Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. – 1 John 5:14-15
When I read verses like this, I am struck with the assurance the author uses in regard to answered prayer. The apostle John uses the word ‘confidence’ and the phrase ‘we know.’ These are words of certainty. They echo the same sentiment of Jesus when He said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you” (Luke 11:9). This leaves the reader with the impression that answered prayer should be normal. If one takes the words of the Bible at face value, doesn’t it seem that Jesus and the apostles want us to understand this as a simple thing?
But if it is so simple and so straight forward, why does unanswered prayer seem so common? Most of us, if not all, have prayed prayers that were unanswered; and we know people who site unanswered prayer as their reason for walking away from God. Why is there such a divide between what the scripture states and our own experiences?
There can only be two conclusions: either something is wrong with the words of scripture, or something is wrong with us. If it is the former, then we must conclude that our faith is futile and that none of the scripture can be trusted. Many people come to that conclusion. But if the problem is with us, then perhaps we should treat unanswered prayer as a sign—a big sign that something is terribly wrong. Perhaps things are not as they should be in our lives, or in the church.
Our text declares that if anyone asks anything according to His will, that He hears us, and answers us. This requires that we both know His will and are living according to his will. Asking that His will be done without living according to His will (as far as we know it) is the height of presumption. It’s akin to asking God to gather while we are scattering abroad (see Luke 11:23). These are why I suspect many in the church are not receiving answers to their prayers. They are either ignorant of God’s will, or worse, they aren’t living according to His will as far as they are aware of it. I say, ‘as far as they are aware of it,’ because God holds us accountable for what we know, and not what we are genuinely ignorant of.
Knowing God’s will
If we are going to pray according to God’s will, it is obvious that we must know His will. If the Bible tells us to pray according to the will of God, it is implied that we are able to know the will of God. We should not think, like some do, that the will of God is mysterious and hard to ascertain. And while I agree that we may not be able to determine the will of God for all the specificities of life, many aspects of His will can be known through what He has revealed to us. God’s Word is His will. And since He cannot lie, we can know that when He says something, He means it. We should not begin to pray until we know God’s will on a matter. And we should not pray, “Thy will be done” concerning matters where His will is revealed. The examples that Jesus gives us do not teach us this. If the man who went to his friends house at midnight for bread (Luke 11), or the widow who went to the unjust judge (Luke 18), had said, “I need such and such; may your will be done,’ they would have received nothing.
Instead, we should look to God’s Word, find what His will is, and pray according to it. The Bible is full of promises of what God will do if His people will seek Him. But we must understand that His will is not automatic. God’s will is often not accomplished; but when it is, it is because men and women pray persistent, faith-filled prayers.
The question might be asked: why does God require us to pray for His will to be accomplished? If He wants to do something, why doesn’t He just do it?
There is likely more than one answer to this question, but one reason is because the process of learning how to pray in the way that God requires helps to fashion us into the kind of people we need to be. If God were to bless us without forming us spiritually, His blessings would become a curse to us. Pride would seep in and destroy us. But the beauty of this is that it is not a certain level of learning or experience that God requires, for even Christians very young in the Lord and inexperienced can receive answers to their prayers. Instead, it is consecration to God and a separation from the world and a dedication to His purpose that He requires. Fervent prayer answers all these things.
Doing His Will
Knowing God’s will is the easy part. In a world where knowledge abounds, it doesn’t take much time to discover what God says about a subject. Often, a simple google search will turn up an article that pulls relevant scripture together. In fact, the church today is filled with all kinds of knowledge. Knowing isn’t the problem. Doing is the problem. And knowing without doing is REALLY a problem. The more we know, the more guilt we accrue if we do not act on that knowledge. It just heaps up more judgment against us. This is why the Bible says that it would be better not to have known the way of righteousness, ‘than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment…’ (2 Peter 2:21)
I suspect this is a big reason that our prayers are not answered. Our text declares that if we pray according to His will, he hears us. But if we pray while we are not living according to His will, the opposite is true: He does not hear us. When His own people were suffering under the oppression of Babylon, they wondered why God would not hear their cry for help. His response is enlightening:
Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. – Isaiah 59:1-2
Many wonder why God doesn’t come to their rescue in their time of distress, or they wonder why the difficulties of life keep pounding them like the waves beat the shore. Some move to the conclusion that God does not exist, or if He does, that He does not care. But this passage in Isaiah shows us that sin prevents God from moving in our lives.
