The Bible is very clear on a point we address today. And it’s this one: for our prayers to be answered, we must be obedient to God. That’s right — for our prayers to be answered, we must obey. The point is blunt and pervasive, and you can find it all over the Bible, in texts like Isaiah 1:15–18; John 15:7; 1 John 3:21–23; 1 Peter 3:7, 12; 4:7; James 5:16; and on and on. Okay then, so how holy must I become in order for my prayers to get answered? If you’re paying attention to your Bible, this is a legitimate question, and one Pastor John took up in a sermon over forty years ago. Here he is to explain and to add two more texts into the mix that I didn’t mention.
God said to Solomon, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). And the psalmist confirmed it in his own experience: “I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:17–19). Therefore, I find it taught in the New Testament and the Old Testament that if a child has bad attitudes or misbehaves, God will not give him everything he asks for. In order to have our prayers answered, we must be obedient children.
Now, there are two possible misunderstandings of this, which I want to ward off. Both of them would result in a great diminishing of our joy of faith, and a belittling of God’s mercy.
Obedient, Not Perfect
First of all, it would be a mistake to go away from here and say, “The Bible teaches that one must be sinlessly perfect in order to have our prayers answered.” There is a big difference between an obedient child and a perfect child.
You know the Lord’s Prayer? At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is this petition that Jesus taught us to pray: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Now, I assume that since immediately prior to that was the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), that Jesus means for this prayer to be prayed each day, which means that he expects us to need to pray, “Forgive us our sins” each day. I don’t think Jesus had any illusion that his disciples would in life outgrow the need to pray for forgiveness for sins. That’s a great reassurance to me, who sins daily in my own attitude.
Here’s the inference that I draw from that: Since he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins,” it would be a contradiction to say that in order to have our prayers answered, we must be without sin. That’s plain, I think, and therefore, it does not follow from Jesus’s teachings that we must be perfect, without sin, in order to have our prayers answered.
“The righteous person, whose prayer avails much, is not the sinless person, but the repentant person.”
No, the righteous person, whose prayer avails much — as James says it does in James 5:16 — is not the sinless person, but the repentant person. He’s not the person who falls into sin, but the person who stays there and is content with his sin. The person whose prayers are not answered is not the person who fights against temptation and now and then loses the battle, but the person who is quite content with his spiritual mediocrity and makes no effort to improve or to overcome his lethargy and carnality. Therefore, never say, “I must be perfect in order to have my prayers answered.” That’s the first misunderstanding I want to avoid.
No Merit Involved
The second misunderstanding that might arise from the fact that we must be obedient children in order to have our prayers answered would be that this obedience merits or deserves the answer to prayer. That one would follow very naturally, some might think. If you’ve got to obey in order to get your prayer answered, then what he’s teaching is that you’ve got to merit or deserve answers to prayer. But that would go against everything I said at the beginning, to the effect that the death of Jesus purchased for us the answers to our prayers that we might receive them through mercy freely.
Now, the way I picture this — namely, the importance of obedience in relationship to God’s mercy — is something like this. None of us is a child of God by nature. On the contrary, Paul says we are all children of wrath by nature (Ephesians 2:3), which means that we have freely, by mercy, through grace, been adopted into the family of God. We have our standing as children not owing to anything meritorious in ourselves, but only owing to the grace of God.
Therefore, all good behavior in this family must spring from this dependence upon mercy. All true obedience to Christ, the only obedience that pleases him, is the obedience that springs out of our confidence in the power and the wisdom and the love of God.
The only reason to disobey God is that we don’t trust his advice, isn’t it? The only reason my sons disobey me is because, on the spur of the moment, or planned out, they don’t think what I’ve said is best for them. “Don’t play there.” “Well, it looks like it’s more fun to play there. Therefore, I will play there.” Tacitly, Daddy’s wrong. That’s why we disobey. We do not trust God.
Therefore, since all disobedience flows from not trusting the Father’s counsel, it follows that all genuine obedience flows from trusting God. There’s a huge difference between trusting God for mercy and meriting answers to prayer. Merit looks at itself and thinks about its own value that it can offer to God. Mercy looks away from the self to God and thinks about how much value there is in his mercy to me in my lack of merit.
“God answers the prayers of the obedient because he delights so much in their faith, out which their obedience springs.”
So God answers the prayers of the obedient because he delights so much in their faith, out of which all of their obedience springs. He sees faith, wherever he finds it, as a token or a sign or an outworking of what he values above all. But faith is not meritorious because it looks away to mercy rather than looking at its own value. So never say, when you get an answer to prayer, “I have merited (or deserved) this answer to prayer.”
Asking as God’s Children
If we avoid these two errors — perfectionism on the one hand and legalism on the other hand — then the teaching stands. According to John 9:31, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”
It seems to me that the application of this teaching is plain; it hardly needs any emphasis. But I’ll state it in a sentence: When Jesus commands us to ask, to seek, to knock, he is not merely commanding that we pray, but that we live like children of a merciful Father ought to live. “Let my words abide within you. Cherish no iniquity in your heart. Love your fellow believers. Do good to all. Forsake oppression. Confess your sins.” If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we will have confident communion with him, and see great answers to prayer.