Finding the will of God

Years ago, I was teaching a Bible study, and the topic of God’s guidance came up. A young man shared how much he desired the leading of God in every area of his life. “I want God to tell me when to go to the bathroom!” he said. “I want him to tell me what clothes to wear and what food to eat.”

Many of us will laugh when we read this, but it does sound kind of nice in a way, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if God took away all the uncertainty and ambiguity in our lives? It would be so much easier if he would just tell us exactly what to do, and how, and when, and for how long.

Those of you who are parents, do you do this for your children? Well, sure you do, when they’re too young to make decisions themselves. You tell them when to get up and when to go to bed; you tell them what to eat and specify how they should eat (or more precisely how they should not eat); you tell them to brush their teeth, stop hitting their sister, and that, no, kitties don’t like to go swimming. This is all well and good if the child is 4 or 5, but what about when they’re 23? Should you still be giving this kind of detailed guidance when they’re mature adults? We forget sometimes that Scripture speaks of us growing up:

Then we will no longer be immature like children. . . . Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ.

Ephesians 4:14-15

Many translations read that we will instead “grow up” and be like Christ. And we shouldn’t forget what the writer of Hebrews had to say to his readers:

You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Hebrews 5:12-14

What is the “will of God”?
We often talk about the will of God without really seeing how Scripture defines it. What does the Bible mean by the “will of God”? The Bible never actually speaks of the will of God the way we usually do. We find no place in Scripture where the will of God refers to who a person is to marry, where they are to live, which job they should take, etc. Not that these are unimportant decisions! The Bible does give us a lot of guidance regarding these areas. But it doesn’t speak of the will of God in the sense of whether I should choose what’s behind door #1 or #2. This idea of the “will of God” simply isn’t in there.

Many times we complain, “If only I knew what God’s will was for me . . .” But we do know! Is it God’s will for you to love him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength? Is it God’s will for you to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for you to love others (and not just those who love you, but especially your enemies)? Is it God’s will for you to be a loving husband, wife, parent or child? Is it God’s will for you to be a diligent, hard-working, responsible employee (or a gracious, generous employer)? Is it God’s will for you to use the gifts he’s given you to love your fellow believers in the church? Is it God’s will for you to tell others the good news of Christ? We could go on with this all day, couldn’t we?

The Bible doesn’t speak of God’s will as some secret knowledge we have to somehow acquire or gain access to. In fact, we are held responsible to know God’s will:

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. . . . Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do [other translations: understand what the will of the Lord is].

Ephesians 5:15-17

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

We are told specifically that it is God’s will that we stay away from all sexual sin (1 Thessalonians 4:13), that we be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and that our honorable lives would silence any who might accuse us (1 Peter 2:15). Finding the will of God is really not that difficult. God speaks to us through his Word and Spirit. We just have to listen.

The Bible never teaches us to seek God’s will;
it teaches us to seek God, and do his will.

But how am I supposed to make decisions? 
Sometimes we think there’s one—and only one—choice that is the “perfect will of God,” only one perfect match for us in marriage, only one perfect job or ministry for us, one perfect car or house for us to buy. But we don’t find this idea in Scripture either. The Bible has a lot to say about how we make our decisions, but we don’t see in Scripture that Annette must somehow find God’s will as to whether she should marry Sam or Santosh, or that Andre must receive some sign from God before he decides to move to Buenos Aires or Bangalore.

Let’s go back to Scripture. The New Testament was written during the electrifying first decades of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to be at work in amazingly direct, supernatural ways. So how did these leaders make decisions? We should see them consistently waiting on direct guidance from God (or at least a strong feeling of “being led”), shouldn’t we? But that’s not what what we find:

Finally, when we could stand it no longer, we decided to stay alone in Athens, and we sent Timothy to visit you.

1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 

Meanwhile, I thought I should send Epaphroditus back to you. . . . I am sending him because he has been longing to see you, and he was very distressed that you heard he was ill.

Philippians 2:25-26

So I thought I should send these brothers ahead of me . . .

2 Corinthians 9:5

And if it seems appropriate for me to go along, they can travel with me.

