Posted on | February 13, 2013 | Comments Off on Just Ask!
By Stan Key
Visiting a member of our church in the hospital some years ago, I invited the family to form a circle around the bed so I could offer a pastoral prayer. Surgery was scheduled for the next day, and the outcome was in doubt. After prayer, a member of the family piously said, “Thanks, Pastor Stan. One thing we can be sure of is that whatever happens tomorrow, we know it is the will of God.” We shook hands and said goodbye.
As I walked to the parking lot, the words kept echoing in my mind: “Whatever happens is the will of God. Whatever happens is the will of God. Whatever happens is the will of God.” By the time I reached my car, I was in turmoil. Whatever happens is God’s will? What kind of theology is that? I was tempted to walk back to the hospital room and say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you folks were Muslims!”
Islam teaches that all that happens is Allah’s decree and, therefore, the essence of piety is to submit to his predetermined plan. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, introduces a radically new concept. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not Fate. Though God is certainly sovereign over everything that happens and though he knows the end from the beginning, he is not the author of evil. Creating humans with the gift of free will, God has injected into human life a variable that leaves the future, at least to some degree, in our hands!
The first epistle of John is one of the places where this radical view is most boldly proclaimed: And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (I John 5:14–15).
John is urging us to ask God to intervene in our lives so that the future has his divine stamp on it. He is not asking us to passively submit to a predetermined fate but rather encouraging us to ask God to make things different. Prayer changes things! Three times in two short verses, John exhorts us to “ask… ask… ask….”
Charles Spurgeon hit the nail on the head when he said, “Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the Kingdom.”
The Greek word confidence (I John 5:14) conveys the idea of freedom of speech. To be confident with someone is to have the liberty to say whatever is in your heart. . It means that you know them well enough to pour out your heart to them, not worried about the words you use or the emotions that go with them. Conversation between a husband and wife or between good friends has an open and frank quality about it. John is telling us that prayer should be like this. It is simply letting God know what is on our heart (desires, fears, hopes, hurts, doubts, etc.).
John is especially encouraging petitionary prayer—asking God to intervene in our lives in some specific manner. Yet many seem to teach that when we come into the presence of God, we shouldn’t ask for anything. Rather we should simply be content to bask in his presence and worship him for who he is, not for what he can do for us. While this sounds spiritual, it is simply not the way the Bible presents prayer. In Scripture, over and over again God encourages us to ask, to seek, to knock.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in The Lord’s Prayer. When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus encouraged them to ask! Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. Examples could be easily multiplied of places in the Bible where we are encouraged to ask God to move in specific ways in our individual lives (Jeremiah 33:3; Matthew 7:7; 18:19; 21:22; John 14:13–14; 15:7; etc.).
But if God is omniscient and knows our needs before we ask, then why do we even need to pray? And if God is indeed sovereign and controls everything, why pray at all? Is this some kind of a game? Is this a waste of time? Why not join the Muslims in believing that submission to fate is what religion is all about?
Though I have no final answer to such profound questions, I have come to one firm conclusion: God likes to be asked. He encourages us to ask because, like any good parent, he loves it when his children express trust and confidence in him!
Ask Him Anything?
Yet when we read verses like this (v. 14), we wonder: C’mon John, ask anything? Can I ask God for a 2013 Mustang Shelby GT 500 (bright red with a white racing stripe and spoiler)? Can I pray that prayer and expect an answer?
I know of no better way to learn how to pray rightly than to pray wrongly. It takes only a moment to realize that asking God for a Mustang Shelby GT 500 is not the kind of prayer God is going to answer. Simply the act of praying such a prayer helps me realize the carnality and greed in my heart and (hopefully) will lead me to repentance. The only way to learn how to pray rightly is to pray…and then allow the dialogue with the Holy One to do its sanctifying work. P. T. Forsyth said it well: “Petitions that are less than pure can only be purified by petition.”
Though the Bible gives some amazing promises concerning prayer, we must be sure to read the “fine print.” There are conditions that must be met if prayer is to be answered by God. Below are six questions we need to ask ourselves to help us better ascertain whether our prayers are answerable.
1. Is this request in line with the will of God? Our Scripture is explicit on this matter: If we ask anything according to his will he hears us (I John 5:14). Those in a right relationship with God soon discover that the real point of prayer is not forcing God to do my will but rather encouraging me to do his. When we delight ourselves in the Lord, then and only then is he able to give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4).
2. Is there unconfessed sin in my life? The psalmist said it well: If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me (Psalm 66:18). If I am in conscious, willful, habitual disobedience to a known command of God, then I am no longer in a right relationship with him. This has consequences for my prayer life.
3. Are my motives pure? James tells us precisely why our prayers are not answered: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:3–4). When we love the world and the things in the world (e.g., a Mustang Shelby GT 500) then our desires are focused on the wrong things. Thus, our prayers are “amiss.”
4. Can I make this request in Jesus’ name? Jesus told his disciples: If you ask anything in my name, I will do it (John 14:13–14). To attach the words “in Jesus’ name” to the end of our prayers is not to apply a magic formula. Neither is it a liturgical nicety. Rather, to pray in the name of Jesus is to pray in the character of Christ, it is to desire what he desires. Few tests will better reveal the true worth of our requests than this: would Jesus pray this way?
5. Can I find other mature believers who will join me in this prayer? Jesus knew well our propensity to pray wrongly when we pray alone. Therefore, he urged us to include other mature saints of God in our circle of prayer: Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven (Matthew 18:19). The word “agree” is the Greek sumphoneo, the origin of our term “symphony.” When believers pray together in harmony, they make a symphony of praise, pleasing to God.
6. Can I make this request in faith without doubting? Jesus said: Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith (Matthew 21:21–22). One the one hand, we must not make faith a mind game, the power of positive thinking. But on the other hand, we must always be mindful that God may not respond to our request in the way we had hoped. We must always pray, even as Jesus did, “Not my will but yours be done.” Faith avoids both ditches and walks the narrow path of trusting God whatever the outcome.
Trust Is Never a Formula
Though the Bible gives many solid principles to guide our prayers, it certainly offers no guaranteed formulas for getting what we want. Yes, we are encouraged to ask—and to ask boldly. But even when we do our best to read the fine print and meet all the conditions, there remains a mystery to prayer that belongs to its very nature.
When it comes to petitionary prayer, the Bible is emphatic: “No” is just as much of an answer as “Yes.” The real point in prayer, it seems, is not to get my way, but to get his. Not to do my will, but his. The greatest miracle in prayer may not be a transformation of my circumstances but rather a transformation inside me.
If there is a bottom line, perhaps it is this: one learns to pray by praying; one learns to ask by asking. Don’t let the complexities of the theology nor the profundities of the mystery keep you from doing what the devil so desires you not do: ask. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:24).
Go ahead. Just ask.