New Believer Advice #21: Don’t just wish or worry. Pray!
God does not force us to seek His help, guidance, and input. He allows us to try to handle things in our own wisdom. And when we do, we oftentimes make a mess of our situation. But He is willing to step in and guide. He is just waiting for us to ask Him, to invite Him into our situation.
Do not just daydream, hope, wish, or worry. Put your thoughts into words and pray them over to God, giving Him the right to answer as He will and to direct your path. Pray about your hopes and dreams and concerns in the faith that He can do what you are asking Him to do, but also in the willingness to have faith in Him even if He doesn’t. (And search Scripture for guidance and wisdom.)
This will help you learn to trust Him more, as you see Him work things out in His timing. And this will strengthen your faith. But you have to be patient and willing for Him to direct your path. And you have to be willing to go where He leads and obey when He calls you to do something.
Part of prayer is learning to be still before Him and to listen. He speaks – through His Word, through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and nudges, and through your circumstances. But we need to listen, to quiet ourselves before Him enough to hear that “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit and to inhale all the wisdom and guidance that He gives us through His Word.
And when He has made an answer clear to you, it is your responsibility to obey and take the next step in faith.
I think sometimes His silence and “absence” is simply because He knows we are resistant to what He wants us to do. So He doesn’t waste His breath on us until we are ready to listen and willing to obey.
And when it comes to praying about a decision I have to make, I try to remember to pray that God would close any door that He doesn’t want me to go through. And I have learned that He does. If we are willing to follow His leading.
And remember this important point: Prayer is not about fancy words or saying the “right thing.” It doesn’t have to be eloquent or impressive. It just has to be real.
I used to be good at prayer when I was younger. As a leader in the youth group, I could spout off long, inspired-sounding prayers. If God gave His answers based on how inspired our prayers sounded, I surely would have earned a lot of answers. But as I have gotten older, I have struggled more and more with prayer. And more often than not lately, especially as I have struggled with feelings of depression, words tend to fail me.
And instead of long, polished speeches, I find myself sitting before Him in near-silence a lot, just sitting in His presence and saying prayers more like, “Lord, I don’t know what I need. Please just guide me. Give me what You want and help me be content with it.” Or “Lord, I feel so broken and I don’t know what I need anymore. Please, just fill me with a sense of Your presence.” And sometimes, it’s just “Lord . . . (big sigh) . . . Oh, Lord! I need You!” and then nothing else.
I just sit quietly before Him, unable sometimes to ask for anything. I just feel so small and humble and needy, and I just linger in the His great, big, capable presence. I guess in some ways, I have learned to stop bringing Him fancy words and polished prayers and to just bring Him myself, my humbled, broken heart.
Of course, I do still make requests. I let Him know what is on my heart, what I am struggling with. I ask for guidance and for His providence. I intercede for others and for our country. If a concern comes to mind, I try to immediately turn it into a prayer. But I am learning more and more the value of just being still before Him, resting in His presence. Being instead of doing. Listening instead of doing all the talking. I am miles away from the person I used to be who could pray long, confident, polished prayers. I have been humbled. Simplified. Stripped. And all I can do sometimes is come before Him naked, in need, and unsure of what to say, and just sit at His feet in quietness of heart, thankful to just be spending time in His presence and confident that He knows what I need and will guide and provide as He sees fit, even without all the fancy words I used to use to convince Him to do what I wanted.
(New stuff for this post. Taken from the “Iron Sharpens Iron” Bible study post on prayer.)
As Christians, we know that the Bible talks a lot about the importance of prayer. But I have to ask, as I did about God’s Word, do we live like it’s really important? Do we live like it matters? I am going to guess that if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really understand it. Because once you come to really understand prayer, you cannot help but cling to it with all you’ve got and accept it as a solemn responsibility. You cannot help but know that there is power in it and that the way you live has an effect on it. Prayer matters!
But I didn’t always believe this. For years, I thought that if God was going to do whatever He wanted to do anyway then prayer really didn’t do anything but show our dependence on Him and build our relationship with Him. And if our prayers really didn’t serve any other purpose, then they were just formalities and for our benefit, right? I didn’t really understand prayer, and so I didn’t really know why it was so important.
And I think that this is one of Satan’s most effective tools. Because if he can convince people that their prayers aren’t really necessary then the church will be ineffectual, lacking the kind of prayers that are necessary to battle the forces of evil and to get God’s Will done. And we won’t be that concerned with how we are living. We won’t see the connection it has to our prayer life.
If our prayers are just formalities, why would we be told in James 5:16 that “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”? If they were just formalities, we would be told something more like this, “Prayer is good for a righteous man because it draws him near to God.” But it doesn’t say that. It says that prayer is “powerful and effective.” Powerful and effective for what? I believe that it’s powerful against the kingdom of darkness and that it’s effective for getting God’s Will done.
In Job 42, we find an example of prayer being necessary to get God’s Will done. In this chapter, we read that God is angry with Job’s friends for not speaking of Him what is right. And He says, “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.” (Verse 8) Now, if God intended to forgive them anyway - if it was His Will and what He planned to do - why didn’t He just do it? Why require and wait for Job to pray? Because prayer is what gets God’s Will done on earth. This passage was instrumental in convincing me that prayer really does have an effect.