1 Corinthians 16:4

You may be asking why I changed my plan. Do you think I make my plans carelessly? Do you think I am like people of the world who say “Yes” when they really mean “No”?

2 Corinthians 1:17

This is just a small sample to give us a flavor. It’s not hard to find examples of this kind of decision making throughout Acts and the letters to the churches. And it’s not just something the apostles did; Paul expected the same kind of decision making from the people in the churches as well. To those who had to decide between two believers in conflict, he says:

Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?

1 Corinthians 6:5

And, on the issue of who a widow should marry, he instructs:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord.

1 Corinthians 7:39

Notice the will of God is that she marry only another believer, but beyond that she is free to marry anyone she wishes! Paul never even hints that she should seek God’s will regarding the individual she should marry (nor does he instruct this to anyone else in this long chapter on marriage). So how can she know which Christian man to marry? Here’s what we need to distinguish:

We aren’t seeking to find the one right choice,
but to make a wise choice.

“But wait a minute,” someone might protest, “didn’t God supernaturally direct Paul’s ministry?” And, of course, this is true. God gave Paul very clear, direct guidance at certain times. The Holy Spirit instructed the elders of the church in Antioch to send out Barnabas and Saul (aka Paul). In Acts 19:21, we’re told that Paul was compelled by the Spirit to go to Macedonia and Achaia before going on to Jerusalem.

But in Acts 16:6-8 we see an intriguing account that reveals how Paul made ministry decisions. He and Silas travel through a couple of areas and then head for the province of Asia—but the Holy Spirit prevents them from going there. Now, at this point wouldn’t we expect them to “seek the will of God” as to which direction they should go? But that’s not what they do. Instead, they reconsider their options and make their next best choice—which God also halts. (“. . . but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there.”) So they figure the third time’s the charm and settle for Plan C! And that night Paul has a vision from God leading them on into Greece, which they obey. All of this illustrates biblical principles that we see throughout Scripture:

  • God may at times give us very clear, unambiguous direction. When he does, it will be unmistakeable and undeniable. We won’t need to guess. Our only decision will be whether to obey God or not.
  • Most of the time God doesn’t give this kind of supernatural direction. When he has chosen not to give us this kind of guidance, we aren’t to keep seeking a sign from him or try to manufacture it on our own.
  • If God hasn’t clearly shown us which choice to make, then he is expecting us to use the wisdom he has given us. He wants us to grow up and become like him, knowing right from wrong, and what is wise from what is foolish. Instead of trying to get some sign as to the right choice, we’re to strive to make the wisest choice possible.
  • Even when we don’t see God’s supernatural guidance, he’s orchestrating our lives and guiding us behind the scenes. He already knows the decisions we’re going to make, and he’s incorporated all of this into his plans for us. If we’re sincerely trying to live a godly, wise life, we can trust him to steer us away from danger.

But I don’t have this kind of wisdom!
No, we don’t, and it’s good that we realize it. But we have the source to all the wisdom we need. James 1:5 says:

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.

And Romans 12:2 gives us an even more clear picture how we can grow in this wisdom, and know more fully the will of God:

Don’t copy the behavior
and customs of this world,
but let God transform you into a new person
by changing the way you think.
Then you will learn to know God’s will for you,
which is good and pleasing and perfect.

                            

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Feeling led, fleeces, and seeking the will of God

If you’ve spent much time in certain Christian circles, you’ve heard people refer to “laying a fleece before the Lord” or something similar. It usually means asking God to give us some clear, concrete indication whether something is his will or not:

“Lord, if this is the right job for me, then please have them call after 4:00 pm.”

“God, should I go out with Betty or Sally? I’m going to turn on the radio and trust that whichever name I hear first is the one you want me to marry.”

Where did we get this practice? We’ll take a look at the passage where we find the idea of ‘putting a fleece before the Lord,’ but first I think it would be helpful for us to see why so many are seeking this kind of confirmation.

“So God said to me, ‘Hey, I want you to put down your book and go talk to that person.'”
How many times have you heard—or said—something like this? Quoting something God “said” to us? It’s become fairly commonplace, hasn’t it? To be honest, sometimes I think this is done to raise someone up (or keep them) on a pedestal high above ordinary “laypeople,” more on the level of a Moses or apostle Paul. But even us ordinary, everyday Christians have fallen into using this way of describing our motivations.

