The Bible is unequivocal about God’s absolute sovereignty, yet within His sovereignty He commands us to exercise our responsible wills in certain areas, including beseeching Him in prayer. If God did not act in response to prayer, Jesus’ teaching about prayer would be futile and meaningless and all commands to pray pointless. Our task is not to solve the dilemma of how God’s sovereignty works with human responsibility but to believe and act on what God commands us about prayer.
Too many believers have weak prayer lives because they don’t believe their prayers accomplish anything. They petition the Lord for something and then forget about it, acting as if they knew in advance that God wouldn’t be at all compelled to grant what they had requested. Even in the early days of the church, when faith generally was strong and vital, prayer could be passive and unexpectant. When the Apostle Peter was imprisoned in Jerusalem, a group of concerned believers met at the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, to pray for his release (Acts 12:12). As they were doing so, an angel of the Lord miraculously delivered Peter from his chains (vv. 7–10). While the believers were still praying, Peter arrived at the house and knocked on the door. A servant girl named Rhoda answered the door, and upon recognizing Peter’s voice, she turned around and rushed to tell the others before letting Peter in (vv. 13–14). The others did not believe her, however, until they finally let Peter in. Then “they saw him and were amazed” (v. 16). They apparently had been praying for what they did not really believe would happen.
Prayer is not a vain duty to be performed for the sake of obedience only. That may seem like a good motive, but its effect is no different from the hypocritical Pharisees who prayed for show. We must pray in faith, believing that our prayers do make a difference to God. To guard against such passive and unspiritual resignation, Jesus told the disciples the Parable of the Importunate Widow—“to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
A tension will always exist between God’s sovereignty and man’s will, therefore we should not try to resolve it by modifying what He says about either reality. God is sovereign, but He gives us choices. And it is in His sovereignty that He commands us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
A part of the right understanding of and attitude toward God’s will is what might be called a sense of righteous rebellion. To be dedicated to God’s will necessitates being opposed to Satan’s. To pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” is to rebel against the notion that sin is normal and inevitable and therefore should be tolerated. When you are wholly committed to seeing God’s will done on earth, you will rebel against the world system of ungodliness. You will renounce all things that dishonor and reject Christ. And you will also confront the disobedience of believers. Impotence in prayer leads us, however unwillingly, to strike a truce with evil. When you accept what is, you abandon a Christian view of God and His plan for redemptive history.
The greatest hindrance to prayer is not lack of technique, lack of biblical knowledge, or even lack of enthusiasm for the Lord’s work, but lack of faith. We simply do not pray with the expectation that our prayers will make a difference in our lives, in the church, or in the world.