1 John 5:14-15: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him.”
His Will (what He desires to have happen) doesn’t just happen because He is all-powerful and can make it happen. We have to pray for it, to seek it. And to obey! God leaves the responsibility with mankind to put His Will into motion with our prayers. This is another way that God voluntarily holds back His power in deference to mankind’s free-will, to our right and responsibility to pray for things to happen or to not. And it’s when we ask for something that He wants for us that we get it. (But this doesn’t mean that we always get what we ask for. It has to be in line with what God wants for us.)
But I think that the flip-side is true, also. If we don’t ask for what He wants for us, we won’t get it. As James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” If we ask for something He doesn’t want, it won’t happen. But also if we don’t pray for and seek out what He does want, it won’t happen. Yes, there are times that God still does guide us, provide for us, and protect us, even if we haven’t asked for it. Because He is watching out for us. But there are things that we won’t get if we don’t ask for them. Our prayers and obedience have an effect on getting God’s Will done or not.
There are examples in the Old Testament that support the necessity of prayer and the fact that it affects whether His Will gets done or not.
In Exodus 23: 32, God tells Israel to make no covenant with the people in the land of Canaan after they take possession of it. But in Joshua 9, we read about the Gibeonite deception and how they did make a treaty with these people, believing that they were from a distant land. Joshua 9: 14 says that in this instance, Israel “did not inquire of the Lord.”
God’s Will and plan was that they didn’t make a treaty with these people. And I believe that God would have uncovered this deception for Israel and would have warned them not to make a treaty with them . . . if they had prayed about it. But they didn’t pray about it, so God’s Will didn’t happen in this case.
Joshua 6 tells the story of the Israelites taking Jericho, with God’s miraculous help. But in Joshua 7, after Jericho, we read how Joshua makes a foolish decision in his own wisdom. He had sent men to spy on Ai. And when the men returned, they said that there were only a few people there and so Joshua should only have to send two or three thousand people to successfully take it.
So Joshua does this. And it probably seemed wise to him, a piece of cake compared to the battle that they just went through taking Jericho. Well, verses 4-5 tell us, “So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. . . .” Now, this happened because of one man’s sin, when Achan took some of the things that were devoted to the Lord.
But what we don’t read in this story, in contrast to many of the other stories during Joshua’s reign, is that he “inquired of the Lord.” In this instance, he did not seek the Lord’s guidance about going after the city of Ai. I believe, once again, that God would have revealed Achan’s sin to Joshua and would have advised them not to go after Ai until the Achan situation was handled . . . if Joshua had inquired of the Lord.
And likewise, 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 says this “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.”
Was it God’s Will that all this happened in Saul’s life? Or did Saul have some responsibility in all this, and did lack of prayer and obedience have an effect on what happened to him? “Saul died because . . . he did not keep the word of the Lord . . . and did not inquire of the Lord.”
I think that it’s important to make a habit of doing this - of seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and learning to be receptive to Him. Sometimes even those “insignificant” decisions can have a significant impact on our lives. Maybe we end up going on vacation the same day that there’s a tornado. Maybe we choose the cutest dog, but it ends up being the meanest one in the bunch. Maybe we buy a car that ends up with serious problems. I believe that God is willing to offer His guidance in these “little” decisions (and in all decisions) if we seek it, but that He doesn’t necessarily offer His guidance if we would rather go ahead in our own wisdom.
It’s important to learn to inquire of the Lord and to learn to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. And the closer you walk with the Lord, the more likely you are to remember to inquire and to recognize the Spirit’s nudges along the way. And the more obedient you are, the more likely He is to nudge again in the future. We can deaden ourselves to His nudges by refusing to heed them and to obey.
I think that, yes, prayer is crucial in acknowledging our dependence on God and building our relationship with Him (through honesty and transparency). But it goes so much further than just being a show of dependence and drawing us closer. It gets His Will done!
If we do not see the incredible importance of prayer and if we have a hard time praying, it may be because we have misconceptions about prayer that need to be straightened out first. I know that I did. And here are some misconceptions that people might have:
Misconception Number 1: Prayer has to be “just right” or God won’t like it. And that makes me freeze up because I don’t know what to say.
Do we feel like we have to know exactly what to pray, in the right attitude and the right words, for our prayers to be acceptable to God? Do we fear sharing with Him our honest feelings and thoughts in prayer?
We need to be able to talk everything over with God, even things that we think He might not like. Keeping anything back or failing to pray because we fear we might “do it wrong” means that we are keeping a part of ourselves closed off to Him. And that is not the kind of relationship He wants with us. It does not show a humble dependency on Him or trust of Him. It shows that we are trying to “perform” well for Him. And when we choose performance over humility and transparency then we are living with walls around our hearts, walls between ourselves and Him.
But He doesn’t want our performance as much as He wants our heart. Prayer needs to be honest, not “pleasing.” Prayer doesn’t need to be polished or follow some formula; it needs to be about presenting to God whatever is in your heart and mind. Doubts, fears, praise, confessions, and all. This will bring God closer than any righteous-sounding, perfectly-worded, professional-sounding prayer ever could.
Misconception Number 2: God already knows all that we are going to say, so what is the point of saying it?
