It Wouldn’t Make Sense for God to Promise to Grant All Our Prayer Requests (A4A 2)
First published 18 December 2010
In Part One of this series I laid out a number of Bible verses, mostly quotes from Jesus himself, that seem to suggest that we should expect to receive everything that we ask for in prayer. I painstakingly studied each of these passages, asking myself whether that is really what they are trying to tell us, and if not what are we to learn?
I guess it’s worth saying that my main conclusion is that we are not to expect that we will receive everything that we ask for in prayer. For one thing, we could state the obvious and say that if we pray for things that are sinful then we cannot expect to receive those. But also, two or more people may pray for good things that cannot be possible at the same time. David Needham tells a story that illustrates this in his book, Close to His Majesty (Multnomah Press, 1987):
Imagine two farmers in the USA: One raises wheat, and the other, just down the road, raises tomatoes. Both farmers have very large payments due on their mortgages. Everything hinges on harvest time. A crop failure would mean the loss of the farm. Let’s complicate things a little more. In each family the farmer’s wife is very sick and in need of expensive surgery. Without it, there is little hope of improvement. And one more thing: both families are faithfully walking with God.
It’s evening. Each family listens intently to the weather forecast. There’s a fifty-fifty chance of rain this particular night. The wheat farmer is well aware that his fields need one more heavy, soaking rain to bring the grain through to the harvest. With that, the farm could be theirs and his wife might be able to walk again.
Down the road, the other farmer knows that his tomatoes are right at their prime – ready to be harvested. But if the rains come, not only will his fields become a muddy bog, making it impossible to harvest, but also the moisture would trigger a blight that would destroy the entire crop. Without the harvest, they will lose everything.
After the weather report, each family gathers around the bed in the room where Mum is resting. Each family prays…
You get the picture. Some prayers conflict with each other, not in the sense of good things and bad things, but simply in the same sense as rain or not rain. God does not promise, in the Bible, to order everything miraculously in response to the wishes of His children – ordering everything to suit each individual, so that each individual had their own individual reality! Philosophically speaking, if miracles were the order of the day then there would be no such thing as miracles! So that is not the way God promises to work ordinarily. So there will, logically, always be some people who do not receive what they ask for.
Also, if God gave everything that we asked simply because we asked, then He would not be God. He would be akin to Aladdin’s genie and we would be God! God is God, and we are subservient to Him, not the other way around. John Piper makes the point, in his sermon on Matthew 7:7-11 (http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/ask-your-father-in-heaven), that we should not want to receive everything we ask either. He says, “the reason I say that we would not want to get everything we asked is because we would then have to bear the burden of infinite wisdom which we do not have. We simply don’t know enough to infallibly decide how every decision will turn out and what the next events in our lives, let alone in history, should be.
Not only that, but there are examples in the Bible itself, where prayer requests go unfulfilled. I will skip the ones where persistent prayer requests are eventually granted – such as the women in the Old Testament who were barren and, after years of pleading with the Lord, they received the baby they had asked for – although we must not forget them.
Take, for example, Jesus on the night that He was betrayed. He prayed at Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) That was a request that even the Son of God was not granted.
The other example I would mention is Paul, who was afflicted by what he called a “thorn in my flesh”. We are not told exactly what it was, but we can deduce that it caused him some discomfort. He says, in 2 Corinthians 12:7ff, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” Paul “pleaded” three times in prayer for relief from this affliction, and yet God did not grant his request.
However, these points aside, how should we look at passages that seem to suggest, or even clearly say, that we can, as Christians, ask the Lord for whatever we want, and He will grant our requests? I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and as such it is consistent, trustworthy and true. If I were to come to a conclusion that some Bible passages teach one thing and others show something mutually exclusive, then my confidence in the Bible would be undermined. Ultimately if I cannot have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word, which it clearly teaches it is, then I could not have confidence in knowing the truth about God or His way of salvation through Jesus Christ. The stakes are that high.
Hence, we must look seriously at what the Bible says, and be able to reconcile different passages with each other. If we conclude that we are not necessarily to expect to receive everything we ask for in prayer, simply because we ask, then the question really is, what does God promise through Jesus and His apostles in relation to receiving what we ask for in prayer? I want to look more carefully at the words, and more carefully at the context, and find out what our mindset needs to be, so that we can have the right attitude and expectations.
So I hope to lead you through a study of the passages that I have studied, and show how I have come to conclusions I have reached. I will try to show why I don’t think these passages teach that we should expect the granting of our requests automatically. But I also want, more positively, to draw out how these passages should challenge and change the way that we pray.
I have struggled to think of the best way to present these studies in a series of shortish blog articles, so that I can best share what I’ve learned. The method I’ve settled on is to go through passage by passage, drawing out applications at appropriate points. The themes I mentioned at the end of the last article will turn into application points, and may be augmented and adjusted as I go along. Sorry. It just shows what can happen when you publish bit by bit before you have actually finished the whole thing!
I hope that as I share what I’ve learnt we will all increase in confidence in the Scriptures and learn to pray in a way that brings glory to our Lord and Saviour.
And so yet again I have introduced the subject without going into the detail! Sorry. I promise we will dive straight into the detail next time, and you won’t have to wait so long for that!