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 ( 1 John 5:14, 15, N.I.V.).
The subject of faith is a vast one. If I were to examine all the scriptures on the subject, it would be a very long task, enough to provide material for many sermons, even, many books. A survey of New Testament teachings on faith can be a very daunting task. Therefore, what I am presenting here is not to be considered as exhaustive or comprehensive. There is much that can be said on this subject besides what I am presenting here.
It will be my purpose in this presentation to deal with the above verse and examine how, when rightly understood and applied, it can bring forth the power of God in and through our lives in astonishing power. If we understand what this verse is telling us, then we will have the foundation of a solid Biblical understanding about what faith really is and how it works in the life of the believer.
When the subject of faith is brought up, the first thought of most people is always of faith for personal blessings, that is, of faith as being the channel through which comes God’s provision for one’s own self. Well, there is nothing wrong in praying for personal blessings, and I think we need to do so more and more. We miss out on much of what God wishes to give simply because we do not ask. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2a, N.I.V.). We are often deprived of God’s blessings for the simple reason we have not asked for them.
We find ourselves presented with a problem. Then we seek a solution. Now there are many problems in life where we need to use our own heads. If my problem is that my hand is very hot because it is resting on a hot stove, I don’t need to pray; I simply need to remove my hand very quickly from the stove. Many problems in life are like that. The solutions are simple and obvious. But I think you will agree that there are very many problems—indeed, problems that present themselves every day of our lives—that are not so simple, even though at first they may seem so. Take, for example, losing my keys. This has happened to me many times. Frequently, I retrace my steps and remember where I left them. Or, I ask my wife—as I usually do at such times—and she says, “Don’t you remember, Sweetie? You put them over next to…”
However, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve lost things—important things and not-so-important things—when the obvious solutions have failed, such as: retracing my steps, asking my wife, looking in all the obvious places. When that happens, I pray: “Lord, help me to find…. Show me where they are—or it is.”
Some of you will say, “The God of Creation is too busy with serious problems in Bosnia, Iraq, Angola, and the South Bronx. These things are the rightful things of our prayers, not petty, personal matters. You shouldn’t pray about such trivial things!” To such people I would say: “Oh, I shouldn’t? Don’t be so sure!” What would you say if I told you that God has answered such prayers for me, often, in ways that seem quite miraculous?
Thus, we must recognize that personal requests presented to God are not always selfish and unspiritual. Do you believe in a God who loves us so much that He cares about even the most trivial details of our daily lives? I do, and I think the words of Jesus lend me weighty support: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31, N.I.V.). If you say God doesn’t care about the little things of your daily existence then I think that, Biblically, you are on very shaky ground. God is big enough for Bosnia and my lost keys! You can be sure of it! I think one major reason we do not experience more of the power of God in our lives is that we do not ask Him to help us in small matters. I want God to be a part of my life. I ask Him about small matters and I always try to thank about small matters. That is why I do not hesitate to pray about things such as my lost keys, or the things I was supposed to remember to do but can’t remember what they were, or the need for a parking space. It is one of the ways in which I share my whole life with Him, seeking to dwell continually in His presence.
Yet, having said this, I need to add one very serious caution: be careful when you pray for something personal that it is for the right reasons. The passage from James that I quoted above goes on just after the part we examined to say, When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3, N.I.V.). One of the biggest reasons for our prayers not being answered is that our heart is not right when we ask. Yet, I can tell you that the Lord has answered some prayers of mine that some would consider downright selfish. He’s helped me find things like a certain type of favorite food, or a book for pleasure reading, or a leisure activity.
My God is a big God. And He is also a loving God. He likes to bless us with material blessings when those material blessings are received with a “Thank You, Lord” and when they testify to ourselves and others of our Father’s greatness and love. Yes, there are times when He doesn’t answer, but that is often because He has something better planned than what we have requested.