But why do we talk this way? Is this really an accurate description of what took place? When someone makes this kind of bold declaration during a church gathering or a Bible study, I’ll often gently challenge them:

“Did you really hear God speak to you audibly?”

“Well . . . no . . . I didn’t actually hear God speak.”

“But God communicated those very words to you?”

“No . . . I guess I just felt that the person seemed distraught, and that God would want me to stop reading my book and try to help them.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that God can direct or guide us, or that he can speak audibly to individuals. But there’s a big difference between saying: “I don’t know if it was the Spirit, but I just felt like I needed to pray for Jill,” and saying: “God told me to pray for Jill.” Have you ever considered what a young Christian thinks when they hear these kinds of bold statements? At first they think, “Wow, that’s amazing!” But then they begin to wonder, “How come God never directly speaks to me that way?” And then they either put us on the pedestal, or they decide there’s something deficient about their Christian life. Or they begin to fake it so they too can sound spiritual:

“I just felt led to go to McDonald’s today.”
It’s easy to start feeling the need to clarify every action or decision with something that makes it sound spiritually motivated. Suddenly everything we do is generated by some prompting or leading—supposedly from the Lord. “I feel that God is leading us to buy the Ford and not the Toyota.” The danger is that we’ll either slip into hypocritically playing spiritual games, or we’ll start confusing our own inner impulses as the voice of God.

Harold Bredesen used to tell the story of when he first came to New York as a young man very zealous to experience a Spirit-directed and empowered life. He was on the bus one day when he thought God was telling him to preach to the people on the bus. So he stood up and started preaching. One young woman seemed disturbed and moved away from him. Bredesen felt God was leading him to focus on her, so he moved closer. She moved away again—and he followed. Finally, she exited the bus, with Harold right behind her, preaching away. The story ends with him sitting in the back seat of a police car, wondering if this was really what the Holy Spirit had in mind!

“The bush won’t burn, and I’m all out of matches.”
Those who know me well know that I’m a sucker for a cleverly written book title. There are some books I remember only because of a memorable and useful title. A few years ago, Dan Schaeffer wrote a book that not only has a catchy title, but has some really helpful content as well. He shows how many of us—when we can’t seem to find God speaking to us through a burning bush—try to help God out by lighting one on fire ourselves! I guess the idea is that if we get the bush burning, God will respond to us and speak directly to us as he did with Moses. The problem is it doesn’t work very well, hence the book title: The Bush Won’t Burn, and I’m All Out of Matches.

Why do we have these expectations? Here’s one reason why: We read of all the incredible ways God supernaturally directed his people in the Bible, and we tend to assume he’s going to guide us in similar ways today.

But, wait a minute. How many times did God speak to someone through a burning bush? Exactly once. How many times did people hear a rushing, mighty wind and see what looked like flames of fire on everyone’s head? Once. How many times did a disciple of Jesus walk on water? Once. (Maybe Peter walking on water should only count for 1/2!) You see the pattern, right? Knocking down city walls, chariots of fire, turning water to wine—God doesn’t seem to repeat himself as far as a lot of these things go. He doesn’t change, but his methods do.

Elijah had to learn this when he ran to Mt Sinai expecting to see great and powerful manifestations of God, just as Moses and the people had seen long before. But instead, God greeted Elijah with a still, small voice, asking him, “What are you doing here?” “Yes,” someone might protest, “God may have changed the specific method, but he routinely guided his people in supernatural ways.” But is this true?

If you chart out chronologically the period of time covered in Scripture, and then note the times when God performed great signs and wonders, you’ll see that these events are relatively few and far between. We tend to think there were spectacular, supernatural events occurring practically every day in biblical times, but this just isn’t the case. Actually these events are included in the Scriptures because they’re extraordinary.

