Why Pray if God is Sovereign?


I. Introduction

In spring of 1949, right before the communist army went across the Yangtze River to attack the constitutional government of Republic of China, a group of Christians gathered in their normal prayer meeting in Shanghai, led by famous minister Watchman Nee and his disciple Witness Lee. The topic of that night’s prayer meeting is about the upcoming threat from the northern communist army and the stability of the country. “Lord, please leverage the Yangtze River as the Great Wall. Stop the communists from attacking the south. If they go across the river, O Lord, drown them just like you drowned Pharaoh’s army for Israel.” Not only had those Christians in Local Church prayed this prayer but also majority of Christians in southern China prayed like this.

However, the outcome was not optimistic. The communists went across Yangtze River in April 1949 and the constitutional government was defeated and withdrew to Taiwan. All foreign missionaries were driven out of the country, and majority of the ministers who refused to join the state-controlled church were put into prison. Watchman Nee was judged, condemned, and sentenced in 1956 to fifteen years’ imprisonment. He died in confinement in his cell on May 30, 1972.

Many saints under communist power have wondered whether God truly listened to their prayers. After 1980s, people surprisingly found that Christian churches in mainland survived. Moreover, there was a wide revival in and after Cultural Revolution. Many church historians suggested that the rapid growth of the Chinese House church should credit to the reign of communist party because their brutal revolutionary reign destroyed the common ground of traditional Chinese worldview. God did not listen to our prayer because he has greater plan, which is to use the communist party to overcome the traditional Chinese religions and make straight the way of Lord.

Though this sounds reasonable and acceptable, it introduced a bigger problem: why do we pray if God is sovereign and He has greater plan? Will prayer change God’s plan? If not, why do we pray? This paper will: (1) present Scriptural bases for the topic; (2) discuss the viewpoints of historical theologians about the tension between God’s sovereignty and the believer’s prayer; (3) discuss contemporary study on prayer from extra-theological fields; (4) address real Christian experience/perspectives on prayer and God’s sovereignty; and (5) conclude the paper with my own assessment and summary on the topic, with reflections on the practical, ministry-related implications of my findings.


To unfold the theme of God’s sovereignty and prayer, we fist need to turn to the Bible and find God’s word regarding the following questions: (1) Is God omnipotent? (2) Is God’s plan changeable? (3) How shall Christians pray?

The Bible has a positive answer regarding God’s omnipotence, which means God has unlimited power. In God’s first appearance to Abraham to confirm his covenant, he identified himself as “God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1). We also see God’s omnipotence in his overcoming of impossibilities. In Genesis 18:10–l4, God promised that Sarah would have a son, even though she was past the age of giving a birth. Job asks that “Can you find out the limit of the Almighty” in Job 11:7 shows that the almighty of God is limitless. God’s omnipotence is not only demonstrated in his creation and providence, but also in his judgment, just like Joel names the day of Lord as “destruction from the Almighty” (Joel 1:15). God also describes himself as Alpha and Omega, “the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). Moreover, unlike what Hollywood understands about God’s omnipotence[1], the Bible tells us that even King’s heart is turned by God according to God’s will (Proverbs 21:1). Israel’s exodus history also shows that God has the power to harden and soften Pharaoh’s heart according to his own plan; just like Paul says “he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18). We can draw a Scriptural conclusion that God is omnipotent. He has the power and ability to accomplish his desire and his plan (Isaiah 46:10, Daniel 4:35), and he is omnipotent on humans’ minds and actions (Proverbs 16:9, Jeremiah 10:23).