I think that a lot of us tend to look at prayer as just a mental exercise that we are supposed to go through because . . . well . . . because that’s what Christians do. So we do it! But somewhere deep down, it feels like a waste of time. It feels like an unnecessary task because God already knows what we are thinking. And so we think that our thoughts are just as good as our prayers.
Or are they? I challenge you to find one verse that says that God responded to “their thoughts.” Instead, we always read, “God heard and responded to their prayers.” While God does hear our thoughts, they do not call Him into action. It is our prayers that do. And this is because we have a right to pray or not, to ask God’s help or not. He knows our thoughts, but He responds to our prayers.
Misconception Number 3: God will just do what He’s going to do, right? Prayer doesn’t really have an effect if God is all-powerful and does what’s best in every situation. So then our prayers must just be formalities, for our own benefit, or just for showing our dependence on Him, right?
Well, we already looked at this one. But once again, yes, prayer is a way to acknowledge our dependence on God and to draw close to Him. But it is so much more powerful and important than that. As I said, it gets God’s Will done on earth. And parts of God’s Will doesn’t get done without it. Yes, God is all-powerful, but I believe He voluntarily limits His use of power on the earth. He has decided to work on earth (in a large part) in response to man’s prayers and cooperation. This is just the way that He has ordered things to work, giving man a certain dominion and ownership and responsibility over the affairs of earth. He works with and through human beings. And that’s a humbling, sobering thought.
Here’s an eye-opening passage to consider: In Ezekiel 22, the Word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel and tells him all about the disgraceful, ungodly things that Jerusalem is guilty of doing. And then in verses 30-31, we read this:
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
The people’s sin earned them serious consequences and punishment. But God wanted to relent. He wanted to be talked out of destroying them, as He had at other times in the Old Testament. And He would have . . . if only. If only He could have found at least one godly person who would “stand in the gap” for the people. One godly person who lived rightly before Him and who sought to intercede by prayer for the people of the land. He wanted someone to appeal to His sense of mercy, but He found no one. So He dealt with them out of His sense of justness.
That is so sobering to me. God doesn’t just do whatever He wants. He needs and wants righteous people to stand in the gap for others. He relies on us and our prayers to get His Will done. This is why a sensitive heart to Him is so important.
After I realized that God doesn’t just do whatever He wants to but that He waits for our prayers, I felt a much greater responsibility to do my part to seek the Lord, to remain connected through prayer and the Word, to learn to listen and obey, and to try to live righteously. Because as the Bible says in James 5:16, the “prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” And I want my prayers to have impact for God’s glory, for His will, and for eternity.
Misconception Number 4: Prayer is sort of a name-it-and-claim-it thing, right? Ask for what we want and get it?
I’ve noticed that a popular teaching out there is that because we are the children of the King, we should be living in royal abundance. Yes, this is an attractive idea to us because we all want things: more things, better things, impressive things. We don’t like to do without, to be in need, or to settle for less. But this kind of teaching is off-base Biblically, waaaayyyy off-base. Because when you look at Scripture, you see that the purpose for everything is God’s glory, not our comfort or pleasure. Even the Son’s purpose is to bring glory to the Father.
John 14:13: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”
Of course, it does please Him to see us happy and to give us things to enjoy. He wants us to delight in Him, His creation, and His blessings. But it is another thing to pursue happiness as an end in itself, to be so overly concerned with our own happiness that we fail to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness, generosity, contentment, and joy in the life that we have. And we fail to “seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.”
God wants us to be joyful, not pursue happiness. He does not necessarily call us to either abundance or poverty. He calls us to be joyful in whatever circumstances we are in. It’s not about what we have or don’t have; it’s about our heart’s attitude toward God. About glorifying Him regardless. And prayer is not so much about getting things from God. It’s about getting God. It’s about getting a deeper, more authentic relationship with Him through our honesty and transparency, and it’s about focusing on what will bring Him glory and accomplish His eternal purposes. Because it’s all about Him, by Him, and for Him, regardless of what clothes we are wearing, house we live in, or car we drive.
Misconception Number 5: Isn’t prayer just talking to God, as we were taught when we were young?
No. Another important part of prayer is listening. This, I believe, is a severely neglected skill - learning to hear the voice of God and the nudges of the Holy Spirit. And this depends on our desire to hear, on whether or not we obey the nudges that we do get, and if we remain in Him and let His words (His Word) remain in us. This leads to powerful prayers. And prayer is also about fully opening up our lives and hearts to Him and to the Holy Spirit. And this can only happen by honesty and transparency with ourselves and God. Humility demands transparency. Anything less is trying to fool God. And prayer also, as I said, is about getting God’s Will done.
So how do we hear God? How does He speak to us? There are a few ways that I know of (and there are probably more). He can speak to us through . . .
1. His Word (the yardstick we measure all other messages by)
2. Our circumstances
2. Our circumstances
3. Our conscience (i.e. the Holy Spirit)
4. His creation and the natural world.
5. Other people
6. His slowness, as we call it. (During times of waiting on Him, we struggle with what’s really inside of us. And we find ourselves face to face with things that we didn’t know we had to deal with.)
7. A sense of peace or unrest
9. Our spiritual ears, when we feel like Someone spoke to our minds
10. A deep gut-feeling about what we are supposed to do or a sense that we know the message He is trying to get through to us, even if we don’t “hear” any words in particular.
