David in Bristol, Connecticut, asks, “Pastor John, over the last year, the Lord has taught me much about prayer, both by study of his Word and by lots of doing (and failing at) it. While I am sure there will always be some mystery to prayer, one thing that I have always struggled with is how to know if and when to stop praying for something, especially related to 1 John 5:14–17. Since God’s timing is rarely if ever ours, how do we know when to persevere in asking him for something, and when to stop, because nothing is changing, and it seems to be God saying ‘no’?”
Well, this is one of these questions where I am going to see how much I can say when I don’t know the answer, and I hope it is not fog. And I am saying it up front so everybody will know I am not trying to hide it. I don’t know for sure, but this may help. It helps me to think out loud like this.
Isn’t it significant (I think it is) that in the Bible we have the statement “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2), but we don’t have the statement “You pray too much or too long”? We don’t have a statement that says, “You have things I did not want to give you because you kept on asking me when it was time to quit.” We don’t have anything like that.
In fact, all the emphasis in the New Testament is in the other direction. Keep on praying, don’t lose heart (Luke 18:1). Ask, seek, knock (Matthew 7:7). Wake up your friend at midnight if you must (Luke 11:5–13). Go back to the city judge until he gives you justice even though he just wants you off his back (Luke 18:1–8). I mean, those are amazing, horrible pictures of God. And the point is that he loves when we keep on coming and badgering him for something we want very badly according to his revealed will.
Do We Have God’s Permission?
But here we have this difficult passage that was referred to in the question, 1 John 5:16–17:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
“The Bible never says, ‘You pray too much or too long.’”
Now notice: It does not say, “Don’t pray about sin that leads to death.” It says, simply, “There is sin that leads to death. I don’t say that one should pray for that.” It does amount, doesn’t it, to a permission, at least, not to pray about sin that leads to death. And that is what makes the question so hard, like David says: “How do we know?” How do we know when a person has sinned unto death? That is, there is not going to be any forgiveness. He has hardened himself so many times and so long that God has withdrawn from him and there is not going to be any repentance on his part and therefore not going to be any forgiveness on God’s part. How do we know when that has happened?
It is not a particular sin. Get that out of the courtroom right away. It is not murder, or rape, or treason, because it doesn’t say the sin, like the unforgivable sin. That is not what this is about. It is not the sin, or a sin, that leads to death. It is sin, or sinning, unto death. It is not the act. It is the depth and irreversibility of the act that a person has sinned so long they are not able to repent any more. But how do we know that? And the answer is, I don’t know. But it might help to point to an analogy with a similar kind of difficulty.
Trampling on Pearls and Prayers
Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” So there seems to be a kind of hardness, and resistance, and cynical attitude that you should not share the most precious truths with. People are so utterly hard and cynical that they will only trample your gospel words under their feet. How do we know when that is? I mean, Paul spoke to people who then threw him in prison and chanted songs for two hours to false gods (Acts 19:34). That is a lot of trampling going on in response to Paul’s preaching. And Jesus spoke, and people killed him. That is trampling the pearl of great price.
So in the one case, we don’t have to pray for certain hardened sinners. In the other case, we shouldn’t give holy things to certain hardened sinners. And when does that apply? I don’t know. But it may be that just knowing that such situations exist will help us by the Holy Spirit to discern when we are in one.
“I have never come to a situation where I have said: That person is beyond my prayers.”
And I will just say that this hit home for me with my grandmother. She is gone now and, frankly, I doubt she’s in heaven. She is the closest one I came to where I almost said to the Lord, “I am not going to pray for her anymore.” She is so cynical to everything I say. She turns everything on its head. She is a terrible model for her grandkids, actually her great-grandkids. My parents were not like that. But she was my grandmother, and so she was a bad example to my kids, her great-grandkids. But, frankly, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t bring myself to stop praying for her conversion. So I have never come to a situation where I have said, “That person is beyond my prayers.”