Prayer, Suffering, and the Sovereignty of God

by Lauren Dyck

Introduction

The Christian life ought to be one marked with prayer; the bible itself attests to this as we are called to ceaseless prayer with an attitude of thankfulness (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). Prayer is often viewed as a power that, when used rightly – or the correct words are uttered in their proper sequence – can change God’s plans or his intents or may bring about health and prosperity if a sufficient measure of faith presides in the heart of the one praying. In fact, there are many ways people view prayer to be effective, and this is no different within the church. Some see it as a way for believers to impact God and his thinking to accomplish a desired result born out of the human intellect; or a reverent appeal, an act of worship of the redeemed child of God to the sovereign Lord and creator of the universe, or perhaps both. Either way, the command to pray is there and the scriptures offer great comfort and promise for those who obey this command and they do not remain silent in giving us understanding and the purpose of prayer. I ask then, on such a broad topic as this, is the purpose of prayer to change the mind of God in order to persuade him to assuage our circumstances, or does prayer work to conform the believer into the will of God by granting grace to endure all things; more specifically, what is the purpose of prayer for a Christian during a time of suffering? I will defend the latter, and in answering this question, the child of God will be provided a greater hope to endure such times, as God’s word is clear, we will suffer for his name’s sake (Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 4:12-19). Albert Mohler makes this observation, “We are carrying out a commission to make disciples of the king and citizens of the kingdom. And, of course, we can only do so with great suffering and tribulation.”[1]

I want to look at three things in helping us to understand the purpose of prayer in suffering: (1) the Christian and suffering, (2) prayer and the sovereignty of God, and (3) the purpose of prayer in suffering.

The Christian and Suffering

In his first epistle, the apostle Peter addresses a persecuted church, dispersed abroad “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” (1 Peter 1:2). They were discouraged and probably confused at the persecution they were facing because of their faith. Peter opens his epistle by encouraging them to remain strong, and reminds them to look to Christ, the source of their salvation and their inheritance in him, and the hope of his return to take the church with him to glory. He begins with a stark reminder of the gospel and the hope of the believer in chapter 1, verses 3-5, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

 He then goes on in verse 6, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.” The church is to “rejoice” in the hope of the gospel, the promised inheritance of eternal salvation, even though they are “for a little while” faced with various trials. He contrasts their eternal hope with the temporal suffering they face now, causing his readers to look beyond the trials of here and now, and focusing their view on the glories of their inheritance. Peter understands that suffering will be normal for the obedient Christian, because Christ first suffered for us, leaving us an example to follow in suffering (1 Peter 2:21). Persecution will be a result of following Christ for the world hated him first, and therefore, will hate us (John 15:18-19), and it is to this end that the scriptures speak much of the eternal glory of God and our inheritance with Christ as a contrast to our temporary affliction.

It is important to note, that suffering does not necessarily come as a result of sin in our lives, though this may often be the case, it is not the only reason for trials in our lives. These trials may also be present “so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in the praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). Trials test our faith to the praise and glory of Jesus Christ and are often God’s way of strengthening us in our walk with him, creating in us an enduring faith through the process of sanctification. In his popular work on systematic theology, Wayne Grudem addresses this clearly when he says:

Not all discipline is in order to correct us from sins that we have committed; it can also be allowed by God to strengthen us in order that we may gain greater ability to trust God and resist sin in the challenging path of obedience. We see this clearly in the life of Jesus, who, though he was without sin, yet “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). He was made perfect “through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). Therefore we should see all the hardship and suffering that comes to us in life as something that God brings to us to do us good, strengthening our trust in him and our obedience, and ultimately increasing our ability to glorify him.[2]

            Peter also reiterates the point of Christ’s suffering setting an example for us when he says, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,” (1 Peter 3:17-18). Why would we not expect to suffer for doing good when Christ (the righteous) suffered and gave himself for us (the unrighteous)? When Jesus calls us to suffer, he understands how we feel and what we are going through, as he also suffered, and he is our example in having done so. Paul says we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Peter further encourages his readers with this exhortation, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).

            So, we see suffering as a common theme in the New Testament scriptures: Christ suffered leaving us an example, and by sharing in his suffering, we also shall become partakers in his glory.

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

Next, I want to look at God as our sovereign creator, the one who rules the heavens and the earth. “And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.’” (Acts 4:24).

