First published 15 April 2011
I guess I ran out of space in Part Ten! We were considering two statements in John’s first letter to first century Christians.
Last time we had a thorough look at one particular statement in 1 John 3:21-22, “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.” We saw that the wider passage is all about our assurance, which God gives both through His Spirit within us and the obedience He works within us. As we obey His commands more, the more confidently we know that He is in us, and the more confidence we have before Him. And as we grow in that obedience, our priorities are changing to be more in line with His, and therefore we find ourselves asking for more of the things that God knows are best for us and therefore He is willing to give us.
As David Jackman says (The Message of John’s Letters, The Bible Speaks Today, IVP, p106), “Understood in this way, [this verse] becomes not so much an impossible challenge as an encouragement. As we seek to live in a way that pleases God, practising truth and love, our desires become moulded to his. We want his will in our lives and the lives of others, rather than pursuing our own selfish desires willy-nilly. The more we enjoy and develop that relationship, as obedient children, the more we shall find ourselves asking and receiving those things that are pleasing to God.”
So we saw that when John says, “we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:21-22), he does not mean that God sees our obedience and repays us with good things that we ask for. Rather, our confidence before God grows as He shows us that He is working in us through enabling greater obedience to His commands (to believe in Jesus and to love one another), and in that confidence we ask and receive.
And yet we must be honest and say that John’s other implication is that if we are not obedient, and do not love one another, then we will lack that confidence and will not receive. David Jackman says, “How can we receive God’s good gifts in answer to prayer, if we do not ask in accordance with his will? And how can we ask like that, unless we are obeying God’s will already revealed in Scripture?” (The Message of John’s Letters, p106).
And that leads us nicely on to the second statement in 1 John that I looked at in my study – 1 John 5:14-15, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: 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 what we asked of him.”
“According to his will” is a very important limitation on the requests that we can expect to be granted by God. What it means is that God decides what is best for us. If we ask for something that is in keeping with what God has decided is best for us, then He will grant our requests. He loves to act in response to our requests, but what He says is decisive in the end. And that is what we would expect of a loving Father, as I said last time.
Does “his will” here mean his commands, or his intentions as revealed in Scripture, or does it means His secret will, i.e. the specific purposes for things that happen in our lives that He does not normally reveal to us? Fundamentally, of course, “the will of God” simply means “what God wants to happen”. But what that is depends on the context.
For example, in 1 John 2:17, John says, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives for ever.” In other words, the person who does what God wants lives forever. But how does a person know what God wants? The answer is from Scripture, where God tells us what is required of us. (See also John 7:17 and 9:31.)
On the other hand, when Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34); or, “I have come down form heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), the context determines that we understand the will of God (since it was God who sent him) slightly differently. Why? Because in John 6:39-40 Jesus goes on to say, “this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day… my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life….” So the will of God in this case was the mission that was given to Jesus – to take for Himself a people, and to die in their place, so that they may be raised from the dead at the last day, and have eternal life.
So what does the context determine in 1 John 5:14?
I don’t think that it would make sense for it to simply mean his commands. When we are commanded to “do His will”, that means that we are to do things that He commands and in a way that He reveals. In the context of prayer, that would then mean that if we prayed according to the right formula then God would respond. But that conflicts with the teaching about prayer in the rest of the Bible (e.g. “do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8)). It also does not fit with the variety of different types of prayer that are contained in the Bible.
I think it makes more sense to take “his will” as meaning the purposes of God for the world. That fits better with the Bible’s teaching, page after page, about the Sovereignty of God. God’s purposes always come to pass. No-one can thwart them and no-one can twist His arm to do something He doesn’t want to do. Then we would interpret this verse as meaning that if we ask God anything that is in keeping with His purposes for the world, then He will hear and grant our requests.
And how do we know the purposes of God for the world? Well, there are two answers to that. The answer at a high level is that we are given insight into God’s purposes in His Word, the Bible. The answer at a more detailed and specific level is that we don’t know. Only God knows what His plan is for every little thing that happens in the world. But we can be sure that He has a plan.
So it boils down to two lessons:
1. Praying according to God’s will means knowing the Bible. We can be sure that if we get greater understanding of God’s purposes in and for the world, through reading, studying and being given understanding of His Word, then we will know better what we ought to pray for. We will have a better idea what will fit with His plans, and we will pray for that, because we love Him and know that His plans and purposes are good (Romans 8:28). And as we grow in our understanding we will pray more “according to his will” and have more of our requests granted. Of course, we can never know the particular mind of God in a specific sense, so when we pray for specific things we will be led to pray, like Jesus, saying, “if it be possible… nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
2. God grants the requests that He wants to grant. If we ask for something and it fits with what He wants then He will give it to us. It cannot be any other way when we come to the God who created the universe and controls every atom and every transfer of energy, and who has a purpose in everything that happens in the world. He is not sitting back watching what happens. He is pushing it along and keeping it going, displaying His glory, His grace and His wisdom all the time. His will is ultimate, and our wills are subordinate. So there may be some things that appear to us, with our finite and fallen minds, to be in line with God’s revealed will. But because He knows everything, He knows whether specific requests are good for us and for His strategy in the world. But also conversely we should be confident that part of God’s purpose is to involve us, to grant requests in working our His purposes.
Quoting David Jackman again (The Message of John’s Letters, p161): “For prayer is not an attempt to get God to see things my way and to extract from him what I have decided I need or want. Prayer is submitting my will to his… It is opening the door of my need to the Lord Jesus. And this means that prayer is God’s means by which my submission to the Christ’s lordship can be developed. The less I pray, the more self-willed I become. But the corollary is wonderfully true. ‘Not my will, but yours’ – that is the essence of assured prayer, the secret of prevailing prayer. What confidence we can have! This should be a great stimulus in our personal lives to find out God’s will, to build on the commands and promises of his Word in our prayers, to talk every situation through with him, and to submit all our thinking, planning and deciding to God. Answers to prayer do not depend on a right diagnosis or analysis of the problem by us as we pray, but on a childlike submission to the Father, knowing that he will give us what is best according to his will. If he were to answer on any other basis, which of us would ever dare to pray again? We do not have that sort of wisdom.”