The Bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the progression of truth, such as milk and meat, or childhood and adult maturity. This principle may be applied to prayer. In its simplest form, prayer is best defined by our Lord Himself as “asking”. However if we gather together all the biblical data on this important topic, we soon discover that although asking is part of prayer’s foundation, there is much more to prayer than merely making requests.
We learn from the apostle James, for example, that prayer may be self-seeking. In his epistle he tells his readers that when they ask, they don’t get what they want because their whole aim is wrong – they only want to satisfy their own desire (4:2-3). His words immediately modify the grand sweep that is often imputed to asking in prayer.
Sometimes we hear people talking about prayer simply in terms of having enough faith, and they leave the impression that there are no conditions to be met for answered prayer. They assume that prayer is simply asking because Jesus said, “Ask whatever you will and I will do it”. Yes, He did say that. But that isn’t all that He said.
One of the dangers of building an entire doctrine on a single text is that we fail to take into considering everything the Scripture has to say on the subject. If we look at only one scriptural text on a subject, we have only a very small part of what God has revealed about that subject. Therefore one of the first principles of sound interpretation is to try to take into account all that the Scripture has to say. It is an oversimplification to say that all we have to do is simply ask, and He will do whatever we say. The book of James is not the only place we find conditions on answered prayer that modify that general statement – the whole Bible has many other modifiers about prayer. Prayer is much more than asking.
According to His Will.
Prayer is not to be self-serving but rather God-serving. In 1 John 5:14-15 we read; “We have an assured confidence that when we ask anything (here comes another modifier for the word ‘ask’) in accordance with His will, He hears us”. That is not just any old thing we care to ask for but anything in accordance with His will.
The strong implication here is that if we don’t ask according to His will, He doesn’t listen to us – and it may be just as well that He doesn’t. I think I am as grateful for the prayers God has not answered as I am for the ones He has. It is on record in the history of Israel that “He gave them the desire of their heart but sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15). Woe to us if He answers selfish prayers with the result that we turn out to be “lean” toward God!
So we are to pray in accordance with His will and He will listen to us. John goes on in verse 15; “And when we know that He listens to us, then whatever we ask, we have the thing which we have asked from Him”. Here is the promise: Self-serving prayers are not answered. God-serving prayers are always answered. What I call “will-of-God” prayers – prayer according to His will – must be answered. He has said so!
We have two sources for discovering the will of God. One is the infallible Scripture. I have no problem with the infallibility of Scripture because I believe that an infallible God cannot speak a fallible word. Therefore I believe that the Word of God is an expression of the will of God, and when I am praying in line with the revealed will of God in the sacred Scriptures, I am confidently praying according to the will of God.
The Holy Spirit.
One problem however is that we have many requests outside the scope of what the Scriptures have spoken about and we are not sure of God’s will in those matters. How can we be really sure that what we are praying is a will-of-God prayer? The answer lies in the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit has been residing here for two thousand years for one reasons; to accomplish the purpose of God in history. He did not come just to bless me and give me goosebumps and spiritual gifts. He is the governmental agent of the Trinity. Through us and through our intercessory prayer, He intends to bring the kingdom of God, the government of God, to the nations of the earth. The Holy Spirit wants to fulfil the will of God and for that reason His desire is for us to pray the will-of-God prayer.
What is the guarantee that my prayers accurately reflect God’s will? Listen carefully to Paul’s words in Romans:
“The Spirit of God not only maintains hope within us but helps us in our present limitations. For example we do not know how to pray worthily as sons of God but His Spirit is within us actually praying for us in those agonizing longings which never find words. And God who knows the heart’s secrets understands the spirit’s intentions as He prays for those who love God” (Romans 8:26-27).
Often we find ourselves in a place where we don’t know what to say or even how to say it. We need help and it is the Spirit who can help us. I believe that we can be relatively certain we are praying accurately if we are conscious that we are praying in the Spirit.
When I say “praying in the Spirit” I am speaking in the broad sense. When I come to pray, it should not be a matter of simply reciting some things I think God should consider. It should be a matter of coming first into a real relationship with the Holy Spirit in which I become conscious that He is guiding me in my praying. Of course that means that you and I must stay very close to the Holy Spirit. We must cultivate the kind of intimacy with Him in which we are conscious of consistently walking in the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit and praying in the Spirit.
When We Don’t Know How.
From my own experience I must say that praying in the Spirit often includes praying in tongues in situations for which I don’t know how to pray. I believe that when a man prays in unknown tongues, the Holy Spirit within him is making accurate requests concerning both his own circumstances and needs and the broader circumstances and needs of the kingdom of God. He is articulating them in a language that has been provided for that purpose.
That is not to say that praying in the Spirit always has to be by means of glossolalia. I remember times when I have prayed in English and yet I knew I was praying accurately and supernaturally by the Spirit because the supernatural results of the prayers demonstrated that they had accurately expressed the will of God. Nevertheless I could give you illustration after illustration of how I have gotten on my knees with seemingly insoluble problems to try to articulate my prayers rightly – but they just dribbled down my chin. I didn’t know how to pray; I didn’t know what to pray; I only knew I was up against a blank wall intellectually. The problem seemed to have no answers. But it was then when I “shifted gears” to glossolalia. It was then that I began to pour out my heart in that blessed gift God has given me by His Spirit and as I prayed in an unknown tongue I became aware that there was a great lifting in my spirit and that somehow the Holy Spirit was articulating with guaranteed accuracy the nature of the concern and the Father was hearing it and answering it.