I’d like to share this passage in a paraphrase of the Bible called the Message. I normally don’t like to use paraphrases, but I feel like the Message captures the spirit of this passage well:
Look! Listen! God’s arm is not amputated—he can still save. God’s ears are not stopped up—he can still hear. There’s nothing wrong with God; the wrong is in you. Your wrongheaded lives caused the split between you and God. Your sins got between you so that he doesn’t hear. – The Message (paraphrase of Isaiah 59:1-2)
Sin causes a schism between us and God, and unless we deal with the sin in our lives, we will be cut off from God’s blessings. There are many people, unfortunately, who live their lives completely cut off from God. Many so-called Christians live this way. I fear that if we were able to take back the curtain and see the way that God sees, that we would be astounded at how many people come to church and appear right with God who are actually not. God has dealt with them about their sin, but they have ignored Him. They continue to live their lives as if everything is good between themselves and God, but they deceive themselves. It’s like asking a married couple if things are going well in their marriage. If one says yes and the other says no, the conclusion is that the one who said yes is either lying or delusional. And I suspect that when it comes to God, those who live on in their sin are both. They lie to themselves and those around them, which, in turn, feeds their delusion.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. – 1 John 1:6
Satan seeks to soothe us when it comes to our sin. “It’s no big deal,” he says, “This is common practice. It’s what everyone else is also doing. Are you better than they?” Or, “You deserve this. You need to take care of you. You need a break.” Or, “Your situation is unique. God understands.” All of these are lies from Satan. He will agitate you concerning righteousness and soothe you concerning sin. Do not yield to him. Practicing righteousness will certainly earn you scorn from those around you. “Are you better than me?” is often their favorite phrase. But don’t be concerned about pleasing or pacifying those around you. There is One whom you should be concerned about pleasing. Let those around you say what they will.
When God deals with you about your sin, be quick to respond to Him. When you feel conviction, it is the Holy Spirit inviting you back into right relationship with God. If you resist Him, you risk grieving Him away forever. Your heart will grow hard and you may never have the chance to repent again. Take the chance now. Do not wait. You may not have another chance. Yes, it will be difficult to overcome your pride, but better to humble yourself before God than to be humbled by God. And better to burn your pride than to burn in the eternal fires.
And do not be deceived by little sins. Little sins can often become big deals. If you fail to repent over a little sin, it’s not so much the little sin that matters, but the attitude of your heart. I often tell people that stealing something small could be a greater sin in the eyes of God than stealing something more valuable. It’s not a greater sin in the eyes of the person that you have stolen from, of course, but from God’s perspective, you have despised and belittled His law so much that you were willing to break it over some small thing. And then you won’t repent of it? How offensive and evil in the sight of God, that you would forfeit your relationship with him for a bowl of soup? (See Genesis 25:29-34)
I remember that I was praying once and desiring to be closer to God than I had been. But as I prayed, a small sin that I had committed years early came to my mind. I hadn’t really thought about this sin because it was so foolish and small that I thought it insignificant. But the more I prayed, the more this incident came to my mind. Years early, I was at my friend’s parent’s house, who I knew well, and whose house I frequented. I even lived there for a time (although not at the time of this incident). I was hungry and saw a banana on the counter, which I took. Now I know that they would not have minded if I had taken the banana and ate it without asking, for they were hospitable people. But for some ridiculous reason I felt the need to take the banana and hide it inside my jacket. Then I proceed to walk out of the door. Just before I crossed the threshold of the door, the banana fell out of my jacket on the ground. The door to my friend’s dad’s office was just adjacent to me, and it was open, but I didn’t look as I reached down, grabbed the banana, put it back in my jacket, and proceeded out the door.
To be honest, I thought nothing of the incident for the space of about five years. But as I prayed, this incident would not go away. In fact, the next few days I came to pray, I could not stop thinking about it. Finally, I said to God, “Do you really want me to call these people to apologize for stealing a banana five years ago?!” I tried to dismiss it as ridiculous, but I soon found that I could either make this misdeed right, or stunt my relationship with God.
To make a long story short, I had to eat an enormous helping of humble pie, call my friend’s father, and apologize for what I had done. I said, “Mr. Baldwin, I have to confess that several years ago I stole something from your house.” He replied in jest, “What’d you take, a hundred thousand?” “No,” I said, “I stole a banana.” He said, “Yeah, I know, I saw you drop it when you were going out the door.”
To top it off, I sent a letter with a five dollar bill to make reparations. I figured that five years accumulated a little bit of interest.
I tell this story to illustrate a point. What if I had said no to God? Would that not have strained our relationship? Could I have moved forward in my relationship with God? If I refused to do what my employer asked of me, would I still have a job? If I refuse to take a required class, can I still get the degree? I suspect that many people have refused to surrender their entire life to Jesus; that is why their prayers are not being answered. On the road to eternal life they came to a pass they did not want to take, and veered off in another direction. But there’s no way around what God has demanded you do. You must go back and take that pass. God will give you the strength to do it.
Examine yourself. Do a thorough check of your heart. Are you right with God? Have you submitted yourself completely to Him? Have you kept back any part of your life from Him? If you have, make it right. God is very gracious and will forgive you. He promised He would. And when you are back in right relationship with God, you’ll set yourself up for answered prayer. We can then have assurance that if we follow the principles of prayer that we have found in the scripture, that God will indeed answer our prayers.