In John 16:23–24, Jesus makes a stunning, sweeping, glorious promise to us:
“In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
So we ask the Father for things we long for because we want the full joy he offers us. And we don’t ask for trivial or fleshly things, because we know what the Apostle James says: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). No, we pray for greater faith, love, holiness, wisdom, discernment, experience of God’s grace, boldness, and joy in God, while praying for less satisfaction with worldly things.
Such longings and prayers are sincere, and God loves them and loves to answer them. But we do not know ourselves very well, or the depth or pervasiveness of our sin, or what it really requires of us in order to receive what we ask for. We can’t help but have unreal, romantic imaginations and expectations about what God’s answers to our prayers will be.
Therefore, we are often unprepared for the answers we receive from God. His answers frequently do not look at first like answers. They look like problems. They look like trouble. They look like loss, disappointment, affliction, conflict, sorrow, and increased selfishness. They cause deep soul wrestling and expose sins and doubts and fears. They are not what we expect, and we often do not see how they correspond to our prayers.
What Should We Expect?
If we ask God for greater, deeper love for him, what should we expect to receive? Answers that give us a greater awareness of our deep and pervasive sinful depravity, because those who are forgiven much, love much, but those who are forgiven little, love little (Luke 7:47).
“Many of the greatest gifts and deepest joys that God gives us come wrapped in painful packages.”
If we ask God to help us love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), what should we expect to receive? Answers that force us to give unexpected attention to a neighbor (whom we might not put in that category [Luke 10:29]), which are inconvenient and irritating.
If we ask for God’s nearness because we believe that it is good for us to be near God (Psalm 73:28), what should we expect to receive? Answers that break our hearts, for God is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).
If we ask God to make us living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), what should we expect to receive? Answers that break and humble our hearts because the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit (Psalm 51:17).
If we ask God for a deeper experience of his grace, what should we expect to receive? Answers that oppose our pride and humble our hearts (James 4:6).
If we ask God for his kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10) in our own lives and in the world around us, what should we expect to receive? Answers that reveal our deep spiritual poverty, because the kingdom is given to the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).
If we ask God to satisfy us with himself so that we aren’t so easily satisfied by the world’s mud puddles, what should we expect to receive? Answers that cause us to be increasingly aware of the evil and suffering and injustices of the world, because those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).
If we ask God for greater wisdom and discernment, what should we expect to receive? A steady stream of mind-bending, confusing answers that are difficult to understand and work through, because our powers of discernment are trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:14).
If we ask God to “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5), what should we expect to receive? To be repeatedly put into situations where we discover that our perceptions are not trustworthy so that we are forced to trust Christ’s promises, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
If we ask God to help us “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10), what should we expect to receive? Answers that require more humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2) than we thought possible. Answers that might result in destitution, affliction, and mistreatment, the common lot of many saints throughout history “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38).
“With regard to God’s answers to prayer, expect the unexpected.”
If we ask God to help us stop serving money so that we can serve him more wholeheartedly, what should we expect to receive? An uncomfortable amount of opportunities to give money away, expenses that deplete reserves we’ve been stashing away, maybe even a job loss — answers that push us to us despise (ignore, turn away from, release) money and cling to God (Luke 16:13).
If we ask for our joy to be made more full (John 16:24), to experience more happiness in God, what should we expect to receive? Answers that cause earthly joys we once thought gain to become empty, hollow, and loss and that push us to search for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8).
Expect the Unexpected
When God begins to answer our prayers, we often find his answers disorienting. Circumstances might take unexpected courses, health might deteriorate, painful relational dynamics might develop, financial difficulties might occur, and spiritual and emotional struggles might emerge that seem unconnected. We can feel like we’re going backward because we are not clearly moving forward. We cry out in painful confusion and exasperation (Psalm 13:1; Job 30:20) when what’s really happening is that God is answering our prayers. We just expected the answer to look and feel different.
This being true, we might be tempted to not even ask God for such things. I mean, who wants unpleasant answers to prayers for joy?
Don’t be deceived into this short-sighted thinking. Remember Jesus’s promise: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). If the path to full joy is sometimes hard, and Jesus tells us it is (John 16:33; Matthew 7:14), that is no reason not to take it! What do you want? Low, shallow, thin joys? No! Go for full joy! And remember what the writer of Hebrews tells us:
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
With regard to God’s answers to prayer, expect the unexpected. Most of the greatest gifts and deepest joys that God gives us come wrapped in painful packages.