September 15, 2009
Am I Praying
In God's Will -- Or Against It?

When to Be Bold and
Persistent with Requests
    
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When praying for personal concerns, two questions often confuse us. One is how long to persist in making a request to God. Do we reach a point when persevering in prayer amounts to pushing God and refusing to accept his will? When does persistent praying indicate faith, and when stubbornness?

The second question is how boldly we should frame our requests to God. Should we straightforwardly tell him what we wish him to do, and leave it at that? Or should we pray only provisionally, saying, “Lord, if it be your will, please answer this request”?

Marilyn is one of many I've known who have wrestled with the persistence question. She had been separated from her husband for about two years, and had prayed earnestly that God would reunite them. Since she hadn’t seen results, she wondered if she was fighting God by continuing to petition in this way. “At what point should I stop praying for my desire and simply ask for acceptance of the situation?” she asked me.

I was comfortable telling Marilyn that she should continue bringing her request to God until he clearly answers yes or no. Jesus’ parable of the tenacious widow seeking a judge’s help (Lk 18:1-8) is a dramatic reminder that there are times when long-term persistence in prayer is not only permitted but recommended. Jesus told the parable that we might “always pray and not lose heart” (v 1). Clearly his point is that we shouldn’t lose heart in praying about specific personal concerns, no matter how long it takes to receive an answer.

Admittedly, when no answer seems to be forthcoming, we can feel uneasy continuing to raise a request to God. We worry that we’re pestering God and praying against his will. We should remember, though, that prayer not only has an effect upon God but upon us. Any prayer that I make--even for a purely personal desire--has the effect of putting me in communication with God. A channel is established through which he can influence my thoughts and feelings. Through continually bringing a desire to God in prayer, I actually put myself in the best position for him to change it if he wishes.

Indeed, one of the great benefits of continuing prayer is that through it our desires become clarified. Some grow stronger. Others fade away, and we’re grateful that God refrained from answering them!

Of course, if a desire goes against Scripture, or if God has said no to it in a clear and resolute way, praying for it is disrespectful to him. In such cases I should pray merely that God will give me a heart to accept the situation--and persist in that prayer until my heart changes. But when God hasn’t plainly said no, I should not only feel freedom but a mandate to continue raising my request to him until he gives an explicit answer.

Reverence vs. Boldness

We as Christians wrestle as much with the second question--about how bold we should be in praying--as we do with the matter of persistence. I recall a retreat where I led a session on the topic of prayer. During it, a woman asked just how direct we should be in making a request for personal healing. I asked others in the group what they thought, and a spirited discussion arose. About half of those present insisted that a prayer for healing should be bold and unprovisional. The rest claimed it should be made only tentatively, in the spirit of “Lord, if it is your will, please heal me.”

If we've been Christian for any time at all, we've probably heard both of these perspectives taught and preached about as frequently and with equal conviction. Chances are, we're personally left confused, wondering which is the truly right--and reverent--way to approach God in prayer.

Frankly, I see value in both of these approaches. Qualifying a prayer with “if it is your will” shows reverence and openness to God’s will. Our single greatest need in the Christian life--far and away--is to seek God’s will and submit to it. And our prayers to God should never be made in the spirit of demands, but as requests for a loving Father to consider. When Jesus poured out his heart to God in Gethsemane, he strongly conditioned his request with “not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).

Jesus, though, knew that what he was asking was contrary to God’s will. The purpose of his prayer was to ask God to give him the courage and the heart for what he had to do. Normally when we pray, we’re not in such a clear position to know if a request is against God’s will; often we have strong reason to hope that our prayer is in line with what God wants. Most of the hundreds of prayers of individuals recorded in Scripture were not made in the qualified way Jesus worded his plea in Gethsemane, but much more straightforwardly.

Praying with Liberty

Actually, I believe that these perspectives reconcile in a way that is liberating to understand. Both have something important to contribute to our prayer life.

On the one hand, we have an ongoing, chronic need to ask God to help us to understand his will and be open to doing it. We should pray frequently that he will make our desires conform to his. Having prayed in this way, we should then feel great freedom to word our requests to God reverently but unprovisionally. Especially when a desire or concern is strong, and we have no doubt that we want God to move in a certain way to meet it, we should be explicit in telling him so--not feeling that we have to footnote the prayer with “but only if it’s your will.”

Paul prayed in such a straightforward manner when he asked God to remove the thorn from his side (2 Cor 12:7-9). He “pleaded with the Lord” three times to take it away. His prayer wasn’t provisional in any way. He begged God to remove the thorn, and persisted until God responded. God finally said no. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,’” Paul explains, and the Greek word for “said” implies a firm, irrevocable reply. At this point, Paul ceased petitioning and relished in God’s answer. Still, he never indicates that he felt remorse for having prayed so fervently and unconditionally up until this point. Instead, he implies that his earnest petitioning was appropriate--an example of healthy praying.

Most prayers recorded in Scripture were answered yes. But I find it interesting that even Paul’s prayer about the thorn, which God answered differently from what Paul desired, gives us encouragement to be bold and direct with our requests.

In praying for personal healing, too, we should remember how we approach a doctor or medical professional for help. We never qualify a request for a doctor’s help with “if you wish.” We wouldn’t say, “Please help me find a cure for this back pain, if you’re willing to do so.” Rather, we would explain our need plainly to the doctor, and respectfully ask for the best help he or she is able to provide. How much more freedom should we feel to bring requests for healing boldly to the Great Physician!

We should take heart also in the fact that Jesus gave at least as much attention during his earthly ministry to healing physical and emotional wounds people experienced as he did to teaching doctrinal truth. He demonstrated vividly that it is God’s nature to bring comfort--and often healing--to those who are ill. We shouldn’t feel squeamish about asking God to bring healing when it’s needed, to others or ourselves.

Praying with Confidence

We can relax in knowing that our prayers won’t constrain God to do anything he doesn’t wish to do. We are assured in Romans 8:26-27 that the Holy Spirit interprets our prayers to God according to his will. In a sense, to constantly qualify our prayers with “if it is your will” is redundant!

Not that there’s anything wrong with praying in this way. I wouldn’t suggest, as some would, that such language makes a prayer ineffective, by implying to God that we lack the faith he will answer it. God looks upon our heart far more than our words in considering our prayers. But if there’s a problem with such wording, it’s that it may lessen our enthusiasm to pray. We’re most inspired to pray when we’re convinced that God takes our prayers seriously. The compulsion to constantly amend our prayers with “if it is your will” may indicate that we don’t believe our requests are important to God. The result may be that we pray less, thus giving God less opportunity to work within us to fashion our desires according to his will.

From beginning to end, Scripture shows a consistent pattern among God’s people of plainspoken, courageous and persistent praying. In most cases, too, the prayers were remarkably effective, and demonstrate the truth of what C. S. Lewis observed--that God purposely limits much of what he chooses to do in our lives and in the world to what we care enough to ask him to do. We should take great encouragement from these examples that we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, and bring our petitions boldly before him!
   

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