What Do Answers to Prayer Depend On?, Part 2
Two weeks ago I posed the question, "What do answers to prayer depend on?" The first and most fundamental part of the answer was that all answers to prayer depend on the death of Christ for our sins. The reason that a just and holy God is free to bless us with answers to prayer, even though we are sinners who deserve condemnation, is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and turned away the wrath of God from us. Everything beneficial, which fallen human beings have ever experienced, was purchased at Calvary. And therefore, all answers to prayer are free gifts based on God's mercy. We do not purchase answers to prayer by anything we say or do; we only plead for the overflow of mercy already purchased by the sacrifice of our Lord.
The second part of the answer to the question, "What do answers to prayer depend on?" was that they depend on our being obedient children. I argued from numerous Old and New Testament texts that our heavenly Father would bring disgrace upon his own word and harm his children if he gave us whatever we asked for even while we were going on in some sin. I stressed that this does not mean we must be sinlessly perfect in order to have our prayers answered because then the prayer, "Forgive us our sins," would be a self-contradiction. You can't pray for your sins to be forgiven each day if you have to be free from all sin in order to have your prayers answered. And Jesus did teach us to pray that our sins be forgiven (Matthew 6:12). There is a difference between a perfect child and one who is characteristically obedient but not perfect. We must not presume to think that we can get God to do whatever we want if our hearts are not set on doing what he wants (1 John 3:22; James 5:16; John 15:7; 9:31; Psalm 66:16–19; Proverbs 15:29; Isaiah 1:15; etc.).
Today I want to try to give two final answers to the question, "What do answers to prayer depend on?" The text that I have tried hardest to understand in preparation for this message is Mark 11:22–25. It has been by meditating on this text in connection with many others that the final two answers to our question have forced themselves on me.
And Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast 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. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses."
The two words in this text which demand clarification are the words "whatever" in verse 24 and "believe" in verses 23 and 24. When Jesus says, "Whatever you ask," does he mean we can ask for absolutely anything? Are there no restrictions? Do answers to prayer not depend at all on what we ask for? And when Jesus says that we must not doubt but believe that what we say will come to pass, does he mean that, in order to have our prayers answered, we must have undoubting faith that God will give us the very thing we ask? In other words, in what sense do answers to prayer depend on faith?
Whatever You Ask in Prayer...
Let's start with the word "whatever" in verse 24, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours." It sounds absolute and all-inclusive. But there are three reasons why we should not think Jesus intended to give a blank check to us. The first has to do with the nature of language. The second has to do with the other teachings in the New Testament. The third has to do with the immediate context.
The nature of language is such that all words get their meaning from their usage. Therefore, the usual meaning of a word is determined by its usual usage in our culture. And the particular meaning of a word in a particular text is determined by its particular usage by a particular author. I used to illustrate this when I taught at Bethel by coming into class and asking, "Is everybody here?" Then, if someone said, "Yes," I would say something irritating like, "Well, then, where is Jimmy Carter?" And it wouldn't take long to illustrate that the word "everybody" may or not have an absolute, all-inclusive meaning depending on the way it is used in a particular context. That's the way it is with the term "whatever" in Mark 11:24. It may or may not be absolute and all-inclusive. If you were invited out to eat and you sat down at the table and said, "I'll eat whatever you have," no one would offer you a pencil to eat, or a straw basket, or a shoe. They would know that "whatever" meant "whatever you are serving for dinner." So the meaning of "whatever" in Mark 11:24 can't be settled simply looking at the word. We must look at the context to see if Jesus put any limits on it.
The reason I even stopped to think about whether "whatever" was all-inclusive is that there are texts elsewhere in Scripture which teach that there are things we won't get, even if we ask for them. I'll mention two such texts. James 4:2, 3 says, "You do not have because you do not ask, you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions." If James is right, then the "whatever" of Mark 11:24 has to be qualified: You won't get whatever you ask for, no matter how much you believe you will, if what you're asking for is simply for your own private satisfaction. Prayers should always be acts of love and so they should always aim not merely at our own satisfaction, but also at the benefit of others. 1 John 5:14f. is another text that limits what we can ask for:
This is the confidence which we have in 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 obtained the requests made of him.