Usually, God only moved in these overt and direct ways during times of great, historical significance: the choosing of Abraham, the deliverance of the people from bondage, the choosing of David, the confrontation of his rebellious people through his prophets, the ministry of Jesus, the birth of the church, etc. Many—if not most—of God’s people had heard of these kinds of events, but never witnessed any of this themselves. We even see mention of this in passages such as these:

We no longer see your miraculous signs.
All the prophets are gone,
and no one can tell us when it will end.

Psalm 74:9

Where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about?

Judges 6:13

Manipulation and desperation
There are real problems with seeking—and relying on—this kind of seemingly supernatural guidance. The process is so subjective we can manipulate it to produce the outcome we want, all the while convinced it’s God confirming our feelings. “Lord, I’m not sure whether or not you want me to apologize to my neighbor for losing my temper and calling him a jerk and an embarrassment to the whole street. I need to know what you want me to do. I don’t feel led to apologize. But if you really want me to, please make the 3rd car that passes here be a Porsche 987 S . . . yellow . . . with the top down . . . and the driver wearing purple sunglasses and a cowboy hat . . . followed by a hailstorm . . . and a solar eclipse . . .” See, look! God doesn’t want me to apologize to my neighbor!

But we can also get a panicky desperation to hear something—anything—directly from God, especially when we’re making an important decision. We start to use our Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. It’s as if we ask our question (“Lord, should we move to Akron or Albuquerque?”), turn the Bible over and shake it, open it up and stick our finger in for some kind of answer: Reply hazy, try again. But as Howard Hendricks says, the Bible isn’t a lucky rabbit’s foot. It doesn’t work if you rub it.

Putting a fleece before the Lord?
The idea of putting a fleece before the Lord comes from the story of Gideon in Judges 6. He asked for a sign from God proving that God would do what he had promised. First, he put out a fleece and asked God to make the fleece wet but the surrounding ground dry. When God did this, he asked for a second sign, this time making the fleece dry and the surrounding ground wet.

Notice a few important details in this story: (1) Gideon wasn’t trying to find God’s will. God had already told Gideon what he wanted Gideon to do. (2) Gideon knew exactly who was giving him these instructions. There was no uncertainty on his part that God was speaking to him. (3) God had already given Gideon a sign (at his request). God had caused fire to flame up from a rock and consume the meat, bread and broth Gideon had placed there (Judges 6:21).

So if Gideon knew this was God, and knew what God’s will was for him, why did he insist on ‘putting out a fleece’? Read his own words:

Then Gideon said to God, “If you are truly going to use me to rescue Israel as you promised, prove it to me in this way. . . . then I will know that you are going to help me rescue Israel as you promised.”

Judges 6:36-37 [emphasis added]

This doesn’t demonstrate Gideon’s faith in God, but his lack of trust. God had already given his promise to Gideon, and even graciously demonstrated his power. That should have settled the issue; all that was left was for Gideon to trust and obey. His putting out a fleece, demanding proof from God, is certainly not an example we want to follow.

“But it works!”
Many of us have stories of doing something like I’ve described above, and it seems as if God responded. Maybe you’ve used one of these methods, and everything turned out well. You got the right job, the right spouse, the ministry that was meant for you. But we need to be very careful how we interpret our experiences. Often all a good outcome proves is the mercy and grace of God.

In his book, Dan Schaeffer tells the story of a young couple who brings home a new puppy. They take the puppy out to play in the backyard, where he promptly chases a squirrel up the tree. The puppy is sitting at the foot of the tree, looking up and barking. The squirrel jumps onto a dead, dry branch that breaks under its weight, and he falls right in front of the startled puppy. For the rest of that dog’s life he would run straight to that tree and look up, barking expectantly, waiting for a squirrel to fall from the tree. He had assumed his actions caused the squirrel to fall, and so he expected the same actions to work again.

It’s easy to imagine the same kind of scenario between parents and their children. Your daughter thinks you gave her what she asked for because she cried, when that wasn’t your reason at all. Just because something seems to work, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Just because our actions are followed by a result doesn’t mean we caused the result.

Sometimes God blesses us in spite of our actions
not because of them.

So what have we learned this week?

