I can clearly remember the positive and expectant atmosphere that swirled around us as we loaded up the cars one spring evening. The first half of the semester was over, exams had been taken and papers submitted––spring break had begun. Aside from the fact that we were road tripping with our friends and were entirely homework free for a week, stops in the Everglades and the Smoky Mountains were the expected highlights.
All seemed to be going as planned as we drifted down the interstate eyeing the Ohio sunset as it burned itself to nothing more than a few faint crimson veins. We were enjoying it all, the freedom, the views, the friends. Until we heard it, the transmission had started to whine.
We made it to Orlando, which was planned, but that’s about where they, the plans, stopped. Long story short, we were told the transmission would be replaced by Wednesday afternoon when we dropped it at the shop Monday morning, but that didn’t exactly turn out either––we didn’t know that the shop ordered a six-speed instead of a 5-speed transmission until the second car was on its way north, with five of our friends, headed to the Smoky Mountains. We, only three of us now, planned to leave the following day, then to leave Friday and then Saturday night, then Sunday morning (all departure times once given by the mechanic), until two of us (the third had taken a flight home) were sitting in the parking lot mid Sunday afternoon, baking in the Florida sun, questioning intently if they were ever going to fix the car.
We did end up leaving that Sunday and spent the next fifteen hours, some of which included torrential downpours and snow, driving back to Ohio. We arrived back on campus about forty five minutes before our first classes began Monday morning and turned the engine off not far away from the parking spot that saw us excitedly stuff all our bags into the car a week prior. Saying it didn’t go as planned would certainly be truthful but an enormous understatement if you happened to ask the two of us that had just driven fifteen hours through the night.
I can remember Tuesday night in Orlando praying that all would go smooth with the car. And certainly I prayed Wednesday evening, and Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday, that we would be on the road sooner rather than later. But we didn’t get on the road those first four days, we sat and waited.
Amidst all this, the frustration and annoyance, I prefaced each prayer, each longing to put the parking lot of the shop in the rearview mirror, with a few simple words––if it is your will. Why? Why say those five words?
Well, in short I say them for the same reason Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane did. We find him in Matthew chapter twenty six, hours before the cup of God’s wrath was to be set before him, declaring, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will”. But why does Jesus in the garden say this? Well, that’s what I aim to answer in the following paragraphs.
In Matthew chapter twenty one verse twenty two we read a statement that seems, at first glance, to negate and push into obscurity the necessity of those five words. It says, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith”. Why in the world would we preface, or end, our entreatments of the Father, our prayers, with “If it is your (God’s) will” when we read here in Matthew’s Gospel that if we simply have “faith” whatever we ask we will receive? Certainly, “whatever” includes a transmission being fixed, doesn’t it?
Well, it does, but that’s not the issue because that’s not what the verse means. We cannot ask, plead, or demand anything we like, whatever we happened to be craving at the moment, from God and expect to receive it. A good question to ask here, in Matthew 21:22-23, would be “Faith in what”? Pastor Alistair Begg poses such a question and in response says, “It is not faith in Prayer. In the strictest sense, there is no power in prayer. The power is in God, the vehicle of approach is prayer.” He goes on to explain that our faith then is not in our prayers, but in God. Since our faith is in God, in what he has promised and told us, the faith mentioned in Matthew twenty-one is faith in the promises of God.
1 John 5:14-15 brings further clarity to such a question in saying, “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”. “According to his will” is really key. We could say in light of this, and even instead of this “anything that is promised” will be given to us.
Furthermore, the Puritan, Thomas Watson, says, in addressing the question “What is it to pray in faith?”, “It is to pray for that which God has promised”. He goes on to say, “Where there is no promise, we cannot pray in faith”.
Additionally, John Calvin helpfully writes that “God’s promises are not only a stimulus to prayer but also a bridle for prayer”, and “Christ does not give loose rein to the wishes of men, that they should desire anything at their pleasure”. We do not somehow or another achieve the ability, by some gumption of faith, to ask whatever we want of God and simply receive it, whatever it happened to be. What is not promised cannot be expected to be received, therefore, causing us, in our prayers, to only be confident God will produce a known result in what he has promised us. The apparent receiving of anything we desire if we simply believe enough or have ample faith doesn’t ring true in scripture and it doesn’t ring true in common experience.
