Matthew 7:7-11, 21:2 & 1 John 3:22, 5:14-15
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 1, 2020
The verse in the Bible that has occasioned more loss of faith than any other is Jesus’ promise about prayer in Matthew 21:22, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” That same promise is repeated elsewhere, with slight variations, in Matthew’s Gospel, and in the three other Gospels.
Now praying well is something more than wishing hard. In fact, wishing hard can make us mishear Jesus’ promise here. We’ll focus on the open-ended “whatever you ask” part and ignore the qualifying “with faith” part.
We jump on the one part because it lets us indulge the illusion we can expect to receive whatever we want from prayer. But that sets us up for disappointment and a sense of betrayal that can lead to the loss of faith.
A couple of days ago, Peter Bates, the church’s Minister of Music, told me how, when he was in his early thirties, he lost his faith when he prayed that his dying mother would be healed . When she passed away, he thought God had broken His promise about prayer, and he concluded God was not to be trusted. Years later, he came to understand that God had not failed to keep His word, but in fact had done what was best for everyone involved. He now lives with a steadfast faith and prays every day.
I have heard (and seen) many stories like his…but I’ve also heard (and seen) many stories of people disappointed in prayer and never returning to God.
Jesus’ great promise about prayer encourages us to pray with bold expectation and make big requests of God. It is imperative then that we get clear about which requests Jesus is guaranteeing to be granted.
Though Jesus here speaks about granting us “whatever” we ask for, is it not obvious He isn’t promising to grant us “anything” we ask for? The Bible tells us some requests will not be granted. James 4:3, for example, says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” And is it not outrageous to think that God would grant the request of the little brother who “hates” his mean brother and in a fit of rage asks God to make his ears fall off his head, or of the crazy pro-lifer who asks God to prosper his intention to kill all abortion doctors?
First John 5:14-15 makes all this explicit. We “know that we have obtained the requests made of [the Lord]”, if – and only if – we have asked “according to His will”. The promise is not for our asking anything, but for our asking anything “according to his will” no matter how big.
Moreover, Jesus in Matthew 21:22 qualifies His promise by saying the request is made “with faith”.
To have a strong desire for a certain outcome is not the same thing as having a faith that God will bring it about. Before I ever knew there was an Adele Straitiff (now Adele Langworthy), I had a strong desire to marry another woman. I even asked God to fulfill that strong desire. Today I thank God that He overrode my mistaken wish, forgave my presumption about what was best and denied my request. Today I know that Ann and I would’ve been miserable together and that I couldn’t have a better marriage than the one I have with Adele.
To ask with faith is to ask with the belief that our request is in the will of the God who always knows what is best (even when we don’t share His opinion). To ask with faith then is to base our request, not on our opinion or on our wishes, but on a promise given by God.
How do we obtain a promise given by God on the basis of which we can believe we will receive our request? Certainly when the promise comes from scripture! Thus, the best prayer request to be made is, I think, one taken from the Lord’s Prayer: that God’s will be done on earth just as it is in heaven.
Of course, that is not a very specific request, and making specific requests of God has a rightful place in praying when we have a specific promise on which to base them. How might we gain such specific promises? By listening to hear back from God in the dialogue of prayer and from others engaged in the same dialogue. God likes to lead us about how exactly to pray in a particular regard by giving us in our personal prayer a subjective impression and then verifying that subjective impression with the objective confirmation of the agreement of mature believers after they’ve prayed in that particular regard. (If I had waited for that objective confirmation of my subjective impression about marrying Ann, I would have avoided a lot of foolishness and pain!)
Of course, even when we have both the subjective impression and the objective confirmation, we can be wrong about God’s will and what He’s promised.
When John Claypool and his family were praying that God would spare his mentally ill sister from being institutionalized, every member of the family was praying with confidence that would not happen. When, however, it did, they eventually came to see that they’d projected on to God their own mistaken sense of what should happen, that they’d put words into God’s mouth, that what they had prayed against was the best thing that could happen, and that they owed God thanks for denying their request. For her institutionalization led to a chain of events that brought her into a transforming relationship with Christ and made her a happy and fully functioning person in mainstream society.
It is always good to have a big generalized expectancy from praying, and it is also good to hold on to our specific expectations with a loose grip. God alone perfectly discerns what is perfect for people.
We do, however, get better at discerning the Lord’s perfect will, and at believing His wonderful promises, the longer we’ve been following His leading in our life. That’s why 1 John 3:22 says, “We receive from [God] whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases Him.” By living that way, we stay close to God, and thereby come to trust Him more and to understand His will more clearly. And when we understand and trust Him like that, we are more likely to make requests “according to His will”. For then we’ll make His priorities our priorities in what we pray for, and in our praying seek first and foremost what He seeks first and foremost. We’ll pray in line with who He is and what He means to do.
Let us then pray big and pray bold. Let us pray that this church would make many more new disciples of Christ and stronger ones, that we’d grow sensitive to skeptics and seekers and reach out to them in loving witness and warm invitation, and that’d we’d more and more uplift the lives of those whom others have given up for lost. If we pray along those lines, we can believe on the basis of Jesus’ promise that we will receive whatever we ask for!