  • We shouldn’t embellish our interaction with God and make it sound as if he’s audibly speaking directly to us when that’s not the case.
  • We don’t want to over-interpret our own inner impulses and confuse these with the divine leading of the Spirit.
  • We’ve seen that the biblical basis for ‘putting a fleece before the Lord’ is very weak.
  • We need to trust God and not try to push him into giving us more information about our future. And we definitely don’t want to manipulate some “sign” that only confirms our own desires.
  • While God can speak directly and dramatically any time he chooses to, we see in Scripture this isn’t his usual way of interacting with his people. It’s not healthy for us to assume God will give us supernatural signs to guide us in our decisions.

So . . . then . . . just how are we supposed to seek the will of God? How can we know for sure how God is guiding us in our lives? We’ll explore this next week.

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Burning bushes and the will of God

Some of you may remember the series of TV commercials that show two people discussing investments, and one of them comments, “My broker is EF Hutton, and EF Hutton says . . .” And suddenly there is absolute silence as everyone around them leans forward eagerly listening to what EF Hutton says (because “when EF Hutton talks, people listen”). I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Bible studies and small group discussions. Someone will ask something like, ‘How can I know for sure what God’s will is for my life?’ and suddenly everything else stops and people are hanging on every word. Why is this? Well, for most of us it begins with a desire to live our lives according to God’s plan for us. We want to be sure we’re making the right choices and avoiding the wrong ones.

Wanting to do God’s will is a good desire, but unfortunately there are many conflicting approaches to seeking the will of God and, consequently, a lot of confusion. I’m sure this confusion adds to our eagerness to hear and learn more whenever the subject comes up in discussion. We’re going to explore this topic for the next few weeks, and we’ll begin with some basic truths. Remember: whenever you get into an area of belief where you feel uncertain, it’s best to fall back on what you do know, and work from there. So what are some foundational principles concerning the will of God?

God knows the future completely, and he will accomplish his plan.
Isaiah 46:9-11 tells us:

Remember the things I have done in the past.
For I alone am God!
I am God, and there is none like me.
Only I can tell you the future
before it even happens.
Everything I plan will come to pass . . .
I have said what I would do,
and I will do it.

The amazing thing is that God will accomplish his plan—and we are part of his plan! God not only knows the future, he knows your future. We may not know what’s lying ahead of us, but we can be certain God does. If we truly trust him and genuinely believe he will do what he has said he will do, then this assurance should give us a strong sense of confidence and security in him.

God isn’t hiding from us anything we need to know.
Sometimes we get so intent on “finding the will of God” we begin to almost resent God for not revealing it. But God is not like some mean older brother, holding his will for you behind his back. ‘Ha, ha, ha. I’ve got my will for you right here, but you can’t see it. If only you knew what I want you to do, but I’m not going to show you.’ Again, this comes back to trust. Do we really believe God loves us? Do we really believe God will work in our lives to accomplish his purpose, and that this is for our benefit? Do we really believe God has given us everything we need to live the lives he calls us to live?

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.

2 Peter 1:3 

God doesn’t expect us to have the future all figured out.
We’ll talk more about this in the next few studies, but we need to accept the fact that we’re just not going to get a comprehensive look at the future. If we knew the future exhaustively, we would be God! While God does reveal things about the future from time to time, he otherwise expects us to trust him with our future. An unhealthy obsession with gaining knowledge of the future is actually much more like pagan religious practices (what was called “divining” or “soothsaying”) than it is biblical faith.

There’s an interesting exchange in the last few verses of the gospel of John. Jesus reveals a bit of how Peter will one day die (by crucifixion). So Peter points to John and asks, “What about him?” Jesus tells Peter, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” Apparently, it became quite a rumor among the community of believers that John wouldn’t die until Christ returned, to the point John had to clarify that Jesus didn’t say this would happen. He merely said, “If . . .” The interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t clarify this for John either; John still didn’t know whether this was just a learning opportunity for Peter or a real clue as to his future. In essence, Jesus’ message to John was the same as it was to Peter: ‘It’s not for you to know this information about your future. You just need to focus on following me.’

