Desiring God Roundtable

Chapters 5–6

Bethlehem College and Seminary

Welcome to Table Talk here at Bethlehem. I’m surrounded here by about two dozen Bethlehem Seminary guys who are going to ask questions along with you if you want to tweet them in. And we’re focusing today on chapters 5 and 6 in Desiring God. And I’d like to pray to get us started, and then we’ll hand it off to the first question.

So Pastor John, this week we’re focusing on the word of God and prayer and how that relates to our joy. The two verses you gave as a banner are John 15:11, Christ saying, “These things — I’ve spoken the Bible, the word — that we might have joy in him and that our joy might be full”. And then for prayer, you said, John 16:24, “Ask and you’ll receive so that your joy would be full”. So my question is, negatively, how do we keep from letting the word of God in prayer breed contempt in us because of familiarity, or positively, how can we keep it fresh and alive that we come to the word of God and we come to him in prayer every day with excitement and not with the familiarity that is boring?

The interesting thing about the question is that the answer is in the question because the whole point of the Scripture chapter was Scripture the kindling of Christian Hedonism. So you’re asking how can the fire stay hot for the word, and the answer is that the word is the kindling that keeps the fire hot. That’s part of the answer. In other words, I don’t think I could stay alive a week without the word of God, maybe not a day. I mean, ultimately not at all. But practically, avoiding familiarity breeds contempt and kindling the passion that we want for the word, the answer is go to it every day and pray over it every day.

So I use my little IOUS acronym: I, “I pray, God, incline me to your word. Please give me the will to come here every day” (Psalm 119:36). O, “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 119:18). U, “Unite my heart to fear your name because my heart’s just torn in a hundred directions” (Psalm 86:11). And S, “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love” (Psalm 90:14).

So I go here often just by discipline, and while here, I’m praying the fire fall, that I have eyes to see what’s here, that it would be beautiful to me, that it would be enriching to me, that it would sparkle, that it would have depth to it, that it would be wonderful. And that’s the work of the Spirit to open our eyes to see that. So really putting these two chapters together is my answer to your question, that the word is the kindling and the prayer calls down the fire that makes it hot.

This is our first question from Twitter: Is it possible to idolize the Scriptures? If so, how do you diagnose it, rid yourself of it, protect yourself from it?

No, no. That’s not the way to do it, but the answer is yes, you can idolize Scripture. You can idolize anything except God, and you can even idolize the idea of God. And I think the symptoms of idolizing Scripture would be finding yourself seldom asking the Lord to make the Scripture a window onto him and waking up and finding that for weeks or days or months, you’ve been just staring at the glass.

Oh, isn’t this amazing glass? Oh, I love the reflections in this glass. I love the frame this glass has. I love the quality of this glass. And you’re like, wait a minute, wait a minute, glass is to be looked through. And to wake up and find that you’ve just stopped looking through it would be, I’ve begun to treat this book as an end and not a means that the Bible is revelation, it’s revelation of, of someone. And so we want to push through him.

Here would be another symptom I think is if you began to use the Bible for selfish and proud and arrogant and self exalting ends in debate or to win an argument with a friend or something and you realize, wait a minute, this is not mediating the glories of God, this is really stroking my ego the way I’m using the Bible. So those would be two tip-offs that the Bible has started to become an idol for us rather than a window through which we see the one that we should really idolize, namely God.

This question’s similar, but specifically at the end of chapter 5. You talk about how George Müller started his day and when you read about that and how that influenced your time in the word in the morning. And you said, “I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord.” And I guess that whole section just struck me because I feel like more often than not, I come away with an appeased conscience more than a happy soul. It’s just like, okay, I’ve read my Scripture for the day. Do we just stay at it until our soul is happy or how do we go about experiencing that or is it just okay, I have to go on with the day?

That’s very, very discerning for you to make the distinction between the good feeling that you get from having done the duty and the good feeling that comes from having met Jesus or seen more of him, because I battle with the same thing. I know that I ought to read the Bible every day, I know it from experience, there’s an ought there. There’s an ought. And to not live up to the ought makes me feel bad, and to live up to the ought can make me feel good. And the good feeling is not a bad feeling unless that’s all there is.

