Q – As a Calvinist, how does prayer work?
Jim – Well, you wind it up and then let it go, preferably downhill. It also runs on batteries.
We’ll come back to this question in a minute.
Q – Does God change his mind?
Jim – No. I think we can state decisively that God does not change. The Bible is replete with verses that declare God’s immutability, such as:
“For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” (Mal 3:6)
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” (Heb 13:8)
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:17)
Based on that sort of evidence, I must conclude that God does not change His mind, His will, His plan or His decrees. In fact, from a philosophical point of view, if God were ever to change His mind, then we could conclude that His original intentions were less-than-perfect and required alteration. God would be malleable and that would make Him capricious. We do not really want God to change His mind. We want every decree and plan of God to be perfect from the outset in order for us to trust in His faithfulness to Himself and His word.
Q – Example: If my mother is going to get hurt and it’s in God’s plan and there is enough prayer, could that stop her from getting hurt?
Jim – No, I would say that God’s plans are unavoidable. If God intends some trial to enter a person’s life, then that trial is designed to bring about God’s ultimate goal, purpose and intention for that person’s life and good.
Here’s a principle: God loves His people too much not to do what is ultimately in their best interest. And, God is too holy not to do that which brings Him the greatest glory. Now, sometimes our own self-interest may be in conflict with God’s will for our lives, but God is also too powerful for His will to be averted.
Genuine humility recognizes those facts and accepts whatever the providential hand of God brings our way, trusting all the while in the loving kindness of God to do only those things that are in our own best interest and which bring Him the greatest glory.
Q – Okay, but if our prayers cannot change things, what is the reason for prayer? And how does that work with predestination?
Jim – There have been volumes of theological books and theosophical tomes written trying to balance the necessity of prayer with the sovereign will of God. We know that prayer is essential in the Christian life; every New Testament writer, and indeed Jesus Himself, prayed. The question you’re asking is: Why do we pray if there is no chance of changing God’s mind or original intention?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Here’s what I mean. We do not find any instruction in the Bible telling us to petition God to change His mind. Rather, what we find in every example of prayer in Scripture is agreement with God, asking Him to do those things He has already committed Himself to do.
Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When Jesus’ apostles asked Him to teach them to pray, He gave them what has ever since been called “The Lord’s Prayer.” I like to point out that this would have been better titled “The Disciple’s Prayer,” because Jesus never prayed this prayer. He could not say, “Forgive us our sins,” since He had none. But, prior to giving His followers this model prayer, He told them –
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” (Matt 6:7-8)
So, by Jesus’ own admission, God knows what we need before we even mention it. But then Jesus told us to pray things like, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Doesn’t that seem odd? The two ideas seem almost contradictory. God knows what you need, but you are to ask Him for what you need, all the while knowing that He already knows what you need.
So, I must conclude that prayer is not a method for talking God into things. He already knows you need to eat. He knows you need clothes. He knows you need forgiveness. Yet, we are to ask Him for those very things.
“Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt 7:9-11)
We are to ask for the things we need. God knows we need them. And, God is faithful to provide.
But this is my point – there are precious few examples of prayer in the Bible where people are pleading with God to change His mind. What we do find is people reminding God of His promises and praying that He will keep His word. And, that’s a very good way to pray. Pray that God will act in accordance with His own faithful nature.
And, if that is the way we pray, then there is no conflict at all between prayer and predestination. We are simply praying that God will perform the very things He has determined to perform. And, we know that what He determines to do will redound to His greatest glory and our greatest good.
Now, people often ask me if I think we should pray about our wants, or pray about the details of our lives – what car to buy, what job, what girlfriend, etc. I say yes. I pray about everything. Sometimes, I just talk through the details of my life, knowing that He is my loving Father and He likes to hear from His children. But, I’m never trying to talk God into anything. Rather, I’m praying that He will perform His will in every area of my life, give me wisdom to make good decisions and keep me from error and evil. But, I do pray about everything, from my kids, to the church, to my family and loved ones. And, I’m specific. I make my requests to God and trust that He will react accordingly.
“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)
So, knowing all this, does prayer change things? Yes. It changes us. Notice that Paul said that when we pray with thanksgiving and let God know our requests, we receive the peace of God that passes understanding. And, the peace of God keeps our hearts and minds. That’s very comforting.
So you asked, “How does prayer work?”
Here’s what I think – God designed prayer for a reason. He wants to hear from us. Like any good relationship, communication is important. He has every intention of providing us with what we need – not always what we want, but always what we need. But, He wants us to recognize that He is the provider of every good thing in our lives. It’s like child telling his parents that he’s hungry. The child knows the food is in the cupboard and knows his parents love him. So, he goes to the one who loves him to make his request for food known, all the while trusting that parents will get it for him. And, the parent may say, “No, not yet. Wait for dinner.” And, the child may be disappointed. But, in good relationships, the child also knows he will not starve. His parents love him and he will eat – but not yet.
That’s how I approach prayer. I tell my Heavenly Father what I need and what I want. I give Him praise and thanksgiving. He then provides for all my needs and occasionally even fulfills my wants. But, whatever He opts to do, I know that one day I will be in Heaven and drink to the full. I will eat from the Tree of Life and walk down streets of gold. So, if my wants are not fulfilled yet, I know it’s only a matter of time.
When I suffer here, I pray. That’s natural. I think we all do it. And, I am also convinced that God brings trials and suffering into our lives to teach us patience, endurance and faith. Prolonged suffering will prove the metal of our faith. Real trouble and pain will drive us to God, or away from God. And, that’s what it is designed to do. Trials in life serve to prove who we really are.
And, in my observation, the most overlooked prayer is the prayer of thanks. We are daily provided with unbelievable grace and kindness. Every meal and every breath is a gift from the Almighty. But, we never seem to go back – like the ten lepers – and say thank you. It seems that God only hears from us when we want something or when things are going badly. Shame on us. We ought to thank Him continually, just as the angels and the redeemed praise and thank Him in Heaven.
Anyway, like I said, there are books and books written about prayer. I think sometimes they complicate it. But, prayer is essential to the Christian life. God wants to hear from us. He knows what we need before we ask; yet He tells us to ask. We need to realize that He is the source of our blessings. And, we do not change God’s mind, He changes our hearts and minds, when we pray.