Asking According to God's Will
1 John 5:14-15
This morning we are concluding our series on 1 John (briefly explain author, audience and themes?). I want to focus on what John says in 1 John 5 concerning prayer (read 5:14,15). Prayer, of course, is communion with God. And because the God of the Bible is personal, prayer is multi-faceted, including worship (praising God for who he is, and thanking God what he has done) and supplication (pouring one’s heart out to God) and request—asking God to act, to meet our own needs (petition) and others’ needs (intercession). This is the kind of prayer John instructs us on in this passage.
The Bible presumes that request prayer matters, that God answers prayer requests. It is full of examples (Ex. 3:7,8), assertions (Jas. 4:2; 5:16b), commands (Eph. 6:18), and promises concerning this kind of prayer (1Jn.5:14,15). If you take the Bible at all seriously on this subject, God is offering us an amazing resource!
Yet in spite of this amazing offer, my guess is that relatively few of us spend consistent time or energy praying this way. There are many possible reasons for this—but for many of us the main reason is that we seldom see God answer our requests. The greatest single motivation to request prayer is answered requests! To the extent that we see few requests answered, we tend to pray less. (I know this has been the case with me...)
Why does God answer some prayer requests, but not others? This is a vast and deep biblical subject. There is also much mystery here (i.e., relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility—see 1Jn.5:16,17!). I make no claim to be a prayer ninja master—I feel like God has taught me much in this area, but I have a long way to go. But I think I can shed some biblical light on this subject, and I have been praying that it will help you and motivate you to request pray more. (How we need this in our church!) In fact, I want this last teaching out of 1 John to be the first teaching of a several-week series on this kind of prayer.
The key condition: according to God’s will
Re-read 5:14,15. John says we can be confident that God will grant our requests when they are according to his will. John is echoing what he heard Jesus promise in Jn.16:23 (read). To pray in Jesus’ name is not a magical incantation that obligates Jesus to grant your wish—it is to ask as a representative of Jesus, who was always answered because he always asked according to God’s will.
In this sense, request prayer is one aspect of what theologians call “human agency.” God has a plan to redeem humanity and re-establish his kingdom through Jesus. And he has decided to accomplish this plan (to an amazing degree) through human agents—people who voluntarily cooperate with him. This is why most people meet Jesus through the agency of other Christians who show them Jesus’ love and tell them how Jesus has changed their lives. This is why most mature Christian workers have been developed through the agency of other Christian workers who inspired, motivated, trained, and coached them. But the ground floor of all human agency is request prayer—as we ask God to act according to his will, he does so by intervening, mobilizing his agents, etc. This is why all significant spiritual work must be birthed and bathed in prayer!
How do you pray according to God’s will? Without removing the complexity and mystery, I want to suggest that it involves 3 things that are inter-related and dynamically influence one another: entrusting ourselves to God’s loving authority, praying in line with God’s Word, and being led by God’s Spirit.
Entrust yourself to God’s loving authority
The most basic way that we ask according to God’s will is adopt the proper heart attitude—we entrust ourselves to God’s loving authority. This involves humbly putting yourself under God as your rightful leader, choosing to trust that his will is right and good (even if you don’t know what it is), and aligning your heart to follow him. Jesus calls this praying that “the Father may be glorified” (read Jn.14:13).
“Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will on 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 on the theme ‘your will be done.’”1
Deep in the fallen human heart is the suspicion that God is not good, the belief that I know best how to run my life, and the desire to use God to advance my agenda. This is the basis of much religious prayer—using chants, charms, rituals, etc. in order to gain power over the gods/spirits and make them obey you. Tragically, much of what passes for Christian prayer is like this (EXAMPLES; MY PRE-CHRISTIAN PRAYERS).
Those who pray without this attitude (even if they ask for good things) rarely receive what they ask (ASKING FOR BETTER JOB OR ROMANTIC PARTNER IN ORDER TO KEEP LIVING FOR SELF). Why would God grant requests that emanate from a desire to live autonomously from him? How many of you (like me) are glad that God refused these requests because this is what helped you see your need to entrust yourself to him?
This is why, for most of us, the first prayer we pray with this attitude is: “Jesus, forgive me for my rebellion and to come into my heart to lead me.” It was hard for me to pray this prayer—it hurt to humble myself and admit that I was failing at life and that I needed God’s forgiveness and direction for my life. But he answered this prayer and it has had more impact for good in my life than any other prayer! Maybe this is the prayer you need to pray...
Even after you receive Christ and experience God’s love, this attitude is by no means automatic. I have to wrestle with myself on this issue over and over again. Often I find myself praying for right things for wrong reasons (i.e., praying for empowering to teach well so people will praise me vs. so people may be attracted to Jesus; praying for loved on to repent now so I won’t have to suffer vs. for them to come to real conviction).
Do you regularly just present yourself to God—telling him that you are ready to follow him and do his will?