So as I understand your question, it’s okay, I don’t want to go there just to relieve that bad feeling and get that kind of good feeling, I want to go deeper. It really is almost the same question I think. The difference there would be made on what you’re looking for in the word, not like, “Okay, I’m going to get this chapter read. I have now got it read, it is done.” Rather, what’s here? What’s here? And what’s here of him? So asking the right question about am I seeing what’s here rather than getting the chapter behind me for the day so that I have a relieved conscience through the day.

And then the other thing besides making sure the question being asked is Christ-centered, the prayer. I think just saying to God what you said to me, that’s the way I’d do it anyway. I just admit to him, “Look, God, I am so prone to just relieve my conscience and be blind to the joys that are here, not because I have got it done, but because what you tell me, what you tell me.” And you’ll know the difference.

You’ll know the difference when that happens. So we ask him, we just say, “God, open my eyes to see grounds of joy that are here in your work, your character, Christ’s work, Christ’s character, the Spirit’s work, the Spirit’s character, grounds of joy that are here, that are quite apart from whether I’ve read this or not.” If I knew this and hadn’t read it, then it would still be glorious. It isn’t the reading of it that makes the difference, it’s the being of it that makes the difference.

Is there a difference between hearing the word with faith and reading the word with faith?

There might be. The quote is from, at least I’m assuming, hearing the word with faith that’s coming from Galatians 3:5. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith or hearing by faith? And then can that be replaced by reading by faith? It could be if there were genuine hearing happening when you were reading.

The human soul and mine is so amazing. You can find yourself reading to yourself and get at the end of a paragraph and realize you’ve been thinking the whole time about the Twins baseball game and you were actually reading. I mean you were. I’ve tried to fix that by reading out loud, and believe it or not, I can read a whole paragraph out loud and get to the end and have spent the whole time thinking about a problem that I’m having with one of my children. I’m saying the words out loud, I’m reading them, and connecting nothing in my brain, nothing.

So I have to be very careful and say hearing and reading aren’t synonymous, they’re not. I think the hearing that Paul has in mind is real hearing, meaning I’m saying it or it’s in my head or it’s in my mouth, either way. It’s coming from a page or it’s coming from a sermon or it’s coming from an iPod or whatever, wherever it’s coming from, the hearing is irrespective of means or the mode by which the words and the sentences are getting into your head. The hearing is I’m construing the meaning of the word of God truly, and I am taking it into my heart sincerely. And so if that’s happening with reading, then the reading and the hearing can be the same.

I was wondering. It’s something I’ve struggled with in the past with making the connection between illumination, like when you’re reading and the Holy Spirit gives you understanding and then just hard study of the text.

Well, they are two different categories, first of all, and so they’re not at all intention. They don’t have to be. They might be in our experience. The category is the work of my mind to comprehend a flow of words, put together in sentences, put together in paragraphs, all of which obey certain rules, which if we share them with the author, we can get inside his head. That’s the glory of reading and study, and it is not easy. At least if you want to go deeper than just surface, it’s not easy work.

It’s hard work, it can give you a headache and make you tired. Most people who do manual labor don’t realize you can get tired thinking. How can you get tired thinking, you’re not moving a muscle? Well, the brain is a muscle evidently because you can get tired thinking. And so it is hard work.

So that’s one category and it is right. Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:7, “Think over what I said and the Lord will” — here we move to the second category — “give you understanding and everything”. Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit to quicken and sensitize the spirit within. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:13, “Doesn’t receive the things of the Spirit”. So the natural man can be just reading along, he can be working his tail off to understand this. M

any scholars are not born again and they work, work, work, work to understand and there’s no spirit in to connect with the things of the Spirit that are here. And so the illumination is going to fail, and therefore that the heart in essence or significance and, I think, dimensions of the meaning, you’re all making those distinctions with me from E.D. Hirsch, they won’t get them and we won’t get them.

So what I’m asking for, I used to think that prayer and the Holy Spirit was all for illumination and hard work was for construing meaning. So this would grant me deep sensitivities to significance, and this would grant me the ability to connect with the author’s original intention and get the meaning. It’s not that simple because there are resistances in my soul both physically, sometimes from weariness and spiritually, sometimes from, “I don’t like the meaning that’s emerging” to actually seeing. I mean, there’s resistance actually seeing you can be blind to an intended meaning on the face of the grammar because you don’t want to see it.

