It has seemed to me, over the years I have interacted intimately with the Christian community, that certain misconceptions on rather specific topics have festered and grown, despite Biblical documentation to the contrary.
On this issue - the issue of prayer, I find a particularly disconcerting divide between what Scripture tells us is true, and what we have falsely misinterpreted AS truth. I hope to clear that up today, so that we all may rest easy in God’s assurance that He is on the throne, in control, and always doing what is right.
In Psalms 37:3-4 Christians find a lot of hope and encouragement, as well they should. Unfortunately, as tends to happen with some consistency, many of us have extracted what we desire from the verse, and left out the completion of the thought, which changes the whole of the condition.
Ps. 37:3 Trust in the LORD, and do good. Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself also in the the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.
As seems to happen much with people, we have a tendency to remember what we want to, and conveniently toss the rest out with the bath water. “God will give you the desires of your heart...” - That’s what it said, right? I saw it - you saw it - right there on the page in Psalms 37.
Perhaps before we go further with this, we should ask ourselves a question: What do we want? Or, on second thought, is that the first question we should really be asking? Is that not a wholly self-centered way to start this subject? Maybe there’s another question we should begin with - one that better serves God and His purpose, rather than Him serving ours.
It seems to me we all get a bit rabid when we read that verse. The head starts to spin with thoughts of nicer houses; Pierre Cardin; luxury automobiles and weekends in Paris. There’s almost a literal foaming at the spiritual mouth. So much so, perhaps, that we just kinda pass over that earlier, somewhat fuzzy part about “DOING GOOD” and “DWELLING IN THE LAND” - i.e. the condition applied to reach the “desires of our hearts”.
With this in mind, perhaps the question we should begin with is: Lord, what is it you desire from me?
If we look at the Lord’s Prayer, which in my opinion could also be called “The Prayer of The Perfect Servant”, we this clearly.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen. Matthew 6:9-13
In this prayer, our Lord has asked nothing for Himself, other than daily provisions (the bare minimum). He has praised God; repented; petitioned for our “daily bread”, which spiritually speaking is The Word (the weapon and armor of a servant); sought protection from God’s enemies (who would only concern themselves with attacking a servant of God), and ended again with praise. A more elaborate explanation of The Lord’s Prayer will be addressed in a future exposition. Christ tells us to “Pray after this manner...”
This is simply one example on my rather roundabout journey to make a point about prayer. Many take this verse about the desires of one’s heart; and pair them with other verses and statements such as Christ’s declaration:
Matthew 21:21-22 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
In these verses, if indeed you considered only these verses, you would be correct in assuming that if you asked for a giant 5-headed monkey and fully believed that God would grant it to you, you would receive it. So what’s the catch? What’s the condition? First of all, I don’t think the majority of us have a clue as to the true desires of our hearts. I believe we all really think we know what would make us happy, but try as we may, we never find it - not in the world anyway. God promises you that He will give you the desires of your heart IF you follow Him and commit yourself to His Way. My suggestion is that you trust Him and accept that He will provide what you need, when you need it, and just get to the "following" part of the equation.
Many in the Christian community would have you believe that if you didn’t get what you asked for, you just didn’t believe enough. In other words, they lay the blame at the feet of your level of faith. In part, perhaps that is true - but to wholly place the issue there would be in error.
Christ is the Word - the WHOLE WORD - from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. In order to understand the fullness of any issue, be it faith; prayer; healing; prophecy, etcetera - you must extract every instance where that subject is addressed, place them next to each other; compare and contrast them; pull them apart, and place them back together. In doing so, you see the subject from every angle provided, and only then (with God’s guidance and permission) can you have a truly three-dimensional understanding of the subject at hand.
To do anything other than this will provide you with a deficient understanding of the matter, and will not only hinder your relationship and service to God, but may ultimately cause doubt in you and those around you - perhaps especially in the realm of prayer, simply due to a lack of knowledge. Did God not say in Hosea 4:6, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge"?
Obviously, this method of study can not be accomplished over night. It takes years. It is a lifelong commitment. Clearly, we can’t place every instance that prayer is addressed in Scripture into this article. But for the purposes of knowing what we should and should not expect from prayer, I think that can be condensed to a fairly concise format with some solid reference points.
