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Prayer’s Erroneous Theological Debris
In learning (or relearning) how to pray, it’s essential to clear away the erroneous theological debris we often carry with us as it relates to prayer.
Dear friends and supporters:
I’m in Texas. This past Sunday I addressed City Church-Corpus Christi on “Living in an Atmosphere of Prayer” (you can listen to the sermon here), and will preach on this topic this Sunday at Church of the King-McAllen. In learning (or relearning) how to pray, it’s essential to clear away the erroneous theological debris we often carry with us as it relates to prayer. I’ll mention three frequent examples.
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God Always Answers Prayer … One Way or Another
The first instance is that God always answers prayer and his answer is either: Yes, No, or Wait awhile. This is sincere but mistaken. In the Bible, answered prayer means God does exactly what we’ve asked him to do. If we pray for healing, and the person for whom we’re praying isn’t healed, God didn’t (yet) answer that prayer. It was not a case of God’s answering the prayer, but giving us something we didn’t ask for. I repeat: in the Bible, when God answers prayer, he does what we request. The Bible doesn’t promise that God will answer every prayer, but let’s not pretend that when he doesn’t, it’s really an answer in disguise. Not all prayers are answered, and the Bible gives us reasons why.
God’s “Secret” Will
Next, some Christians refuse to persevere, because they assume that unanswered prayer is always in the decreed, predestined will of God. It goes something like this: “I prayed for God to heal my badly injured daughter, but he didn’t heal within two or three days; therefore, I’m sure it’s God’s will not to heal her but for her to suffer for his glory.” This is a pious-sounding phrase that actually reflects slander or laziness. First it demeans God because it assumes he must answer on our time-table, and second, we don’t want to go through the work of persevering in prayer, so we blame God’s eternal decree, or “secret” will.
Unfortunately, theological schools that have a high view of God’ sovereignty, predestination and election tend to have a very lackluster view of prayer. The Bible certainly does teach God is sovereign, that he predestines, and that he elects, and you would think the people who hold these views so tenaciously would have the highest view your prayer of all.
After all, if God is truly sovereign, he can do anything within his character, he can change any heart, he can supply any need, he can overcome any obstacle, he can alter the weather, he can change the course of history — and he has done all these things in answer to prayer. Anybody with the attitude, “Well, I’m not going to pray zealously because it might be against God’s eternal decree” completely misunderstands God’s sovereignty.
We pray according to the revealed will of God in the word of God, not in harmony with what we assume is the secret, decretal will of God that’s not revealed. We always operate in terms of revelation, not in terms of speculation. And God has clearly revealed that his people should pray, and if they pray in faith, they can generally expect God to answer. As Grant Osborne once said, God is sovereign, and he can say no to our prayers, but we should not expect God to reject the prayers of his people.1 In other words, answered prayer is the default, and unanswered prayer is the exception.
Prayer Without Expectation
A final bit of debris is the notion we can sever prayer from expectation. Prayer is a duty, and we need not expect God to answer. The act itself is the important thing.
Yet again and again in the Bible God conditions successful prayer on faith and expectation. If we pray in faith, we’ll receive what we’re praying for. If we pray with unbelieving hearts, James’ epistle tells us (1:6–8), we can expect nothing from the Lord. If you can’t pray trusting God to answer, just quit praying. You’re wasting your time. Or cry out to God for greater faith and expectation.
God delights in expectant prayers because he loves for his children to rely on him. Prayer is perhaps the most obvious denial of self-sufficiency possible. When we pray, we’re saying that we can’t go to alone. We need God. Every father delights when his children depend on him. God is our gracious heavenly Father, and he delights as no earthly father can in his children who come in utter dependence on him — utter dependence and expectation.
This is why A. W. Tozer once said that faith without expectation is dead. He also said this:
We need today a fresh spirit of anticipation that springs out of the promises of God. We must declare war on the mood of nonexpectation, and come together with childlike faith. Only then can we know the beauty and wonder of the Lord’s presence among us.2
When we pray in expectation, we’re really saying that we trust the promises of God’s word. Let’s declare war on the mood of nonexpectation.
Incidentally, this is why you should be immersing yourself in the Bible. If you read the Bible extensively, you’ll constantly encounter God’s promises, which you can intelligently claim. The most effective prayers of those that claim the promises of God.
A glistening example of this is the life of Gideon in Judges 6. The Jews were suffering under the dominance of the Midianites due to their sin, and Gideon was hiding out while threshing wheat so that he could avoid the plundering Midianites. And the Angel of the Lord, probably the preincarnate Son of God himself, came to Gideon and saluted him with these words: “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” I’m sure Gideon looked around to see whom the Lord was talking to: “In case you hadn’t noticed, Lord, I’m here hiding out. No much valor going on around here!”
And then Gideon asked an interesting question: “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.”
Gideon had been reading his Bible. He was well aware God had made promises to bless his people Israel, and was convinced that God wasn’t fulfilling those promises. Note carefully that the Angel didn’t reprimand Gideon for this bold complaint. The Angel didn’t say, “Gideon, keep your mouth shut. How dare you question God.”
No. Why wasn’t God angry? Because Gideon’s entire complaint was based on the fact that he trusted God’s promises. When we’re on our knees before God, crying out and even complaining that he’s not fulfilling his word to us as he promised he would, we’re just demonstrating our faith. We might be misunderstanding God, and we probably are, but at least we’re trusting his word. Better to misunderstand what God is doing than live in unbelief.
So in prayer never be timid or ashamed to remind God of his promises. Never be too shy to say, “But God, you promised in your word!” This demonstrates faith and expectation.
Get rid of the false, often self-serving theological debris around prayer.
The volume of God’s answer to our prayer often corresponds to the faith and expectation of the prayer. If we pray big prayers, God answers bigly. If we pray small, anorexic prayers, God answers in small, anorexic ways, if at all.
So I would encourage you today to quit praying little, measly, anorexic, prayers, as though God is a weakling, or he doesn’t care. This really is form of borderline blasphemy under the guise of pious poppycock. Pray big. Expect big.
God does great things for his people if they cry out for him to do great things, and expect that he will do great things.
I’m flying home Sunday afternoon after an 11-day trip.
In 2023 we’re planning to release an essay collection on the free and virtuous Protestant society (like the U. S. Founding) in contrast to Cultural Marxism, Leftism, National Conservatism, and Christian Nationalism, as well as a collection of sermons by John M. Frame titled Widen Your Hearts. I’m also assembling a large hardback collection of 30 years of my essays to be released in 2025.
On May 8–17 I’ll be addressing for the Ezra Institute the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership USA 2023 in northern Georgia (apply here). Runner brings together faculty and delegates from around the world for a ten-day residential training program in reformational Christian worldview. The event will take place at the Fort Mountain Retreat and Conference Center in Chatsworth, GA, and I’ll be speaking numerous times.
This is a life-shaping, transformational event. Church leaders, parents, grandparents — invest in the future by financing Christian young adults close to you.
In addition, on May 21–24 I’m speaking for the Christianity and Culture Colloquium in Brianerd, Minnesota (enroll here).
Please contrast Ezra at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about both events.
Yours for the King,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
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Grant R. Osborne, “Moving Forward on Our Knees,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 55, No. 2 [June 2010], 255.
A. W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Christian Publications, 1980), 134–138, emphasis supplied.