whatever is my most earnest plea? On the other hand, it is clear that we are called to pray, to press Him, to, as we read Sunday, “pummel” Him. How might these be reconciled?

There is a dynamic here at play called “antinomy.” Antinomy is when two laws of seemingly equal weight stand together, appearing to oppose each other, contradicting each other, and in tension together. The classic “free will” versus “predestination” argument is a sterling example of antinomy (and, in fact, where this unique term is most commonly employed within the realm of theology). 

This term can apply in prayer as well. Our sovereign God, who orders the affairs of existence per our good and His glory, welcomes our most robust and faith-filled prayers. It is a tension, for sure, and one to strive to live within.

I do think there are points at play here worth highlighting. One, I have said for many years that in the end prayer is the means by which I affirm God’s glory, sovereign power, and purposes in my life, and through which I seek to align myself to such glorious things. For me, a terrific example of this is in John 6:15, after the 5,000 men, just fed, seek to make Jesus king, and His immediate response is to withdraw to the mountains to be alone. I’m convinced there He prayed, reaffirmed His mission before His Father, and steeled Himself against the awful temptation to be declared king without having to endure the cross—no doubt a well-designed tactic of Satan. Prayer affirms God’s purposes in my life.

Prayer also teaches me to grow in tenderness and yieldedness. It softens my edges. At the same time it emboldens me in my “sonship” as a blood-washed child of the a good and faithful heavenly Father. Jesus, in the Garden, pleaded with His Father that the “cup” would pass, but also offered, “Not my will but yours be done.” There is a beautiful boldness and softness, a son’s trusting request, and a son’s trusting deference. My prayers may not always give way to the answers I script, but they may well make me a deeper follower of my Lord, a follower who casts himself upon the eternal wisdom of One who is always good.

My friend, my understanding of prayer is still so limited. I share your feelings about the tensions that are here, wrestling myself with them. Perhaps these thoughts will be a helpful contribution to deepening our trust of Him and animating our fervency in prayer.

I love you, Sir. Have a great week!

And perhaps they can be helpful for you, dear reader. Blessings!