In any time of crisis – such as the current pandemic – both Christians and non-Christians turn to prayer. But how do we know that God will hear us?
Let me begin to discuss that relevant concern by first asking you to imagine you are walking down the street one day when a total stranger comes up to you and asks a significant favour from you. At the very least, there’s a sense of social awkwardness, isn’t there? Why is that? It comes down to the disconnect between the request and the relationship. It could well be something you’d entertain for a close friend, but for a total stranger? It’s awkward, as we say, jarringly inappropriate. It’s that disconnect – the absence of relationship.
Keep that analogy in mind, but before going further with the issue of prayer, it’s surely worth asking ourselves: ‘What’s the present state of my relationship with God? Are we close?’
When Jesus was asked by his disciples in Luke 11:1 about prayer, he taught them a general template which began by addressing God as ‘Father.’ In other words, we’re to come to God as his children – which immediately raises the question: How then do we become a child of God? John 1:12 explains how: it’s by receiving Christ by believing on his name. I trust each reader of this blog has done this, but in case anyone is unsure let’s check that we’ve responded to God’s love shown in the giving of his son (see John 3:16 & 1 John 4:9,10) on the basis of sincerely saying to God something close to the following prayer (one that God always hears):
a. I acknowledge before you that I am a sinner (Romans 3:23)
b. What’s more, I freely admit that I cannot make myself acceptable to you by religious works or any such thing (Isaiah 64:6; Ephesians 2:9)
c. But I do freely confess that you gave your own son, Jesus, to take my place and my blame by giving his life as a sacrifice for my sins while dying on the cross (John 3:16; Isaiah 53:5)
d. I now invite you, Lord, to come into my heart, cleansing it through my faith in you as personal saviour, and by doing so I stand on your promise that I am forgiven, no longer guilty, and saved from all future punishment (John 5:24; Acts 10:43).
Now as God’s child, based on claiming the biblical promise, we’ll find we want to read God’s Book, the Bible. We’ll also find a desire to speak with God in prayer about what we find in his Book – which isn’t always easy to understand, definitely not at first. It won’t take long before we realize that God answering prayer is not like an indulgent earthly father writing blank cheques! We’ll even read in our Bible that there are times when we’re not to pray (for example, 1 John 5:16; Jeremiah 14:11). And we’ll discover there were great characters in the
Bible whose prayers were answered with a “no” (it’s still an answer!). These include:
- Abraham regarding Ishmael, (but Isaac was given, see Genesis 17:17,18);
- David regarding the survival of Bathsheba’s first child (which died, see 2 Samuel 12:16-18);
- Elijah who asked to die, but never did, see 1 Kings 19:4); and
- Paul, who 3 times requested the removal of his ‘thorn’ (some unspecified chronic complaint – no improvement was noted, but an explanation was given for its existence, see 2 Corinthians 12:8,9).
In some cases, the answer to prayer was delayed, as if God had said ‘not yet.’ We’ve already mentioned Abraham. He’s an example of this, having waited 25 years for the birth of his longed-for son. But we’ll also find it recorded that there were times when God refused even to hear a person’s prayer (e.g. Jeremiah 7:16). At times, the writer of a psalm made the appeal to God: ‘Don’t go deaf on me!’ (Psalm 28:1).
Well, how can we do our best to avoid that unhappy outcome? It would seem that the Bible itemises at least 18 conditions or qualifications to be met before prayer can be answered:
- We must ask according to God’s will (1 John 5:14; James 5:17).
- We must ask in faith (Matthew 21:22; James 1:6,7; Mark 11:14).
- We must ask after forgiving others (Mark 11:25; Matthew 6:14).
- We must not ask for the wrong reasons or with questionable motives (James 4:3).
- We must ask on the basis of God’s mercy and not our own righteousness (Daniel 9:18; Genesis 18:32; 19:21; Luke 18:9-14).
- We must ask through Jesus Christ (John 14:6, 13, 15-16; 16:23).
- We must have right relationships, so that our prayers are not hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
- We must have no iniquity (sin) in our heart (Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 1:28; 28:9; Isaiah 59:22; Psalm 84:11).
- We must pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18).
- We must pray with all perseverance, steadfastly, at all seasons, without ceasing (Ephesians 6:18).
- We must be ‘remaining in Christ’ (that is, enjoying communion with the Lord; John 15:7, 16; 1 John 3:21).
- We must have God’s word abiding in us (John 15:7, 16; 1 John 3:21).
- We will “be heard for our godly fear” (compare Hebrews 5:7).
- We must have no ‘idols’ (things in our lives which we put in the place of God; Ezekiel 14:1-6).
- We must be loving one another (1 John 3:22).
- We must give in order for it to be given (Malachi 3:10; Luke 6:48).
- We must ask in secret (Matthew 6:5).
- We must pray for others, unselfishly (Job 42).
Of course, none of us, as Christians, are perfect – only forgiven. But we must sincerely do our best in regard to the above. These are not listed to intimidate us or discourage us! But if we mean business with God, we’ll bear them in mind. As we reflect on them, we can ask the Holy Spirit – who lives within every true believer and is our helper in regard to prayer (see Romans 8:26,27) – to impress on our human spirit any particular matter that requires our attention. Notice also Romans 8:34 – Jesus at God’s right hand makes intercession for us also. Two great divine helpers. That makes sure answered prayer is achievable. The Lord has led us to expect it. Nothing is impossible with his help.
Before we sign off, I do think we need to emphasize regarding prayer that the conversation is more important than any particular expectation we may have. Prayer is a conversation with the Almighty! Time spent talking builds that all-important relationship we spoke about at the start. Don’t be put off by the thought that God already knows what he’s going to do. We might know what our spouse or parent is planning to do for us on a daily basis, but it’s never wise to take it for granted! It’s respectful to discuss things. In all your ways acknowledge God (Proverbs 3:6). It’s so rude not to acknowledge someone’s presence, isn’t it?
Here’s a final tip: the psalmist spoke his prayers out loud. Do you? It can be very faith-affirming, especially if we’re quoting God’s Word back to him (after all, faith comes by hearing the word of Christ, says Romans 10:17). If you happen to be seated on the emergency exit row of seats in an aircraft, you’ll be asked if you accept the responsibility for being the one to open the door in an emergency. The cabin crew member will not be satisfied with a mere nod. They’ll ask: ‘Can I have a verbal affirmative?’ Putting it into words is more of a faith commitment. Speaking to God in prayer affirms and grows our faith. It’s also a necessary reminder that we are weak and he is strong, and we need him – all the time, not only in a crisis!