Misconception Number 6: But if God wants to get a message through to me, He’ll do it. I don’t really have to put so much effort into praying and listening, do I?
While we may not hear His voice with our physical ears or see His presence go by as they did in Bible times, God is still active in this world. He is always speaking. But . . . we only hear Him if we listen. Matthew 11:15: “He who has ears, let him hear.” Actually, I should say, more accurately, we only listen if we want to. I think that many of us do hear Him, but we ignore it. I do not think that He forces us to listen to Him, but His message gets through to those who tune their ears to hear Him.
Misconception Number 7: Prayer is just too hard. I don’t know why, but it is!
Why is it so hard? It’s really just honestly talking to Him, learning to listen to Him, and responding to what He tells us. At the very minimum, He simply wants to be let into all areas and concerns of our lives. He wants us to talk to Him as we would talk to a friend – because the relationship matters.
This really should be exciting, not scary or burdensome. To think that we can communicate with the God of the Heavens, the God who loves us and wants to be close to us. The God who wants to be included in our lives and to include us in His plans. It should be humbling and it should be sobering, but it shouldn’t be scary or difficult.
In addition to the misconceptions about prayer, there may also be other reasons that we do not pray or that make it hard for us to pray. Reasons such as:
1. We don’t think He’s really listening or really cares.
2. We are afraid to be a burden to Him.
3. We are afraid to anger or disappoint Him with what we might say.
4. We don’t want it to seem like we are using Him just to get what we want.
5. We don’t want it to seem like we are taking Him and all of His previous goodness for granted by asking for more things.
6. We don’t believe that He will do what we are asking.
7. We don’t believe that He can do what we are asking.
8. We’re afraid of getting a “no” response.
9. We’re afraid to pray the wrong words or in the wrong attitude.
10. We’re afraid to be that honest.
11. We don’t like admitting that we need the help or that we can’t do things on our own.
12. We don’t know how to pray.
13. We feel like we’ve pushed Him away and like He wouldn’t want to hear from us anyway.
Once again, prayer shouldn’t be as hard or scary as we make it out to be. Prayer is about coming to a loving God with our heart’s desires and requests, hurts and needs, confessions and praise. It’s about getting His Will done. And it’s about learning to rely on Him, to listen to Him, and to trust in His goodness and faithfulness, no matter how He answers. Our job is simply to ask and to know that He will answer in His time and in His way, out of His love and wisdom!
John 15:7: “. . . ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”
Mark 11:22-24: “‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’“
One of the most damaging things to a young or weak believer’s faith is not having an important prayer answered the way they expected. When a desperate prayer is not answered the way we want, it can destroy our faith in God. All of a sudden, we question our faith, our God, how He views us, how we view ourselves, etc. We feel like our faith was weak, like God didn’t care, and like He let us down. And many people end up retreating from God in confusion and bitterness.
Trust me, I have had disappointing answers to prayer, too. And these were times I was praying earnestly and with great faith that God could do it. And yet, He did not. The adoption never happened. My young aunt and my mother-in-law still died, even though I was sure that healing them would help unbelieving family members believe in God. Families still broke apart. Most people I pray about salvation for still refuse to acknowledge God. I prayed for years and years about financial strain, only to have years and years of continuing financial strain. (It has only just recently relaxed a little. Thank You, God.) I know how it feels to have many important prayers go “unanswered.”
(And of course, when I say “unanswered,” I mean “not answered the way we want.” God always answers, just not always the way we want Him to. Yet, to be fair, I am sure that more prayers are answered the way I want than I realize. I just don’t take the time to see them. I pray every day for safety for my family, every time they drive anywhere. And every day, they come home safely. Every fever or illness we get, I pray for healing. And we have always gotten healing within time. But how many times do I forget to count those as answered prayers? I need to open my eyes more and count the blessings.)
But the problem is not prayer or our God; it is our understanding of prayer and of God. We will all have disappointing and confusing times. None of us are immune, no matter how strong our faith is. So this is not an issue just for the weak or new Christian, but for all of us. But if we can get a clearer, biblical picture of prayer and of God, it will help our faith survive the disappointing and confusing times.
First off, prayer is not a magic formula to get what we want. Even Jesus and Paul did not get an important prayer answered. Jesus asked for the cup of death to be taken from Him, if it was possible. And Paul asked for the thorn in his side to be removed. And neither of them got it. And yet, I don’t think we would doubt the strength or purity of their faith. They didn’t get the answer they wanted because it wasn’t God’s Will, because God knew that “no” was the best answer. In Jesus’ case, it was best for everyone. And in Paul’s case, it was best for humbling him and for the development of his faith, for helping him learn to truly know and trust the sufficiency of God’s grace.
Those are two incredibly important lessons to remember when prayers aren’t answered the way we want. Jesus poured His heart out in prayer and requested what He wanted, yet He added, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” Above all, Jesus knew that God’s Will is more important than any request of ours. God’s Will takes precedence. Jesus models for us the proper way to end all prayers. When we pray, we are not placing an order with God. We are sharing with Him our heart and our deepest desires, yet we still need to seek His Will above ours. We need to be willing for Him to say “no” if He has a better plan, even if we don’t understand it and it hurts. Not my will, But Yours be done! He is God and we are not!
