The study of answered prayer is an exciting exercise, but it is, at the same time, a sobering exercise. It is an exciting exercise in that we gain assurance from Scripture that our prayers are not empty words, but they are the means appointed by God to carry out His will. The study of answered prayer, however, is also a sobering exercise in that we learn that not all of our prayers will be answered.
I suspect that every person here knows what this is like. We all know what it is like to pray for healing for someone who is sick only to see no recovery. We know what it is to pray for someone in a difficult situation only to see no change.
In my study of the subject of prayer over the past few months, I had hoped that I would find some secret formula to getting all my prayers answered, but I found no such formula. What I found is that God only answers prayers according to His will (1Jn. 5:14).
Before I can begin to demonstrate from Scripture a basis for expecting answered prayer, we need to understand that every prayer request falls into one of two categories. The first category of prayer requests are those requests that Scripture confirms as always being the will of God. This is where the Lord's Prayer becomes a helpful model. In the Lord's Prayer we learn that God always wants His name to be revered, He always wants His kingdom and His will to prevail in the manner that it does in heaven, and so on.
The second category of prayer requests are those requests where we have no assurance from Scripture that they will be certainly answered. The Bible does not promise that we will be free from trial. There is no promise that you will have a high paying job. There is no promise that your body will be immune from sickness. There is no promise of uninterrupted earthly comfort for the Christian.
Depending on which category your prayer request is will dictate how you are to pray. For the first category of requests, those things we know to be the will of God, we must pray for absolutely with no conditions at all. But for the second category, those requests that we are uncertain about being the will of God, we must pray for conditionally. For instance, if you pray for the health of your body, you should pray, "Lord, if it is according to your will, then restore to me the health of my body."
The separation of these categories is very important. If we do not understand the nature of unanswered prayer it will strip us of our confidence that God will answer any of our prayers. What will happen is we will become so accustomed to unanswered prayer that we will seldom expect God to do anything when we pray. As a result, we will end up praying with only a faint hope that God will act on our behalf.
Friends, this should not describe our prayer life. Turn with me to John chapter 14, where we will gain excellent insight into the nature of answered prayer. This is what Jesus says in verses 13 and 14, "whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it."
These verses should inspire confidence in answered prayer! My only caution when interpreting these verses is to not isolate the words "whatever" or "anything" from the rest of the sentence. God will not give us whatever we ask for, He will give us "whatever we ask for in (Christ's) name". And there is a difference.
The instruction to do something in someone's name would have been readily understood by those Jesus was speaking to. Many Christians today, however, misinterpret this instruction. Many Christians treat the phrase "in Jesus' name" as some magical incantation to get whatever they want in prayer. Can you imagine the implications if this was the case? If praying "in Jesus' name" was some magical incantation that forced God's hand, can you imagine what would be going on in heaven when we prayed? You would have someone praying, 'God, do this . . . in the name Jesus', and then God would say, '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.
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. This conclusion is confirmed in 1John 5:14, where we read, "This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." That is, we can expect answers to our prayers when we pray as Christ would pray.
Jesus makes clear the fact that God is eager to answer prayer. When Jesus teaches about prayer in Luke 11, His first parable is meant to be a contrast to how God answers prayer. God is not like the person who gives bread only because of the "persistence" of the friend at his door (Lk. 11:8). The point is that we do not have to twist God's arm. We do not have to wear God down with our prayers for Him to give in. By way of contrast, Jesus instructs us, "Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you"(Lk. 11:9). The point here is that God is eager to answer our prayers.
Jesus' second example also makes this point, "Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?"(Lk. 11:11-13).
The promise here is that if we ask for "good gifts", God will always give us what we ask for. Bear in mind, however, that God alone is the judge of what is good. And the example of a "good gift" that Jesus uses is the gift of the Holy Spirit. I think it is safe to say that there could be no better gift to receive than the Spirit of God. And so as we strive to pray God's will, as we persevere in our prayers for others, let us be mindful of the fact that the best thing God could give us is His Spirit.
When we pray for those who do not know Christ, we should pray first and foremost that God would give them His Holy Spirit. And when we pray for those who do know Christ, we pray that the person will be controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Never take for granted that a Christian is being controlled by the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul teaches that we have the ability to "grieve" and to "quench" the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30, 1Thess. 5:19). It is for this reason that Paul exhorts us to "be filled with the Spirit"(Eph. 5:18) and to "keep in step with the Spirit"(Gal. 5:25).
To pray the Lord's will then, it will be helpful to pray for the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, I am tempted to pray for these churches to grow, but what I should be praying is, 'Lord, send your Spirit to work in our churches!'. I am tempted to pray for my sermon to go over well, but what I should be praying is, 'Lord, may your Spirit energize me, the preacher, and also this message. And may your Spirit open the hearts of these people to receive the message.' I am tempted to pray that I would be a good husband, a good Christian, and a good minister, but what I should pray is, 'Lord, may your Spirit direct and transform my thoughts and actions in every situation.'
So often we pray for what is outward--that is, what we can see. But clearly it is more effective to pray for the inward work of the Spirit. As Jesus has said, "first clean the inside of the cup . . . so that the outside may become clean also."(Mt. 23:26).
And finally, as we pray in Jesus' name, as we pray for what Jesus would pray for, as we pray according to His will, let us do so with a decided faith. The apostle James instructs us to "ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord"(Jas. 1:6,7).
I used to think this was a difficult verse. I used to think that prayer without doubting was impossible. The reason praying without doubt was so hard was because I made no separation between praying the revealed will of God and praying for those things that were not necessarily God's will. The truth is, I have no business praying with faith unless my prayer request is according to the will of God.
Thankfully, God has revealed much of His will and so we can pray with faith. We know for certain that God desires to be glorified in every situation. We know for certain that God desires for the Gospel to spread. We know for certain that God desires His Spirit to transform individuals, churches, and communities into the likeness of Jesus Christ. We know for certain that God desires to manifest His strength in times of our weakness.
Friends, pray for these things. When you pray according to the will of God, you should do so absolutely and with no doubt. You should do so expecting answered prayer 100% of the time.
God is good, and He promises to give good things to those who ask in Jesus' name. Amen.