August 10, 2009

"All Things you Ask in Prayer"?

I said in the sermon on Sunday morning that

“faith is not belief that God will do whatever we ask.”

That needs some explaining … especially in light of a few other passages of scripture. I am well aware that Jesus, in Matthew 21.22 seems to teach the very opposite of what I am saying, when He says: “All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” Does that sound contradictory to my statement above (that Jesus doesn’t have to do whatever we ask with faith)? It does to me … at least at first. So I need to explain. And, since the sermon I prepared for Sunday was probably already too long J … I want to answer the question here in case anyone (either you, or someone you know) has questions about Matthew 21.22 (or Mark 11.24[i] or John 14.13-14 which say similar things). So here goes…

Does Matthew 21.22 (“All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive”) mean that Jesus will indeed give us anything we want, so long as we ask for it … and really believe He’ll do it?
It’s not quite that simple, is it? Why? Because we have all asked Jesus for things (seemingly in faith), and not received what we asked for – the salvation of a loved one now deceased; the healing of someone’s cancer; the girl’s hand in marriage, etc. Does that mean that we simply did not have enough faith? That could, sometimes, be the problem. In other words, our failure to see answers to prayer is sometimes because we pray, but don’t really believe (or don’t pray to begin with).

But let’s say we’re sure we did believe; we were trusting Jesus when we asked that our sister’s cancer would be healed … and she died of cancer. Does that mean that Jesus lied to us in Matthew 21.22? No. ‘But doesn’t Jesus say’ you might ask, ‘“All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” And isn’t my sister’s healing included in “all things”’? Well, we must remember that, in other places in the Scriptures, Jesus also gives other stipulations that would seem to govern and/or define the “all things.” For instance, “all things” is defined, in 1 John 5.14-15 to such things as are “according to His will.” In other words, it may well be possible that we trust Jesus completely to heal our sister … but, for wise reasons (that aren’t always clear to us), such a healing would not be “according to His will.”

Another qualifier to Matthew 21.22’s “all things” can be found in James 4.3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” So what if I believe with all my heart that God is going to heal my sister of cancer … but the reason I want her to be healed is not to glorify God, but because of some personal desire – maybe I like my happy, simple life and don’t want to have to worry with grief, and funerals, and wills, and so on. Now, all of the sudden, my prayer request (even if I really believe God is going to answer it) has fallen outside the pale of the “all things” that God is willing to grant. And aren’t our prayer requests so often tinged with personal wishes and wants, and not always with an eye toward the good of others and the glory of God in the world? Sometimes God, in His kindness, still grants such requests. And thank God He does … because so many of our requests are tinted (even if only slightly) with wrong motives. But, according to James 4.3, He doesn’t have to answer in such a case.

This does not mean, by the way, that God leaves our sister in pain simply to get us back for praying selfishly! Even if He does not answer our selfish prayer … He still promises to work all things for her good if she’s a believer.

1 Peter 3.7 presents another qualification regarding the all things … namely that a husband mistreating his wife may “hinder” his prayers. Again, this would govern the “all things” of Matthew 21.22.

I think that is enough to get a flavor. Jesus does indeed mean what He says in Matthew 21.22 (and Mark 11.24 and John 14.13-14). He intends to, loves to, and is not sneaky about answering our prayers! But it’s not a blank check. So if you feel you have earnestly prayed in faith, and God has not answered … don’t think that Jesus has misled you with promises like Matthew 21.22. Just realize that God doesn’t always answer when we think He will; that there are certain things that can hinder our prayers (James 4.3 and 1 Peter 3.7); and, especially, that God sometimes has better plans in store for us than we can ask or imagine. So sometimes He does not give us “all things” we have asked (even when we ask in faith) because something else – indeed, something better – is more in accord with His will (1 John 5.14).

[i] John Piper tackles this same question – probably a lot more helpfully than I do – in a sermon on Mark 11.24. It is partially from him that I get the idea of other passages of scripture governing Matthew 21.22, Mark 11.24, and John 14.13.

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