This is an especially helpful text because the word "whatever" in verse 15 seems to be used just as absolutely as in Mark 11:24. "If we know he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained our requests." But verse 14 makes it crystal clear that "whatever" in verse 15 means "whatever we ask according to God's will." If this is the case in 1 John 5:15, might it not also be the case with Mark 11:24? Does the immediate context in Mark 11 demand a limitation on the meaning of "whatever" in Mark 11:24, similar to the way 1 John 5:14 limited the meaning of "whatever" in 1 John 5:15?
I think it does. Mark 11:25, the very next verse, says,
Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may forgive your trespasses.
This verse demands that the promise of verse 24 be limited. It shows that when Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you received it and it will be yours," he did not mean you could pray for vengeance to come on all your enemies. The very next verse says, "When you stand praying, forgive." Therefore, the "whatever" of verse 24 must at least exclude a prayer for vengeance. What this means is that there is no contradiction between Jesus on the one hand and James and John on the other. All agree that God does not promise that absolutely everything we ask for will be given to us if we can just believe that it will.
Therefore, in answer to our old question, "What do answers to prayer depend on?" I would say, they depend on asking for the right things. 1 John 5:14 is the most explicit text on this matter, "If we ask anything according to his will he hears us." The right things to ask for are things that accord with God's will. When Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours," he meant whatever you ask that accords with God's will, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.
Believe That You Have Received...
Now that brings us to the second word in Mark 11:23 and 24 which needs to be clarified, namely, the word "believe," "Believe that you have received it and it will be yours." Or, as verse 23 says, "Whoever does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him." The crucial question that rises out of such statements is, "How is such undoubting faith possible?" The only answer I can think of is that such undoubting faith is only possible if we know what God intends to do for those who believe. Or to put it another way, we can have undoubting faith if we know what God's will is in a particular situation. How can you keep from doubting if you don't know what God intends to do? How can anyone have assurance that the answer to his prayer will come to pass if he is not first assured that this is what God intends to do in response to his faith? There has to be a basis for faith; you can't just will to have no doubts if you are not sure that what you are asking for is what God intends to do.
I have had the flu all week. But I have not been able to pray for healing with undoubting faith that it will happen. The reason is that I do not know the will of God in regard to my health. It may be that he intends for me to be sick for two weeks that I might learn to rely not on myself but on God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9). And since I don't know what God intends to do about my health, it is impossible to have complete confidence that he will heal me when I ask him. In such cases we must always say, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done" (Mark 14:36).
I hope with this teaching to alleviate a lot of unnecessary guilt. How often we berate ourselves that we cannot ask for certain things with complete confidence that God will give them! But if we do not know that God intends to give them, how then can we have complete confidence that he will? Whenever we are forced to say, "Yet, not my will but thine be done," we are admitting that we have no certainty about whether our specific request will be granted. And there is no reason to feel guilty about that because faith that has no doubts is only possible where we know, at least in general, what God intends to do for us.
The question that cries out to be answered, therefore, is: "How can we know what God wills to do in response to prayer, so that we can ask him and trust him for it?" How do we find out what God intends to do in response to faith? There are two answers. One is that God reveals much of what he intends to do through the Scripture. The other answer is that God can reveal his intention apart from Scripture privately to an individual or group.
What I mean by this second answer is that when Scripture does not give a promise that a particular blessing will definitely be given in answer to prayer, God may make known in some other way that he intends to give the blessing. I mention this with some hesitancy because I have never in my life experienced it. God has never communicated to me what he intends to do any other way than by the Scripture. But I think he could, so I will leave open this possibility of how we can find out what God aims to do in response to faith.
What God Wills for Our Lives: Four Biblical Teachings
The more usual way we discover what God wills to do is by reading his revealed word in the Bible. I would like to mention four teachings from the Bible which show us what God intends to do for those who believe, and which, therefore, will help us have undoubting faith as we pray for these things.
1. God Will Save All Who Call upon Him
First, God promises to save all who call upon him. Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." Therefore, we need have no doubts that God intends to save us if we really want him to. Our prayer to him for salvation should be like the prayer described in Mark 11:24: "Believe that you have received it and it will be yours." God's specific promise in the Scripture sets to rest the doubts and uncertainties about whether God intends to save those who ask him.
