by Stan Smith
If you are anything like me, you have experienced a prayer life of questionable effectiveness. You know what I mean. You pray for stuff; God doesn't answer. Oh, okay, God answers. It's just that His answer is "No". However you want to view it. If you are like me, you've also had to question this. I mean, didn't Jesus say, "Ask, and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7:7)? Didn't Jesus say, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mark 11:24)? So if that's all true, why don't I get everything I ask for? Where's my lawyer?! Okay, no, I don't want a lawyer against God. What I want is to better understand.
The first thing to do in trying to understand anything "Scripture" is to get a whole picture. Snagging your favorite "Ask and it shall be given to you" verse and applying that universally without any conditions would be a mistake. It would be like me saying "That house is blue" and then taking offense when someone else pointed out that it had red trim. Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. So what does Scripture say? Is God my grand butler who should be giving me everything I ask, or have I skipped something here? Unfortunately, too many people come up with wrong or incomplete answers. So let's look.
Well, first I will point out that the Bible has several things to say about impediments to prayer. Some will tell me that it's a lack of faith. "You know," they warn me, "believe that you have received it." And, indeed, a lack of faith can be a problem. James says that a person who asks with doubt should not expect anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7). But faith is not the only consideration here. "Oh, this one is easy," others have told me. "Jesus said that the Father gives good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11). You may not be one of His children." And it's true that those who do not belong to Christ shouldn't expect God to answer their prayers. Another impediment to answered prayer. Still incomplete. Some will suggest that you didn't ask with the right formula. "Jesus said, 'Ask in My Name.' You didn't say, 'In Jesus' Name' at the end." Yes, Jesus did say "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do" (John 14:13), but He did not mean "Use this formula of words." But there is a limiting component there which we'll have to explore.
There are a couple other impediments to prayer to examine. First, Peter warned husbands, "Live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7). Thus, if you are a husband who is failing to properly honor and understand your wife, you can expect your prayers to be hindered. Fix that. Then we see "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working" (James 5:16). There is power in the prayers of the righteous. Isaiah told Israel, "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that he does not hear" (Isaiah 59:2). That might be a concern to have. James had a serious warning on the subject. "You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:2-3). Are you praying so that you can have something for your personal pleasure? Count on that as a problem. "You ask and do not receive." In fact, in Job we read something a little more generic. "They cry out, but He does not answer, because of the pride of evil men. Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it." (Job 35:12-13). God doesn't hear "an empty cry". A hypocritical, self-serving cry. A prayer without heart. These things are all biblically bound to obstruct an effective prayer life.
On the other hand, the Bible offers some thoughts on how to have the perfectly effective prayer life. There are guarantees under certain conditions. Now, wouldn't that be cool? Wouldn't that be the way to go? So, what guarantees?
One of the best known passages on prayer along these lines is in John. It takes place in the Upper Room on Jesus's last night with His disciples before His death. He does say "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do" (John 14:13), but that's just part of it. He goes on to say, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7). Here we have a set of conditions. First condition: "Abide in Me." Thus, a person not abiding in Christ may get a prayer answered, but don't count on it. Second condition: "My words abide in you." That is, what Jesus had to say, as indicated both in the Gospels as well as in all of Scripture needs to be soaked in, a prime component, living in your life. Beyond partial knowledge. Beyond mental knowledge. It needs to have taken up residence there. Now, while genuinely connected to Christ and immersed in His Word, ask. How does that work? David said it. "Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4). When your life-source is Christ and your life is occupied with His Word, your delight will be His delight. You'll want what He wants. That's why Jesus said the rest of the sentence (which I've skipped twice now) in John 14: "Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." Under these conditions, you will ask precisely like Jesus asked: "Not My will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
What is the guarantee? When I ask what God wants, I am guaranteed to receive it. He does it for His glory. He does it "that your joy may be full" (John 16:24). In fact, it perfectly matches Jesus's words in Matthew 7:11. "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" You know how kids are. They ask their parents for all sorts of things that aren't good for them. But a good father knows how to give good gifts.
Two other points to consider. First, Jesus said, "If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 18:19). Keep in mind that this is not another passage that twists God's arm to give us what we want. God always has the option to say "No". His glory is always paramount. My point, then, is not that this is a guarantee to get what you want. My point is that it is good to get agreement from other believers. "Am I asking for something I should ask? Am I asking out of selfishness or self-service? Am I seeking God's will or my own?" It's a good thing. Obviously. Jesus said so.
One other thing. God always retains the right to answer prayer or deny it. I am absolutely certain that my prayers for God's will to be done will always be answered, and I'm equally sure that the more my delight is in Him, the more my prayers for His best will be answered. God still retains the right to not answer my prayers. You remember Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet of God. He was praying earnestly for their repentance. That sounds a lot like a "sure thing" prayer. I mean, doesn't God want all men to repent? But God told him, "As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me, for I will not hear you" (Jeremiah 7:16). We cannot assume we know God's will. We can always assume that "Not My will, but Yours be done" will be answered. But this side of heaven, we will not know perfectly what that will is.
Q: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies. (The Westminster Catechism, Q. 98)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6).
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I'm married with four grown children and (currently) four grandchildren. My wife and I live in sunny Phoenix by choice. I hope to encourage people with my words and to share with others what God has shared with me.
For more writings you can see my blog at birdsoftheair.blogspot.com.
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