And Paul shows us that when God says “no” to our desperate prayers, it is the perfect time to truly learn how sufficient God and His grace is. By not always getting what we want, we learn humility and that God is enough for us. For most of us, we live from one “happy thing” to another, asking for more and more things to make our lives better and to keep us fulfilled. Our satisfaction and fulfillment is found in things.
And I think we will all face discouraging and confusing answers to prayer to move us from finding satisfaction and fulfillment in things to finding it in God alone. It is generally only in the pain and the “no” answers and the long waits that we stop playing with our toys and start wrestling deeply with the things of God. It takes our eyes off of temporary things and puts them on eternal, spiritual things. It shifts our focus from the condition of our “nice, little lives” to the condition of our souls. It humbles us because we learn that “it’s not all about us and what we want.” It tests what is really in our hearts and forces us to choose: walk toward God or away from Him. Make Him Lord of our lives or be our own god. And if we cling to God through the pain, even if we don’t understand, we find out that He is indeed enough for us. We learn to desire Him above what He can give us. And this is far more important and valuable than any particular answer to prayer. (But it does really hurt to get to this point! Pruning and spiritual growth always hurts! But it’s eternally worth it!)
Verses like the ones above can make prayer sound so neat and tidy, like a blank check or order form. Until you look deeper and at Scripture as a whole. Because there is so much more to prayer than “ask for what you want and you’ll get it, if you believe.” And so, I want to (as briefly as possible) sum my view of effective prayer. (This comes from the Understanding God’s Will series. And the full version is in the UGW Q9 posts of 2013.)
1. First off, I think Mark 11:22-24 is best understood when we bring it all back to what Jesus said at the beginning: “Have faith in God.” Our problem (at least, my problem) is that oftentimes, we are putting our faith not in God, but in our faith. (We looked at this a bit in the “A Full, Abundant Life” lesson.) We put our faith in the idea that our strong faith will get God to do what we want, instead of putting our faith in God to lead us to do what He wants and to answer as He knows best. We try to manipulate Him with our “strong faith,” like saying, “See how much I believe in You to do this? So now You can’t let me down.” We ask for what we want and feel like it’s what God wants for us, too, and so He must answer the way we want. Because we are asking in faith.
But this is not “having faith in God.” It’s faith in my faith. It’s faith in myself to get something accomplished - based on what I do or don’t do, or believe or don’t believe. And this is misplaced faith! “Name it and claim it by the strength of your faith” is not a godly way. It’s a spiritual-sounding, super-subtle way of elevating ourselves over God, of turning God into our errand boy. We act like we are in control and that we get it done - by our prayers, beliefs, and level of faith. But God is so much bigger than that. And Jesus says, “Have faith in God!”
Does our faith rest on our own presumptuousness about how God should answer prayers or does it rest on Who God is and His wisdom, strength, and timing?
In fact, sometimes God shows me what a big God He is by not answering my prayers as I think He should.
We say, “I have faith in You that You can do what I am asking You to do.” But God might just be saying, “Yes, but will you still have faith in Me if I don’t do what you’re asking Me to do?”
I’m learning that I need to focus less on my faith and if it’s “strong enough” to convince God to do things my way, and I need to focus more on the God who is in control. I need to focus less on the answer that I want and more on what God is doing, how He is leading, and what He is trying to teach me through it all.
Genuine faith in God is not one that says, “I asked for this and I believe that You can do it, so I’m claiming in faith that You’ll do it.” (Unless it is in reference to a clear biblical promise God has given us, like for wisdom.) That’s presumption about what God wants and about how He should answer.
Genuine faith in God is a faith that says, “I can’t see what’s ahead and I may not get what I want, but I still believe in You. I believe that You can do what I am asking. But if You don’t, I know that You are good and that You will work all things out for good. You are God and I am not!” This is putting our faith in God. This is humility. (And this is quite a journey, learning to get to this point of trust.)
It’s letting God be God, while we are the children at His feet. We can ask, but we have to let Him decide how to answer. We can desire and plan, but we have to include Him in the planning and be willing to let Him interrupt and change our desires and plans. And when He wills that a mountain moves, it will move when we pray. But in His time and in His way!
2. Another problem comes when we “claim” answers to prayer that He hasn’t given us. And I think we need to not be claiming specific answers or blessings as much as “instructions” or “help along the way.” (We definitely need to ask for what we want and need, with thanksgiving, according to Philippians 4:6-7. But it says nothing of claiming a particular answer. We ask. God answers.)
Sometimes, the problem is just that we are focused on the wrong thing. We are focused on the end when we should be focused on the journey. We are asking for what we want instead of seeking what He wants for us. We are waiting for a particular answer instead of accepting the one that God gave.
We cannot expect Him to give us whatever we ask for, if we are asking for things that He has not promised in His Word or things that are not a part of His Will for us. But if we ask for the things that are His Will and things that He has promised us in the Bible (like wisdom and peace and forgiveness), we can expect Him to give us those things.
And the Bible is full of promises to guide us and help us on our journey through life. We should look for and cling to those, not to what we think He should give us. We need to be less about leading and demanding and more about following and submitting! And we need to remember that God doesn’t often reveal His answers ahead of time, no matter how much we plead. Because it’s the journey and the struggle that build godly character.