The point is this: Please don’t demean the gift of tongues. Get into your intercessory chamber and when you are driven past the point that you can intellectually decipher your problems and articulate them, don’t be ashamed to say, “Come Holy Spirit, take hold of these things and articulate them to the Father because I don’t know how or what to pray”.
Prayer and God’s Purpose.
As we seek to pray according to the will of God, we must eventually ask one all-important question: What is the place of prayer in God’s ultimate purposes? To answer this question we can look in the last part of the gospel of John at a portion of revelation which is not recorded in the other gospels. It is the very intimate conversation that our Lord had with His disciples before He went to His death. The last words of any man are usually considered very important; they are a distillation of years of study and thought. We should expect to hear the climax of Jesus wisdom in those closing moments of His time on earth.
Jesus had tried to teach His disciples for three and a half years but He had found them for the most part dull and unresponsive. Now He had come to these last solemn moments and He had some truths He had to share with them, even though they obviously were unable to grasp exactly what He meant. Among the things He shared with them was a new revelation on prayer. In John 14:12-13 our Lord said;
“I assure you the one who believes in me will do the same things I have done – yes and he will do even greater things than I have done for I am going away to the Father. Whatever you ask the Father in My Name I will do”.
You and I may see many things that need to be done. Though I am not demeaning the many other methods we use to try to get them done, we must remember Jesus words here. He said that if we want to get them done, we must remember Jesus words here. He said that if we want to get anything done in the new age – the age that was about to be born by His death and resurrection and ascension – then this is how it would be done. Ask the Father in His Name.
Why was this a new revelation? Jesus went on to tell them;
“Up to now you have asked nothing in my name; ask now and you will receive that your joy may be overflowing”. (John 16:23-24).
Jesus said that up until then, His disciples had asked in other terms. Now they would be asking in a new context; Jesus’ Name. They would be asking in the context of the God-Man accomplishing victory over death and ascending into the Presence of God to become a Prince and a Saviour. A man, Jesus of Nazareth would be raised from the dead as the incarnate God and because of that event, they would come to Him to the Father and they would have their prayers answered through that channel.
Three important points in Jesus last discourse should be noted here. First of all the disciples were given representative authority to continue His work. So many times we put those words “greater things than I do” in the context of miracle meetings and the charismatic gifts. But Jesus puts them in the context of prayer. For many of us who are inclined to focus on the spectacular, that seems rather mundane. Often when we ask someone about the services in their church, the conversation runs like this; “Well Sunday morning our pastor will preach, he’s a brilliant speaker. Sunday night we are having a great musical cantana”. “Do you have anything during the week?”. “Well yes, Wednesday night we just have a prayer meeting”. Somehow we fail to see that the prayer meeting should be the great big event of the week! A great authority on revivals said to me one time as he was conducting some teachings in my church; “I have not been a pastor now for several years; I’ve been travelling in the interests of intercession. If ever again I had a church, I would not number my congregation by attendance at the Sunday morning meetings but I would number them by attendance at the prayer meetings”. Prayer is the channel through which we will do the “Greater things”. The first part of this new revelation then is that the disciples are given representative authority to continue Jesus work in prayer.
Second Jesus said that the work would be accomplished by obedience to His Word and prayer in His Name; “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you”. There is no other way to accomplish His work.
Third Jesus said our joy would be overflowing because of answered prayer and answered prayer should be a cause for overflowing joy – which is an essential mark of the kingdom of God. You and I ought to be constantly enraptured by answered prayer. Some of us have to hunt for a needle in a haystack to find any occasion in our lives which shows that God answered a specific prayer. Very simply, that is due to the fact that we don’t pray very much. There are not an awful lot of prayers to be answered because there are not an awful lot of prayers offered. The more we pray, the more He will answer and the more our joy will overflow.
Governing by Prayer.
We have said again and again, “If only God will move”, Jesus said, “I will move but I will move in response to your praying-will-of-God prayers”. This amazes me, because it appears that God has put the government of the world – His ultimate purpose for the Church – in the praying mouths of His followers!! He is saying; “You will govern by prayer. You will release My power in the earth by your corporate praying as the redeemed community. I will respond to your prayer and My response will be My activity in history to achieve My ultimate purposes”.
If prayer doesn’t mean that – why bother with it? If prayer is only some kind of psychological therapy to make us feel better, why engage in it at all? If prayer will not make a difference, why pray?
But it does make a difference. Jesus said, “If you live your life in Me and My word lives in your heart (that is another modifier) you can ask for whatever you like and it will come true for you. This is how My Father will be glorified” (John 15:7).
If we want to glorify God, the best way is not to make Him banners or hold big meetings for Him – though all those things may be good. If we want to glorify the Father, the best thing we can do is to become a praying people, a people who pray will-of-God prayers. Each of us can become a governor on our knees, a person who sways the world from our prayer closet and our prayer meetings. Prayer is a governmental hand and God intends to use it to bring into history His ultimate purposes.