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Why pray if God is in Control?

Scripture often uses anthropomorphic language to describe God’s interactions with his creatures. The word anthropomorphic combines the Greek words for human (anthropos) and form (morphe). It speaks of attributing human characteristics to God. In this regard, we see passages indicating that God changes his mind (Ex. 32:14), seems ignorant of what is going on (as with the Syrians), or regrets his actions (1 Sam. 15:11) Of course, God does not really change his mind (1 Sam. 15:29; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; James 1:17) or repent of his actions (Jer. 4:28) because he is not a man. John Calvin describes the matter this way: “The mode of accommodation is for [God] to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. . . . Meanwhile neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved, and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men’s eyes.” When “Jehoahaz sought the favor of the LORD” (2 Kings 13:4), he was assuming that prayer has the power to effect change in the situation he faced. But if God is sovereign, why pray at all? If God’s providential control of every event is certain, then prayer certainly doesn’t change God’s mind. In this regard, the doctrine of accommodation seems to affirm a hard form of determinism that is barely distinguishable from fatalism. The notion that God condescends to our way of understanding seems like a little joke that God plays with us—a bit of playacting to placate us. But compatibilism strikes a balance between two unbiblical positions.

On the one hand, God decrees all that takes place, even though this does not equate to fatalism. Yet on the other hand, man has no power to thwart God’s determined path for history even through prayer. So what gives?

Compatibilism reconciles the tension between the fact of God’s unbending decree and the numerous commands that we should pray to effect change in our world. James teaches, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

God created the world in such a way that he determined that we would be his servants, his instruments of change. He rarely if ever accomplishes his goals apart from the human participants who carry out his plans. For believers, this means that we are servants for his good and righteous plans. The doctrine of accommodation coincides with the doctrine of compatibilism.

When God does remarkable things in this world, it is precipitated by diligent, heartfelt, passionate prayer that appeals to a God of power and change. Moses models this tension in Exodus 32. When the prophet of God delayed his return from the mountain of Sinai, the Israelites got a little too anxious and built for themselves a horrid idol—the golden calf. God informed Moses of their corruption.

Then we read, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you’” (Ex. 32:9–10)

God’s intention was not to inform Moses of a real change in plans. Rather, it was to incite Moses to pray as he had never prayed before. What is interesting is that when he prayed, he appealed primarily to God’s everlasting promise to the patriarchs, to whom God had sworn to establish their descendants forever (v. 13).

The implication in Moses’ prayer is this: is not God good for what he has unconditionally decreed? Of course, but part of his means of establishing his decree is to provoke his people to come alongside him and petition him to act in accordance with what he promises. Ironically, this appears as though God is moved to a place where he did not previously intend to go. Exodus 32:14 relates, “So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people”. Using the language of accommodation, this tells us that God had already planned to come to the rescue, but not without the faithful prayer of his servant Moses to summon him. Jehoahaz was the same sort of servant, praying the same sort of prayer. Furthermore, all believers are vital participants in God’s plans, and the more fervently we pray and participate, the more certain we become that God acts in accordance with our obedience to him as well as his own sovereign decrees.

Jesus exemplifies the tension between God’s sovereign decree and the necessity of prayer in the advance of his decree. On the night of his public trials before the Sanhedrin, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny his Master three times before the dawn (Luke 22:34). In Luke 22:31–32 he says, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Several things stand out in Jesus’ words. First, note that Satan has no independent control over Peter. He must be granted divine permission to “sift” him in the same way that he needed permission to sift Job. Second, the inevitability of Peter’s denial is stated as though it were already a fact. Not only does God know what Peter will do, but the implication is that he has determined this course of events. Yet it is also clear that “when” the denials happen, afterward Peter will “have turned again” back to his devotion to Christ.

This anticipation of restoration is reinforced by Jesus’ commanding Peter to “strengthen your brothers” long before he turns back. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that Jesus says, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). Part of the tension here is the thought of Peter’s potential for failure even as Jesus expresses certainty about his friend’s ultimate triumph. Yet part of what makes his success certain has to do with Jesus’ intercessions on behalf of the faltering disciple. One might ask why Jesus must pray for what he knows will surely transpire, especially given the fact that he is party to the divine decrees that determine the future. What we see here is a different sort of accommodating activity of our Lord. Jesus humbly mimics a Moses or a Jehoahaz, modeling for his disciples how prayer is one of the strongest weapons in God’s arsenal. By it, God’s people vitally participate in the advance of his sovereign purposes. Therefore, let us not neglect the power of prayer.

(What about Free Will?: Reconciling Our Choices with God's Sovereignty by Scott Christensen p. 127)

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