The epistles of John state thus: 1st John 5:14 "And this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything ACCORDING TO HIS WILL, He HEARS US. 15 And if we know that He hears us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him.”
Again, it appears, if read with certain eyes, to declare that we can get whatever we “desired of Him”. But the prior condition says that if we ask anything “according to His will, He hears us.” - that says two things to me: 1) If you don’t ask “according to His Will”, He may, in fact, not hear you at all. And 2) when He does hear you, you have submitted to the Father that regardless of what you asked for, if it isn’t in accordance with His will, it is HIS CHOICE as to whether or not He grants the request.
You can’t just SAY “according to your Will....” - you have to MEAN it. And what you are doing by saying it and meaning it, is declaring, “You are God, and I am not. This is what I think I want; this is what I think is good, but if You know better than me - because You always know better than me, then I defer to your infinite Wisdom and Goodness to do the right thing, regardless of what I have asked you for.” That is what is called the true submission of a servant.
There’s another peripheral issue that we as people tend to get caught up in, and that is time. We think that because we’ve prayed for it today, we should have it today. But God is in control, and if He chooses to grant your request, I can assure you that He will grant it the moment He is ready to, and not a moment before.
So now you might say, “Well, that sounds like a lot of speculation. Where’s your proof?” - and that would be the right question to ask, in my opinion. So I will provide you with two examples that should properly conclude and solidify this issue.
In 2nd Corinthians, Paul petitions God for something three times. Keep in mind that Paul had heard from Christ directly; been blinded; and had his vision restored - in short, he was not a man likely to be lacking faith.
2nd Corinthians 12:7 "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of satan to buffet me, lest i should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I BESOUGHT THE LORD THRICE, that it might depart from me."
Paul has petitioned God here. He has made a request. I don’t think that anyone could argue that Paul lacked faith. He was God’s vessel for most of the new testament. He had no doubt of God's existence, or His abilities. Yet Paul was rejected. Why? Simply put: because it was not God’s Will.
9 "And He said unto me (this is a direct response from God to Paul) “My Grace is sufficient for thee; for My Strength is made perfect in weakness....”
You see, ladies and gentlemen, Paul’s thorn was necessary to God’s plan. It was not His Will that Paul’s thorn be removed. It was NECESSARY that it remain. And so, regardless of the prayer and supplication of a righteous and faithful servant, the request was denied for the whole of Paul’s life.
But to conclude this matter fully, and I think this cinches it, we should always do our best to go to the Rock; the center of all things. Shortly before Christ’s crucifixion, He and His disciples went to Gethsemane. Once there, Christ instructed His disciples to “Sit you here while I go and pray yonder.”
Matthew 26:39 "And He went a little farther, and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, 'O My Father, IF IT BE POSSIBLE, LET THIS CUP PASS FROM ME: nevertheless, NOT AS I WILL, BUT AS THOU WILT.'"
So my question to you is: Did God let this cup pass from Him? No, we know that He did and will not. Was Christ’s faith lacking? Why was His request not given Him? Because IT WAS NOT GOD’S WILL. It was a necessary part of the plan and HAD TO BE DONE. And that is that.
Finally, James 4:2-3 tells us this with regard to "receiving": "You lust, and have not; you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain; you fight and war, yet you have, yet you have not, because you ask not. You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts".
So what can we expect from prayer? That God only grants our petitions if they are in accordance with His Will. Now don’t get me wrong - “the prayer of a righteous man avails much”. - and we have seen through Abraham, with regard to Lot, and with Moses, with regard to Israel as a whole, that God can be persuaded to take a different course of action. Even then, however, it still comes down to His Will. But take heart in this! This should be a revelation of encouragement, not depression. He knows what’s best for us. And what’s more is that He desires to give it to us - despite our best efforts to thwart Him in the process. He loves you. He knows what’s best. Trust in Him and He truly will give you the desires of your heart. And most likely, you won’t have a clue what they are until they sneak up on you when you’re trying so desperately to get that new car.
“Seek first the Kingdom of God, and then all things shall be added unto you”.