This is a really sharp question. If God is sovereign, how do we pray for good things while also honoring God’s final decision as the best option? It’s a question from a listener named Connor.
“Pastor John, how much confidence should we voice in petitioning God for physical healing? It somehow feels wrong or cheap to pray, ‘God, heal this person — but if you don’t that’s okay; your will be done.’ I feel less genuine in my asking God to move on someone’s behalf when I’m constantly also acknowledging to myself that he might not, and I must acknowledge it. Could you give an example of how to rightly pray in confidence and with authority on someone’s behalf for healing while remaining in full submission to the mystery of God’s will?”
Still a Mystery
Well, let me say to Connor that at age of 72 I wonder if I will go to my grave without having come to a satisfactory answer to this question. I circle back to this question again and again because of texts both that call us to confidence that we will receive from the Father what we ask when we ask in faith (like Mark 11:23–24), and texts that give the Lord Jesus as a model when, after he made his request, even as the perfect pray-er, he said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Clearly, it was not sin for Jesus to add that qualifier. He didn’t sin.
“We don’t honor God by assuming we know what’s best in any given situation.”
So let me simply give you the pieces of the puzzle of prayer that I keep rearranging in my mind to try to see the coherent biblical picture. I know there’s a coherent picture. This is the Bible. This is God’s word. If there’s a problem, it’s a problem with me, not Jesus.
Here are two of the pieces we’ve already mentioned. We have strong promises from Jesus, in John 15 and John 16 and Mark 11 and elsewhere, that whenever we ask and believe that we have what we asked for, we will receive it. The other piece is Jesus’s words “nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
God Always Gives What’s Best
Now, there are a few other pieces of the puzzle, so let me get those out there on the table and see if we can arrange them in an order that might make a picture we can understand.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:7–11,
“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. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then [this is really important for understanding our Father’s heart in prayer], 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!”
It has been a great encouragement to me over the years that the last verse seems to promise not that God will give exactly what a foolish child sometimes asks, but will always give him good things: “How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask!”
One of the pieces in the puzzle of prayer seems to be that we should always pray not with the qualification that God will withhold good things: “Nevertheless, not my good will, but your bad will, be done.” That’s not the point of that qualification.
Let’s not assume that we’re going to qualify our prayers by saying, “Well, I’m asking for good things, and God might give a bad thing, so I guess I have to just submit.” That’s not what he does. He doesn’t give bad things to his children. Rather, we should pray with the confidence that what he gives may be different from what we ask, and yet good — even better.
The certainty of our faith may not be for the precise thing we think is best, but our certainty of faith should rest on the goodness of our Father, who always does what’s best for his children.
Now, underneath that confidence is what I call the logic of heaven from Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all [so God surrendered his Son to die in our place], how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
“Because of the death of Jesus, every good thing that God’s elect need has been purchased for them infallibly by Jesus.”
In other words, because of the blood of Jesus, God has secured, guaranteed, purchased, and made certain all things. Will he not graciously give us all things? I’m going to interpret that to mean all things that we need to do his will, or all things that we need to glorify him — all things that we need to be eternally happy in the fellowship of God forever.
This is the assurance that we can have when praying for good in the lives of God’s people.
Confidence in God
Another piece in the puzzle that’s implied in what we just saw, I think, is that assurance in prayer must rest upon the revelation that God has given. We don’t honor God by assuming we know what’s best in any given situation. We need a revelation from him in order to have complete confidence that what we’re asking for is best.
What he has promised explicitly in Scripture — this is the revelation we have in Matthew 7:11 — is that he will give good things to those who ask.
The question now is, How do we bring our requests into alignment with what he regards as a good thing — the good thing he aims to do through our prayer in this situation?
Here’s where another piece of the puzzle comes in. In 1 Corinthians 12:8–9, Paul describes gifts of the Spirit that not all believers have:
“God doesn’t give bad things to his children. Rather, what he gives may be different from what we ask, and yet good — even better.”
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit.
Now think about that and the implications that faith is called a spiritual gift, and healing is called a spiritual gift.
Paul says explicitly that not all believers have these all the time. Doesn’t that necessarily teach that some will be able to have faith to pray for healing at points where others will not? Yet it’s not a sin not to have a spiritual gift. The Bible teaches that it’s not appointed for everybody to have these all the time.
The fact that there are gifts of faith, gifts of healing, and other gifts may go a long way in explaining what’s going on in James 5:15, where James speaks of the prayer of faith that will heal the sick man. Perhaps that’s the gift of faith given in that moment to one or more of the elders who are praying.
Now, there are other pieces of the puzzle of prayer that need to fit into the picture, but these are enough, maybe, to give you something to work with over the next few years — or decades.
Our Father’s Storehouse
Here’s what Connor asked specifically: How do I rightly pray in confidence and with authority on someone’s behalf for healing while remaining in full submission to the mystery of God’s will? That’s his question.
Here’s what I would say. We should rest our confidence and our authority on the promise of Jesus in Matthew 7:11 and the promise of Paul in Romans 8:32. Because of the death of Jesus, every good thing that God’s elect need has been purchased for them infallibly by Jesus. Our heavenly Father always gives from that storehouse. And he gives what is good for his children when we ask.
He gives them good when we ask, and yes, we should remain open and receptive and eager to receive a spiritual gift of faith at any given time that might fix our confidence on a specific outcome. But let’s not assume that this is the way every prayer should be made.