And so when I pray, I don’t just pray for illumination to see applications and significances, I also ask, God, please, take away my native weariness that just may be too lazy to see it and my pride or whatever love of sin. This little love of sin I have, and this is starting to go at that sin, and I don’t like it, and so I’ll just actually be blind to it. It says that in Ephesians 4:18 that we’re blind because the hardness of our heart. So yes to hard study and yes to prayer for illumination and prayer that this study be fruitful in seeing what’s really there.

Let me put two questions together here. When do you find is the best time of day to study, read, and pray for your personal relationship with God? And is there a use for pictures, relics, and icons in your personal Bible study?

I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that before. Okay, first half of the question. I think, I’ll quote Jonathan Edwards, “The Lord rose from the dead early, so should we every day.” Nothing authoritative in that observation, but I think experience for me and for most of the saints I’ve read about and ones I know, morning is the best time. And that’s because it sets the tone of the day, I suppose. However, there’s no law that says you have to set aside a special time in the morning to be with God, we just need it every day. In fact, we need it hour by hour.

I think one of the reasons the morning is so valuable is since we do need the word hour by hour, it’s good to fix some of it in our minds, some phrase, some verse, some truth in our minds that we can recur to hour by hour through the day. For me, today it was, “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you?” Just that little sentence, I’m just saying it as I walked over here, I’ll probably say it this afternoon, if I run into some difficulty today, I’ll remind myself of it, and I can do that hour by hour because I met the Lord in Psalm 31 this morning.

So my first answer is I just commend to you, don’t demand of you, just commend to you, go to bed a little earlier and get up a little earlier and devote time to the word and fix some of it in your heart for the whole day’s walk.

Icons, pictures, relics. I’m not even sure what a relic is, like a bone of St. Peter, something like that. No, to relics. Icons would mean pictures. I don’t pursue it, so the answer is it’s not functional, but the heavens are telling the glory of God. So God’s pictures, I take real seriously. I feel myself guilty if I look at my Twitter feed from my home to the church. It takes me an eight-minute walk to get from my house to this church. If I spend that whole eight minutes staring at my iPhone in order to see what’s up on the internet, I feel guilty. You know why? It’s because walking through a gallery, God’s gallery for my soul, the heavens are telling the glory of God. These magnificent buildings downtown that I can look at were built by men in the image of God. It’s a wonder that they have done.

And here I am just all buried in my little world. Not that this isn’t also reflecting the glory of God, but I feel anyway like look up, look up. So those pictures really mean a lot to me and I think God has put them on display insofar as people with God’s gifts called artists have rendered in another way, those displays of glory, I think they can function that way as well. So even though in my devotional time I’ve got my Bible in front of me, not a picture book, but I would not be opposed at all to take an art book or a picture book or whatever and see some beautiful work of art that might also speak to me of God’s glory.

Pastor John, so the chapter argues that the Bible tells us that the Bible is kindling for our soul, for the flame of joy in our soul. And then you also give some examples of other Christians who have found that in the word. Can you give us one, for yourself, an experience when the Bible has really given the spark to the flame of your joy?

That would not be hard because it’s pretty much every day, but I’ll just use this morning. And this is paradoxical and I have to be careful because experiences are always personal and you can either praise somebody too much or criticize them too much. But I was speaking with a person this morning after the elder prayer meeting who told me news that was very discouraging to me, very heart-heavy. So I was walking home with a heavy heart about somebody and I was just wrestling with the Lord all the way. Now I’m not supposed to be, I’ve got to talk about joy today, Lord, I don’t want to be heavy-hearted as I walk into this meeting today.

So I get home and I hadn’t had my devotions yet. I got up at 5:45 and came over here at 6:30 and prayed for an hour and then we went home. And so now I’ve eaten breakfast and I’m sitting in my chair with my Bible open to read my Robert Murray M’Cheyne four chapters. And one of them was Ecclesiastes 7, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting . . . for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:2–3). I said, “What? What is that?” So I got out my Hebrew, I said, “I got to check this out.” Sadness of face makes the heart glad, better to go to a funeral than a wedding. I said, “Okay, that’s where I went half an hour ago.”

