A friend of mine and I were involved in a discussion not too long ago concerning the “asking” element of prayer. Specifically, we were talking about the Scripture’s assurance of us receiving what we ask for when we make our requests in accordance with God’s will (1 John 5:14-15). He tongue-in-cheek noted, “That’s really the core issue isn’t it? What does prayer do? . . . God is going to do what God is going to do, but if you happen to pray and hit on what He wants to do, then He did it for you in answer to your prayer. Eh?”
Does God mock us when He tells us to ask? Is He playing word games with us? Nobody I know believes this, but what exactly is happening when we ask things of our Father?
There are a few levels to this question. We can start by affirming that our Father does want us to ask things of Him. Matthew 7:7-11 is a familiar text that certainly speaks to this point. The story of Asa, one of the kings of Judah, is equally instructive. Toward the end of his life he was afflicted with a disease in his feet and “though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians,” (2 Chronicles 16:12). The Scripture finds fault with Asa for not seeking God’s help. Clearly, our Father wants us to ask! However, the same Scriptures qualify and temper our asking. We’re not supposed to ask for things that are wrong (James 4:2-3). Our requests are to be made in harmony with His will. In fact, one of the important things we’re to ask for is that “Your will be done,” (Matthew 6:10). Does that mean we have to, in the words of my friend, “hit on what He wants to do,” if we’re to have our request granted?
I don’t think so.
It might be helpful to develop the phrase “God’s will” a bit. My understanding of the Scripture is that God’s will is like a parent’s will—there are certain non-negotiable items. We might want to think of this as something like a core will. As a parent, let’s say your core will for your child involves some negatives (nothing illegal or immoral), and some positives (“treat people the way you want to be treated”). I’m greatly oversimplifying here but you get the point. Now what if your child asks you if they can spend the night at their friend’s house? That’s not really an element of your core will but you ask a few questions and determine that it sounds okay and give them permission. They asked, it didn’t violate your will, so you allowed them to go. But the real point I want to make is that if your child didn’t ask, they wouldn’t have spent the night at your friend’s house because it wasn’t part of your will.
I think that’s how it is with our asking. What we seem to stumble over is the thinking that God has everything in the universe totally lined out so that anything we might think of is already part of that plan or not part of it (and therefore against His will). I just don’t think that’s the case. More importantly, I don’t think you make a case from Scripture that it is. God gives us free will and a brain and He wants us to use both. There’s more to say about asking and Lord willing, I’ll address some more aspects in a future post.