Though God is omnipotent, will he change his desire or his plan? Bible gives us both yes and no answers. On the one hand, the Bible clearly says that his purpose shall all be accomplished (Isaiah 46:10) and there’s no exception being indicated here. James describes him as “whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:16). He will never find mistakes in his plan and regret like man (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29). According to J. I. Packer, what God does in time, he planned from eternity. And all that he has in his Word committed himself to do will infallibly be done[2]. On the other hand, there are verses clearly indicates that God changed his plan. God feels sorry when he sees people doing evil on the earth (Genesis 6:6-7, 1 Samuel 15:11, 2 Samuel 24:16, etc.) Is this because the reaction of humans is out of God’s plan and He is not able to change? Packer thinks that it does not surprise God and there’s no change in his eternal purpose implied when he begins to deal with people in a new way[3]. Thomas Watson thinks that there may be a change in God’s work, but not in his will. “God may change his sentence, but not his decree.” [4] God also may change his plan according to human’s response. In 1 Kings 20, King Hezekiah prayed to God for his sickness, and God answered his prayer by adding fifteen years to his life. Moreover, God might change his plan because of human’s response. Moses prayed for the Israel while God was angry and punishing them. God listened to the prayer of Moses and “relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:10-14). These verses seems suggest God changed his plan because of people’s response (prayer or repent). However from another point of view, they are simply descriptions of God’s actions and feelings in human terms, and from a human perspective[5]. Jesus taught his disciples in parable that through prayer, we should pray because a person might change his mind due to impudence asking and so does God (Luke 11:5-10). Later Jesus preached another similar parable regarding a persistent widow and an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). The focus of these teachings is not the change, but the effect of the consistent prayer and encourages the disciples to pray.

To better understand this theme, we should also learn from God’s word on what is the original design of prayer. Asking is definitely an important part of prayer. We can find such “asking” prayers both in Old Testament (Genesis 18:22-33, 24:1-10, 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, Psalm 119:18) and New Testament (Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, John 17, Luke 23:42, Romans 10:1). But prayer is not limited to asking. The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 showed a great example of prayer. It has other elements like adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. Moreover, we pray not because we expect something in return, it is because the Lord commands us to pray (Jeremiah 29:12, Matthew 26:41, 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is also an important sign of the Christian faith because we can call God “Father” (Romans 8:15). Thus prayer is both a privilege and an obligation of a Christian.


In the history of theology, there are two major camps holding different opinions regarding the tension between divine sovereignty and effect of prayer.

Calvinists (and reformed theology) emphasize very much on the divine sovereignty of God and God’s unchanging attribute comparing to human being. Loraine Boettner claimed that the doctrine of Predestination “represents the purpose of god as absolute and unconditional, independent of the whole finite creation, and as originating solely in the eternal counsel of His will.”[6] Based on this doctrine, there’s no room left for the power of human will and prayer. Then why do we pray? John Calvin has one chapter in his Institutes talking about prayer. First of all, he treats prayer as a method to reach the riches which are laid up for us with God. In another word, prayer digs up the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel through faith.[7] In another word, God has already prepared the responses to our prayer in his divine sovereignty, and the prayer is a tool that triggers the plan. Moreover, rather than talking about how prayers take effect at God’s side, Calvin emphasize more on the effect of prayer on the one who prays. He says that God ordained prayer not so much for his own sake as for ours. Using Elijah’s prayer in 1 Kings 18:42 as an example, Calvin illustrates that “(Elijah) knew it was his duty, lest his faith be sleepy or sluggish, to lay his desires before God.”[8] He also responds to those who challenge the necessity of prayer by claiming that God desires us to recognize the gifts that he flows to us come through our prayer[9]. The definition of prayer from Q98 of Westminster Shorter Catechism is a perfect and concise definition of prayer in reformed tradition: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.” Thus in the reformed view, we shall pray for things that already in God’s plan and desire. The consistency and permanency of God is prior to human’s prayer. We cannot change the plan and will of God. Though prayer cannot change God, it can change us by motivating us, giving us zeal for God, learn to rely on God, and remind us that all we have is from God.

There’s also another camp that believes prayer will change God without destroying the doctrine of divine sovereignty. Watchman Nee, the Chinese Christian leader and theologian, describes his understanding of prayer in this way: “The purpose of prayer is to letting us know that God not just do things according to his will, but He has a will that he will hold his will unless we put it into prayer.” His used an interesting parable that “The plan of God is like a river, but prayer is like a pipe. No matter how wide the river is, it’s limited by our prayer. ” However in the same book, he states that nobody can prevent God from doing His will. He understands the divine sovereignty of God and his consistent, but he still lean to a “cooperation” theology of prayer[10]. He named it “earth controls heaven”. If God’s will is controlled by earthly prayer, is God still sovereign? It does challenge the sovereignty of God and creates the difficulty.

The “cooperation” theology of prayer is also supported by Stanley J. Granz, the professor of theology in Regent College. In one of his articles on Christianity Today, he agrees that the cooperative principle lies behind the working of prayer. God wants to act in the world, but in certain areas and at particular times, God’s action will come only in response to prayer[11]. As Norwegian theologian O. Hallesby said, “God has voluntarily made Himself dependent upon our prayers.”[12] We need to note that many evangelists and revivalists like John Wesley, Charles Finney, David Cho in Korea all support this view.

