Last week, I called for readers to pray for Dr. Albert Mohler in light of the announcement that he will be having surgery to have a tumor removed from his colon. In the comments section of that post, a reader asked an important question:
“You ask us to pray for Dr. Mohler, but I don’t understand how you would have us pray. Since God is sovereign, doesn’t that mean this colon tumor is His will for Dr. Mohler, presumably to bring Him glory in some way (in which case I don’t understand having it removed or prayed for)? And since God is sovereign, won’t His will be done in Dr. Mohler’s life regardless of whom among us prays?”
I suppose the best answer to this question is simply to say that Jesus commands his disciples to pray. Whether we understand it or not, the command from our Lord is crystal clear. To be specific, he teaches us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). At the very least, the prayer shows that Jesus didn’t think that God’s sovereignty nullified the need for prayer. Why is this?
When Christ faced his darkest hour, we find him praying precisely in the same way he commanded the disciples, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:41-42). Was Jesus’ will in opposition to His Father’s will at this point? Is Jesus praying against God’s sovereign will that the Son of Man should die on the cross? A cursory reading that gives no attention to the rest of the scriptures might lead someone to such a conclusion, but such a conclusion would be a gross misrepresentation of how the Bible speaks of God’s will.
I think we have to distinguish the two ways that the Bible can speak of God’s “will.” On the one hand, the Bible speaks of God’s will in terms of that which conforms to his perfect holiness and character. Everything that God commands His creatures reflects God’s own holiness. For this reason, the theologians sometimes call this God’s moral will or his will of command. Paul speaks of God’s will in this sense in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality.” God’s holy, moral will is revealed in the command to avoid all sexual sin. This is God’s will of command. It is revealed in the scriptures, and it is often broken.
On the other hand, the Bible talks about God’s will in terms of what He has sovereignly decreed to happen. Sometimes the theologians describe this way of speaking of God’s will as his providential will or His will of decree. Isaiah prophesies the death of Christ in terms of God’s will of decree, “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him” (Isaiah 53:10). This means that God wills that Christ should die for sinners, even though God’s moral will gets broken in the process (Judas’ betrayal, unjust trial, etc.). God declared that it would happen from all eternity, and nothing could have prevented it from happening (Acts 2:23). As an expression of his sovereign, providential purposes, this “will” of God is secret and cannot be broken.
I think Jesus’ two prayers manifest a concern for both ways of speaking of God’s will, and they should direct us as we pray for the suffering. We can pray the prayer of Matthew 6:10, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” that God’s will of command might be carried out among His otherwise rebellious creatures, that those who suffer would persevere in love and faithfulness to Christ no matter how awful and tragic the circumstances. We should also pray for the cause of suffering to be removed (just as Jesus did), but we do so from a position of faith that God’s secret providence may have something better for us that can only come through suffering. “Father, not my will but Yours be done.”
There’s so much more that could and should be said, but I will leave it there for now. In the meantime, let me pass along a couple of items from John Piper on prayer and the sovereignty of God. Both of these have been extremely helpful to me, and I pray they will be to you also.