Sometimes God gives direct and very clear instruction.
It doesn’t take us long when reading the Bible to see how many times God spoke directly and dramatically to individuals, giving them explicit instructions as to what they were to do. God interacts directly with Abraham; he appears in a vision to Jacob; he speaks to Moses first through a burning bush and then later on a quaking, smoldering Mt Sinai. No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable we may be with such manifestations, our theology needs to include the reality that God does sometimes communicate in unusual and even sensational ways.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should start looking around for a burning bush! (Remember there was only one of those in the Bible.) But it does mean we should be open to the possibility of God providing very direct, personal guidance to one of his children. I remember a time when I had walked away from my faith. I was actually considering a completely different religion, and had only been vaguely thinking of Christianity as a comparison to this other faith. When suddenly—like a cold, brisk breeze slicing through the fog—the words of Elijah to the people of Israel arrested my thoughts (words I hadn’t thought of for years): How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, serve him.

It’s not that I was looking for some kind of message. I tried everything to shake this thought or somehow drown it out. But it haunted me for three days. Every morning when I woke up, this was the first thing that entered my mind. Every time I hung up the phone at work, this challenge pounded in my head. When I was trying to talk with my friends, listen to music or go to sleep, this thought was constantly confronting me: How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, serve him. I wasn’t longing to return to Christianity at all. But finally, very dispassionately and even coldly, I simply gave up. I said, “Okay, God. If you want me, you got me.”

This isn’t the most dramatic story I could tell, and I know some of you probably have more sensational accounts from your own lives. But this leads us to an important question: How do we know direct guidance from God is actually from God? We know God can communicate directly and supernaturally—not because of our personal experiences, but because of what we see in the Word of God. But how can we be sure he is communicating directly to us?

If we have to guess whether an instruction is directly from God or not
—it’s probably not.
Do you think Moses spent much time debating with himself whether it was really God speaking to him through the burning bush? When God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice, did Elijah have to ask, “Who is this?” If God is going to dramatically, supernaturally give us very clear, very direct instructions, he’s not going to leave us scratching our heads as to whether it’s him or not! The question isn’t going to be ‘Is this God?’ but ‘Am I going to obey God? Am I going to do what he has told me to do?’

In my own story, I didn’t hear an audible voice. But what I experienced was so far beyond my own thoughts and reflection, so unexpected, so obviously someone else . . . so obviously God . . . that I couldn’t deny it was his voice. It wasn’t that I wanted to believe it; I couldn’t deny it. (I did have the choice to respond or not, but I knew clearly who I was submitting to or rejecting.)

I mean, let’s think about this. Remember all of the biblical stories of God dramatically manifesting himself to his people. Now if God is going to directly speak to you in some way and instruct you to do something specific, do you think he’s going to have any problem being absolutely unmistakeable and undeniable about who is giving you these instructions? Is this somehow a problem for him? When God clearly speaks to us, there is no doubt. So if God is supernaturally telling you to sell everything and move your family to Zimbabwe, you won’t have to scratch your head and wonder if it’s really him. What he expects you to do will be undeniable.

If God is giving you direct, supernatural instruction or guidance,
you won’t need to play guessing games.

If God has clearly, unmistakably told us to do something, the proper response is always to obey and obey quickly. As the Dogs of Peace song says, we don’t want to “beat around the burning bush.” But this still leaves us with some important questions:

  • Should we expect God to guide us directly, dramatically and undeniably? Is this supposed to be a regular part of the believer’s life? Is this the only way God guides us? Or can I know God’s will for my life without this kind of direct, supernatural instruction?
  • What if I look around and I don’t see any burning bushes? What if I’m a committed Christian who’s never experienced anything this sensational? Is there something wrong with my Christian life? If I’m seeking God’s will should I be seeking this kind of direct guidance?
  • What does it really mean to “seek God’s will”?

These are some of the questions we’ll be discussing next week.

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Prayer: Expecting an answer

Staying in balance seems difficult for people at times, and that’s true for Christians too. It’s much easier for us to fall into one extreme or another. What are the extremes we should avoid when we pray?

