This is an issue about prayer that almost never gets addressed. It was put to me by my friend Nancy. Her note, almost verbatim:
Someday I need you to help me understand why we are told when we pray and believe our prayers will be answered. Then people die in spite of our pleas for health. I know it is within God’s will but why ask if His will is what is going to occur anyway? I know thousands of prayers were said for (a friend who died some years back) and for my friend I saw buried today. Thousands are being said for (a friend with cancer) yet she is in a battle for her life.
We are told “you have not because you ask not.” Maybe this would be a good blog topic. I can’t be the only one who struggles with these thoughts.
If you only knew, Nancy.
Let’s start by this upfront admission: When it comes to prayer, things are not as simple as they may seem at first.
Frankly, as one who likes things simple and cut-and-dried, this is painful to admit.
True, the Bible actually does say things like: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives….” (Matthew 6:7-8) And it says: “Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).
There are plenty more similar texts, but those two are sufficient to establish that the blanket promises are out there.
What are serious disciples of the Lord Jesus to make of such prayer promises? Here are some aspects of the subject that should help…
1. The disciples clearly did not understand these as blank checks.
Had they interpreted such promises as “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, they would have cashed them in. At the first sign of trouble, they would have “named it and claimed it” and poof! all is well.
That is not what we see happening in the early church.
Instead, we see Jesus Himself enduring great “contradiction of sinners against himself” (Hebrews 12:3) to the point of going to the cross and submitting to death at the hand of sinners (Philippians 2:8 and I Peter 2:21ff., among other places).
We see the first generation of disciples undergoing great persecution, even to the point of death. In fact, not only does it seem that they did not “cash that card,” they actually “rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41) and used the suffering as a means of enhancing their witness (Acts 16:25ff).
There is no place in Scripture that I can think of which indicates that the apostles interpreted Jesus’ statements as blanket promises to anyone who believes and asks.
I say this cautiously, recognizing that my words sound suspiciously like I’m criticizing the Lord. I’m not. If anything–in my mind, at least–I’m being critical of the way the gospel writers left these promises hanging. Remember that the Apostle Peter made a similar statement concerning Paul’s writings in II Peter 3:15ff.
2. We are to interpret God’s word by comparing scripture with scripture.
“No scripture is of private interpretation,” said the Apostle Peter in II Peter 1:20. Now, that could mean no individual is to go off on a tangent by his lonesome promoting his own personal interpretation. Or, it may be saying that scripture must not be taken out of context and isolated, but interpreted within the fullness of revelation. Or both.
Every Bible teacher holds that every promise of Jesus (or any other passage) should be placed in its proper setting alongside the rest of the Bible’s revelations on each subject.
Scripture has much to say about which prayers God answers and which He doesn’t, why some are answered and others seem to go into God’s file 13. Here are a couple:
“Your iniquities have separated you from God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). Sin blocks the reception of prayer.
“The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). Prayer should be fervent and the pray-er should be righteous.
3. The biggest element in our praying must always be faith.
“The prayer of faith will save the sick” (Jas. 5:15).
“Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
The Lord said to the disciples, “Why did you fear; where is your faith?” (Mark 4:40) And to a distraught father, Jesus said, “If you can believe, all things are possible” (Mark 9:23).
But there is a major problem here. We can believe as strongly as it’s possible to do, and sometimes the heavens are silent. This has given rise to all sorts of abuse as unscrupulous charlatans who know more about conning people than they do Scripture browbeat their victims into believing prayers are unanswered because they do not have sufficient faith.
Some years ago, a professor at Oral Roberts University wrote a book which helped me a great deal. From the Pinnacle of the Temple by Charles Farah points out the vast gulf between doing something by faith–that is in obedience to the Word and to the leadership of the Spirit–and doing it presumptuously (we claim what God has not promised or commanded).
Just because we have faith, we do not get all we ask.
The Lord who promised that “if you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could move mountains” (Luke 17:6) clearly does not hand out answers to prayer according to the size of one’s belief.
