1. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The message from God’s Word, as we continue our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, is taken from Psalm 50:15 and Matthew 7:7, it’s entitled, “Why Pray?” Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. If God is sovereign, how is it that my prayers are going to make any difference? And, if they don’t make a difference, what’s the point? Why pray if God is just going to do what he wants regardless of my prayers? As a pastor, I find that I’m confronted with a form of this question on a regular basis. The questions arise for a variety of reasons, and many of those reasons are very personal, so I hesitate to try and give a “one size fits all” response. As with all theological questions, it’s necessary to understand why the question is asked in the first place. But, generally speaking, the questions arise either from a place of theological confusion (How can God be both sovereign and responsive?) or as a result of some personal crisis or frustration (Why are my prayers not being answered?). So, when the question arises, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” The first response is always, “Why do you want to know?”
3. To help us understand why we pray, we’ll turn to that unfailingly pastoral theologian, Martin Luther, for guidance. I would suggest that Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms are among his greatest contributions to Christianity. His teaching on the Lord’s Prayer is second to none. His introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism offers four reasons which address the “why” of prayer. It is to those reasons we turn now.
4. REASON #1 GOD SAID SO—Simply put, we are to pray because God says so. Luther writes, “The first thing to know is this: It is our duty to pray because of God’s command. For we heard in the Second Commandment, ‘You are not to take God’s name in vain.’ Thereby we are required to praise the holy name and to pray or call upon it in every need.” (Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000). 441.)
5. Luther finds such a command to be a sufficient answer to those ever-wise theologians who think they can outsmart God and pit his sovereignty against his willingness to answer our prayers. “Prayer, therefore, is as strictly and solemnly commanded as all other commandments lest anyone think it makes no difference whether I pray or not, as vulgar people do who say in their delusion: ‘Why should I pray? Who knows whether God pays attention to my prayer or wants to hear it?” (Ibid.)
6. It must be remembered that this is a command that comes from a kind Father who knows that his children rely upon him for everything in life and salvation. Apart from God, we can do nothing. To ignore this command and say, “Well, God will do what he wants regardless of my prayers,” is to tempt God, demanding that He act on your terms. Further, to despise prayer because of the sovereignty of God is to misunderstand the term. It is to look upon God as a stoic, immovable force whose work is fatalistic. This imposes a definition of sovereignty upon God and the Scriptures rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the way our sovereign God works. As we think about prayer, it is better for us to begin with the commands and promises of the sovereign God, rather than with a presupposed definition of sovereignty. He doesn’t say, “I’ll do what I want, so your prayers are superfluous,” but rather, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you” (Ps. 50:15). And Jesus promises, “Ask, and it shall be given to you.” (Matt. 7:7). “This God requires of us; it is not a matter of our choice. It is our duty and obligation to pray if we want to be Christians,” says Luther. (Ibid) To be sure, God is almighty and sovereign, but he is the almighty, sovereign God who demands your prayers. What is more, he promises to answer!
7. REASON #2: THE PROMISED ANSWER. In characteristic “law/gospel” fashion, Luther begins with the command to pray, but then follows with the promise of prayer. Without God’s promise to hear and answer, prayer ceases to be a gift and becomes an attempt to bargain with God, an attempt to manipulate him into doing our will. But, the promise frees us to ask with confidence. Luther writes, “In the second place, what ought to impel and arouse us to pray all the more is the fact that God has made and affirmed a promise: that what we pray is a certain and sure thing.” (Ibid, 443). Consider again Psalm 50:15. There we hear the clear command to pray, “Call upon me in the day of trouble.” But, to such a command, God adds this promise, “and I will deliver you.” “Such promises certainly ought to awaken and kindle in our hearts a longing and a love for prayer,” so writes Luther (Ibid).
8. Luther goes on to point out that God delights in such prayers. He commands you to pray because he loves hearing from you! You never seem too needy or weak to God. You are weak and you do need him, and he delights in caring for you, hearing your cries, and giving you his good gifts. As wonderful as this promise is, at times it is hard to believe. After all, we’ve all experienced the problem of unanswered prayers. I’ve always hated Garth Brooks song, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” It seems so pious. Anyone who has gone through the pains of cancer, broken relationships, or job loss knows how false such sentiments are. So, how can we understand the promise of answered prayer in lives where we experience the opposite?
9. The hardest part of faith is trusting God’s word over and against our eyes and experiences. But God has promised, and part of praying is faithfully putting God’s promises back in his ears—to pray continuously and to never give up (Luke 18:1). He will answer according to his will and for your good. Though we will see some of our prayers answered in what we deem a timely manner, the truth is we must view these promises from the perspective of the resurrection. We may not see our loved ones healed until Christ raises them from the grave. But the day will come when all tears are removed and our prayers will turn to praise. It is a promise—a promise that drives us to pray.
10. REASON #3: JESUS GIVES THE WORDS God commands us to pray and promises to answer. But, there are still those who do not know what to say. Jesus solves the problem for us by giving us the words to say. As we saw in the introduction, Jesus gives us the gift of the Lord’s Prayer. Martin Luther writes, “God takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words and approach we are to use. In this way we see how deeply concerned he is about our needs, and we should never doubt that such prayer pleases him and will assuredly be heard.” (Ibid).
11. It is worth noting that when Jesus promises that the Father will hear and answer our prayers, he does so in the context of giving us the gift of the Lord’s Prayer. The promise of answered prayer is not a promise that God will do whatever you demand. Rather, it is the promise that he will always answer in your favor when you pray for his kingdom to come to you, his will to be done for you, and so on. By giving you his prayer, it is as though Jesus is saying, “Friend, take these requests to the Father and it will be done!”
12. REASON #4: OUR NEEDS Finally, Luther says, “[Prayer] has been prescribed for this reason also, that we should reflect on our need, which ought to drive and compel us to pray without ceasing.” (Ibid) When Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer, he opens our eyes to our most pressing needs. Too often, we define our needs by our desires and cravings. But our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask, so, in giving us the Lord’s Prayer, he tells us what we should ask for. “But where there is to be true prayer, there must be utter earnestness. We must feel our need, the distress that drives and impels us to cry out . . . This need, however, that ought to concern us—ours and everyone else’s—is something you will find richly enough in the Lord’s Prayer.” (Ibid, 444).
13. As we pray for God’s name to be kept holy, his kingdom to come, and his will to be done, we are reminded that, though these things happen of God’s accord without our prayers, we need him to accomplish them in us and for us. We learn that we depend on him for our daily bread and all we need to live in this world. Our sins are not forgiven apart from his mercy. And we cannot overcome temptation and the devil without God leading us and delivering us. The prayer Jesus taught us to pray names our needs and places them on our lips and in the Father’s ear.
14. Why do we pray if God is sovereign? The question misses the point. We pray, as R.C. Sproul once said, “because God is sovereign!” More to the point, he is gracious and loves to hear and answer our prayers. Why pray if God is going to carry out his will anyhow? Because it is his will to answer our prayers. We pray because he commands us to pray, he promises to graciously answer us, and he gives us the words to say. We also pray because our needs drive us to our Father who loves to hear us pray. Why do we pray? Let’s let Luther have the last word, “For whenever a good Christian prays, ‘Dear Father, your will be done,’ God replies from above, ‘Yes, dear child, it shall be done indeed, in spite of the devil and all the world.’” Amen. (Luther, The Large Catechism, 444). Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, until life everlasting. Amen.