Praying God's Way
Every Christian knows that we are supposed to pray, but very few Christians understand the purpose behind prayer.
My hope today is that you will leave here understanding what it means to pray to a holy, all-powerful, and all-wise, God. From an application standpoint, my hope is that by understanding prayer you will become more motivated to pray. My hope is that by understanding prayer you will avoid every misuse of prayer.
What do I mean by that-- 'misuse of prayer'? What I mean is that some Christians talk about prayer in much the same way people talk about magic. Some Christians take verses like John 14:13, "whatever you ask in My name, that will I do", and begin to treat God like some celestial wish-granter with their prayers.
When we pray 'in the name of Jesus' it is not some incantation where we pray, 'God, do this . . . in the name Jesus', and then God goes, 'Ah shucks, they said the magic phrase! . . . This is going to mess up everything we are doing in the kingdom, and now we have to answer this prayer.'
This is not how prayer works. Prayer is not magic. Here is a definition of magic I came across: magic is the manipulation of spiritual powers to carry out one's human will. What is scary about this definition is that it describes the way many Christians pray.
Think about this. We do not want to manipulate the sovereign God of the universe! This God is the Maker of heaven and earth, and I'm not so sure I want to move His hand according to my vacillating desires. I'm pretty certain that He has a better idea of how to run my life than I do.
What is it then, to pray in the name of Jesus? Keep in mind that, in the 1st century, they did not have telephones. They did not have e-mail. If you wanted to send a message to someone in a distant land you sent an ambassador--and they would go in your name. The ambassador would then say EXACTLY what you wanted said.
To pray 'in Jesus' name' then, is to pray EXACTLY how Jesus would pray. Where do I get that in the text? I get that from 1John 5:14: "14This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us."
The key to prayer is to pray as Christ would pray. This means that prayer is not bending God's arm to give us what we want. Prayer is the means whereby the Christian aligns his/her will to the will of God. Prayer is not asking God to move towards us as much as it is asking God to move us towards Him.
By why is this so difficult? What hinders us from praying as Christ would pray? What hinders us is our self-centredness. What hinders us is that we all have our own agendas. What hinders us is that we always want to be in control. We want to choose everything from our career, to our friends, to our belief system. God insists, however, that we choose our paths according to His will, and on His terms.
Is God being a tyrant by demanding that we carry out His will? No. In fact, demanding that His will be done is a demonstration of God's great love for us. If God is, as we confess, all-powerful, infinitely wise, and perfectly holy, then doing God's will is for our own benefit! Doing God's will is far better, and in the long run, far safer, than doing our own will.
John Calvin observes this very fact when he writes: "For though God has promised to do whatsoever his people may ask, yet He does not allow them an unbridled liberty to ask whatever may come to their minds . . . And doubtless nothing is better for us than this restriction; for if it was allowed to every one of us to ask what he pleased, and if God were to indulge us in our wishes, it would be to provide very badly for us."
What Calvin is saying is that it is actually a good thing that God does not answer all of our prayers. C.S. Lewis observed the same thing when he wrote, "If God had granted all the silly prayers I've made in my life, where would I be now?"(Lewis, Letters To Malcolm, 28). The only prayers that we want answered are the prayers offered according to the will of Christ.
Now here is some excellent news: Every prayer that is according to the will of Christ will be answered. Have a look again at 1John 5:14, "14This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us."
If we are praying according to the will of Christ we are to be confident that God will answer our prayer. And when John says that God "hears" the prayers that are according to the will of Christ, he is not talking about physically hearing the prayer.
God hears, both, our self-centred and our kingdom-centred prayers. When John says that God "hears" the prayers that are according to the will of Christ, he is telling us that God will answer these prayers.
But let's be honest here. We all know what it is like to pray and feel like nothing has changed. We've all been there--haven't we? We know what it is like to desperately want some assurance, to want some demonstration of divine presence, only to receive nothing. We do everything we are supposed to--we pray the way we figure Jesus would, we live, we worship, and we serve as faithfully as we can. And still there is nothing . . .
Our experience is that we have seen too many unconverted people stay unconverted. We have seen too many sick people remain sick. Many of us know, all too well, that in this life, we don't always get a happy ending.
So when you read a text like 1John 5:14, you can be forgiven for stumbling. Scripture is promising that all prayers in accordance to the will of God shall be answered, but our experience leads us to question this.
Does Scripture offer an explanation for what we call 'unanswered prayer'. Yes it does. I have found that there are primarily 3 reasons for why we think that our prayers are not answered.
The first reason why we think that our prayers are not is answered is quite simple: They're not. God promises to answer prayers that are according to His will, and so it follows that He does not answer prayers that are contrary to His will. This fact is confirmed for us by the apostle James who writes, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives"(Jas. 4:3). It is possible that our request may be righteous in nature, but our motivation may be self-serving rather than kingdom-serving.
An example of this would be when Peter exclaimed "God forbid it" when Jesus predicted his own murder(Mt. 16:22). Surely, there was nothing wrong with the nature of Peter's request. Peter prayed that Jesus might not be killed--a prayer that any one of us would be tempted to pray. But what is Jesus' reply to Peter? "Get behind Me, Satan! . . . for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's"(Mt. 16:23). No matter how noble, God will not answer our prayers unless they are in the best interests of the kingdom.
The second reason we think that our prayers are not answered is that many of our prayers are not answered immediately. God has a different timetable than we do. And as painful as waiting may be, we must remember that God's timetable is perfect.
A biblical example of this is God's promise to Abraham that he would have a son. But how long did Abraham have to wait for the fulfillment of this promise? Abraham had to wait 25 years before the birth of Isaac(Gen. 12:2; 21:4). God does not always answer our prayers immediately.
The third reason we think that our prayers are not answered is that many of our prayers are answered in a manner we would not expect. Our biblical precedent for this is Romans 8:26, 27 where Paul writes that, "we do not know how to pray as we should but the Spirit intercedes for us"(Rom. 8:26). And for what purpose does the Holy Spirit intercede for us? Verse 27, "(The Holy Spirit) intercedes for us according to the will of God".
What this means on a practical level is that because the Holy Spirit has to change our prayer to conform it to the will of God, we often do not recognize it when it is answered. We must remember not to confuse God's willingness to answer our prayers with Him being a celestial wish-granter. When God answers prayer, He often does so in ways we wouldn't expect or choose.
Some of you have heard me tell the story of a lone shipwreck survivor on an uninhabited island. This man managed to build a hut in which he placed all that he had saved from his sinking ship. He prayed to God daily for deliverance and he anxiously watched the horizon to hail any passing ship.
One day the man was horrified to find his hut in flames. All that he had was gone. To this man's limited vision, this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. The man was so upset by this that he began to curse God.
The very next day, a ship arrived. "How did you ever find me?!", exclaimed the man. The captain answered, "We saw your smoke signal".
God does indeed answer prayer . He answers every prayer that is according to the will of Christ. If your prayer is according to God's will, it will be answered 100% of the time. Not always in ways we would expect, and not always as quickly as we would hope for, but He does answer prayer.
Get to know God's Word and you will get to know God's will. Pray according to the will of God and expect His will to be done.
Expect great things because our prayers are to a great God. Amen.