The word sovereign is translated from the Greek word despotes, and speaks of “a lord or master, especially of slaves; by implication, as denoting the possession of supreme authority.”[3] God, as creator of the universe and all that is in it, is by his very nature, ruler over all and has complete authority over all his creation. As the Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and again, “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 24:1; 135:6). Not only do the scriptures declare God’s absolute rule over the entire universe, but they also address his authority over the man and angels within the realm of creation: “he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand” (Daniel 4:35). The argument can be made that God is in control of all things, always, and in all places; and this then leads to the question, if God is in control of all things and truly has ordained all things, whatever comes to pass, can we then change God’s mind, or force him to change his ways?  The scriptures seem to suggest that no, we can’t, and that “no purpose of yours (that is, God’s) can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

Wayne Grudem refers to God’s sovereignty as his providence and introduces the topic in this way: “Once we understand that God is the all-powerful Creator, it seems reasonable to conclude that he also preserves and governs everything in the universe as well. Though the term providence is not found in Scripture, it has been traditionally used to summarize God’s ongoing relationship to his creation.”[4] He then goes on to define providence: “God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.”[5]

It is a great comfort to us, knowing God being in complete control of all his creation as the sovereign ruler and maintaining complete authority, cares about us as his creatures, made in his own image, and has predestined then that he will work all things for our greater good. In his omniscience, we trust that he always knows what is best for us, as he uses our circumstances and various situations to conform us to the image of his son (Romans 8:29). The question is then raised: if God knows all things, predestines all that comes to pass, why pray? R.C. Sproul addresses this question in his booklet on prayer in the following way:

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 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.[6]

Sproul then goes on a few pages later and addresses the question of intercession and supplication, whether prayer makes a difference, does it change things? He answers the question, “does prayer change God’s mind?” with a resounding “No”. Then he clarifies, if the question had rather been, “Does prayer change things?”, his response would have been, “Of course.”[7] Simply, does prayer change the mind of an all-knowing God, of course not, as then he would’ve known that he would change his mind to begin with. But, does prayer change things? I would agree with R.C. Sproul here, and also with Wayne Grudem[8], that prayer is an ordained means by which God may accomplish an ordained end in the same manner that he has chosen the elect for salvation but has also ordained the preaching of the gospel as the means by which his elect are saved (Romans 10:17). Prayer then does not shape or change the will of God, but rather brings us into the will of God as we see illustrated in the example Christ himself set for us, first in the Lord’s Prayer, where we are implored to pray that God’s will be done on earth (Matthew 6:9-13), and also Christ’s own submission to the will of God as he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). Albert Mohler makes this argument when he quotes J. I. Packer, “Here more clearly than anywhere the purpose of prayer becomes plain: not to make God do my will (which is practicing magic), but to bring my will into line with his (which is what it means to practice true religion).”[9]

Many times we pray in a manner that presupposes God’s providential rule over all things, “God, please help…” implies a trust in God’s ability to help in any particular request we make before him as he has authority and control over all things; “God, please heal…” implies that we believe that he is able to provide healing for our physical needs and that he rules over our health; “God, thank you for…” recognizes that God has already accomplished something on our behalf, or in our favor, in a complete autonomous fashion, in and of himself, for which we owe him, and him alone, gratitude. Each one of these statements, and so many similar ones, appeal to the sovereignty of God and the expectation that he can do, or has already done, something solely by his own ability, unaided by human effort. Truly, it is also in this that we find comfort that God is in control and, as his children, works all things for our good (Romans 8:28).

The Purpose of Prayer in Suffering

We have seen the expectation of suffering for the Christian, and his anticipation of an eternal hope. Also, we see that God is sovereign over all his creation and is fully involved in all that comes to pass, including trials and suffering for his children, and as his children, Christians are called to lead life of continual thanksgiving and praise in ceaseless prayer, and not repay evil, but seek to do good to everyone (1 Thessalonians 5:15-18). But, if God already knows all things, ordains all things and rules over all things, why pray? We do not pray so that God can find out what we need, because he already knows before we even ask him (Matthew 6:8), but rather we pray “because prayer expresses our trust in God and is a means whereby our trust in him can increase. In fact, perhaps the primary emphasis of the Bible’s teaching on prayer is that we are to pray with faith, which means trust or dependence on God.”[10] God desires for us to trust him, he is our father and as such, wants for us to have faith that he is looking out for our best, though we may not understand how, but we trust that what he allows us to endure is for our good. In this way, humbling ourselves before him in earnest prayer, then reveals our understanding of our complete dependence on him and in such a way, we worship him through prayer, and he works at sanctifying us through this means as well.

