Friday, October 24, 2008

The Purpose of Prayer (pt. 1) by R.C. Sproul

The Purpose of Prayer (pt. 1)

September 22, 2008 @ 7:30 AM Posted By: Tim Challies

by R.C. Sproul

Nothing escapes God's notice; nothing oversteps the boundaries of his power. God is authoritative in all things. If I thought even for one moment that a single molecule were running loose in the universe outside the control and domain of Almighty God, I wouldn't sleep tonight. My confidence in the future rests in my confidence in the God who controls history. But how does God exercise that control and manifest that authority? How does God bring to pass those things he has sovereignly decreed?

Augustine said that nothing happens in this universe apart from the will of God and that, in a certain sense, God ordains everything that happens. Augustine was not, however, attempting to absolve men of their responsibility for their actions. Our concern, though, in this chapter, is to answer the question, 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?

Let me answer the first question by stating that the sovereign God commands by his sovereign, holy Word that we pray. Prayer is not optional for the Christian; it is required.

We might ask, "What if it doesn't do anything?" That is not the issue. Regardless of whether it does any good to pray, 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. Jesus says that we have not because we ask not. James tells us that the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much. Time and again the Bible says that prayer is an effective tool. It is useful; it works.

John Calvin, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, makes some profound observations regarding prayer:

But some will say, "Does he not know without a monitor, what our difficulties are, what is meet for our interests? So 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 voices."

Those who argue this way attend not to the end for which the Lord told us to pray. It was not so much for his sake, as for ours. He wills indeed, as is just, that due honor be paid him, acknowledging that all which men desire or feel to be useful and pray to obtain, is derived from him, but even he benefit of the homage which we thus pay him redounds to ourselves. Hence, the holy patriarchs, the more confidently they proclaimed the mercies of God to themselves and to others, felt the more incitement to pray....

It is very much in our interests that we be constantly supplicating him, first that our heart might always be inflamed with the serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving, and serving him as the sacred anchor in every necessity. Secondly, that no desire, no longing whatever that we are ashamed to make him the witness, enter our minds while we learn to place all of our wishes in his sight, and thus pour out our heart before him. Lastly, that we might be prepared to receive all of his benefits with true gratitude and thanksgiving, while our prayers remind us that they proceed from his hand. (Book 3, chapter 20, section 3)

Prayer, like everything else in the Christian life, is for God's glory and for our benefit, in that order. Everything that God does, everything that God allows and ordains, is in the supreme sense for his glory. It is also true that while God seeks his own glory supremely, man benefits when God is glorified. We pray to glorify God, but we also pray to receive the benefits of prayer from his hand. Prayer is for our benefit, even in light of the fact that God knows the end from the beginning. It is our privilege to bring the whole of our finite existence into the glory of his infinite presence.

One of the great themes of the Reformation was the idea that all of our life is to be lived under the authority of God, to the glory of God, in the presence of God. Prayer is not simply soliloquy, a mere exercise in therapeutic self-analysis, or a religious recitation. Prayer is discourse with the personal God himself. There, in the act and dynamic of praying, I bring my whole life under his gaze. Yes, he knows what is in my mind, but I still have the privilege of articulating to him what is there. He says, "Come. Speak to me. Make your requests known to me." And so we come in order to know him and to be known by him.

There is something erroneous in the question, "If God knows everything, why pray?" The question assumes that prayer is one-dimensional and is defined simply as the prayer of supplication, or intercession. On the contrary, prayer is multidimensional. God's sovereignty casts no shadow over the prayer of adoration. God's foreknowledge or determinate counsel does not negate the prayer of praise. The only thing it should do is give us greater reason for expressing our adoration for who God is. If God knows what I'm going to say before I say it, his knowledge, rather than limiting my prayer, enhances the beauty of my praise.

My wife and I are as close as two people can be. Often I know what she's going to say almost before she says it. And the reverse is also true. But I still like to hear her say what is on her mind. If that is true of man, how much more true is it of God? We have the matchless privilege of sharing our innermost thoughts with God. Of course, we could simply enter our prayer closet, shut the door, let God read our mind, and call that prayer. But that's not communion, and certainly not communication.

We are creatures who communicate primarily through speech. Spoken prayer is obviously a form of speech, a way for us to commune and communicate with God. There is a certain sense in which God's sovereignty should influence our attitude toward prayer, at least with respect to adoration. If anything, our understanding of God's sovereignty should provoke us to an intense prayer life of thanksgiving. Because of such knowledge we would really see that every benefit, every good and perfect gift, is really an expression of the abundance of his grace. The more we understand God's sovereignty, the more our prayers will be filled with thanksgiving.

In what way does God's sovereignty negatively affect the prayer of contrition, of confession? Perhaps we could draw the conclusion that our sin is ultimately God's responsibility, that our confession is an accusation of guilt against God himself. Every true Christian knows that he cannot blame God for his sin. I may not understand the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but I do realize that what stems from the wickedness of my own heart may not be assigned to the will of God. So we must pray because we are guilty, pleading the pardon of the Holy one whom we have offended.

This is part two of R.C. Sproul's small book
Does Prayer Change Things?. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the complete text of this short but profound and practical book right here at the Ligonier Ministries blog.

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