The Power of Prayer and the Peril of Presumption2
I dare say that most of us have no idea how truly presumptuous we often are in our relationship with God. And this is nowhere more in evidence than in our experience and practice of prayer. Continue reading . . .
I dare say that most of us have no idea how truly presumptuous we often are in our relationship with God. And this is nowhere more in evidence than in our experience and practice of prayer. I was recently alerted to this yet again by something James said in his epistle, fourth chapter, verses two and three. There we read: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b-3).
This passage is a stinging indictment of presumption in the Christian life. I’ve often been heard to say to the people here at Bridgeway: Don’t ever expect God to do for you apart from prayer what he has promised to do for you only through prayer. Sadly, almost no one, myself included, pays attention to this principle.
We sinfully and arrogantly presume that God will provide whatever we need even if we ignore and neglect the means that God has ordained by which he is pleased to grant us what we need. Once again, the mistake we typically make is in forgetting that God does not accomplish his ultimate or final will apart from intermediate steps or means. If you want a steak prepared medium well, you must actually take steps to cook it. Merely wanting it medium well or declaring it to be such will not make it so.
Perhaps you’d prefer a biblical example. So I’ll give you one. Consider Paul’s perspective on evangelism and salvation in Romans 10.
“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:13-17).
Here we see that we can never simply assume that if God wants someone saved they will be saved regardless of the response of other Christians to take the gospel to them and share it verbally. Faith is required for salvation. And if there is to be faith there must be a message proclaimed. And if there is to be a message proclaimed there must be people who go to the lost of the world and make known the gospel of Christ.
We must never lose sight of the crucial, indispensable role that prayer plays in God accomplishing his purposes. Our problem is that we are happy to acknowledge that prayer may be crucial, but we don’t believe it is indispensable. We say to ourselves:
“Hey, I’m happy to pray when I have the time and when I feel inspired and energized to do so. But if I fail to ask, God will eventually give it to me anyway. It may take a while. He’ll be patient and wait for me to ask him. He’ll even hold out to the bitter end. But he’s God. He’s good and compassionate and generous. And he won’t let my dereliction of duty in failing to pray get in the way of bestowing on me and others the things we need most.”
There are things that you don’t have for no other reason than that you failed to ask for them. That doesn’t mean that merely asking will always guarantee that you get them. There are other reasons that may account for why your prayers don’t appear to be answered in the way you had hoped.
For example, we may ask God for something we believe to be good and godly, but he knows far better than we do that such things would be damaging to our spiritual walk and relationship with him. When I pray and ask God for something, I would much prefer to trust his wisdom as to whether or not it is best for me than to trust my own judgment.
This raises the question of whether God ever actually says “No” to our requests. Whereas most would say, “Yes, he often says ‘No’,” I’m not so sure. When it comes to the children of God there is no such thing as “unanswered” prayer. We must have confidence from the start that our heavenly Father, whose wisdom is infinite and pure, always reserves the right to respond to our petitions for help in what he knows to be the best way and at the best time. Thus, J. I. Packer insists that “when we speak of unanswered prayer, we often mean not answered according to the terms of our asking. But to call that ‘unanswered’ is misleading and irreverent” (Praying, 58).
God always reserves the right to answer the requests he knows we should have made in regard to a particular need rather than the one we actually did make. To conclude that God is not answering your prayers unless he matches his answer precisely to the terms of your original request is wrong-headed.
We must learn to think of prayer less in terms of a manipulative means of getting from God what we want and more as the means by which God gives us the good things that he purposes to give but that we are not always in a fit condition to receive
We must also remember that any notion that our prayers coerce God into doing something on our behalf that he otherwise knows not to be in our best interests is to twist and turn the biblical teaching in a direction never intended by its author. Says J. I. Packer:
“God’s yes is regularly a case of ‘Your thinking about how I could best meet this need was right’; his no is a case of ‘Not that, for this is better’—and so is really a yes in disguise!—and his wait (which we infer from the fact that though we have asked for action, nothing yet has changed) is a case of ‘Wait and see; I will deal with this need at the best time in the best way. Whether or not you will be able to discern my wisdom when I do act, that is what in fact I am going to do. Keep watching, and see what you can see’” (Praying, 173-74).
What I’m arguing for is that when we pray in confidence that God has our best interests at heart, when we pray with a robust faith in his goodness and greatness, and when we humbly pray with expectations that are biblically authorized, all, mind you, with his ultimate glory in view, his answer to us is never going to be altogether negative. From God’s perspective he is always responding positively. It may be that his answer is of a sort that we actually receive something better than what we had requested. Or it may be that the timing of its fulfillment is different from what we had hoped but clearly more suitable to our need.
We should also be open to recognizing a positive answer, though it appears negative to us, in which God’s strategy for fulfilling our petition takes such a mysterious turn that it doesn’t look like an answer at all. Be assured that it is an answer. Be assured that though we may not comprehend what God is doing there may yet be a day when he enables us to see the greater good that his plan has accomplished.