Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. – 1 John 3:21-22 ESV
1 John 3:11-24
The two verses above sound almost too good to be true. They appear to be giving us some kind of divine carte blanche, providing us with a blank check from God to get whatever we want from Him. All we have to do is ask. Of course, there does appear to be some fine print attached to this too-good-to-be-true promise. John seems to indicate that we have to keep God’s commandments and do what pleases Him. The condition is that I have to live obediently and keep God happy, THEN I can get whatever I want from Him. That explains everything. The reason I don’t get all that I ask for from God is because I fail to measure up. Or is it? Is John saying my behavior is the key to getting what I want from God? A little bit later on, in chapter five, John brings up this matter again. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15 ESV). Did you catch the condition John placed in these verses? “If we ask anything according to his will.” Ah, now it’s all starting to make sense. I just have to figure out what God’s will is, then I can get what I want from Him. But wait a minute. Think about that last statement. God’s will and my desires are, in most cases, not one in the same. What I want and what God wants are not necessarily compatible. In fact, I would say that in most cases, our desires and God’s will are naturally and normally incompatible and at odds with one another. Paul reminds us, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). We have a sin nature, and it is diametrically opposed to the will of God. It has a mind of its own. Its desires are contrary to the desires of God. Earlier in his letter, John warned us about three things that are constantly wreaking havoc in our lives: the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life. The New Living Translation describes them in plain language we can understand – “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions.” So what I want is not always what God wants. And what I ask Him for is not always within His will.
So what is John trying to tell us? What is he teaching us about prayer that we need to know? First of all, he is NOT telling us that we can get whatever we want from God. God is not some kind of a cosmic genie required to grant our every wish. He is holy and righteous. He is sovereign and all-knowing. He is all-powerful and, while He is fully capable of giving us whatever we ask for, He is too loving to do so. He is our heavenly Father and is not going to give in to our every whim and sinful desire. God loves us too much to cater to us. Jesus had this to say about the Father: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11 ESV). But the key seems to be what we ask for must be within His will. So how do we know God’s will? And how do we live obediently, doing what pleases Him? Those things seem to create conditions that make getting what we ask for from God impossible or at least, highly unlikely. As always, context is critical. John has gone out of his way to establish the non-negotiable necessity of abiding in Christ. Jesus Himself established it as the key to fruitfulness. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV). Abiding is the key to the behavior that is pleasing to God. God desires fruitfulness. Abiding in Christ makes it possible. But abiding also provides us with an intimate relationship with the Son and the Father that allows us to better know what their will is for us. As we abide, remaining dependent upon and energized by God, we discover what it is that He wants. We learn His will. And we begin to want what He wants. Our desires come in line with His desires. We become less and less driven by cravings for physical pleasure, cravings for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. So what we ask God for becomes increasingly more what He wants and less what we desire. Rather than ask for things that would simply make us happy, we begin to seek those things that would make us holy. Instead of simply asking God to remove the difficulties in our life, we learn to ask Him to use them to make us more like His Son. We begin to ask within His will. Our requests begin to fall in line with what God desires, not what we desire. As we abide in Christ, our hearts are slowly changed to reflect the will of God. So what we ask of Him, we receive. What we desire, He fulfills. Because our wills have come in line with His.