The first Friday of March is always World Day of Prayer. Over at InfluenceMagazine.com, I commemorate the day with an extended meditation on the truth that God always answers our prayers.
God always answers our prayers, but not necessarily the way we want Him to. He has our best interests in mind. So, sometimes He says “Yes,” sometimes “No,” sometimes “Wait,” and sometimes — frankly — “Grow up!” Let’s take a look at each answer, starting with “Yes.”
James 5:13–18 says this about prayer:
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
Notice James’s “success” language. The sick will be healed, the sinful will be forgiven, and the rain will fall because of prayer. James seems to suggest that if we pray in a certain way, God will answer our requests. What are his specific recommendations?
First, we ought to pray at all times—whether we are troubled, happy, sick or sinful. Too often, we come to God for selfish reasons. We want something. When we get it, we ignore Him until the next crisis arises. We want a solution to a problem. God wants a relationship with a beloved son or daughter. Only through such a relationship does God promise to meet all our needs. As Jesus put it, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Second, we ought to make use of the means God has already given us. James mentions the practices of elders anointing the sick with oil and of confession of sin to believers. Both practices contribute to our physical and spiritual health. Only fools toss aside a life vest thrown to them to save them from drowning. Do we ask our pastors to pray for us when we’re sick or ask fellow believers to help us resist temptation? If not, what does that make us?
Finally, we ought to pray as part of an overall strategy of spiritual growth. Notice James’s words: “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” and “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (emphasis added). A good life is not an automatic guarantee of answered prayer, but the psalmist did say, “I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).
God does not always answer our prayers affirmatively, however. Sometimes He says “No!” When He does, He has our best interests at heart. Even God’s negative can be a positive for us.
Paul’s life provides an example of this. We are accustomed to thinking of Paul as Christ’s ambassador par excellence, so we forget how controversial he was in his own day. A vocal minority of early church members doubted his message, distrusted the messenger, or both.
In Galatians, Paul defended his message. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11–12; cf. Acts 9:1–19).
In 2 Corinthians 10–12, Paul defended his status as God’s messenger. The Corinthians church, which Paul had founded (Acts 18:1–17), had become enamored of certain self-promoting “super-apostles.” They looked good, spoke well and lived high, unlike Paul, whom church tradition tells us what short, bald and bandy-legged. By his own admission, Paul was a poor speaker (1 Corinthians 2:1). And unlike the so-called “super-apostles,” Paul suffered — a lot. The list of dangers he survived is impressive: beating, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck, persecution and dangers on the road, to name just a few (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). Paul’s life was not easy.
But it was lived for God. In 2 Corinthians 12:1–10, Paul reluctantly offered a glimpse into his devotional life to rebut the accusation that he was less spiritual than the “super-apostles.” Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote, “I know a man in Christ who…was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” Then, switching to first person, Paul wrote, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” Quite possibly, this was some sort of chronic, debilitating illness.
And with this “thorn in my flesh,” we return to the topic of God answering our prayers negatively. Paul prayed to God for relief: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” But said “No!” each time, providing only this explanation: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s negative turned out to be positive for Paul because God wanted to give Paul what he needed even more than physical relief — grace and power.
When God denies our requests, He is not being cruel. There is no deficiency of love on the supply side of prayer. But there is a hierarchy of values. The wellbeing of our bodies — which God made and is saving — is important, but not all-important. God is more interested in our character than our comfort. When God says “No!” He has our best interests at heart. Let’s keep that in mind as we pray!
One of my favorite biblical books is Revelation. And one of its most curious scenes takes place in 6:9–11. John writes:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
This passage is curious for three reasons: (1) It hints at some unhappiness of souls in heaven. Happy people do not ask, “How long, Sovereign Lord?” (2) It makes those souls sound bloodthirsty. “Avenge our blood” seems like an unchristian prayer. And (3) it indicates that martyrdom is part of God’s plan, that God has set “the full number” of those to be martyred for their faith.
As curious as Revelation 6:9–11 may be, it tells us three truths that are useful to our praying.
First, our ultimate fulfillment lies in the future. According to the Bible, we die because of sin. “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in Romans 6:23, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We will be ultimately fulfilled only when we are finally resurrected. The martyred souls in heaven longed to open that gift of eternal resurrection life and prayed accordingly. So should we.
Second, God’s ultimate purpose is justice and peace. Sin, which causes death, is a pollution of the beautiful world God made. God created the world to be just and peaceful. Sin unmakes the world, leaving injustice and violence in its wake. Salvation remakes the world according to God’s original intention. The martyrs’ prayer — “avenge our blood” — sounds bloodthirsty, but it is simply a colorful way of crying out for justice and peace at last, that is, for salvation. When we pray, we should cry out too!
