“How can I get God to answer my prayer?” That’s a question I think we all ask at some time or another, and wish a million different motives behind it. But it’s an important question that’s worth asking because it gets to the heart of the majority of prayers we pray. It’s beyond the intent of this lesson/post to dig too deeply into the reality of “unanswered prayers,” but I believe what I’ve written below will prove very helpful to the person who truly wants to grow in their spiritual maturity.
Christians sometimes fall into extremes when it comes to prayer: God only answers prayers that display his glory (usually this is more common among theological and “serious” believers), and God answers prayers that make us happy (I think this is probably the default approach most of us take towards prayer). My hope is to demonstrate that both of these are incomplete and unhealthy in isolation from the other.
While this Youth Group series has been focused on “Prayer in the Psalms,” I felt compelled to jump out of the Psalms for this lesson because Jesus’ teachings on prayer are so foundational that I felt the lesson would simply not be as strong or helpful by sticking with the Psalms. Here are two things Jesus says about prayer that are very much worth our attention (and memorization!):
“And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
I remember being taught this verse as a child in Sunday School and I prayed every night for weeks that I would get a certain GI Joe tank that I really wanted. I prayed and prayed and begged my parents (especially whenever my mom would drag me to the mall with her)… but I never got that tank. My confidence in prayer was seriously weakened because I was taught that whatever I ask for “in Jesus’ name” would be given to me. But that’s not really what Jesus says… he says that we would receive whatever we ask for in his name, “so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”
Our prayers must be directed to God and for God. This doesn’t mean that I can simply reword my selfish prayer (“God I ask that you would bless me with this GI Joe tank to show my friends that you’re able to do even the impossible!”). When we pray we need to be aware of our heart’s desires and make sure that our heart’s greatest desire is for God’s glory to be put on display in our lives. If that is truly our desire, then the things we pray for will be radically different than if we pray while our heart’s greatest desire is for our own comfort or pleasure.
“Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (John 16:24)
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9–13)
At the same time, Jesus says that we will receive whatever we ask for so that our “joy will be complete/full.” If we want full joy, we should pray. If we take delight in giving good things to our children, how much more must God love giving joy to his children! God does not stand over us as a non-emotional grandfather shaking his cane at us telling us to stop having fun. God created pleasure, laughter, happiness, and joy. But He made them as trail-markers to point us to pursue our joy in Him. Too often those things become our destination and ends-in-themselves, and that turns them into idols rather than the joyful blessings given by a loving God.
So we find this tension in prayer: we pray for God to be glorified (meaning, “that others would see how truly amazing and truly awesome He is”) and that He would fill us with joy. This is what prayer is meant to do, honor God and fill up God’s children. I think the major disconnect is that we miss how both of those aspects are shaped by the other.
As John Piper has written in his excellent (and highly recommended) book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” When I am truly excited and joyful about seeing God be glorified, then God gets the glory and I get the joy. When I look for my joy in anything other than God then my prayers and my desires will change.
We should pray for the sick and for all the needs we have, but those should not be the only things we are bringing to God in prayer. It is right and biblical to have a prayer list that we use to ask God to do things for us and others and to give us what we want and need… we’re called to carry each other’s burdens and to weep with those who weep. But if our heart approaches God with a clinched fist as if God owes us something then there is something seriously missing in our view of God and our view of prayer.
So what kind of prayers does God answer?
- Prayers that are coming from a heart that desires to see Jesus Christ look truly awesome
- Prayers that are looking for joy in Christ rather than joy in our own comfort or pleasure
This post is getting way too long already, and so let me acknowledge there’s A TON more that could be said (and should), but I think that will have to wait for another time. If there’s something in particular that you disagree with or would like to say then please do so as a comment below.