If He’s making us wait, there are reasons. Sometimes it’s that there are issues inside of us that we need to discover and work through. Sometimes it’s to help us go deeper or higher in our walk with Him. Sometimes it’s that we are unknowingly blocking Him by our own sins or desires. Sometimes it’s that our desires need to change because we are asking for the wrong things. And sometimes it’s just because He’s working on the answer, but it’s not ready yet. (And sometimes, like in Daniel 10:12-13, it’s because of the heavenly battle that is going on. Daniel had to wait three weeks for his answer. Yet, it’s important to note that what he was waiting for was godly wisdom and knowledge, not just something he wanted for selfish purposes. And while he was waiting, he humbled himself.)
But we are hasty. We are impatient. And we think everything hinges on us: on our prayers, our strength, our resourcefulness, and our faith. And so we get discouraged with ourselves, our faith, and Him if we have to wait too long. We feel that we let ourselves down, that we let Him down, and that He let us down. All because our prayers “didn’t work.” But it shouldn’t be this way. Our “faith” should not hinge on how and when God chooses to answer.
I should not be limiting God by my expectations and putting parameters around Him and how He works in my life. I cannot determine how He will answer. I cannot know how He should answer. And so I should not be overly focused on “the answer.” I should be focused more on how I am walking with Him on this journey through life, while still pouring out my heart and my desires to Him in transparent, humble honesty, like Jesus did. This keeps my heart open to Him.
3. In order to best understand verses like Mark 11:22-24, it would be wise to do a quick review on other “prayer verses” to see what they add to our understanding. This will help us see some of the pitfalls in the “name it and claim it” interpretation of the Mark verses and the dangers of isolating verses.
1 John 5:14-15: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him.”
James 4:2-3: “. . . You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
John 14:13-14: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
Yes, this last one sounds like the Mark 11 passage: Ask for anything and Jesus will do it. Wow, that sounds great! What an awesome power - to be able to get anything we ask for. But! I don’t think that’s what Jesus really meant.
I cannot just ask for what I want and believe that my faith will make it happen. Because it also says that it has to be in line with His Will. Sure, we can ask for whatever, but He “hears” the things that are in line with His Will. And when He hears the prayers that are in line with His Will, we can be confident that He will do them.
And those verses also say that we won’t get what we ask for if we have selfish motives, and that we have to ask in Jesus’ name, for the glory of God. But this is not a blank check. We can’t just add “in Jesus’ name, Amen” to the ends of our prayers and expect God to give us what we ask for.
So what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? I like to think of it this way. Let’s say that I work for a company, and I go to an office supply store to get some supplies that my boss wants. Now, I am going there in his place - in his name - to get the things that he wants. As long as it’s on his list and in line with his needs and what he wants for his office, then it’s in his name. (And if I don’t ask for it, I won’t get it.) But as soon as I ask for something off of the list - something that I want, that I think he wants, or that’s out of line with what the office needs - I am asking in my own name. And I can’t put it on his tab or claim that it’s his will.
When we consider all of these verses together, it weeds out a lot of the requests that we make. How many of our requests are in our own names, for our own desires and purposes? Even prayers for healing or blessings can come from our own desires and our own thoughts of what we need. God doesn’t promise to give us whatever we want, but He will give us what He wants for us. And God often has important things to teach us during the wait and during our struggles with unanswered prayers - if only we will take our eyes off of our requests and put them on Him.
We want to lead and have control by our prayers, whereas true faith in God says, “Whatever happens, I still believe in You. And I will follow where You lead.” Our hope should not be in the idea that God will eventually give us what we want if we just hang in there long enough and drum up enough confidence in Him to do it. (Oh, how many times I fall into that!) Our hope should be in the fact that God is here now and that He is working things out in His time and in His way, even if they don’t match our time and way. It’s not letting the darkness and confusion pull us away from God, but letting it draw us even nearer to Him. When we have learned to seek, desire, and enjoy Him more than what He can give us then we will find peace, contentment, and joy, even in the hard times. Because our faith will be in Him, not in some idea of who we think He should be and how He should act.
4. On a similar note, how many times do our requests and our desires for an answer become idolatrous pursuits, taking our focus from God? I think sometimes this is why many of us end up in the furnace of refining, long waits. To purify our hearts, to help us weed out wayward desires and idols, and to help us refocus on what we should be focused on: God!
And most of us don’t do this on our own, not when things are going good and we are getting what we want. Because when things are going our way, we are content to float and to live self-centered, temporally-focused lives. And we think our relationship with Him must be pretty good for things to be going along so nicely. And so He allows us to face “the furnace of unanswered prayer” so that we can discover the idolatry, selfishness, pride, self-sufficiency, and sin in our hearts, so that we learn that we need to be pursuing God - not a comfortable, little life - and letting Him fill our hearts and lives with what He wants for us.
Oh, how many times I do that to myself! Making an idol out of some thing or some answer that I am waiting for. I pray and wait and struggle and plead and doubt and get discouraged. And then, I get to a point where I get so depressed that I can’t pray about it anymore, where I realize that I’m worse off to keep dwelling on this concern or request. And it’s usually then that God shows me that I have lost focus on Him and that I have been consumed with my request. I have been trying to manipulate God with my prayers and with my “faith” in Him to answer the way I want or think I need.
