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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?"
This first question was asked me recently by Marilyn, a woman who has been separated from her husband for about two years. She has prayed earnestly that God would reunite them. Since she hasn't seen results, she wonders if she's 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.
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 (Luke 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" (Luke 18:1). 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 one 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 God. In such cases I should merely pray 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 feel not only freedom but a mandate to continue raising my request to him until he gives an explicit answer.
Reverence vs. Boldness
The second question, about boldness in prayer, came up on a retreat on which I recently spoke. During a session on the topic of prayer, 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."
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 the Garden of Gethsemane, he strongly conditioned his request with "not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 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 change his heart. 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 important 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 understand his will and help us 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 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 his petition and gloried 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 than 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'd 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 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--contrary to some popular teaching--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 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 plain-spoken, 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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