If God is sovereign, why pray? That’s a question many Christians have asked down through the centuries. The answers are complex and sometimes confusing, but wouldn’t it be great if we could ask the man who wrote the book on God’s sovereignty? Well, I’ve gotten my hands on a rare document: a transcript of a pastoral counseling session between John Calvin, pastor in Geneva, and a member of his congregation (his name has been changed to protect his privacy). This session took place in 1559, shortly after Calvin published the final version of Institutes of the Christian Religion. I hope Calvin’s insights help you pray with confidence and freedom.
Setting: Geneva, 1559. Henri enters the pastoral office of John Calvin in need of council. Calvin welcomes him, asks about his family and his work; then he asks him how he can help. “Pastor Calvin, I’m feeling deeply depressed lately—and I’m having trouble relating to God. I can’t seem to pray because I keep thinking that God is distant and mean. I know from your sermons that he’s totally sovereign and perfectly wise, so he certainly doesn’t need me to tell him how to run the universe. I’ve also learned that God’s will must be done in this world, and that it will be done whether I pray for it or not. So, every time I pray, I struggle because I don’t know why I need to pray, or what prayer is supposed to do. I need help.”
Calvin ponders Henri’s problem for a few minutes. Then he says, “Henri, your theology is certainly correct. God is totally sovereign; his will must be done; he doesn’t need us for anything at all, much less to tell him how to run things. And your feeling that God is distant flows from this proper theology; God is separated from us by a wide gulf because his divine nature is so different from our human nature and because his absolute purity is so different from our sinful nature. In fact, I would say that ‘no man is worthy to present himself to God and come into his sight’” (Institutes, 3.20.17).
Henri, looking a little stunned, says, “Uh, Pastor Calvin, this doesn’t really help me very much.”
“Good,” Calvin replies. “It’s important, Henri, that you feel the distance between you and God; it’s important for you to understand this enormous gap that stands between you and him; it’s important for you to recognize that God doesn’t need anything from us at any time.”
“Now I’m more depressed than ever,” Henri mumbles while his chin drops into his chest.
“Listen, Henri,” Calvin continues, “This great gulf between God and us is not a cause for depression; it’s actually the basis of great rejoicing. Think about this: the God who needs nothing, whose purity makes him hate our sin, who has all wisdom and sovereign power, has chosen to bridge the gap between us and to meet with us. He has provided the only possible way for there to be a relationship between us and him. We could never have made our way over to him no matter what we did or how hard we tried, but he has made his way over to us. He has given us Jesus Christ. When we contemplate his sovereignty and holiness we could easily feel a ‘shame and fear, which might well have thrown our hearts into despair;’ but God ‘has given us his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to be our advocate and mediator with him’ (Institutes, 3.20.17). The very thoughts you’ve had about God’s distance from us become—through Jesus Christ—great evidence of his grace and mercy to us.”
“Okay, I think I understand. You’re saying that what I’ve learned about God should make me feel like he’s distant and aloof from me; but then—when I remember Jesus Christ—those same truths should show me how gracious he is to me.”
“That’s right. And not only that, but because of what God has done in Jesus Christ he now commands us and calls us ‘to seek him in our every need, as children are wont to take refuge in the protection of their parents whenever they are troubled with any anxiety’ (Institutes, 3.20.34). The great sovereign of the universe actually encourages us to pray to him; he encourages us first by commanding us to pray and then by promising to hear us. ‘So, then, all the passages that keep occurring in the Scriptures, in which calling on God is enjoined upon us, are as so many banners set up before our eyes to inspire us with confidence. It would be rashness itself to burst into God’s sight if he himself had not anticipated our coming by calling us’ (Institutes, 3.20.13).”
“Wow!” Henri exclaims. “Even though God is who he is and doesn’t need me, he provides a way through Jesus Christ for me to come to him, then he calls me to pray and promises that he’ll listen. So now, instead of being too afraid of God to pray, I see that God actually wants me to pray!”
“But wait a minute, Pastor Calvin. I still have a problem. Doesn’t God already know everything about me? When I pray to him and tell him what’s troubling me, doesn’t he know—even better than I do—what my problem is? And doesn’t he also know—without any suggestions from me—what’s the best way to handle my problem?”
“Yes, all that is true,” Calvin answered.
“Then why do I even need to pray? Why am I telling God what he already knows and why am I asking for things when he knows what’s best for me? It seems ‘in a sense superfluous that he should be stirred up by our prayers—as if he were drowsily blinking or even sleeping until he is aroused by our voice’ (Institutes, 3.20.3).”
“You’ve got things all turned around again, Henri,” Calvin responded. “You’re talking as if prayer was established by God because he needs it; but the truth is, ‘he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours’ (Institutes, 3.20.3). We do not pray, Henri, ‘with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant.’ Actually, we ‘pray in order that [we] may arouse [our]selves to seek him, that [we] may exercise [our] faith in meditating on his promises, that [we] may relieve [our]selves from [our] anxieties by pouring them into his bosom’ (Commentary on Matt 5:8).”
“So, I’m praying because I need to pray, because I need to be with God, because I need to tell him my needs. That makes sense; thank you, Pastor. But I have one more question: If prayer is for my benefit, not God’s, then what other kinds of things should I expect prayer to do in me?”
“That’s a very good question, Henri. There are actually six things that prayer does in us, and I’ve written about them in the newest edition of my book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was just published. The discussion is in Book 3, Chapter 20, Section 3. But quickly, prayer gives us a desire to seek and serve God; it prevents shameful desires from coming into our hearts; it prepares us to receive what God has promised to us; it leads us to meditate on God’s kindness to us; it makes us love even more the things we have received from God in prayer; and it confirms his providence to us through our experience.”
“Thank you for your time, Pastor Calvin. This has really helped me. By the way, can I get that book at the local Lifeway Store or should I just order it from Amazon?”