A new school of theology, namely “Open Theism” brings the concept of divine sovereignty on the matter of prayer even further. Boyd introduces a new idea of “exercising spiritual say so”[13]. In simple terms, God has empowered his creatures with the genuine ability to influence spiritual events through prayer. In this way we learn dependency on him by allowing us to interact with him and mutually decided in loving relationship where he enlists our input. Boyd uses Matthew 18:2-5 and 2 Chronicles 7:14 to support his idea[14]. However, this view might limit the sovereignty of God or put the sovereignty under question. Because in the scenario illustrated by Boyd, there is something that totally depends on human’s prayer and outside of God’s foreknowledge.

IV. Other religions and worldviews

Christianity is not the only religion that practice prayer and have this kind of struggle. Judaism and Islam both hold the divine sovereignty of God and practice prayer. Buddhism, Hinduism and other polytheistic religions also teach, require and practice prayer.

Like Orthodox Christianity, Judaism based on the Old Testament supports the divine sovereignty of God. However it might be due to the difference between Hebrew and Greek thinking, they struggle less with the tension between divine sovereignty and human’s free will. In Pirke Avot 3:19 it says “Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given. The world is judged with goodness, and all is according to the majority of deeds.” According to Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon in Mishne Torah Hil’ Teshuva 5:1-4, predetermination and predestination are rejected because people are held accountable for what he has done. In the meanwhile, the Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed and the word l’hitpalel, meaning to judge oneself. This word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. Sounds like Calvinism, the ultimate goal of prayer is to help train a person to focus on divinity through daily prayer practice. So from Jewish tradition, they emphasize less on the effect of prayer, but more on spiritual discipline side of the practice of prayer, and treat it as obedience to God’s command and spiritual practice.

Though Islam also admits the divine sovereignty of Allâh, they also have the tension between the divine sovereignty and the free will of human. Scholars like Ghazali take another approach in order to make religion easy and attractive. To do so, to define the heart as the place where religion is played out, he had to admit that human nature has a divine element to it. Ghazali defended Islam as divine initiative but one in which the human soul had a vital role and was not set aside for the simple workings of God’s divine enterprise. Thus divine sovereignty does not contradict human nature or the workings of the human mind[15].

In Buddhism and many other Eastern religions, Buddha is not the creator of the universe, like "God" in the Christian-Judeo-Islamic sense. In fact, there is no creator of the universe given in Buddhist philosophy. Moreover, the Buddha is not omnipotent like the Christian God. In Buddhism religion practice, prayer always accompanies meditation. Buddhism for the most part sees prayer as a secondary, supportive practice to meditation and scriptural study. Thus under Buddhism context, the struggle of sovereignty and free will is minimized.

In an atheist setting or religious pluralism where divine sovereignty is lacking, prayer is treated as a psychological therapy. Studies on prayer in medicine started from 1873 by English polymath Francis Galton. He found no statistical evidence that prayer prolonged life or reduced stillbirths. A recent study by Harvard Medical School was by far the most comprehensive of its kind, but the outcome is not better than the previous ones[16]. C.S. Lewis anticipated a carefully designed prayer study but did not think it would show any positive, measurable "results." He argued that this approach to prayer treats it "as if it were magic, or a machine—something that functions automatically”[17]. If Lewis is right, such attempts always end up trying to measure something more akin to magic than a real movement of God.


Why do we pray if God is sovereign? It is an awkward question for all ministers who are trying to teach both the importance of prayer and the omnipotence of God. Many years ago when I tried to convince one of the brothers in my church to have daily prayer, his response was like this: “I don’t think I have anything to pray for. I have the ability to handle my business. And if there’s something out of my ability, I believe God already predetermined so I don’t need pray.”

I don’t know how to respond to this question as a Calvinism minster. I realize that it’s a common thought in many Christians under the doctrine of predestination. However, I also notice that this statement is a mixture of emphasis on “free will” and “divine sovereignty”. If someone refuses to pray because God has already predetermined, he can also refuses to do his own duty because of the same reason. Why do we selectively choose “prayer” as something under tension with divine sovereignty but leave others to ourselves?

