Praying the Unrevealed
Should Christians pray for things that are hidden in the secret will of God? The apostle John writes, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15). So, given John’s statement that when we “ask anything according to [God’s] will he hears us,” shouldn’t we only pray in accordance with those things we know to be true from God’s revealed will in the Scriptures?
For example, should we pray that God heals someone from a particular infirmity, or is it only appropriate to pray that an individual suffer well as a child of God, with patience, endurance, and hope in the resurrection to come? Should we ask God to regenerate the heart of a specific individual that they might become a new creation in Christ, or ought we simply ask God to make us faithful ambassadors of Christ, taking every opportunity we have to point people to the truth of the gospel? The difference is that God has not promised to heal specific individuals of their suffering in this life, nor has he told us who his elect are throughout the world. So is it wrong for us to pray for those things which God has not made clear?
Surely if a man asked God to help him keep his adulterous relationships a secret from his wife, or to make him a more savvy thieves, he is not praying in accord with God’s will. However, God’s character and nature does help shape our prayers so that they will be consistent with His revealed will--even though they may not come to pass in the way in which we ask because His eternal plan is concealed in his secret will.
There are various kinds of prayers all throughout the Bible: Prayers of adoration and praise, prayers of confession and repentance, prayers of rejoicing and thanksgiving, imprecatory prayers, and prayers of intercession and supplication. A Christian’s time before the Lord in prayer should include different kinds of prayer, but the question at hand deals specifically with supplication (i.e. intercessory prayer).
Matthew Henry helpfully explained the nature of such intercessory prayer when he wrote:
[W]e must not think in our prayers to prescribe to him, or by our opportunity to move him. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and knows what he will do. But thus we open our wants and our desires, and then refer ourselves to his wisdom and goodness; and hereby we give honour to him as our protector and benefactor, and take the way which he himself hath appointed, of fetching in mercy from him, and by faith plead his promise with him, and if we are sincere herein, we are, through his grace, qualified according to the tenor of the new covenant to receive his favours, and are to be assured that we do, and shall receive them.
We are not setting out in prayer to change the mind or will of God, but simply to make known to Him our “wants and our desires.” We do so while simultaneously settling in our hearts that it is God’s will--and not our own--that we ultimately long to see fulfilled. We are reminded of this when we remember Jesus' prayer in the Garden as He faced the death of the cross: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus knew there was no other way, and yet desired to be delivered from the inevitable. Likewise we may pray, “Father, while I know my prognosis is terminal, if you are willing, would you heal my body? Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Or, “Father, my neighbor is so far from you and scoffs at the name of Jesus. He will not hear the Gospel, but would you be pleased to send the Holy Spirit to arrest his heart and give me the opportunity to share the truth with him? Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
R.C. Sproul explains:
Nothing is too big or too small to bring before God in prayer, as long as it is not something we know to be contrary to the expressed will of God as made clear in His Word... What is important to us may also be important to our Father. If we are not sure about the propriety of our request, we should tell that to God. James 1:5 says, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.’ The Greek phrase translated ‘without reproach’ literally means ‘without throwing it back in your face.’ We don’t need to be afraid of the reproach of God, provided we are sincerely seeking His will in a given situation.
So how can we better use the Word of God (i.e. His revealed will) to pray specifically for individuals or circumstances that are uncertain to us (i.e. His secret will)?
1. Identify your motive. Why are you bringing your request before God? “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b-3).
2. Search the Scriptures. Are you asking for something contrary to the revealed will of God? Has God already answered your request in His Word?
3. Know God. Is your petition consistent with the nature and character of God? Has He shown in His Word that what you are asking is what He has done before and would do again in the future? While God has shown in His Word that He has healed myriads of people throughout history through various means, He has not shown in His Word that He will give a man a set of wings that he might fly away from his circumstances. In the past, the Holy Spirit empowered God’s people to speak in tongues or give prophecy, but those gifts have ceased and it would be a great error to seek such things. Furthermore, God is a God of redemption and takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32). He has saved and continues to save a people from the wrath to come by the hearing of the gospel, and the power of the Holy Spirit to grant faith and repentance in Christ Jesus alone. Therefore, it is consistent with God’s nature and character that we might pray for the salvation of our neighbor.
4. Remember who prayer is for. Prayer is not about man changing the mind of God, but rather God conforming the heart of man to be more humble, faithful, reverent, and trusting in the everlasting promises of God. Our persistence in prayer is not to annoy God into submission, but rather to build within us a greater patience and trust in the reality that He is sovereign over all things, and our trust needs to be constantly bound up in him alone.
5. Remember that God’s will is not always your own. There is as much to be learned in God not answering our prayers in the way we desire as there is in when He does. When God doesn’t heal or save the individual I’ve prayed for, there’s not failure on God’s part, but rather an opportunity for me to be reminded that God’s ways are greater than my own, and His eternal plans are far more wise than my short-term longings. “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”
6. Pray God’s revealed Will. The primary emphasis of our prayers of intercession and supplication should be focused on what God has revealed in His Word. While praying for the sick, it is good and right to ask God to heal them, but all the more important to pray, “God, they are your servant—will you help them to suffer well with patience and perseverance that you would be glorified through them? May it be that others see the hope that is within them and inquire as to why they find joy in the midst of trials.”
Prayer is about a Christian’s communion with God and union with Christ. “Lord, here is what I desire, and as I look in your Word, I don’t see that what I’m asking is wrong or opposed to your Word or your nature or your character, but Lord I want your will to be done, not mine, for I know that your will is far greater than anything I could hope or imagine. Whatever the outcome, will you help me trust you, will you humble me to submit myself to you and your will that you might be glorified through the circumstances of my life both now and in the future?”
John Calvin wrote:
[Prayer is] not so much for his sake as for ours. He wills indeed, as is just, that due honour be paid him by acknowledging that all which men desire or feel to be useful, and pray to obtain, is derived from him. But even the benefit of [giving ourselves in prayer] which we thus pay him redounds to ourselves [it is to our benefit]. Hence the holy [fathers], the more confidently they proclaimed the mercies of God to themselves and others, felt the stronger incitement to prayer... it is very much for our interest to be constantly [calling out to] him; first, that our heart may always be inflamed with a serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving, and serving him, while we accustom ourselves to have recourse to him as a sacred anchor in every necessity; secondly, that no desire, no longing whatever, of which we are ashamed to make him the witness, may enter our minds, while we learn to place all our wishes in his sight, and thus pour out our heart before him; and, lastly, that we may be prepared to receive all his benefits with true gratitude and thanksgiving, while our prayers remind us that they proceed from his hand.
Therefore, we ought to conclude that it is entirely appropriate for a Christian to pray for those things which are not explicitly revealed in the Scriptures, and yet remain consistent with God’s nature and character and Law. In doing so, we are asking according to his will and He hears us.
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