Previously, I wrote a post talking about the dangers of misusing prayer in the decision-making process. But I neglected to specify the ways God does get directly involved in influencing the decisions we make.
This post attempts to balance out the last post by discussing how God directly influences the decision-making process through prayer.
The way God acts is not through external signs (though he does arrange circumstances in which decisions are made), but through his sovereign influence on the minds of people. Though a person cannot be directly aware of what God is doing in his mind, God nonetheless can and does work in this way. Consider the following evidence.
The first way God works in believers is by giving them a better intellectual grasp of the truth.
The Psalmist writes of a desire to understand God’s Word so that he would practice it with all his heart (Psalm 119:34). This desire results in a prayer to God for understanding – not
of truth revealed outside the Bible, but of truth already revealed in the Law that he reveres.
Paul prays Ephesian Christians would be able to better understand (Ephesians 1:16-19) the truths that he goes on to expound (Ephesians 1:19-2:10). This is a prayer for grasping the significance of something. Paul believes God can help them understand better the truth they already know, and he prays for it.
The root of all sanctification comes from a transformed mind (Romans 12:2). Therefore, when believers pray to be more holy, we really ask God to impact our minds. This comes through a knowledge of newly-learned Scripture or added insight into ones already known.
The second way God works in believers is through imparting wisdom.
James writes to his Christian audience telling them to ask God for wisdom (in the context of a trial, probably pertaining to how to best navigate that trial). But he goes on to say this request must be made in faith, without any doubting (James 1:6). But James never speaks of an indicator to show when God has given wisdom. Instead, he actually implies that the Christian can know this wisdom is coming to him on the sole basis of whether he asked “in faith without any doubting.”
This wisdom, however, does not become a license to stamp God’s approval and authority on your decisions. But if you are otherwise in submission to the Scriptures, and you ask for wisdom to honor God in a situation, it does mean you can be confident you have received it.
In Colossians 1:9-11, Paul prays that Christians would have spiritual wisdom and understanding. Though instruction in the truth is certainly in mind here, it seems an added degree of wisdom in applying that truth is in view. God enables Christians to do this, and it is right to pray God would work in the minds of other Christians to make them wiser.
In both of these cases, though, it is neither felt nor confirmed externally, we know God can change people’s minds.
Also implied in these instances is the effect God has on the willingness of a person to receive the truth. The Corinthians were unable to humbly receive what Paul was speaking to them, so they had both an intellectual lack and a lack of wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:6, 3:1-3) These were caused by fleshly desires and an unwillingness to receive the truth that confronted them. God has to soften the heart so that men are willing to let Scripture teach them.
It may be easy to see how God can influence the thoughts of Christians; after all, they have the Holy Spirit in them! But does God affect anyone else’s mind? Yes, he absolutely does.
Paul instructs Timothy to have people in the church pray for their governing officials (1 Timothy 2:1-2). The goal is that Christians “may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” – essentially, to be free from interruption by persecution (the Christian’s responsibility to his side of this deal deserves its own separate treatment). What is clearly implied is that the decisions and actions of the leaders in choosing how Christians will be treated by the government are impacted by the prayer of believers. This is more than a prayer that natural circumstances would prevent persecution; it is a prayer that God would so impact the minds of these leaders that it would have the desired effect.
This is evident as he continues the passage. Paul cites another reason to pray for leaders: God wants them to be saved as well (1 Timothy 2:4). Again, the implication is that God would have to work in the mind of the government leader for him to be persuaded to believe the gospel.
Scripture teaches that God is sovereign over even the inner desires and choices (the heart) of the most powerful people (the king) (Proverbs 21:1).
Unbeknownst to even the king, his choices are not the independent decisions of a man who is free from God’s influence, but the choices of a man who is completely under the sovereign hand of God even when he chooses one thing over another. There is no reason to think that the king perceives this, but it still happens. Why do kings make the decisions they do? Because they want to? Of course, and always. But God has whatever effect he wishes upon even the king’s “want to” – to say nothing of his effect upon the minds of less-powerful people.
Nowhere is this better put on display than three specific men whose decisions God influenced in Scripture. The first is the Egyptian Pharaoh at the time of Israel’s exodus. Sometimes the account speaks of Pharaoh hardening his own heart (e.g. Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34); others it is God who is said to have hardened his heart (e.g. Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27). Pharaoh is making the decisions, no doubt unaware that God is simultaneously ensuring that he will make those specific decisions.
The second is Artaxerxes in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah prays and asks God for favor in the sight of the king – that he would send Nehemiah back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:11; 2:5). God answered this prayer by making Nehemiah’s request pleasing to the king (Nehemiah 2:6).
A third example of this is found in 2 Samuel, when David fled his own palace in order to escape a coup by his son, Absalom. The counsel of David’s former adviser, Ahithophel, was in those days regarded as highly as the word of God itself (2 Samuel 16:23), yet in a crucial decision, Absalom both asked for and heeded the counsel of another adviser, Hushai the Archite. The reason? That God had ordained to “bring calamity on Absalom” (2 Samuel 17:14). This was in line with (though maybe not exactly) David’s earlier prayer to make Ahithophel’s counsel foolishness (2 Samuel 15:31). Neither of the counselors, nor Absalom, had any clue that God’s sovereign decision was the ultimate factor, but the Scripture insists that it was.
To summarize: God uses men’s prayers to affect decisions not by giving new information about what he wants, but by imperceptibly shaping the minds of people so that the answer to prayer comes about. This is every bit as supernatural as it would be to give a sign or other confirmation, and we must not downplay it as insignificant. God is gracious to answer our prayers for his glory by his sovereign work in the minds of people.