I would like to reference a very short essay written by C. S. Lewis. He thinks that there are some details left blank under God’s big plan that God has left to let us play. He thinks that the purpose of prayer is to give us a “dignity of causality” so that we have the dignity of being able to contribute to the course of events in two different ways, namely work and prayer[18]. I agree that everything that we do is under the tension of my free will and God’s predetermination. However, prayer gives us a divine reasoning of being part of God’s plan.

VI. Conclusion

Before we reach the conclusion of this topic, I’d like to first mention that prayer is a command from God, not an invitation from God. Even if we don’t understand the reason for prayer or we concluded that prayer cannot change anything, we still need to pray because God commanded us to pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The commandment of God itself is a sufficient reason for prayer.

Secondly, God is definitely sovereign, which means he has the ability to control over all affairs. God’s sovereignty and omnipotence is clearly written in the Bible. Our prayer and the effects of our prayer is also part of his divine sovereignty. We can expect an answer because God is sovereign. If God is powerless or not able to do what we beg for, that would be a total disaster to our prayer life and even our faith. We pray and we expect the result of the prayer because God is sovereign.

Thirdly, both the Bible and our Christian experience tell us that prayer changes things, though it does not change God’s plan because God is unchangeable. What may seem to be changes of mind may actually be new stages in the working out of God’s plan[19]. Moreover, our prayer might be wrong (against God’s plan), but we know that the Holy Spirit will correct us, and pray for us according to God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). From the work of Holy Spirit, we know that even if our prayer does not change anything, it at least can change our hearts, help us to understand God’s will, and reset in this divine communication.

And finally, prayer is also a privilege of God’s children. When we pray, we are participating God’s execution of predetermined plan. No one, except for Jesus, knows God’s predetermined plan, but even Jesus prayed earnestly. Because Lord knows that prayer is an action of participating God’s work, and God is glorified when we pray. The Lord also gives us a perfect example of how to pray according to God’s will in the Gospel of Matthew. God graciously uses believers as vessels participating in carrying out His will. And that includes building us up that we may gain spiritual strength and fortitude through prayer.

To close this research, I want to quote Jonathan Edwards’ two reasons for prayer from his sermon “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God”. First, “with respect to God, prayer is but a sensible acknowledgment of our dependence on him to his glory.” Second, “with respect to ourselves, God requires prayer of us in order to the bestowment of mercy, because it tends to prepare us for its reception.”


Boice, James M. Ed. Our Sovereign God. Grand Rapids: Baker book House, 1977.

Boyd, Gregory A. God of the Possible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol 4. Philedelpha: The Westminster Press, 1977.

Chester, Timothy. The Message of Prayer. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998

Feinberg, John … [et al.]. Predestination & Free Will : Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Prayer and the Knowledge of God, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003

Grenz, Stanley J. Prayer: the Cry For the Kingdom. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005

Lewis, C. S. God in the dock. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970.

Lewis, C. S. The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960.

Liang, Jia Ling. Watchman Nee: His Glory and Dishonor (Chinese). Revised and enlarged edition. Hong Kong: Graceful House Limited, 2004.

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Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, c1986

[1] In popular Hollywood movie Bruce Almighty (Universal, 2003), God is almighty but God cannot interfere with human’s free will.

[2] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity 1973), 80

[3] Ibid., 80

[4] Thomas Watson, A Bod of Divinity, (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers), 48

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 1998), 304

[6] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1951) , 13.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (The Westminster Press 1977), 851

[8] Ibid., 852

[9] Ibid., 853.

[10] Watchman Nee, The Assembly Life & The Prayer Ministry of the Church (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry), 139

[11] Stanley J. Grenz, “The amen rebellion.” Christianity Today 35, no. 11 (O 1991): 24-25.

[12] Ole Hallesby, Prayer (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House 1944), 167

[13] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks), 96

[14] Ibid., 97

[15] Paul L. Heck, Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism (Georgetown University Press 2009), 61

[16] Gregory Fung, and Christopher Fung. “What Do Prayer Studies Prove?” Christianity Today 53, no. 5 (My 2009): 42–44.

[17] C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace ad Company 1960), 8

[18] C. S. Lewis, God in the dock (William B. Eerdmans Publishing House 1970), 106

[19] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. Baker Academic 1998. 304.