Some teach that God will give us precisely what we ask for in prayer, but we must be absolutely, 100% certain God will do what we’ve asked him to do. If we waver in our rock-solid certainty, then we’re somehow denying God through our doubt and it won’t work. (Of course, this prompts the question in what sense we’re asking God for anything if we’re guaranteed to receive anything we confidently “request.”)

Some even take this further and teach how we need to be specific in our prayers. Don’t just ask for a bike, we’re told. Specify a red, 10-speed bike, if that’s what you want. I guess it’s like placing your order. You want to make sure you get it your way. Others go further and don’t really ask God for anything, they “claim it in the name of Jesus.” Never mind, that the Bible never tells us to claim anything in this way. (FYI: The Bible doesn’t tell us to “bind” or “rebuke” the enemy when we pray either.) This kind of prayer goes from making requests of God to presumptuously declaring what God is going to do for us. This is a dangerous extreme.

But there are problems on the other end of the pendulum swing too. Many of us are leery of Christians who are too loud and demanding in their prayers. So we tend to bend over backwards the other way. “May your will be done” can come to essentially mean: “We’re not really expecting anything at all to happen here. We’re not really sure why we’re praying about this, but here we go anyway.”

What should we expect from God when we pray? Obviously, we need to go to the Bible for our answer. But we need to examine the Scriptures carefully and thoughtfully. There’s an old reminder that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’ It’s way too easy to rip one verse out of context and ignore all the other passages that teach about prayer. We need to get a well-rounded, thoroughly biblical concept of prayer.

For instance, we could look only at a passage such as Matthew 21:21-22:

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

At first glance, this actually seems to confirm one of our extremes, doesn’t it? Isn’t this giving us an absolute promise that we can pray for anything we want to and—if we really believe—that we’ll get it? Assuming this promise is for us (some scholars feel Jesus is speaking specifically to those who would be his Apostles, with the corresponding power to do signs and wonders), is Jesus giving us carte blanche to throw mountains into the sea at will? Is he giving us a blank check to ask for anything we happen to desire?

Would you give your children such a promise? Would this be responsible parenting? Maybe the Bible has more to say than just this. And maybe we need to take all of what God says about prayer into consideration.

Imagine this scenario. You take your kids to the store and tell them they can buy anything they want up to $20. Your youngest keeps bringing items up and asking, “Can I buy this?” “Can I buy this?” Finally, you insist, “You can have anything you want!” Whereupon—before your very eyes—your innocent 8-year old child morphs into a shrewd lawyer. “Anything I want?” So now you have to add a clarifying legal clause: “anything up to $20, just as I told you before.” Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re like that child, aren’t we?

So what other things has God told us that show us what to expect when we pray? Let’s look at some more passages.

Pray with right motives
James explains why we sometimes don’t get what we pray for:

. . . you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

James 4:2-3 

Sometimes we pray for something, but we’re praying from entirely wrong motives. Why should we expect God to give us what we ask for when we ask from a wrong heart? This only makes sense, doesn’t it? We may even be praying for something God would be delighted to give us, but he’s more concerned about our long-term well-being than he is our immediate gratification. So we have to pray with right motives.

Pray in Jesus’ name
There are many passages that give promises to us when we pray ‘in Jesus’ name.’ Here’s one classic example:

You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!

John 14:13-14

This is a wonderful promise. But what exactly does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Does it just mean tacking on “in the name of Jesus” at the end? “Lord, please provide me with a brand new Porsche—in the name of Jesus.” Is this some kind of magical incantation like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘Simon says?’ Or does it have a deeper meaning?

When I was a kid, I loved swashbuckling movies. Remember the scenes when they would pound on the door and say, “Open this in the name of the King!”? What did that mean? It meant they were acting in the king’s stead. The king had given them the right to do something in his place. They represented the king.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, and we need to keep this in mind. This may color the way we interpret and apply the promise. They were directly commissioned to be his representatives Apostles of Jesus Christ. If anyone was able to act ‘in Jesus’ name’ it was surely these Apostles. But even if we apply this to us today, what does it mean? It means that if we are acting in Jesus’ stead, doing what he would do, asking for what he would ask for—then we can ask for anything and God will do it!

