If God’s will prevails, is it pointless to pray for what I want? This is a really good question from a podcast listener named Andrea. “Pastor John, hello! Why should we pray for things we want — happiness for ourselves, or healing for others — if we know, in the end, God’s will will be done? I struggle with praying for what I want because I know, in the end, God’s plan will prevail anyways. And besides, he knows better than me because he’s sovereign. I feel like this thought sometimes inhibits my prayer life. Isn’t it pointless for me to pray for what I want? But then, if I don’t pray for what I want, what then would be the point of praying anyway?”
Oh my, this is good. There are so many questions to ask about prayer. We can ask, What does it mean to pray according to God’s will (1 John 5:14)? What does it mean to pray in the name of Jesus (John 14:13)? What does it mean not to pray for the sin that leads to death (1 John 5:16)? Why is God compared to an unrighteous judge in Luke 18:1–8 when we pray? Or what does it mean to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17? Or what does it mean to pray in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:18)? And on and on and on we could go.
Surprised by Prayer
It’s not surprising, therefore (it seems to me), that since prayer is one of the most stunning, amazing, astounding privileges given to human beings, it would be shrouded in mystery.
“God plans our prayers just as surely as he plans the events that he performs in answer to our prayers.”
I mean, think of it. The Creator of the universe, with infinite wisdom and infinite power and infinite goodness, is telling us — finite, fallible, sinful creatures — to ask him to do things that we think would be good for the glory of his name, and for the good of the world. And that is exactly what the Lord’s Prayer tells us to do: pray “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). That means, “Glorify your name, God. Honor your name. Revere your name. And make sure your will is done the way the angels do it in heaven.” So, I’d just begin this by saying prayer is amazing to me. I love it. I’m baffled by it. I’m stunned.
But she asks, I think, an answerable question. A lot of people will stumble over it, but I think it’s one of the questions that has an answer in the Bible. She asked one straightforward question: “Pastor John, why should we pray for things we want — happiness for ourselves, or healing for others — if we know, in the end, God’s will will be done?” That’s her question.
Well, there are three reasons why you should pray for things that you want, even though we know God’s sovereign will will be done.
1. God commands us to pray for what we want.
He tells us to pray for what we want — provided our wants are shaped by his word. John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish [literally whatever you want], and it will be done for you.”
We’re not supposed to try to divine the sovereign will of God, and then simply say, “Do that.” That’s not what prayer is. We do not know ahead of time the sovereign will of God that governs all things. We are supposed to let the word abide in us and shape our wants and our wishes by the revealed will of God, not by the sovereign, all-controlling will of God.
The revealed will of God, for example, is 1 Peter 3:11: “Seek peace and pursue it.” Now, I don’t know the way the sovereign will of God may work itself out in my life or your life in any certain situation. It may be crucifixion. That’s not peace. I’m not after that. And that’s what happened to Jesus. We pray toward what he tells us to pursue, not by trying to figure out what he sovereignly decrees.
So, that’s number one: ask for what you want because the Bible says to ask for what you want, not to pray for the things that you dream up God’s going to do tomorrow.
2. If we don’t pray, we may not receive.
We should ask for what we want informed by the word, because if we don’t, we may not get it. James 4:2: “You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Now, let that sink in. There is a real causal connection between our asking and God’s giving. The absence of asking is the cause of the absence of receiving. That’s what James says: “You do not have, because you do not ask.” So ask, lest in failing to ask, you fail to receive. There it is. Period. Believe that. Do that.
3. God sovereignly plans our prayers.
This is the reason that number two is valid — that we may fail to receive when we fail to ask. Here’s the reason: God plans our prayers just as surely as he plans the events that he performs in answer to our prayers.
Take Jesus’s prayer for Peter and for Peter’s repentance after his denial, for example, in Luke 22:32. He prays like this before Peter denied him, which he told him he would do: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when [not if] you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
So, God had planned for Peter to deny Jesus. That’s why Jesus knew he would. That’s why Jesus said he would. And God had planned for Jesus to pray for Peter’s repentance. And God had planned, in answer to that prayer, to cause Peter to repent, which he did.
It would make no sense to say God’s will for Peter is going to happen no matter what Jesus prays, when in fact Jesus’s prayer was part of what God willed. And that’s the way it is with all prayer. God doesn’t plan the world, and then wonder if anybody’s going to pray for part of his plan to be changed. He plans the world, and part of his planning for the world is the praying of his people for what he plans to do. Here’s an example from Ezekiel 36:36–37:
The nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it. Thus says the Lord God: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock.
Now, the word let doesn’t quite get the sense of the Hebrew, as though God were just giving permission for them to pray, like, “I will allow the house of Israel to ask me to do this.” No, more literally, it’s a statement of intention and purpose from God. It says, “This also I will be sought” — that is, prayed to. “This also I will be sought by the house of Israel to do for them: to increase them like a flock of men.”
In other words, God intends to restore and increase Israel, and so he purposes, he plans, he intends, their prayer for this: “I will be sought by the house of Israel to do this for them because I intend to do this for them, as I have just said.” So, the third reason we should ask for what we want, what we wish, is that God plans our prayers just as surely as he plans the events that come from them.
Join the Cause
So, don’t question God’s way of doing things. He loves us, and he’s not toying with us when he says to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and “let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6), and “[pray] at all times” (Ephesians 6:18), and “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2), and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and “ask, and you will receive” (John 16:24), and do not lose heart in praying (Luke 18:1).
He’s not toying with us when he says all these things. He’s granting us the dignity of joining with him in glorifying himself as part of the cause of all that he does.