And, as if we needed further complexities, sometimes we see Jesus responding to the faith of one person by blessing another. Mark 2:5 is a perfect example. It was the faith of the four pallet-bearers that impressed the Savior sufficiently so that He forgave and then healed the paralytic. Not a word about the faith of the sick fellow is mentioned.
We always do well to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. As some has stated it, this means: “With all I know of me, I put my trust in all I know of Him.”
4. Even if all the other elements are present, the ultimate deciding factor is the will of God.
Imagine the chaos which would follow if God gave you and me a divine formula, which, when followed, could end all disease and extend life indefinitely.
No one would ever die. No one would stay unemployed longer than a day. No child would go hungry. No heart would ever stay broken.
It would be heaven.
Exactly. And this world is not heaven. It is a fallen world where sin and evil are at work, where the prince of darkness is on the job, and where mysteries you and I cannot imagine come into play.
Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).
Commit that to memory, Christian. You’re going to be needing that in your toolbox. There will be times aplenty when that is the only answer you can give: God knows what He is about.
This is not to say God wills for that young mother to die of cancer, leaving behind those little babies.
God does not will for the infant to be run over by that truck in the mobile home parking lot or the father of three teenagers to die in his 40s. (I’ve seen both.)
So, why does it happen?
Underline this one, my friend, and burn it on your heart: Not everything that happens in this world is God’s will.
My friend Nancy asked, “Why should we ask if His will is what is going to occur anyway?” Others put it this way: “Since God’s will always gets done, why bother to ask?”
God’s will does not always get done. If it did, then we could say that everything going on in this world is the will of God. It isn’t. To repeat, this is a fallen world and sin is afoot. Satan has much to account for.
It’s easy to discount sin. Many of us do it all the time. We speak of babies coming into the world as blank slates and ready for us to write on them. We speak of this as being the best of all possible worlds. We sing of how “this is My Father’s world.”
We must not forget the snake in the garden. He is at work charming the gullible, fooling the blind, and misleading the smarties.
5. Ultimately, we say, “Even so, Father, thy will be done.”
Whatever you decide, Father, let’s do that.
Corrie ten Boom (and countless others) have said this life is like a weaving, the underside of which being all we ever see. The master weaver blends in dark and gold for a pattern only he sees. Eventually, but only when we get “on top,” will we see the pattern. Until then, we will walk by faith.
We said in “Number 3” above that the biggest element is our faith. But the greatest expression of our faith is submission to the will of the Father.
In Gethsemane, Jesus wanted the Father to save mankind by any other method if one was available. But there wasn’t. He prayed, “O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
That’s where we have to leave this subject.
We are to ask Him. We are to ask in faith. We are to submit ourselves into His hands to do with as He pleases. But we are not to demand, not to be presumptuous, and not to claim what He has not promised.
Nothing about this is simple. If it were, good people would not differ.
Someone once said, “We read the Bible and interpret it away to nothing. One of these days, someone is going to come along and read it and believe it, and the world will be changed forever.”
That sounds so good, I promise you it will garner a truckload of “amens” at a preachers’ meeting. The only problem is it’s wrong.
God’s word always has to be interpreted. It must not be taken out of context and made to mean what was never intended.
Let the people of the Lord demand that their teachers and pastors give them the whole teaching of God and not isolated bits and pieces which they’ve turned into cure-alls. Let the people of God grow up in their love for all the Word and their appreciation for ministers who cater not to the fancies of the shallow but to the Savior who said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
In the meantime, while we are in this world with needs galore all about us, my friends, let us be faithful in praying. Let us pray in faith. But let us then leave the results in the hands of the Lord, giving thanks for all that comes, whatever comes.
7. As always, leave room in your understanding of doctrine for mystery.
There is the mystery of prayer. The mystery of godliness. The mystery of God’s will. And the mystery of righteousness,
Some day we will have full understanding. But not yet. We will walk by faith or drop by the wayside.
Let us be faithful.