Therefore, I think I have a strong case for saying we have a God Who answers personal prayers, a God Who delights in answering even the most trifling requests in order to shower us with His love. But this does not mean that I believe I can ask for anything and everything my heart can conceive and it will always be answered. To begin with, as Christians, our needs are to be simple. “The best things in life are free,” but in contemporary American culture we don’t really believe that. We all seem to need so much: cars with air conditioning and buttons that move the windows up and down, the latest and best personal computers, big screen TV’s, walk-in freezers in our basement…and the list goes on.
There are so many who have lost the ability to enjoy a quiet stroll on a beach with an ice cream cone and a good friend at one’s side, a long and leisurely look at a gorgeous sunset, sitting on a shady porch and looking at the bird activity, a walk in the woods, a long talk with an old friend, playing catch with your favorite young nephew. Our hobbies have gotten too expensive and we pay too much money for things we don’t really need and work too hard for things we barely have the time to enjoy. It is no sin to enjoy pleasures, but when pleasure becomes your master there is something very wrong. You can enjoy the good things God gives—including some things that legalistic Christians will say you have no business enjoying—and, in enjoying them, offer praise to your Father, as you share them with others.
As I said earlier, when the subject of faith is brought up, the first thought of most people is always of faith for personal blessings, that is, of faith as a means of bringing forth God’s provision for one’s own self. However, we must be very clear about one thing: faith isn’t just for the receiving of personal blessings. Faith must be considered in the light of the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom. We do not just exercise faith so we can be blessed. Faith is the means by which we secure the provisions of God for a needy world, the means by which we fulfill our role as “a kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:6). Faith, then, involves far more than the securing of our own personal needs and requirements, legitimate and commendable as they may be.
Yet, I must temper this statement by stating that the exercise of faith is not meant to lead us into asceticism, living like certain monks, nor, yet, should it lead us into license, as with certain name-it-claim-it people who think that owning a late model Cadillac is a mark of holiness and being poor is strong evidence of lack of faith. God does call some people to be poor, but when He does they come to possess so much spiritual wealth that they don’t miss what they don’t have. And it is certainly true, that the more we find our heart’s desire in Jesus, the less we find ourselves desirous of material blessings.
God calls other people to be rich, but first He calls them to see their wealth as a responsibility and a trust, a means of helping others. It is no sin to be rich, but it is very dangerous. Yet, if a man or woman has set his or her heart on serving God, it is possible that abundance of riches will become a means of serving rather than a stumbling block leading to idolatrous greed.
Neither wealth nor poverty is a badge of sanctification. What matters is the treasure we possess within. If you have eternal treasure within you are less likely to value temporary material treasure. You will be blessed whether you have it or lack it, because you have set your hope on God, not money and material things.
This really important thing is God’s working out His plan in our lives. His kingdom is really what matters, because His kingdom is the only thing that will last. It will help us to get the right perspective if we thoughtfully examine the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9 & 10, N.I.V.). So many people mutter through these words on Sunday mornings. Do they really understand what they’re saying? God must come first. His kingdom is the most important thing in the universe. The most important thing we can pray for is for His purposes and plans for His earth to be accomplished. We are apt to focus on “Give us this day our daily bread,” “Forgive us our trespasses,” and “Deliver us from evil.” But the purpose of these personal petitions is inextricably linked to what goes before: the establishment of God’s kingdom, the full working out of his will for all His creatures.
What is the key to faith? How do we appropriate more faith, and thereby pray more effective prayers? How do we walk by faith? An important part of the answer to these questions lies in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer. If God’s kingdom is your purpose, God will make your blessing His purpose. Is it the will of God? This question is another way of asking the question, “Does it fulfill the interests of God’s kingdom?” We need to take the Kingdom yardstick in measuring the effectiveness of our praying. When I pray, is the desire of my heart for what will benefit me or is my heart’s desire for what will benefit God’s kingdom. If I know it’s the will of God, then I know that I am praying in the will of God, and if I am praying in the will of God, then I can be as certain of an answer as if the answer were already in hand. It is safe to “claim” something only when you know God wants it. People pray “claim-it” prayers based on what they feel to be a clear divine mandate in scripture. We need to be far more cautious about such things than many well-meaning prayer warriors are. It is possible to draw incorrect conclusions about the will of God based on a careless examination of the scripture. Be very sure about the will of God before you boldly use the word “claim” in your prayers. In knowing what is the will of the Lord in praying, Christian people are apt to err, and it is far better to err on the side of caution than to go out on a limb that will take us out of the will of God in prayer.
