Should We Argue with God in Prayer?
Sometimes in Scripture prayer seems to be less about asking and more about persuading. Take for example Abraham’s prayer for Sodom in Genesis 18. After learning that God intended to destroy the city, Abraham intercedes, asking whether God will follow through with his plans if fifty righteous people can be found in the city, to which God says he will spare the city if fifty righteous people can be found therein. Abraham continues to plead down the number: forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten. Each time, God promises to stave off his destruction for the sake of the righteous. Or consider the example of Moses’s prayer after the people grumbled about entering the Promised Land in Numbers 14. The Lord threatened to disinherit the people, strike them down, and raise up a new people from Moses’s family. Moses prayed on Israel’s behalf, reminding Yahweh that the fame of his name was connected to the success of Israel, and God relented. What are Christians to make of these texts, and what are their implications for prayer? Should believers argue with God in prayer?
Arguments Are Not Always Disagreeable
Many readers will understand the word “argue” as something like “heated debate,” or an “angry disagreement,” which is all too often our experience. Negatively, the word can connote these things, but I am using the term a bit more broadly as a shorthand way of saying “offering persuasive reasons” for our ideas. Arguments might be sound or unsound, valid or invalid, persuasive or unpersuasive. Sometimes arguments (and prayers) start with the right facts but reach the wrong conclusion. The classic example of this mistake is Jonah, who refused to preach repentance to the citizens of Nineveh precisely because he knew God’s gracious and merciful character (Jonah 4:2) and that Yahweh was likely to forgive this people whom the prophet despised. In the examples of Abraham and Moses above, and elsewhere in Scripture, we find God’s people offering arguments for their requests in prayer.
Considering Abraham’s situation in Genesis 18, God appears in a theophany (a temporary appearance of God in a human form) as three men. We learn that two of the men are angels. Abraham receives the men with hospitality and the men reveal that Sarah will bear a child in her old age. Afterward, the men leave to travel to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to see the wickedness that has been spoken of them and the Lord announces his intention to destroy these cities because of their sin. Abraham intercedes, asking the Lord to consider the presence of the righteous in the city among the wicked, and then offers an argument based on God’s character: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham appealed specifically to God’s justice, intimating that it is proper to punish the wicked but not those who are just.
In Numbers 14, after Moses’s spies return to report on the fortifications and strength of the people whom they will face in the promised land, the people complain about God’s deliverance from Egypt: “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” (Num. 14:3). In the larger narrative, Israel has already complained about God’s rescue and Moses’s leadership with the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. With this latest complaint, God proposes to smite them and begin again with Moses’s family to set apart a new people. Moses intercedes on Israel’s behalf, offering God several reasons to relent: First, because the Egyptians might hear of this situation and interpret it as weakness on God’s behalf: “Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land . . . that he has killed them’” (Num. 14:15–16). Second, Moses argues based on God’s character:
And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now. (Num. 14:17–19)
Moses offered two arguments, one for God’s reputation and one for God’s character. The first is that God’s enemies would use the occasion of Israel’s destruction to bring disrepute upon his name. The second is that God’s own character is one of forgiveness and forbearance. As with Abraham’s prayer, God relents from immediate, public destruction, but nonetheless promises to hold those who have sinfully grumbled to account, sparing the righteous (Num. 14:20–25).
The prospect of arguing with God in prayer may seem disrespectful or foolish: Who are we to argue with God? There might be many arguments or reasons that would indeed be foolish: presuming that we are giving God information that he lacks in order to make the best decision; presuming that God has not considered our perspective or our desires; presuming that we have more foresight than God to see the consequences or the potential good that comes from an action; and the like. Yet in the cases looked at here, God does not chastise Abraham for having the audacity to try to persuade him to a different action nor does he rebuke Moses for daring to remind him of his reputation and character. Instead, these arguments prevail without divine objection.
Guardrails for Arguing in Prayer
In our own families, jobs, and society, one reason that we argue is that we are unable to see situations from someone else’s point of view. Of course, some arguments arise precisely because we do understand someone’s side of things and think they are wrong! But we recognize that we have our limits. We all have a perspective on what we think is best for our lives, what we would like to happen, and what outcomes we think would be best; yet every person has this in common: we see our situations and needs only in part. Partial information is not inaccurate, but partial information can lead us to make bad decisions, including arguing with God, suggesting that he does not understand what we face. He does. God not only sees, but declares “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). God knows what we need before we ask him (cf. Matt. 6:8) precisely because he is our Father “who is in heaven” (v. 9). Reflecting often on these truths is so important for our prayers, for we always ask from some degree of ignorance, but God always answers from full omniscience. How might this truth shape our prayers? First, it is right for us to acknowledge our limited knowledge of any situation we bring before God and to ask him to let such limitations humble us. Second, we should ask God to give us a greater vision for our situation that we might worship him for the wisdom of his provision. We ought also to consider that we have never received an answer to prayer that was not the right answer at the perfect time.
For some readers, the idea of offering arguments for our prayers seems odd, perhaps because the only reason we are accustomed for seeking things is, “I want it.” The examples of Abraham and Moses could be multiplied. For example, David argues with God in Psalm 143, making more than a dozen requests for this reason: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble! And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies, and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul, for I am your servant” (Ps. 143:11–12). Arguing with God—reminding him of his promises, character, and name—is a different sort of thing than arguing for our own way.
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Prayer by Joseph C. Harrod, which is scheduled to release on August 16, 2022. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Relevant questions about prayer answered from the whole witness of Scripture
Praying is often the most common yet least understood practice of Christian spirituality. In 40 Questions about Prayer, scholar and teacher Joseph C. Harrod shares biblical insight on the nature and practice of Christian prayer. Harrod’s emphasis on searching the Scriptures results in a trustworthy, practical guide to a vital aspect of Christian belief and behavior, equally appropriate for seminary courses, Bible studies, and personal understanding.
The accessible question-and-answer format of 40 Questions about Prayer allows readers to explore the issues they care most about, such as these:
- Does prayer change God’s mind?
- Does God hear the prayers of unbelievers?
- What does it mean to pray in Jesus’s name?
- How does prayer affect evangelism, spiritual awakening, and revival?
- What does it mean to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)?
- Do physical postures affect prayer?
Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!