And Ecclesiastes, and I think Ecclesiastes is on the money here, it’s not one of those moments where he’s saying something wacko. He’s telling me, there’s something really, really good for you in this. And for whatever reason, God’s illumination, it made me very happy. My heart is still heavy, it’s three hours later, but it’s not heavy the way it was this morning. That word, and I’m not saying all of it, there’s more in that text right there, but that word, that better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, sadness of face makes the heart glad. I said, “Okay, there is something profound about just owning your pain, owning the sorrows of life, owning the reality, not trying to stuff it, not even trying to make the face look, just own it and let it be there and then let God be God.”

I think in Ecclesiasters 7:14, it says, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” I said, “Okay. All right, Lord, this is your assignment. I’ve just got an assignment from you this morning, this is my day. You just made for me a day of adversity, a sad day. You made a sad day. You’ve made other days, this is a sad day, and you made it, and you’re good, and you’re God.” And that cluster of truth just came under me and it got over me. It was just as if the Lord said, I don’t need to take your sadness away for you to be glad in me. Just hear that.

When we talk about joy, our mantra is from 2 Corinthians 6:10: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” We don’t have a quick fix to deep sadness at Bethlehem because the Bible. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and he was sustained by the joy that was set before him and he rejoiced deeply over God’s hiding things from “the wise and understanding and revealing them to babes” and other things (Luke 10:21). So that would be one illustration.

What is the relationship between the word of God and the people of God in our quest for joy?

That’s a really good question, because my wife, in her gentle way, added to my observations in the sermon last Sunday where I was tempted to say, “Only by the word,” and she said, “What about the people?” And so the answer surely is from 1 Corinthians 12, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you. And the hand cannot say to the eye, have no need of you.” Which means it’s not idolatry to say over the word, I need you, I need you, I need you. Meaning, oh, this is not enough? Is that what we’re saying? No, we’re saying this is mediated in so many ways. This comes to us in so many ways. Personal devotions are not the be-all and the end-all of life.

Christian community is crucial to living the normal Christian life. We are meant to be a people in fellowship, a brotherhood and a sisterhood in camaraderie around a great cause. It’s not like me in my little Bible and home alone in my study, having happy times with God, is not the description of the robust full Christian life now and in eternity. It’s linking arms, face-to-face, shoulder to shoulder, doing the great works of God, filled with the Holy Spirit empowered by the word. And the word comes, yes, by our solitary times with the word, and very often through times like this. Here we are, we’re doing it right now, we are talking the word to each other, and we need that so bad.

So, to say that the community is essential is not to say that this drops into the background. This becomes the voice of the community and we get this from our devotions and then we walk into the world and we speak it into the lives of believers and non-believers for his glory.

This is a related question to what you just said. It’s customary to distinguish different readings of the Bible, like a devotional reading of the Bible, an academic reading of the Bible, things like that, where others, like R.C. Sproul have said, “I don’t make those distinctions, it’s all holy to me and devotional.” Are those distinctions helpful? And how would a Christian Hedonist rightly approach different uses of the Bible?

That’s a really good question. Woe to me if I call R.C. Sproul into question. John Sailhamer told me the same thing, just didn’t make that distinction at all between devotions and academic study. And I know John well enough to say, “What?” Those men are better than I am. I have to make the distinction, not because there is one, but because my capacities for doing more than one thing at a time are smaller than theirs.

Meaning, I really get wrapped up in grammatical gymnastics often when I’m doing sentence diagramming or arcing, that is trying to figure out the flow of thought. I mean, it’s such hard work and so complex and you’re looking at a dictionary here and a commentary here and a lexicon there. I, in my weaknesses, in my weakness, find it very difficult at those moments to also be saying, I’m looking for gems here, I’m in love with you here, I’m feeling all kinds of glorious affections for you here. I’d like that, I ask for that, break in, break in anytime you want.

But if I only did the sentence analysis, paragraph analysis stuff and never set aside a time different from that, I think I would probably die. My soul would shrivel. And it would be the other way around too, if you only do the meditative, speak to me, Lord, I’m not looking up any words here, I’m not going to any commentary here, I’m not going to spend time writing anything out here, I just need food. If you do only that, you’ll probably stay at a certain level without going deeper.

So here’s the analogy I’ve often used for myself and others. In 1967, I was a water safety instructor at a Christian camp. So I was teaching guys how to rescue people who were drowning. And I was madly in love with Noël. We had fallen in love in the summer of ‘66, we were apart for three months, and I got a letter every day, and sometimes they smelled wonderful. Mail call at the camp was just before lunch.