So we have to actually pray and make our requests, we need to pray with right motives, and not only with right motives but with the motives of Christ himself. This may seem like somewhat narrow criteria, but why would God answer prayers that were asked with selfish, un-Christlike motives? And did you notice what Jesus’ motivation is in this verse? “That the Son can bring glory to the Father.”

Pray in strong relationship with Christ
In another place, Jesus says:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

John 15:7 

We should have expected something like this if we are to pray in Jesus’ stead. To be motived by the same things that motivate Christ, to act in his place and to ask for what he would ask for, we must be in vibrant relationship with him. Everything that we are as the true branches flows from the true Vine. And notice how, in the following words, Jesus connects granting our requests with us bearing fruit:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

Apparently what we are asking for—because we are remaining in Christ, praying in his stead, praying with his motives—has to do with us bearing spiritual fruit. And, once again, we see the ultimate emphasis on bringing glory to the Father.

Pray according to God’s will

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.

1 John 5:14-15

When does God hear our prayers? When we ask for “anything that pleases him.” Older translations read here: “according to his will.” But how can we know what’s according to God’s will? Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?

Can we know whether it’s God’s will for Sally to be healed? Can we be certain that God intends for Tom to get the job he applied for? We have to acknowledge that God doesn’t promise us—in this life—to always receive healing, prosperity, success, etc. [If this is a surprise to you, let me know and we can explore this at greater length in a future post.]

So, how can we know what God’s will is? Well, is it God’s will for us to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for us to become more like Christ? Is it God’s will for us to learn how to love unlovable people? Is it God’s will for us to help those who are hurting? Isn’t this how Jesus prayed for us according to God’s will:

. . . keep them safe from the evil one. . . . Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word . . . I pray that they will be one . . .

John 17:15-21

Does this mean we never pray for anything if we aren’t certain it’s God’s will? No. But we need to remember that, though every prayer is answered, sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ and sometimes it’s ‘no.’ Paul prayed for healing three times, and each time God told him ‘no’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). If we don’t know exactly what God’s will is in a situation we don’t presume to declare what will happen. That’s God’s prerogative, not ours.

But we also don’t pray passively, not expecting anything to happen. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his will, that he will act in power, that he will act out of his love and grace and wisdom and perfect timing. We expect him to directly act in the situation; we just don’t presume to tell him how he should do that. We make our requests as best we can with the wisdom he’s given us, and then we do what Moses told the people to do: “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today [Exodus 14:13].”

Why does God sometimes say ‘no?’ Because he’s a wise, loving Father. Sometimes he has to say no because the timing isn’t right yet, like a 10-year old asking for a driver’s license or a child asking for a candy bar when—unbeknownst to them—there’s cake and ice cream waiting at home. Sometimes we’re wrong, like an irresponsible child asking for a puppy or a wasteful teenager asking for a huge sum of money. Sometimes we’re asking for something that can harm us—even if we don’t realize it—like a child asking for a pet alligator or a stick of dynamite.

Some people may be frustrated with these answers and biblical qualifications. ‘Why does God want us to pray at all if we’re only supposed to pray for what he wants anyway?’ But this reveals a faulty understanding of God and prayer. Why are we praying? To convince God to do what we want him to do? That’s not a biblical understanding of prayer, it’s a pagan one. We’re not trying to coerce or cajole God into answering our prayers. Prayer doesn’t bring God’s will down to match ours; it raises up our spiritual eyes until our will conforms to his. As CS Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me.” If I’m in a boat and I reach out with the boathook and pull, am I pulling the land to me? Or am I pulling myself closer to the shore? This is what prayer does for us.

God wants us to be involved in what he’s doing. He’s made us part of his mission. And our prayers are partly how we share in that. The more we pray, the closer we grow to God. The closer we grow to him, the more we’ll share his concerns, his motives, his desires, the more we’ll pray according to his will—and the more we’ll have absolute, rock-solid assurance that the will of God for which we pray will be accomplished. And that, through this, God will be glorified.

But what about passages that say we shouldn’t give up, but keep on praying? Does this mean we’re supposed to somehow wear God down with our prayers? We’ll look at this next week.

Prayer series:

Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer [see above]

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up