Third, our present difficulties have a place in God’s plan. Statistically speaking, more believers were martyred in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. And yet, John hints, there is a purpose to this suffering. In Greek, martyr means “witness.” Martyrs are people who, by their lives or deaths, show others the depths of God’s love for His creation. And a loving God is “patient…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
If God is patient with us in our sin, we ought to be patient with Him as He slowly brings salvation to a world that desperately needs it. When we pray, God sometimes tells us to wait for His final answer. We should do so, for while we wait, God accomplishes His ultimate purpose and brings about our ultimate fulfillment.
So, how long, Sovereign Lord? As long as You need!
God always answers our prayers. We have looked at “Yes,” “No” and “Wait.” Now let’s look at “Grow up!”
In James 4:1–3, we read:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. 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.
This passage begins with two questions — one real, one rhetorical. The real question inquires about the source of human conflict. The rhetorical question identifies the source as “desires.” Then, subtly, the passage shifts focus from the horizontal to the vertical. The source of human conflict is also the source of our conflict with God. Sometimes, God denies our prayer requests because our “desires” reflect “wrong motives.”
The only way to resolve this conflict with God is to grow up. We must lay aside spiritual and moral adolescence and take up spiritual and moral adulthood instead. As we do so, we begin to pray with holy desires and spiritual motives, and God begins to answer our prayers with “Yes.”
How do we grow up through prayer? Paul provides a hint in Ephesians 4:22–24. He writes:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Paul outlines a three-step process for behavioral change here: (1) stop (“put off”), (2) think (“be made new in the attitude of your minds”) and (3) start (“put on”). Verse 28 provides an example of this process at work:
Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Stealing is the behavior to be stopped. Working is the behavior to be started. The new way of thinking that explains this behavioral change is a commitment to personal generosity.
We can incorporate this three-step process in our prayer lives. As we pray for specific requests, we should ask God to identify wrong motives. Our prayer should be, “See if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:24). Once we have identified them, we should ask God to speak to us and show us how to think properly about the issue. If we read the Bible and pray in tandem, God will bring to mind a relevant Biblical verse or passage. Finally, we should ask God to purify our desires and mature our motives. Our prayer should be that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17).
Stop. Think. Start. It’s a good process for behavioral change, as well as an excellent model for maturing prayer.
Ask God for Anything
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that our needs would be met, our sins forgiven and our souls protected (Matthew 6:11–13). Every request we make of God for ourselves falls under one of those three headings. We can ask God for anything.
Anything? Health, wealth and happiness? Yes! Love, acceptance and forgiveness? Of course! A luxury car, a million-dollar home, expensive clothing and jewelry? Sure! God invites us to ask Him for anything we want or need. But that does not mean He is obligated to give us everything we ask for. Good parents sort out their child’s requests, accepting some, rejecting others. So does God. When we pray, we must be ready to hear His answer.
I know that asking God for anything sounds extreme. Obviously, there are things we should not ask God for — the opportunity to sin without getting caught, for example. We should not ask God for anything contrary to His character or will for our lives. Unfortunately, we do not always know what those things are. Help robbing a bank is obviously wrong, but is it okay to pray for profit or success in business? Permission to view pornography is out, but is it wrong to ask God for a beautiful wife or a handsome husband? There’s only one way to find out — through prayer.
The more we pray to God, you see, the more we hear from God. And the more we learn about God and His will for us, the better we understand what to ask of Him. And when we learn what to ask of Him, He gives it to us. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22). This is not a magic formula, as if God commits himself to giving us whatever we really, really, really want. No, it is a statement about character. People with genuine faith know God well enough that they know the kinds of prayers He answers.
That is why we must read the Bible and pray in tandem. God speaks to us through Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16–17, Hebrews 1:1–2, 2 Peter 1:20–21). His words describe His character and will and set boundaries around our prayers. Should we pray for success, for example? Yes, but Scripture reminds us that God cares for our character more than our comforts (James 4:13–17), that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), and that the wealthy have a moral responsibility to help the deserving poor (1 Timothy 6:17–19) — among many other things it teaches us about wealth.
That is also why we must pray persistently. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus taught (Matthew 7:7). This is not God’s carte blanche for our whims. It is an invitation to keep praying until we know the character of our “Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).
So, ask God for anything, but listen for His answer! It’s sometimes “Yes,” sometimes “No,” sometimes “Wait, and sometimes “Grow up!” Whatever it is, we can be confident that God always answers prayers and that His answers are best.