There would be days when I would skip lunch and just go out in the woods and sit down with my letter, I would hold it before I opened it. It’s just almost as good as her being there, not quite. It was the next best thing. And then I would open it and I would read and all I cared about was does she love me still and how does she love me, that’s what I’m reading for and that’s the experience I wanted.

I wasn’t saying, now what’s the subject of the sentence and the verb. But if a sentence seemed to say the opposite of what I wanted to hear from her, then I would really look at it hard. Maybe she dropped a word, maybe do a little textual criticism here. If she wrote something in a foreign language to be clever, I’d have to look it up. I want to see what she said in Latin. She never did, but just for the sake of the analogy. So you see the difference. If I have to do the academic work on Noël’s letter in order to get the meaning, I’ll do it, I’ll do it. But really, I want this relationship to be nurtured. And for me, that means setting aside some time to do that kind of reading, my love letter from God so to speak.

Maybe this way of asking a question, even though we’ve been over some of this ground, would help some. This person says, “What’s the key to having a passion and hunger for the word of God and prayer?”

Well, to say something different than what I’ve already said, the key is in the hand of God and not in your hand, and the key is the Holy Spirit. God holds the key. So ultimately, we are utterly dependent on God. And the key is the Holy Spirit given to us because the flesh does not submit to the law of God; indeed, it cannot. And those who are in the flesh cannot please God; they cannot enjoy God. And so we have to be born again, and we have to be illumined day by day.

So let’s just put the key outside of us because if a person asks me, what should I do? I’d say, “Well, pray.” And they say, “Well, I have prayed and I still don’t see it.” I’d say, “Well, look at the word long and hard.” “I have looked at the word long and hard, and it still is not beautiful, and still, nothing happens when I go there.” They can push me back and back and back until I say it really does depend on God, and he’s free, and he doesn’t have to give it to you.

It says in 2 Timothy 2:25 that the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, apt to teach, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them to repent, unto a knowledge of the truth that they may escape from the snare of the devil who has taken them captive to do his will. God may grant repentance. In all of my exhortations to my people, God has to grant a turning unto the knowledge of the truth, or they won’t have it. And so the key is in his hand. It’s that gift. And so once you realize that, you should tremble before the word of God, like it says in Isaiah 62: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

And one of the reasons we tremble is because the word is not in our control. Seeing it and understanding it is not in our control ultimately. It’s in God’s control, which means we should be reverently, submissively, deeply, tremblingly dependent on God, the Holy Spirit, and ask him, “Oh God, take your key and unlock the recesses of my heart, I pray.”

I have a dual question.

That’s cheating.

Word and prayer. You’re sitting in a room with seminary students at a school where we require the biblical languages, and what does that mean for someone that doesn’t have them in relation to meeting God through his word? And second of all, prayer, in a setting like this, because a number of seminarians that we have them here and there’s those that are watching, we get the idea of setting up a curriculum that nurtures the word element. But what can we do, what should we be doing, in training to be elders, to nurture the prayer element?

Now say the first half again.

The first half just dealt with: Do I have to know the biblical languages to meet God?

Okay, got it, all right. Nurturing prayer and the biblical languages. Let me say something preemptive first before I say something positive about the languages. Preemptively, a person does not need to know Greek and Hebrew in order to go very deep with God in the word, deep with God in the word. There is so much glory strewn through the manifest meaning of good English translations as to keep you busy a lifetime. And there are many who have Greek and Hebrew who miss them, who miss them.

So, there’s no necessary correlation. Positively, there always needs to be in every generation, a band of people who are masters of Greek and Hebrew for the sake of making sure that the treasure is protected from others who would distort it or say it doesn’t mean such and such. And we can immediately say, “No, no, no. It is clear that it does. And those who are saying that the Greek is such doesn’t mean, so there’s a protective element and there are depths and accuracies that you can’t settle.

This morning in my reading, oh, wish I can remember. Oh yes, it’s remember Timothy from whom you learned the Scriptures. Now in English, whom, you cannot tell if it’s singular or plural, right, in English. I don’t know whether he means one person, Paul, or two people like maybe Eunice and Lois and it’s plural. You can only know that because of Greek. English cannot communicate that in the word whom. So if you were preaching on that and you want to say who are these, and if you heard somebody say, “It’s Paul,” you say, “No, it’s plural, it’s not Paul.” And he’s referred to his mother and his grandmother in the first text and said they’re the ones who taught you the word, so it’s his mother and his grandmother. So those are the little accuracies.