And it’s hard to do, but when I get to this point - when the answer I want or when my desire for an answer has become an “idol” - I need to take my focus off of my request and put it back on God. I need to “give up” and give the Lord permission to answer as He will and to work in His timing. Because whatever His answer is, it’s ultimately by Him and for His glory. And so I pray:
“Lord, forgive me for making an idol of this request and for pursuing the answer when I should be pursuing You. I leave it in Your hands now, and I ask You to do as You will and to give me the strength to face this ‘unanswered’ prayer gracefully. I know You are good and I trust You. I may not have the great faith that I wish I did, but I am putting my pathetic, little faith in You right now. Thank You for being a big God who can see what I can’t see and handle what I can’t handle. I lean on Your strength now. May You be glorified through this.”
Gods knows that we have the ability to do this - the ability to make an idol out of our own lives. And so maybe He allows enough waiting and enough unanswered prayer so that we get to the point where we loosen our grip on the thing we are asking for and we begin to reach for Him instead. Long waits and “no” answers help us hold things more loosely, keep our focus where it belongs, and remember Who owns it all, Who it’s all about, and Who deserves the glory.
5. Okay, now this is a lot to think about already. But there is more. (And even more than what I am saying here.) On top of all that I’ve already said, there are many more verses that shed light on why our prayers may not be effective. We have a much greater responsibility than we realize in making sure that our prayers get heard.
For one, maybe part of the reason that our prayers aren’t “working” and that it seems like God isn’t listening is because . . . God isn’t listening!
Psalm 66:18: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;”
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened! If we harbor sin in our hearts, He is not obligated to listen to or answer our prayers. Because we have put up a wall between us and God. We are blocking God from hearing our prayers and from answering them. In fact, look at the very next verse after Mark 11:22-24 (the verses where Jesus tells us that we will get anything we ask for, if we believe) . . .
Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.”
And this echoes Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
I don’t know about you, but this is a very hard teaching to absorb. I will not be forgiven based on my unforgiveness towards others. And my unforgiving state has an effect on whether or not my prayers get heard, because ongoing, un-confessed sin in my life blocks God from listening to my prayers. (We read this already in the “Forgiveness” lesson, but it bears repeating because it relates greatly to prayer.)
Now, I do not believe that these verses are saying that we will lose our salvation. That kind of forgiveness is permanent the moment we choose Jesus as our Lord and Savior. But there is another kind of forgiveness, the kind we need when we sin and break fellowship with the Lord. Sin interferes with the condition of our relationship with Him. And we need to ask forgiveness for any un-confessed sin to help restore fellowship and repair the relationship.
But how many of us harbor bitterness towards others for some offense? How many can’t let it go because it seems so justified? They deserve it, right? But forgiveness is not so much about the other person; it’s about our relationship with God. The Word makes it clear that the responsibility rests with us to forgive others (even if they don’t want it or we can’t tell them that we forgive them). And if we don’t, it is sin that we harbor in our heart and it blocks God from forgiving us, which blocks God from hearing our prayers.
And even worse, unforgiveness towards others (or any resistance to confessing any sin in our lives, for that matter) shows hard-heartedness, which is diametrically opposed to a healthy, open relationship with God. And we will further block ourselves off from being sensitive to the Holy Spirit. And the longer we resist, the more we will entrench ourselves behind the wall that we have put up between us and the Lord, growing more numb, desensitized, and self-justified. And the more that we cut ourselves off from God’s love, protection, and help, the more we open the door to evil in our lives.
“In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
It’s all about your heart and if you humble yourself before a holy God. How many of our prayers go unheard because of our heart’s condition and our attitude towards others? Where does the devil have a foothold in your life? Pride, bitterness, envy, gossip, idol worship, unforgiveness, ungodly speech, getting drunk, cheating, giving into temptations, lust, affairs, sex outside of marriage, acting out in anger, worry, etc., are all sins that need to be confessed and repented of, if we want God to hear our prayers and to have the most effective life for Christ.
2 Chronicles 7:14-15: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.”
6. Here’s one for husbands. 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect . . . so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”
The degree to which we treat others with consideration and respect, particularly regarding a husband’s treatment of his wife in this verse, is the degree to which our prayers are unhindered.
And here are three that scare me:
Proverbs 21:13: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.”
James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
Romans 14:23: “. . . everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
Yikes! The first verse tells me that God does not listen to us if we ignore those in need. And the second two broaden the definition of sin. Sin is not just doing things that we know we shouldn’t do; it’s also sin to not do what we know we should do and to do anything that doesn’t come from faith. And sin hinders prayer.
This really opens up a whole new side of our responsibility, of what God expects from those of us who call ourselves Christians. Do we ignore needs that we see? Do we turn a blind eye at injustice? Do we fail to treat others kindly? Do we fail to do the good that we know we should do? This is sin!
Do we decide things based on what our faith tells us to do or do we just do what we think is best? What, in our lives, are we doing that is a result of faithlessness? Do we hoard money because we don’t have faith in God to provide? Do we seek our own ways out of trials because we don’t have faith in God to help us through? Do we look to satisfy our desires outside of the boundaries God has given because we don’t trust that God’s way is best? Do we fail to obey because we are afraid of what obedience will cost us? This is sin, too!
