This is the third blog in a series of four that seeks to discover what the Bible really says about the will of God. If you want to read the previous 2 posts click here.
Prayer and the Will of God
If you were to ask 10 pastors what steps you should take when making a significant decision, whatever you qualify significant to be, I can almost guarantee that 10 out of the 10 would recommend to pray about it. Praying about something is the blanket answer to every Christian problem or issue – don’t know what to do in a particular situation, well, you should pray about it. But what should we pray for and what should we expect to happen when we pray? Does prayer unlock some secret vault of information in the divine mind that I can now have access, thereby allowing me to make a more informed decision? Can I hear God when I pray? If I ask God for things will he respond to me by telling me (in whatever way) that I should do this or that or something else? What is prayer anyway!?!
We know that we need to pray. Jesus tells us that we need to pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44), he tells us how to pray (Matt 6), he gives us examples of the importance of prayer in his own life (Matt 14:23) and he declared that his house (the temple) is to be a “house of prayer” (Matt 21:13). Outside of the Gospels, the New Testament is replete with instructions concerning prayer – we are told to be devoted to prayer (Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18; Phil 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17; 1 Tim 2:1), prayer is seen as a difference maker in ministry (2 Cor 1:11; 9:14; 13:7, 9), we are even told that when we don’t know what to pray for the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf (Rom 8:26), and we cannot deny the importance of prayer in the life of Paul as he repeatedly prays for the churches to which he writes. Significant New Testament passages on prayer are the following – Romans 8 26ff; Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:9-14 and 1 Timothy 2:1-10.
This not the place for a thorough outworking of a theology of prayer, but I do want to take the time to outline what prayer is so that we can better understand two very important things as they relate to our Christian lives – (1) what is prayer?; (2) what can I expect to happen when I pray? – and then to draw some conclusions. But, let me remind you again, don’t simply take my word on this stuff, I would encourage you to do a study of the above passages, as well as the many other ones in Scripture that discuss prayer. I strongly promote Bereanism.
(1) Let’s begin by seeking to understand the biblical perspective of prayer. Broadly speaking prayer is “every religious act by which we take upon ourselves directly to speak to [God]” (Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, 654). More specifically we can say that prayer expresses our trust in God and is a means whereby our trust in him can increase (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 376). Prayer is the supreme demonstration of faith. When Jesus taught us to pray he showed us that we must first admit our willingness to submit ourselves to God and to the way in which he was/is/will be operating things from heaven (Matt 6) and only within that recognition do we then ask for things. The Lord’s prayer highlights for us the key aspect of the nature of prayer – our focus needs to be on God himself whose glory must be our first and deepest concern (France, Matthew). In this way prayer is for our spiritual blessing, a means by which we grow in our relationship with God (Pink, The Sovereignty of God, 114). Prayer does not fundamentally involve me asking for stuff, although we are told to do this (Matt 6:11, cf. v. 8; Jas 4:2), it is essentially a demonstration of dependence on God and a willingness to submit to him in all facets of my life thereby deepening my fellowship with him. In sum, “[p]rayer is a means that God has provided for us to be involved in establishing his rule in the world. It is also a way in which we grow in our personal knowledge of God and our love for him. As we learn to desire above all else the coming of God’s kingdom and the doing of his will in the world, our prayer tor daily needs and for forgiveness is subsumed under the overall quest for God’s glory. Prayer becomes a natural activity in our lives, an ongoing conversation with God, through which we acknowledge our dependence upon him for everything that we need and, yet also participate in the establishment of God’s will through our petitions.” (Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, 348).
(2) What can I expect to happen when I pray? We can say pretty confidently that prayer is NOT simply a method of spiritual self-stimulation, but is a demonstration on our part that we are as concerned as God is that his will be done (Erickson, Christian Theology, 431). Prayer acknowledges, and is based on the revelation of, the nature and attributes of God (ISBE, 937). This is where we SIGNIFICANTLY MISUNDERSTAND prayer, it is NOT, did you get that, NOT, about me and what I want or desire. It is about giving God the worship, praise, thanksgiving, adoration, devotion, communion and confession that he deserves, along with my petitions, and these must be offered to the glory of God and with a willingness to submit my requests to whatever direction God’s providential will takes. The effectiveness of prayer does not ultimately rely in the prayer itself or in the one who is making it, but in God to whom the prayer is made. What I will get from prayer is a deepened faith and trust in the Almighty God who is also my Lord and Savior. Nowhere in Scripture am I told that God will speak to me during or after I pray, and nowhere is there any formula laid out by which I can guarantee success in my prayers. To think in these ways is to totally miss the biblical teaching concerning prayer.
