Providence and Prayer

“Prayer is not designed to inform God, but to give man a sight of his mercy; to humble his heart, to excite his desire, to inflame his faith, to animate his hope, to raise his soul from earth to heaven.” Adam Clark

The doctrine of providence should give us great confidence. It affirms that God controls everything for the glory of his name and the salvation of his people. Paul said it like this: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” [Eph 1:11-13]

Let us take a moment to unwrap some of the awesome truths that are hidden in this single passage. First, we see that God has a plan and the power to complete that plan. No power can prevent him from accomplishing “everything” he has purposed. That is the thought of Daniel 4:35: “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”

Second, we see God has perfect knowledge. His foreknowledge includes every detail about everything in his creation. “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.” [Ps 147:5] So, Isaiah asks, “Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?” [Isa. 40:13-14] His knowledge even extends to a perfect understanding of what goes on in our mind and heart. “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” [Ps 139:1-4]

Third, all of God’s actions are intended for our good. In Matthew 6:31-33, Jesus gave this instruction: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Here we are told that worry should not be a part of the life of a member of God’s family. Our Father knows what we need.

But, here it really gets interesting, because earlier, in Matthew 6:11, Jesus told us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Now, if God knows our needs before we ask, and in fact, “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” why should we pray for our daily needs to be met? It seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it?       

Here we discover a wonderful truth. Prayer is much more than merely getting what we need. It is God’s means to bring us into an intimate relationship with himself. God who needs nothing from us, never the less, desires a friendship with us. So, admonitions like, “cast all of our cares upon him,” [1 Peter 5:7] and “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” [Matt 11:28] are really God’s invitation to learn to trust in him. Bruce Ware says it like this: “He longs for us to demonstrate our dependence upon him and our absolute trust in his character by coming to him in petitionary prayer.”

So, God not only wants us to know how dependent we are on him for everything, he wants us to know how delighted he is to give what is best for us. It is his pleasure to bless his humble, trusting children who turn to him in their need. That is why the psalmist declares, “no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” [Psalm 84:11] God uses prayer as a channel to pour into our hearts bountiful riches that are found only in Christ. That is why John Newton exhorts:

“Thou art coming to a king,
large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
none can ever ask too much.”

Finally, we discover that the ultimate reason for God calling us to pray is so that in answering our prayers, we discover, much to our delight, that God is a generous giver. We are blessed and he is glorified. So, in his infinite wisdom in eternity past, God determined that our prayers would partner with him to bring about his purpose in our lives and in the life of his Church, for our joy and his glory.

That leads us to a very important question. If God knows our needs and has the power and the desire to meet our needs, why don’t we pray? Billy Graham once remarked, “Heaven is full of answers to prayers for which no one ever bothered to ask.” How many treasures and how many pleasures have we let go unclaimed because we have failed to take God at his Word? Over and over again, God reveals himself as the Provider who wants to show himself strong to those who trust in him. As Phillip Brooks reminded us, “Prayer is not conquering God’s reluctance, but taking hold of God’s willingness.”

I confess that many times I think that my request is too big for God. I just do not have the eyes of faith to see how he can possibly turn my terrible situation into something good. That is when the Lord allows me to come across giants of faith who have gone before me, like Andrew Murray. He warns, “Beware in your prayers, above everything else, of limiting God, not only by unbelief, but by fancying that you know what He can do. Expect unexpected things ’above all we ask or think.’” [Ephesians 3:20] That kind of faith moved William Carey to declare: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Knowing that God wants to do great things in our lives should inspire us to ask for them. He is never restricted by our situations or our imaginations.

The one who created all things also controls all things. He not only knows the thoughts of men, he can change their thoughts. Proverbs claims that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. [Proverbs 21:1] That is why the great missionary to China, Hudson Taylor once wrote, “It is possible to move men by prayer alone.” For those of us who are praying for the salvation of rebellious loved ones, that gives us great hope. By our prayers and by God’s grace, God can so move in a rebellious man or woman’s heart that they are enabled to choose Christ over sin. Incredible!

Martin Luther once remarked, “Pray and let God worry.” I think he was only partially joking. When we get close to God in prayer, he reveals himself in a very personal way so that our hearts are strengthened and our faith becomes rock solid. We are no longer anxious about “needs” nor are we fearful of men. So, Revenhill declares, “The man who is intimate with God will never be intimidated by men.”  

God is working out “everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” And, God has chosen to bring about his will in our lives by our prayers. As hard as it is to grasp this wonderful truth, it is true. If we want to know how gracious and awesome our God is, if we want to know him in greater and more powerful ways, if we want to see his name glorified in our lives, our marriages, our families and our country, we must pray.

I close with the words of the great preacher, Charles Spurgeon. He wrote, “Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the kingdom. If you may have everything by asking in His Name, and nothing without asking, I beg you to see how absolutely vital prayer is.”