For example, Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:8, pled with the Lord on three occasions that the thorn in his flesh might be removed, but God didn’t remove it. Did Paul not believe Christ could remove it? Was he insincere when asking? Did he lack faith? No. There is no promise in scripture saying that God will heal all the Christians who are physically sick or ill, there simply isn’t, it’s not there. We cannot pray in any true assurance, then, that God will heal our sick aunt, or cousin, or friend when we continually ask him to. He may or he may not, but we certainly can’t bank on it or even be confident he will. Why? Because he hasn’t told us so.
Though paling in comparison to Paul’s request, my plea, my friend’s plea, to go home after being stranded in Orlando was sincere, was prayed with an attitude in full belief that God could get us on the road that very minute, but was met with more waiting. Why? Well, I’ve looked, and I cannot find a promise anywhere in scripture that says God will cause all vacation plans to come true or all Christian car owners to experience immediate “healing” of their automobiles.
Should this fact––that God has not promised to heal our dying friend, suffering grandmother or fix our broken car––alarm us, fill us with fear, or cause us to worry? No it absolutely shouldn’t. For we have promises, things that Jesus has told us will be ours upon asking, that provide far more solace and joy than the miraculous healing of a family member or a flawless vacation ever would.
There are such joy giving, peace manifesting, perseverance generating and task equipping promises thundering all across the pages of scripture and we should continually remind ourselves of them (in times of trial and in times of success). A few are outlined below.
- James tells us in James 1:5 that God will graciously give us wisdom without reproach when we ask. So when we don’t know what to do, are faced with difficult decisions, unknown outcomes, and are smack in the middle of thoroughly nerve racking and unsettling times it ought not be a time of despair. God promises us wisdom and we can be fully convinced and have total faith in the fact that we will receive it.
- James also points out in 1:2 that we ought to consider trials of various kinds (car trouble, sickness, messy and inconsiderate roommates, loneliness, spiritual warfare and beyond) pure joy. Now James here is either being totally ridiculous and asking us to have a mindset that parallels with people in the severe depths of denial and deliriousness or is about to tell us something so huge, so key, and so important that we will truly, with sober minds, be able to consider trials, of all kinds, pure joy. Confirming the latter, he says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”.
- In Romans 8:28 Paul writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good”. Knowing that the ultimate good for anyone is the further conformation to the image of Christ, we can be assured that nothing, no failure or success, sickness or health, or anything else is being wasted. God is using all things in our life, our experiences and opportunities, to make us more like his son. What a promise.
- In Philippians 4:4 we find the command to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. Although this isn’t a promise, it certainly falls fully into the scope of God’s will for his people. Recall 1 John 5:14-15 which includes “Anything according to his will”. We read in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 that it is God’s will for his people to be sanctified, to be holy. We can then, with full expectation and confidence, presume that when we ask God in sincerity, with regularity, to cause us to rejoice in him always he will begin to work in our hearts and attitudes. The same could be said for Psalm 92’s “It is good to give thanks to the Lord” and so many others.
Yet is it, then, that we ought to abstain from praying about the things not promised––sick relatives, car trouble, travels, school, work, sports, etc.? Absolutely not, we learn that from Philippians chapter four, verses six and seven––we are to worry about nothing and pray about everything, the whole gamut, the entire catalogue of life.
We are simply left with a command, with exhortation, and with motivation to pray about everything that concerns us but gives us understanding that expectation, faith in, belief, are to be only in that the things according to God’s will, and the things that are promised. This realization keeps us, as John Calvin explained, praying (it is a stimulus for prayer) and prevents us from expecting things from God that are simply not guaranteed.
In the things that God has promised we can certainly pray in faith, with certainty that they will happen, but cannot do so in things that are not promised. We must then preface or end these prayers with a phrase that ought to cause us to rest in the oh so beautiful providence of God and in trust with our beloved savior–– “if it is your will”. For we know, among so many other great promises, he is a loving father and is working all things together to make us more like Christ––the greatest good in all the world.