Psalm 37:4-5, Proverbs 1:28-31 & James 4:2-3
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 10, 2017
It is a pleasure to reflect on God’s promises to answer our prayers, especially when we think His answering our prayers always comes in the form of His giving us what we ask for.
Yet, all God’s promises about answering our prayers are conditional. In fact, God tells us to expect Him not to answer our prayers when we fail to meet the conditions. If we ask for the wrong things, or if we are not right in our hearts or our conduct, God will normally respond to our prayers with a resounding No!
Yes, God takes delight in giving us what we desire for no good reason other than that He loves us – which is another of saying that He takes delight in giving to us out of sheer grace. Yet, God typically will – as an act of grace – refuse our request 1) when we ask Him for something less than the best, 2) when we ask for things for the wrong purpose and 3) when our conduct is seriously and consistently wrong and God means to bring us to repentance. Since I have spoken often enough about the first scenario, let’s now consider the last two.
The biblical book of James encourages us to make big, bold, beautiful requests of God, but it also warns us that the state of our heart may keep God from doing what He would otherwise love to do. James 4:2-3 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Out of love for us, God may withhold good gifts from us if we intend to use them in a problematic way. God will not indulge our ignoble wishes, and will not enable our establishing a trajectory that will cause us to miss out on life at its best. Thus, God will rebuff a request that would keep us on a course that’s hurting us and/or others.
For example, if I pray that God bring me professional success so I can make more money and spend more in underwriting a lifestyle of selfish pleasure that is leading me to forget about God and my duty to those in need, God will, out of concern for my soul, say No. He will turn down my request in hopes of turning me around.
Though today’s Psalm says that “[God] will give you the desires of your heart”, that does not mean that God will give us whatever our heart desires. In His promises about prayer, God is not handing out blank signed checks that we get to fill out however we want and for whatever purpose we choose. In prayer, God first gives us new and different desires of heart and then gives us the desires of our heart.
The context of this Psalm makes it clear that its promise applies to those who “trust” in God, “take delight” in Him and “do good”. Such people give God, through their righteous choices, opportunity to refine them. In His improvement of them, God reprograms their hearts, so as to incline them to seek, not selfish and foolish ends, but the fulfillment of God’s loving intentions for all concerned. God gives such people whatever they want because they have come to want what He wants. God grants them the desires of their hearts because they have granted God the chance to shape their hearts and desires.
Prayer is only secondarily a means for changing our world. It is primarily a means for changing us and having our hearts conformed to God’s. Once we are thoroughly altered at the core of our being by this living and holy God, we will only desire His will – and thus we will only have prayers that are answered affirmatively and decisively!
First, then, God may well refuse to answer prayers arising out of a wrongly oriented heart. Second, God may well refuse to answer prayers arising out of a wrongly oriented life. When our life is filled with injustice and unrighteousness, God often restrains Himself from blessing us as much as He’d like, lest we draw the false conclusion that He’s perfectly OK with the way we’re going.
The scripture from Proverbs makes this explicit. There God, in the voice of Wisdom, states that He would not answer the prayers of those who “did not choose the fear of the Lord” and “would have none of [God’s] counsels”. Though God yearns to give us better than we deserve, God often chooses to let us reap what we have sown, and suffer bad consequences from our bad choices. In dealing with the disobedient who should know better, God typically turns a deaf ear to their requests for a blessing, except for the blessing that comes to those who repent: the blessing of forgiveness, redemption and sanctification.
This message from Proverbs is echoed in the psalms of David (e.g., Psalm 18:41) and in the prophecies of Isaiah (e.g., 1:15-17), Jeremiah (14:10-12), Ezekiel (18:17-18), Micah (3:1-4) and Zechariah (7:11-14).
Though no one manages a perfect life, typically a consistent refusal to heed God’s word and a persistent engagement in wrongdoing result in God’s rejecting our prayerful requests, not because He’s too angry with us to do anything for us, but because He knows our priority need is to repent and, for the sake of encouraging our repentance, He wants to teach us a lesson, knock some sense into us and open our eyes to what we’re doing to ourselves and others. In such cases, He holds back from giving us certain gifts because He’s holding out for our having the best gift: that of becoming better and happier people thanks to our choosing to follow His will.
So, while Jesus did (in John 15:7) make an astounding promise about prayer, saying, “Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” the context makes obvious that the promise He made there only applies to those who “abide” in Him and let His words “abide” in them – that is, to those who allow Him to dwell in them to repair and reform their character and conduct.
Once our hearts and behavior are set right, we will find that a higher percentage of our prayer requests are answered with a Yes. It’s only a “higher percentage” of our prayers, and not all of our prayers, because even the holiest saints know very little about the best strategies and tactics for achieving God’s ultimate goals – and thus very little about what exactly should happen in any specific case. But – praise God! – we don’t have to know much to pray well. And – praise God! – we don’t have to be much to pray well. All we have to be are people who have resolved to become all God wants us to be and to do all God wants us to do.
If that is our resolve, why wouldn’t God answer more of our prayers? And why wouldn’t God answer them with magnificent magnanimity and an enormity of grace?
Let us then choose to let our hearts and conduct be made right by God, that our prayers might be made powerful in God’s purposes! Let us pray right now!