When you are asking God for guidance, are you willing to obey his will before you know what it is—or are you just consulting him before you make your decision?
When you really want something, are you willing to say “But if you don’t want me to have this, I trust you.” Likewise, when you want badly for some suffering to go away, are you willing to say like Jesus “Not what I want—but what you want?”
“In communicating with God, therefore, (we should) not demand what we want or think we need; rather, we should discuss with God what he wants for us.”2
Focus on God’s priorities
Besides cultivating the proper attitude in prayer, we also need to pray for the right things. Asking according to God’s will involves focusing on God’s priorities. The Bible not only informs us of specific things that are/aren’t God’s will—it also reveals what God says is important. The more your perspective is soaked in God’s Word, the more you will pray according to its priorities, and the more you will see God answer your requests (Jn.15:7).
When we don’t know God’s priorities, we will naturally pray for our own priorities—which center around getting more pleasant circumstances, having people treat us the way we want to be treated, getting relief from irritating and painful circumstances or people, etc. If this is what dominates your prayer requests, your batting average is going to be pretty low, and your motivation to pray is going to diminish.
Try praying primarily for God’s priorities—and see what happens! Here are some examples:
Ask God for more practical insight into scripture so that you can become more godly in character (Ps.119:33,34).
Ask God for better understanding of what God has given you in Christ (Eph.1:16-19) & how much God loves you (Eph.3:18,19) so you can mature spiritually.
Ask God for greater love for other people (1 Thess. 3:12) & better discernment on how to love them effectively (Phil.1:9).
Ask God for opportunities to share your faith, & the courage & wisdom to make the most of those opportunities (Col. 4:3,4; Eph. 6:19,20).
Ask for God to expose sinful attitudes that are hurting you and others and dishonoring God (Ps.139:23,24).
Ask God for wisdom to understand what he wants to teach you through the adverse circumstances he has allowed into your life (Jas.1:5).
Try also praying along these same lines for other brothers and sisters (read 5:16)—John says God will answer such prayers!
This is why it is good to combine private prayer with regular reading through the whole Bible (EXPLAIN CARSON, For the Love of God). It steeps you in God’s priorities because they come up over and over again.
This is why it is good to turn whole passages into prayer for a specific situation (ME WITH COL.4:3-6 BEFORE I VOLUNTEER).
Ask God’s Spirit to help you
Asking according to God’s will also involves asking God’s Spirit to help you. This is what Paul and Jude call “praying in the Spirit” (Eph.6:18; Jude1:20). This is the most subjective part of request prayer, and the most easily abused (“God led me to pray for a new spouse”)—but it is a key part nonetheless. Read Rom.8:26,27. Since we don’t know how to pray, God’s Spirit helps us to pray by interceding for us according to God’s will3 . As we talk to God entrusting ourselves to his loving authority, and as we pray according to the priorities in his Word, his Spirit guides us to pray more specifically for the things he wants to do.
This is why it is important to ask for the Spirit’s help and guidance as you begin to pray.
This is why it’s important to note the things that God seems to consistently urge you to pray for (EXAMPLES). Focus your prayer on these things and respond to his guidance.
This is one reason why praying with other Christians is so important. Read Matt.18:19,20. When we pray together “in my name” (submitted to his will; in line with his priorities), Jesus is present among us through his Spirit to guide us so that we “agree” (lit. “symphonize”) on how to pray for specific matters. We can better discern the Spirit’s guidance when we pray with one another than when we pray alone. I see this happen regularly at our home group’s prayer on Sunday nights. Someone will pray for a person or a situation in a certain way, then someone else will pray about the same thing—but in a different way that is more biblical in perspective. As we pray together about these matters, our prayers become more specific and there is a growing sense that this is God’s will. I mark such prayers in my mind—and note how God answers them (even though often not immediately).
Summarize. I want to continue to explore this theme by looking at several biblical prayers over the next several weeks. We’ll start next week with what is mistakenly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matt.6:9-13).
1 John R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, The Letters of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p.188.
2 Life Application Commentary, 1,2, & 3 John, p. 116.
3 “Recently I read again of a woman who simply decided one day to make such a commitment to pray, and my conscience was pricked. But I knew myself well enough to know that something other than resolve was being called for. I began go pray about praying. I expressed to God my frustrated longings, my jaded sense of caution about trying again, my sense of failure over working at being more disciplined and regular. I discovered something surprising happening from such simple praying: I was drawn into the presence of One who had, far more than I did, the power to keep me close. I found my focus subtly shifting away from my efforts to God's, from rigor to grace, from rigidity to relationship. I soon realized that this was happening regularly. I was praying much more. I became less worried about the mechanics and methods, and in turn I was more motivated. And God so cares for us, I realized anew, that He Himself helps us pray. When we "do not know what we ought to pray for. . . the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Rom. 8:26).” Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, p. 238.