Now happens to be in the ESV, they put a footnote, which is a good thing to do. They put a footnote in the ESV that it’s plural, but you can’t always be doing that. So there’s value both positively and protectively for a band of people. And it’s good for preachers to do that because they’re the ones who, week in and week out, are opening the word to the people. But they never want to create the impression that a person with a good English translation can’t spend a lifetime going deeper and deeper and deeper with God with confidence.

The short answer to the second half of prayer, I would say the first thing and the main thing is modeling. You are responsible, and Jason responsible, Tom responsible, to model that by talking about it and by doing it in class. I could even imagine, this has never happened to me in seminary, but we pray at the beginning, which always I thought was appropriate, but just stopping in the middle of some really tough discussion and just saying, “Lord, now I don’t want to preempt anybody’s hard thinking here, but we need some help. Would you come?”

We do that in the middle of our elders meetings; might be appropriate in class as well. But I just think the modeling of my professors in seminary, one or two of them especially, made me realize how utterly, deeply, profoundly dependent they were on God in prayer. And then I think how we build prayer into the life of the seminary in terms of times of prayer would be secondary but important.

Okay, would you work out the relationship between prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie and prayer as coming to the Father as a child yearning for his goodness toward us?

Good. That’s a good question. I stress in the chapter on prayer that prayer often malfunctions when we treat it as a domestic intercom, whereby we ring up the butler to bring another pillow behind our back because in watching the DVD, it’s getting a little uncomfortable, and a wartime walkie-talkie in which we are moving into enemy territory and we are calling for air power. “God please, I need your help. I’m about to meet the enemy here, grant me your help.” Prayer is, I think I used the phrase, prayer is the means by which we obtain power from mission. People on a mission, prayers given to us for the sake of mission, and I believe that. And I could give texts for it, but let me just get to the question.

Does that contradict or in any way become in conflict with coming to the Father? The Father, I’m a child. I don’t feel like a soldier right now, I’m a child, you’re a Father, I’m coming to you to have reassurances of your goodness. And I would say that is completely and totally appropriate and right to think in that set of imagery as well, child, father, soldier, commander.

Now, all I want to stress is don’t separate them. Don’t start to think that the child is not a soldier, don’t start to think that the Father’s not a commander, don’t start to think that sitting on the Father’s lap is not related to the battle. It’s always a battle. This life is war. And my little slogan is you will not know what prayer is for until you know that life is war. And I think that’s true.

Because when I think of war, when Paul says to Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith,” (1 Timothy 6:12) use the fight imagery, I think he means fight against the devil who’s telling you he’s not your Father, fight against the devil who’s telling you he won’t let you crawl up on his lap. He’s mean, he’s ugly, he’s vengeful. Don’t try to crawl up on his lap, he’ll smack you down. That’s a war.

So at the very moment when I’m trying to be a broken-hearted, little, needy child, Satan is saying, you don’t want to be childlike, that’s so weak. Or he’s a nasty, mean, vengeful father anyway, you don’t crawl up in his lap. That’s just war. And you must, at the very moment when you’re thinking of God as your Father and you as his child, to be on guard, sword in hand to stick the devil when he starts telling you lies about what kind of Father he isn’t.

For some of us when we qualify our prayer requests with “Your will be done” in recognition of God’s sovereignty, and sometimes we do that to avoid the name-it-claim-it theology of prayer, it can potentially lessen our expectation that God will actually answer our prayer, grant what we’re specifically asking for. How do you balance believing in God’s sovereignty and being expectant that what you prayed for God may actually grant?

Oh man, that is such a good question. And if I had Paul here or Jesus here, that’s probably the one I’d ask. And I don’t have a good answer for it, but I’ll just talk for a minute and see what happens. First of all, let me clarify just in case anybody missed what I hear you’re saying, there are some astonishing promises in the gospel, like I think Mark 11:24, “Ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” “Say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). Or James, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God. . . . Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea” (James 1:4–5).