We can open up to just about any passage in the Bible and find something we should be convicted about, something that will lead us toward a deeper relationship with Him and a better idea of how to live righteously, which leads us toward more “powerful and effective” prayers. But how many of us take the time to do that? How many of us read the Bible with the intention of seeking to live more righteously? Or have we become comfortable in our own little world, behind our walls of fear, self-sufficiency, self-centeredness, and sin?
1 John 3:21-23: “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”
Notice that it’s not just an inactive, passive command to avoid doing anything that doesn’t please Him. It’s an active command that instructs us to live our lives doing the things that please Him. But we shouldn’t look at obedience as a way to manipulate Him to get what we want or as something that we have to do out of duty or irrational fear or to earn His love. The desire to obey is the natural response of a heart that properly fears God and that is so full of His love and of love for Him that you want nothing less than to do His Will and bring Him glory.
Now, let’s look again at John 15:7: “. . . ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” If we ended with that verse, it would sound like a blank check. But most of us don’t realize there is a beginning to that verse, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”
As it talks about only a couple verses before, we need to abide in Him as a branch abides in the vine, and this will lead to fruitfulness. But not the fruit that we decide to grow; fruit that the vine wants to grow through us. We need to be remaining in Him and storing up His words in our hearts. Really understanding the Word of God and the character of God (as seen in the Word) will help us understand which prayer requests are in line with His Will and which are not. But we have to remember to never leave off the first part of that verse. It is what the rest of the verse hinges on. And abiding in Him and His Word is a lot of responsibility.
And if we go on to the next verse, we find out what kind of prayers God is talking about. Is it really “whatever you wish”?
Verse 8: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” God grants the prayers that are centered on bearing fruit for the Father’s glory, that show others that we are His disciples. And this comes as a result of remaining in Him, which means way more than just reading our Bibles, going to church, and praying every now and then for what we want. Remaining in Him, as a tree branch remains connected to the trunk, means being vitally connected to Him. It means absorbing and living in His Word, love, power, grace, etc., and it means desiring what He desires. It is not a casual thing, and it is not about just getting our wants and desires fulfilled!
When I consider all these verses together, I can see that it doesn’t mean that He will always grant anything that I ask. Am I abiding in Him daily? Or am I just running to my Vending Machine God to ask for what I want or think I need? Do I have my plans, pleasure, and glory in mind, or God’s? (And here’s a scary question: Does my life currently show obedience and reflect His glory and His love and His Word? How about in my home, in how I treat others, in how I speak and think, when I am in a crowd, when I am alone, etc.?)
7. Summing up all that I’ve learned so far, I’d have to say that our prayers are most effective…
- when we are living righteously,
- when they are in line with God’s Will and are unselfish and are in Jesus’ name (according to what He wants),
- when there are no un-confessed sins blocking our relationship with God (meaning that we need to clear the air with God and others, seeking forgiveness from God and those we have wronged and forgiving those who have wronged us),
- when we (especially husbands) treat others with consideration and respect,
- when we are doing the good we know we need to do,
- when we are living and acting in accordance with our faith and not doing anything that doesn’t come from faith,
- when our hearts don’t condemn us (because we have actively searched them and we have righted any wrongs, and not just because we are ignoring any conviction),
- when we obey His commands and do what pleases Him,
- when we believe in Jesus and are loving one another,
- when we are remaining in Him and His words remain in us,
- and when we are living for and bearing fruit for His glory!
This is a lot to consider. It is very sobering. And it is life-changing!
Prayer is not about getting our way, about getting God to give us the answers we want. It’s about our relationship with Him and our spiritual growth. It’s about our heart’s sensitivity to Him and our desire to live life with Him, doing our best with the Spirit’s help to transform ourselves to be more like Him. It’s about drawing near to Him in genuineness and humility, about being desperate for Him, needy for Him, dependent on Him. And this is why and how we should pray. Because we need Him and because He wants us to let Him near. He can handle anything we bring His way. We just need to learn to be willing to accept His answers.
And this becomes a lot easier when we really grasp His love for us. More than reaching for things He can give us, we should really be reaching for Him and for a greater understanding of His love. That is what will carry us through anything. And we need to be immersing ourselves in Him daily if we want to have the greatest amount of peace and joy possible. Peace and joy in the midst of unanswered prayer do not come to us apart from abiding in Him daily.
(And according to Philippians 4:6-7, peace comes when we present all of our requests to God, with thanksgiving. The thanksgiving part is crucial. It is what reminds us Who we are praying to, what He has done for us in the past, what He is capable of, and that He is good and will answer in the best way. Because He is a good, loving, heavenly Father. Whenever you are discouraged with prayer or life’s circumstances, practice thanksgiving. This will also help keep evil away because demons thrive on negative emotions, which are “welcome mats” to them. Even a demon that tormented Saul in 1 Samuel 16:23 was driven away when David played his harp. Thanksgiving and praise help “shut the door” to them and drive them away.)
Summing it all up, when it comes to prayer and faith, what we should want more than anything is to get to the place where we can take His hand and walk forward into the darkness in faith. Faith in Him! Because even if we don’t get what we want, we know that He is a good, loving Father who will work all things for good!
Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”