What conclusions can we draw from the above? Well there are a few and I want to get the most controversial one, given our current climate in Steinbach, out of the way first – the Bible does not teach listening prayer (Defined in this way – prayer where we entreat God with a concern, and then ‘listen’ to what God says back to us concerning our request). A study of the passages on prayer in the Bible do not allow us to hold the view that when we pray a certain kind of prayer, sometimes using certain phraseology or sentence structure, that God will tangibly respond to us with an answer within a set time frame (usually minutes), or at all for that matter. [Sounds a lot like magic doesn’t it!?!] This kind of thinking is simply not found in Scripture, and it runs contrary to biblical teaching at a number of points. Some may object. What about the fact that some biblical characters heard God, like Samuel, Peter and Paul for example? Well, to put it bluntly, to prove listening prayer from these stories would involve hermeneutical cirque du soleil – a dangerous contortion of the principles of biblical interpretation. Or what about John 10:27, “My sheep listen to my voice: I know them, and they follow me”? The context of this verse is one of salvation, God’s calling and the eternal protection that God provides his sheep as opposed to the Pharisees who are not his sheep. The ‘listening’ that is done in this context has to do with ‘eternal life’ and perseverance, and not with prayer. Or what about the fact that all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col 2:3)? Does that not mean that a deep relationship with Christ will mean access to these treasures? In a word, No! Once again, to come to that conclusion, one would have to ignore the context of the verse, the focus of what can be ours in that passage, and in general abandon proper exegetical procedures. Or what about my personal experience when I ‘heard’ God in a particular situation? I can’t argue against anyone’s experience any more than you can argue against mine, I can only search the Scriptures and put forth what it says. The Bible should determine whether or not our experience is legitimate. If the Bible does not allow for a certain kind of experience or behavior, regardless of how we might feel about it, we must jettison it from our Christian life. I speak strongly here, because the dangers of the opposite are so great.
Second, prayer is fundamentally an act of faith. We discussed this above, but I must add one more thing – Prayer is not so much about the act of praying as it is the attitude with which we pray – an attitude of dependency upon God. “Prayer is the taking of an attitude of dependency upon God, the spreading of our needs before Him, the asking for those things which are in accordance with His will. . .” (Pink, Sovereignty of God, 121)
Third, I must pray according to God’s ‘will,’ or in ‘Jesus’ name.’ Two passages are significant here: 1 John 5:14-15 (cf. Matt 6:10; 26:39), ‘. . .if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him;” and John 14:13-14 (cf. John 16:23-24; Eph 5:20), “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Put simply, to pray in the name of Jesus, or to pray according to God’s ‘will’ is to set aside our own wills, accepting God’s instead. It is not a magical incantation that will unlock the vault of God’s heavenly storehouse of blessing, but it is the way in which we admit our creaturely weakness and it is our confession of our great need of God so that no matter the ‘answer’ I receive I am able to accept it with fulness of faith. As one author states correctly, “In prayer, we do not cajole God into doing something that he did not purpose to do, we ask him to do what he wants to do. Our first task in petitionary prayer is therefore to discern God’s will for the situation. The better we know God through our knowledge of his Word and through our fellowship with him, the more likely we are to accurately discern his will. . . Obviously Scripture does not tell us specifically what God wants to do in most of the situations that we face. But he has given us a picture of his general desires. He gives us wisdom by his Spirit so that we can examine situations and make judgments concerning what development in the situation would move things along toward the goals that we understand to be God’s goals for the world. Nevertheless, on many occasions we find ourselves unsure of the specific action that God would wish to do in the situation that confronts us. And so we present our requests, but we qualify them with the condition “if it is your will.” This is not a lack of faith; it is a lack of knowledge. We believe that God will do what is best, but we are uncertain what that is and so we ask according to our best wisdom.” (Tiessen, Providence and Prayer, 339-340; italics mine).
Last, there are no guarantees when we pray. Sometimes we get what we want when we pray, and sometimes we don’t. We see both in Scripture. On the positive side we are told that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective (Jas 5:16), yet we also see that Paul thrice prayed to have his thorn removed and God refused all three times (2 Cor 12:7-10). Was Paul not righteous enough to get his prayers answered? Surely not. There are no guarantees in prayer for a number of reasons, the main one being simply this – God is sovereign and will work out his decretive will according to his purposes (Eph 1:3ff). God desires for us to seek from him the things we are in need of. God does bid us to pray. Prayer is part of effecting things in this world. BUT in all of this we must remember, God is not our servant, we are his, and often ‘unanswered prayer’ or prayer that receives a different ‘answer’ than we would have desired is God’s way of reminding us of that fact. Arthur Pink summarizes well, “Prayer is, indeed, a Divinely-appointed means whereby we may obtain from God the things we ask, provided, that we ask for those things which are in accord with his will” (Pink, The Sovereignty of God, 122).
I hope that this very brief overview of prayer and the will of God has been helpful. My next blog will deal with the issue of the Holy Spirit and the will of God. We all seek to have a sense of God’s presence and to feel right and be at peace with a decision that we are making, but how do we know which feelings are from God? Does Scripture even promise us this kind of thing? Should we even be looking for that “peaceful easy feeling?” Stay tuned!
Soli Deo Gloria