And then you have Jesus in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Which is I think proper tacitly to have under every prayer. That’s what you’re asking. How can you have that under every prayer? I’m finite, I’m not God, I don’t run the universe, you run the universe, I can’t tell you how to run the universe, I can’t become the boss of the universe, I can’t elevate my will above your will. So I am a deeply submissive person at root and whatever you say goes. And now, how can you go from that to believing with total confidence I’ve got what I asked for? And the only answer I know is that God sometimes reveals to us that he will do it.

Confidence, I don’t think confidence in a particular deed. I like to give some illustrations that are close to my hand. I should make one up instead of implicating anybody. It’s just like confidence that somebody who’s finished TBI get the church they’re applying for. They’ve just put in their name to be a pastor and I’m praying with them, got to have confidence, it’s going to happen, you’re going to get the job.

I think that confidence has to be based on a revelation that God intends to give them the job. Because otherwise, we don’t know. We don’t know if that’s what’s best. I don’t. And since I don’t know and God hasn’t revealed to me that that would be best, what would my confidence be based on? This is where name and claim it comes in. The name and claim it creates the confidence and the confidence becomes the mandate. And that, I really do start becoming God. I am now mustering up, and if I can get enough confidence in here, this becomes God’s will. I say, I don’t think it works like that.

And so, I asked my dad one time, I’ve told you this story before, “Daddy, have you ever prayed that way and known? A Mark 11:23–24 type know it? And he said, “Two or three times.” I thought, “Wow, that’s not very many, more than I have had.” And I said, “Like what?” And he said he was wrestling late at night in a crusade, my dad’s an evangelist, that nobody had responded a couple of days into the crusade, of these churches gathered together. And he said, “I labored with the Lord until two in the morning, I wouldn’t let him go. I wouldn’t let him go.” He said, “I have to have fruit. I didn’t come here for nothing.”

And he said, “I got the assurance from” — now, my dad’s not a charismatic, so that would be his language, right? So, “I got the assurance from God.” He didn’t say, God told me. “I got the assurance from God I’m going to have five souls tomorrow night,” five. And he said, “I finished my sermon, gave an invitation, and four people walked to the front. I dealt with them, everybody started going home, and I just waited. And somebody said, ‘Can we take you?’ I said, ‘No, there’s somebody else who’s going to come,’ and they did. They got halfway home, turned around, came back.”

And I asked my dad, “So why don’t you pray like that all the time?” And his answer was, “I’d be dead.” Not much of an answer, but meaning the wrestling from whatever, nine till two in the morning, you just can’t live that way, life doesn’t work that way. But from time to time, God is pleased. I think this is what the prayer of faith is in James 5: the prayer of faith. And I think it’s what the gift of faith is, gift of miracles and gift of faith in 1 Corinthians 12:8–9, what is the gift of faith? It’s those who can somehow discern what God intends to do and thus have strong faith for it. So at any given time, I think we should ask for that gift. If you’re in a small group and you’re praying over someone, it’s not wrong to say, “Lord, would you grant a gift of faith in this circle right now. Grant someone the gift of healing, gift of miracles, gift of faith, and the confidence.”

So I do not know myself how to fully honor all those texts that seem to say Jesus wants us to have high-level expectation, even certainty. If the way I’ve explained it, isn’t it, I just don’t know. C.S. Lewis has an essay called “The Unresolved Dilemma of Prayer,” or something like that, I think it’s in God in the Dock, and he just puts those two things, “Nevertheless, not my will be done” Gethsemane, with, “Ask whatever you have, believe that you have it, and it’ll be done.” He says, “I cannot perfectly resolve them.” That was his last word.

How can we pray for and enjoy God’s gifts without being idolaters, and without diminishing the goodness of his gifts?

That’s a question that really exercised me in the chapter on prayer and spent a whole section talking about how asking for things, other than God. Like, “Hallowed be thy name” is central and overarching, but what about, “God, would you get me a job? God, would you lead me to a wife? God, would you take away this sore throat?” And so on. What about things? “God, would you help us have the down payment for a house?” and so on. How can that not be idolatry?

And the most helpful sentence I’ve ever read outside the Bible on that issue is Augustine, and he was praying like this: “He loves thee too little, O God, who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake.” So I ask for things for God’s sake. Everything I want, I want for his sake, and then it wouldn’t be idolatry.