This, then, is the meaning of my main text, 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” ( 1 John 5:14, 15, N.I.V.). This verse is in complete harmony with the petition uttered by the Lord Jesus in the first part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9 & 10, N.I.V.). “If we know that He hears us”—that is all that is necessary, knowing that God hears us and that we are praying for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done. When you know that God hears you, you know that the answer is at the door.
I need to add some cautions, here. We must proceed with care. Many saints are apt to be mistaken about the voice of God. They misinterpret good feelings for divine approval. I can conceive of many people who will say, “I know He hears me, and so I know He will give me just what I asked for.” We must be careful. Even those of us who are fairly mature are apt to err in thinking that “we know that He hears us.” The heart is deceitful and, when we have a fleshly “vested interest” in a positive response to a prayer we will hardly be unbiased and our good judgment will be corrupted in the way that James warns: “…you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3, N.I.V.). Our best defense from falling into this trap—a trap that nearly all of us have fallen into at least once—is to get out the kingdom yardstick and lay it alongside our petition, honestly asking ourselves the question: Will it advance God’s kingdom?
Leaving aside the whole question of personal petition, I think you will see that in this kingdom yardstick you have a most valuable tool in intercessory prayer. When praying for another person, ask yourself and ask God this question: “How will God’s kingdom be best advanced in the life of this person?” If he or she is not a believer in Jesus, it will be obvious that the interests of God’s kingdom means we must seek for the conversion of that person in our prayer. In other, less obvious ways, the application of our yardstick will help us to frame the words of our petitions. It is a simple principle, yet, I fear that it is much neglected by many who pray for others.
We are all deluged by many things to pray for. “Oh, please pray for my sick aunt who’s dying with incurable cancer!” Yes, pray for the aunt to be healed. More important, pray for the kingdom interest that requires for that aunt to be converted so that she will go to heaven when she dies. That is applying the kingdom yardstick. Do not be blinded by the obvious needs that are presented. Use your kingdom yardstick and look a little beyond the obvious to what God wishes to do to advance His kingdom. Ask the question, “What does God really wish to happen?” Does someone have a financial problem? Maybe what they need to learn is a lesson that God is trying to teach them. In praying for any kind of difficulty in the life of another person, do not try to figure out what the lesson may be, but allow for the possibility that there may be a lesson to be learned. It could be a lesson about faith, or about priorities. Don’t try too hard to figure it out. Let the Spirit show you if He wants to. And if He doesn’t, you are on safe ground in praying a general prayer that God will advance His kingdom through the person’s need.
The same rule applies when praying for institutions, for churches, for ministries, and for political leaders. What is advancing God’s kingdom and what is obviously opposing it? When something or someone is opposing God’s kingdom, then you have the beginnings of a mandate for spiritual battle against demonic forces of wickedness. When Satan tips his hand so clearly that you can’t miss it, seize the advantage. Confidently oppose him in the mighty name of Jesus. A lot of things that you pray for will not stand up to the standards of the kingdom yardstick. So there is often room for spiritual battle.
Pray, then, with a kingdom focus, and your prayer will begin to have more power. Pray, not just for the needs of men, but for the needs of God. Let your love for God guide you. Pray with one ear cocked toward heaven, expecting God to frequently direct your prayer in ways that best serves the interests of His kingdom. Let the Holy Spirit place the right prayer on your lips, so that you will pray more and more the prayers that God would have you pray. Faith is a very powerful thing when we really understand it and know how it works. Let a new grasp of the meaning of the kingdom yardstick unleash new faith. When you pray in the will of God, things happen that stretch far beyond our limited experience. A new understanding of Biblical faith will liberate you from selfish and self-centered prayers and you will become a vehicle for a mighty God to work out His mighty purposes for a needy world.