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
1 John 5:13-21
Prayer is often a confusing and frustrating experience for the average Christian. It can also be one of the most misunderstood and misused disciplines in the life of the believer. The fact that we should pray is clear to most of us. That most of us attempt to pray is probably a safe assumption. But the experience of most believers when it comes to the subject and practice of prayer is one of inconsistency and impotency. Our prayer lives tend to be sporadic and powerless. Answers to prayer are rare and usually unexpected. So when we read a passage like the one above, we can either scratch our heads and wonder why what they promise doesn’t seem to be true in our own lives, or we can get overly excited and conclude that we have been neglecting a veritable no-limits gift card to get whatever we want.
But John would have us approach prayer excitedly, expectantly, but also wisely. So he includes some important conditions when it comes to prayer. This is not the first time that John has addressed the topic. Back in chapter three he gave us the comforting news that “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 3:22 ESV). There are those intriguing words again – whatever we ask. It would seem that John is offering us some kind of carte blanche when it comes to prayer. He appears to be representing God as some kind of a cosmic genie in a bottle, ready and willing to grant our every wish. But John would have us tap the break and slow down our runaway excitement. He gives us a few caveats or conditions. We must keep His commandments and live in such a way that our lives please Him. This is not John’s attempt to offer some kind of works-righteousness as a means to get things from God. He is simply presenting a picture of what it means to live in relationship, in intimate communion with God. As we abide in Him; relying on His strength, depending upon His wisdom, and resting in His sovereign will for our lives, we will tend to have a better idea of what it is that He would desire for our lives. Which is why John adds yet another condition for prayer in verses 14-15 in chapter 5: “if we ask anything according to his will.” For many of us, prayer has become little more than an exercise in expressing our will. We come to God telling Him what we want. We bring Him our list of requests and petitions. We inform Him what it is that we need Him to do and we even give Him our preferred timetable for delivery of our request. But even Jesus knew better than to demand of His Father anything that would be outside of His will. In the garden, faced with the looming prospect of His own death, He made an impassioned plea to His Father, but added an important disclosure. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV). Ultimately, Jesus wanted the will of His Father. He fully trusted His Father and placed His life in His hands. Coming to God in prayer is an incredible privilege, but it is also a right of every child of God. As John puts it, “we have confidence before God.” We can come into His presence. We can bring our requests before Him. And when we ask, we can know that He hears us. Not only that, “we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15 ESV).
But we have all had the unpleasant experience of having our prayers go unanswered. We have asked of God and then stood back and watched as nothing remotely like what requested has come about. But these moments of seeming contradiction speak more of our lack of knowledge of God and our misunderstanding of prayer. It helps me to think of my prayers like the requests of a small child to a loving parent. Children can be inordinately self-absorbed. They can also lack discernment. As a result, they can sometimes make requests that are unwise and potentially unhealthy. A loving parent would never give in to every request made by their child. In some cases, they might answer the request, but in a slightly different manner or on what appears to be a much slower timetable. But in their wisdom, they do for their child what they believe to be best for them. That is how God deals with us. He wants us to bring our requests. But He also wants us to trust His will. He wants us to understand that He knows best what will bring us good while bringing Him glory. God’s will is not our happiness, but our holiness. He is not here to grant our every wish. He exists to redeem, restore, renew, and rescue us from the damaging influences of a sin-filled world. We have to always remember that we are always susceptible to what John called the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life. Those things can weasel their way into our prayers. We can come before God desiring and asking for things that are outside of His will for us. And He is not obligated to give us everything we desire. Paul reminds us that God’s will is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 ESV). He also encourages us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2 ESV). It is essential that we understand that effective prayer goes hand-in-hand with our ongoing spiritual transformation. The more we come to know God and understand what His will is for us, the more clearly we will pray within His will. And in those times when we still do not know His will, we will be content to leave the outcome to Him. We will want His will to be done. And we will trust Him to know what is best for us, because He loves us.