Embarrassing Prayer Promises? (Conclusion)
John’s first letter is, among other things, his inspired commentary on the prayer promises of Jesus that he recorded in his Gospel (John 14-16). Last post we talked about 1 John 3:21-22. John’s other major comment on the subject comes in 1 John 5:14-15.
Combined, these passages present two conditions for answered prayer: “The two conditions set forth are the human and the divine aspects for effective prayer” (Hiebert). The human condition is our obeying and pleasing God (3:21-22); the divine condition is God’s will (5:14-15).
Answers to prayer do not depend on a right diagnosis or analysis of the problem as we pray, but on a childlike submission to the Father, knowing that he will give what is best according to his will. If he were to answer on any other basis, which of us would ever dare to pray again? We do not have that sort of wisdom (David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters).
We have the liberty in prayer to ask whatever we will. The better we know God and the more like him we are, the more we will what he wills. And whenever we wander into that dimly lit area where we do not know exactly what to ask, or whether what we want is best, we do best to leave those desires and requests before him with a note attached: “Whatever you think, Lord; you know best.”
Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his. It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, embrace it and align ourselves with it. Every true prayer is a variation of the theme ‘your will be done’ (John Stott, Letters of John).
Prayer is, in addition, the “prescribed” means of communicating to God (not to say “informing” him of) our needs and desires—which he already knows before we ask, but which he nevertheless wants us to lay out before him. Why?
First, because it reminds us not to attribute to coincidence what is in fact God’s provision. No one pictures this better than C. S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew. Aslan tasks Digory and Polly with traveling to a garden in a distant land to perform a particular service. Their mode of transport is a flying (and talking) horse named Fledge. At the end of the first day of travel, Digory and Polly suddenly realize they brought nothing to eat on their journey. Fledge, grazing on the lush grass, invites them to pitch in and enjoy it with him.
“But we can’t eat grass,” said Digory.
“Hm” said Fledge, speaking with his mouth full. “Well—hm—don’t know quite what you’ll do then. Very good grass, too.”
“Well I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.
“I’m sure Aslan would’ve if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.
“Wouldn’t he know without being asked,” said Polly.
“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the horse (still with his mouth full), “but I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”
God likes to be asked, not presumed upon.
Second, it is in that fellowship of minds that is prayer, as we examine and express our own needs and desires, that we submit them to the light of his word and his will. It is in that sense, then, that (as Stott says) “It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, embrace it and align ourselves with it.”
The echo of Jesus’ original promises is clearly audible in these passages. If we meet the conditions built into the promises, what we ask is certain to be in line with and/or submitted to the will of God and, hence, sure to be granted.
If we are …
(1) abiding in Christ (persevering)
(2) letting Christ’s words remain in us (feeding)
(3) bearing abiding fruit (growing)
(4) asking in Jesus’ name (relying on his merit, not mine, for access and answers)
(5) keeping Jesus’ commandments (habitually obeying)
(6) seeking the things that please God
(7) submitting our requests ultimately to the Father’s will and wisdom
… then we can truly ask anything with absolute confidence that there are no limitations to what God can do (Mk 11:24; Matt 17:20) and that the Father will certainly hear and grant our request. The list may look like an obstacle course that mocks the open-ended simplicity of “ask what you will and it shall be done.” But in reality, it simply describes the normal daily life of any believer seeking to walk with God.
This is not double-talk or hermeneutical sleight-of-hand to explain away otherwise “embarrassing” prayer promises. It is confronting those promises fairly, honestly, entirely (conditions and all), and contextually (including the Spirit’s additional explanations)—applying all we know about prayer so that we come to full-bodied conclusions rather than irresponsible assumptions, isolated applications, and disillusioned disappointments.