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We Do Not Know What We Ought to Pray For

I have gone to God in sincere and earnest prayer on many occasions and not had my prayer answered... How do we make sense of this? How do we reconcile God’s prayer guarantees with our experienced reality?
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Recorded by Brother Chris Sales 

We would all like to know how to pray better.

It appears that very few of us are satisfied with our prayer life and our personal commitment to prayer. 

I number among my friends, some of whom are considered prominent Bible students in our community, who teach at Bible Schools and Conferences, yet they sometimes confide in quiet conversation about their inadequacy when it comes to prayer. 

In most books I have read on prayer, the authors, many of them spiritual giants, will also admit to this inadequacy and take care to emphasize they are not experts, nor have they mastered the subject themselves.

“In speaking about prayer, I should not like you to think that I am posing as an expert.”1

“It is because the writer is deeply conscious of the many problems which surround the subject of prayer.”2

“Personal conversations reveal that there is an almost universal dissatisfaction regarding one’s own prayers.”3

“One writes about prayer with a reluctance which springs from a sense of inadequacy.”4

Why is This?

I humbly propose a suggestion that may account for at least some of the inadequacy felt. I detect significant confusion about this subject, particularly concerning petitionary prayer,5 and its interaction with God’s providence.

I feel (speaking mainly for myself) we are confused about what to expect from prayer and what God offers through prayer. In our community, we receive many mixed messages regarding prayer. In some quarters, our language can reflect the theology of Calvinism, which posits that everything that happens is a result of a divine plan and that God is consciously and purposely involved in every event. In other parts of the community, it is held that God only interacts with us through His written Word and only uses external agents, such as angels or weather events, to bring about His will.

With such a range of different and inconsistent perspectives, it can be hard to formulate and confidently hold a consistent personal view. Also, our personal experience of prayers being answered or not being answered adds to the confusion.

Having been baptized for over 35 years, I have gone to God in sincere and earnest prayer on many occasions and not had my prayer answered. If I am being honest, I would have to say that the majority of my most serious and heartfelt prayers have not been answered. 

How many friends with cancer have I tearfully prayed for, who have lost the battle and died, sometimes leaving behind young families bereft and shattered? How many accident victims have I prayed for who have not recovered? How many friends who have left the faith have I prayed for who remain lost? How many faltering marriages have I asked God to intervene in, yet they ended in divorce nonetheless? The list could go on.

Trite and superficial answers such as “It was God’s will,” “We cannot understand God’s reasons,” or “God was teaching us all a lesson” were unsatisfying and, for me, only added to the confusion I felt.

An Unsatisfying Solution

Because of such experiences, some have taken a subjective-only approach the prayer.

prayer involves a very significant subjective power

They suggest prayer doesn’t really cause God to intervene, but it is still highly beneficial for us. When we come to God in prayer, we have our perspectives aligned with God’s. Our minds are recalibrated by the very action and words of our prayer, and we learn to trust in God and take comfort from the prayer experience. 

Now, I strongly believe that prayer involves a very significant subjective power. However, the promises regarding prayer in the Scriptures appear far more effective and substantial than just these subjective benefits. 

Bro. Dennis Gillett makes some very relevant observations regarding subjective-only prayer. He begins by saying: “What you think about prayer will decide whether you pray and how you pray” (Gillet, 2015). He goes on to say, 

“There are those who affirm sincerely that the sole purpose of prayer is subjective–that is, its object is to change those who pray. Now whilst I have the deepest respect for those who sincerely hold this view of prayer, I am obliged to say that I think it to be utterly wrong, and in a sense a theory which is self-destructive.”6

His own observation is that those who hold this view eventually find their motivation to pray diminished and often give up praying altogether; “The subjective value and effect of prayer arises out of a conviction that when men speak to God, He hears and answers their prayer.” 

God’s Extravagant Prayer Promises

As much as we may respect the honesty and self-awareness of those who seek only subjective benefits as a way of responding to the unanswered prayer phenomenon, we, too, find it to be an unsatisfactory interpretation of some particular and extravagant offers by God found in His word.

Prayer Guarantees

Throughout the New Testament, believers are given very specific promises relating to their prayers being answered. Some well-known ones include:

“Whatever we ask we receive from him.” (1 John 3:22).
“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.” (1 John 5:14-15).
“Whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7).
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14).
“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, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt 7:7-8, Luke 11:9).

Several related verses seem to indicate that because of our faith, we should be able to achieve amazing physical feats based on God’s response to our prayers:

Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:23-24, see Luke 17:6 and Matt 7:20).

The Usual Responses

How can we reconcile these conflicting realities?

On one hand, it appears that Scripture is obvious; God will answer our prayers. On the other hand, our life experiences contain many personal examples (sometimes quite painful) that demonstrate this is not always the case.