2. God Intends to Sanctify Those He Redeems
A second teaching of Scripture which will enable us to pray confidently is that God intends to sanctify those whom he has redeemed. That is, if we have called upon God for salvation, we may now be confident that he will answer our prayer for sanctification. Sanctification is that process by which God makes us into the image of Christ, the process of becoming more holy, more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, etc. Hebrews 12:14 says, "Strive for peace with all men and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." But since it is God's intention not to lose any of his children (John 10:28), therefore we know that he will see to it that they all achieve this holiness. Romans 6:22 says, "Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life." Sanctification is a necessary stage on the way to eternal life, and therefore, God intends just as surely to give us sanctification as he does to give us eternal life. So we who are trusting God for eternal life can pray for our own sanctification without any doubt that God will hear and answer our prayer. We have learned from the Scripture that this is God's sure intention.
3. If We Seek First the Kingdom, All Our Need Will Be Supplied
A third teaching of Scripture is that if we will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the necessities of our life will be supplied (Matthew 6:33). Or as Philippians 4:19 puts it, "My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus." Of course, what you perceive your needs to be will depend on your goals. If your goal is to get to New Orleans by 6:00 this afternoon, you need to take a plane. If your goal is to run a marathon, you need to practice daily at long distances.
What goal determines Paul's understanding of need? I think he would say doing the will of God, glorifying Christ. So the promise is not for guaranteed prosperity. In fact, Paul says in Philippians 4:12, "I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want." The promise is that God will supply us with all we need to keep on doing his will and glorifying him. Therefore, when we pray that our needs be met in this sense, we need have no doubts at all that God will answer, because Scripture makes plain that is what he intends to do.
4. God Works All Things for Good for His Own
I want to look at one more biblical teaching with you that should enable us to pray at all times without doubting. The teaching is that "in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." This is the greatest and most far-reaching of all the promises in the Bible. The effect it has on prayer is tremendous. It means that when our specific requests are denied, God is preparing something better for us. He never stops working for the best interests of his children. And therefore, in every prayer we pray we can have complete and undoubting confidence in this, "God will give me what is best for me in response to my prayer." Don't ever doubt that.
Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God (cf. 4:16) must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." The faith which pleases God in prayer is confident of two things, that God is and that he rewards those who seek him. When we go to God in prayer we must believe that he will bless us, otherwise we displease him. And we can believe he will bless us because he has promised to work in all things for our great good and to rejoice over us to do us good (Jeremiah 32:40, 41).
Many of our prayers will be for things we do not know to be God's will. So we will whisper, "Yet, not my will but thine be done." And we will believe, on the basis of Romans 8:28, that if our specific request is denied, it is because God is preparing something better for us. This fits so well with Matthew 7:9–11,
What man of you, if his son asks of him bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, then, who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
That is what God will always give in response to our prayers—good things. "No good thing will he withhold from those who walk uprightly." If God denies our bread or our fish, it is not to give us a stone or a serpent, but cake and steak.
When my one year old, Abraham, sees a shiny kitchen knife and wants to have it, I will divert his attention from it to a big, green can filled with clothespins and show him how much fun they are. Have I answered his prayer? No, I haven't given the specific thing he asked for, but, yes, I did answer his longing to have a good time playing with something.
Day before yesterday we opened a box of oatmeal cookies for dessert and they were moldy, so I started to throw them all away. But Benjamin started to cry and say, "I saw one that didn't have any fuzz on it." But I said, "Benjamin, the mold starts to grow before you can see it, and it can make you sick. Let's have gorp instead." So we did, but Benjamin felt like he was definitely getting second best. And that's the way we often feel when some of our specific requests are turned down. We think God is giving us second best. But he is not. To those who love him and are called according to his purpose, he always gives what is best for them. Therefore, when we pray, we may always have undoubting faith that God will give us what is best for us.
In summary, then, when Jesus says in Mark 11:24, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours," we understand "whatever" to mean "whatever accords with God's will" (1 John 5:14). And we understand that undoubting faith is only possible where God reveals what he wills to do in response to faith. And we understand that in the Scripture God has revealed his intention to save, sanctify, and supply the material needs of those who call upon him. And finally, the greatest promise of all revealed in Scripture is that God will work in everything together for our good. And this means that, even though we may have doubts that many of our specific requests will be granted, yet we need have no doubt at all that God will always give us what is best for us.
There is no sorrow, Lord, too light
To bring in prayer to Thee.
There is no anxious care too slight
To wake Thy sympathy.
Thou who hast trod the thorny road,
Wilt share each small distress.
The love which bore the greater load
Will not refuse the less.
There is no secret sigh we breathe
But meets Thine ear divine,
And every cross grows light beneath
The shadow, Lord, of Thine.
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