In his chapter on spiritual warfare, E. M. Bounds makes the following observation regarding the Christian life:

It cannot be said too often that the life of a Christian is warfare, an intense conflict, a lifelong contest. It is a battle fought against invisible foes who are ever alert and seeking to entrap, deceive, and ruin the souls of men. The Bible calls men to life, not a picnic or holiday. It is no pastime or pleasure excursion. It entails effort, wrestling, and struggling. It demands putting out the full energy of the spirit in order to frustrate the foe and to come out, at last, more than a conqueror. It is no primrose path, no rose-scented flirting. From start to finish, it is war. The Christian warrior is compelled from the hour he first draws his sword to “endure hardness, as a good soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3).

What a misconception many people have of the Christian life! How little the average church member appears to know of the character of the conflict and of its demands on him! How ignorant he seems to be of the enemies he must encounter if he is to serve God faithfully, succeed in getting to heaven, and receive the crown of life! He scarcely seems to realize that the world, the flesh, and the Devil will oppose his onward march. He hardly realizes that they will defeat him utterly, unless he gives himself to constant vigilance and unceasing prayer.[11]

He recognizes the centrality of hardship in the life of the believer and the need for a consistent prayer life. This matches the apostle Paul’s own exhortation, when after defining the armor of God in the Christian’s defense against spiritual warfare, he concludes with, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18).

Prayer then is a considered to be an integral part of the Christian life, and evidently, a practice that coincides with the believer’s expectation of suffering. From a jail cell, Paul writes a letter to the Philippians, thought they suffer for the sake of Christ (Philippians 1:29), he is encouraging them to rejoice, no matter their circumstances, and to treat others reasonably (Philippians 4:4-5). Paul then addresses worry: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul, imprisoned for his faith, who himself has shared of his anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28), is imploring his readers not to be overcome by their worry, but rather to bring their requests to God in prayer, with thanksgiving. What is the promised result of faithful prayer in trying times? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). God cares for us enough to tell us to cast “all our anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7), and then he promises to guard our hearts and minds with his peace, which is beyond our human understanding. Paul’s final exhortation to the church was one that also ended with the promise of God’s peace: “Finally, brother, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).

It is during one of his own trials, that Paul seeks to offer encouragement and hope to the church through prayer, to urge them to find contentment and strength to endure through Christ as he has learned to do (Philippians 4:11-13); and it is so with all believers, we have a mediator with the Father, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5), one who suffered in his humanity and is now interceding for us, who draw near to God through him (Hebrews 7:25).

Conclusion

So then, what is the purpose of prayer for the Christian during suffering? It is to draw us into fellowship with God, our Father, and depend on him completely as we follow the example of Christ in finding our every need cared for by the creator of the universe, knowing that his peace will guard our hearts and minds. We can then find comfort and grace to endure suffering and trials, or any other circumstance, knowing that God is working in us to change us for his glory.

I would like to close with one final quote from Albert Mohler:

Prayer does not inform God of what he does not know, nor does it get him to do what he is reluctant to do. Prayer does not change God; it changes us. This is not to say that God does not command us to pray or that he does not take our desires in prayer seriously. Rather, we must remember that God is sovereign at all times over all things while simultaneously being loving toward his people. Prayer is not our bargaining chip with a reluctant genie. It is our opportunity to commune with the Creator and Redeemer who loves us.[12] (emphasis mine)


[1] R. Albert Mohler, The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down: The Lord’s Prayer as a Manifesto for Revolution, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018), 86.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 812.

[3] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 315.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 315.

[6] R.C. Sproul, Does Prayer Change Things?, (Sanford: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), 11.

[7] R.C. Sproul, Does Prayer Change Things?, 13.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 334.

[9] R. Albert Mohler, The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down, 93.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 376.

[11] E. M. Bounds, E. M. Bounds on Prayer: 7 Books in 1, (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1997, 2012), 167.

[12] R. Albert Mohler, The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down, 17.

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