The Answer Could be NO!

One attempt to resolve this contradiction is to say that God always answers our prayers as the verses state; it’s just that His answer may be no!

The reality is that this solution cannot be forced upon the passages quoted. The “no” answer cannot really be inserted into the context, syntax, and grammar of the verses themselves. I will demonstrate with two examples, but they hold for all the passages in question.

a “no” answer cannot be forced into the context

For example, consider the text from Luke 11:9-11 below, and see if you can insert a “no” into the structure or if the context allows for a “no” to be implied in any way.

And I tell you, 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, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?

Also, consider this verse from John 14:13-14, and see if a “no” answer can be implied in the text.

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

This verse simply says, ask and I will do it—a “no” answer cannot be forced into the context. See also John 15:7, “Whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Note the far-reaching and unqualified word “whatever” used here. This prayer promise is clear and positive and does not appear to anticipate or allow a “no” answer. We can repeat the analysis on passages such as 1 John 5:15 and John 3:22. A “no” answer doesn’t appear to be a satisfactory or satisfying solution.

According To His Will

Another attempt to answer this contradiction comes by focusing on some of these verses that align the answer of prayer with the will of God, as seen in 1 John 5:14-16, in “according to His will.”

This line of reasoning says that we can be confident that our prayers will only be answered if it is according to God’s will. The implication is that it may not have been God’s will (in His infinite wisdom) for a particular person to recover from a serious injury. Therefore, the prayers for their recovery were not answered.

We note several difficulties with this view. Firstly, I John 5:14 says that we can have “confidence” that our prayers will be answered. How is this possible, as we do not know whether our prayer is in accordance with His will?

This point of view also appears to be a convenient excuse. By way of illustration, imagine I am the manager of a company, and on several occasions I made great pronouncements, both in person and in print, that if any employee wanted anything to help them in their role, I would give it to them.

After repeating this offer many times, an employee finally comes to me and asks for a new calculator. I respond, “no!” The employee rightly reminds me of my generous pronouncement, and I respond that I will only give them their request if it is by my will, and it is not my will to give them a new calculator.

My pronouncement seems hollow and unhelpful now. One could not have any confidence in my offers and certainly could not rely on them. Secondly, we may be reading something into the word “will” (Greek: thelema) that is not intended in this context. God’s will can be understood differently:

Purpose-will (or purposive will). This is a deliberate choice by God to do or not do something. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:1, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle.”

You can see how in this verse, it is God’s deliberate will and therefore, He acted accordingly to call Paul an apostle.

We could apply this usage by proposing an illustration in which we have two sisters who both have cancer. By relying on this usage, we could hypothetically say that it is God’s will for one (Sister A) to recover, and it is His will that the other (Sister B) will not. Therefore, prayer for Sister B will not be answered.

Precept-will (or preceptive will). This is what God would desire to be or relates to His principles. For example, I Thessalonians 5:18– “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God.” It may also include God’s will in a particular dispensation–e.g., it is not God’s will that the Holy Spirit gift of tongues be available today.

This usage would dictate that God will only answer a prayer that follows His principles and is compliant with his dispensational purpose.

So which usage of the word “will” best suits the prayer promises passages, such as 1 John 5:14-16?

Firstly, one tool to help us decide is to see the number of times the word is used in these two ways within the New Testament. By far and away, the word is used in the second sense—God’s precept-will (62 times out of 67, or 92%).

Secondly, which usage actually fits the context of 1 John 5:15-16. The fact that we are to take “confidence” that our prayers are answered would favor the precept-will usage. No one could have any confidence based on the purpose-will unless they knew the very mind of God.

God will not answer a prayer that goes against His principles

We conclude that the qualifier “will of God” is not an individual plan that God has with a certain individual or specific circumstance but rather emphasizes the fact that God will not answer a prayer that goes against His principles (e.g., asking a brother to suffer because he has hurt us, asking God to override someone’s freewill, or asking God to do something not available to His people in this dispensation).

What Have We Covered?

  1. All of us (even some leading Bible students) admit to finding prayer challenging.
  2. This may be partly because of confusion and mixed messages about prayer in our community.
  3. God has given us very generous and extravagant promises (guarantees) to answer our prayers.
  4. Our personal prayer experience does not always reflect these guarantees.
  5. These guarantees do not allow prayer to be answered by “no.”
  6. These guarantees appear to be only qualified by the fact that God will not compromise His principles in answering our prayers.

How do we make sense of all this? How do we reconcile God’s extravagant prayer guarantees with our experienced reality?

The answers to these questions guide us on a journey to unlock where and how God works in our lives. They may lead to a renewed and powerful motivation to soak our lives in prayer and confidence in God.

Darren Tappouras,
Gosford Ecclesia, NSW

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