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Keys to Effective Prayer Part 1



In our recent reflection on Mark 9:14-29, we received encouragement to partner with God in His kingdom work by praying earnestly to Him. And this itself is connected with the assurance that “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23 ESV). Thus we are called to confident, faith-filled prayer: “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24 ESV).

For well-taught Christians who know and love the Bible, this call to expectant prayer can sometimes be obstructed because we know that we are supposed to submit all things to the sovereign will of God. As a matter of fact, we should submit all things to God’s sovereign will (e.g., James 4:13-15). Thus in our praying we will qualify our requests with a statement like “if you will”. But there is something both helpful and unhelpful about this instinct to qualify our requests in this manner.

The helpful aspect is obvious: God is sovereign, and we are not. And often we simply do not know the details of God’s plan for a particular situation. This habit of qualifying our requests with “if you will” is also a helpful check against the superficial ‘name it and claim it’ teaching. This unsound ‘name it and claim it’ teaching treats a passage like Mark 11:24 (quoted above) as a virtual blank check, with the implication that if you don’t receive your request, then the problem is you and your lack of faith. While I can appreciate that the ‘name it and claim it’ folks take a passage like Mark 11:24 seriously, I’m afraid they don’t let other Scriptural passages give them a comprehensive biblical understanding of prayer. We must always let Scripture interpret Scripture.

That said, I believe that there is something at least potentially unhelpful about always qualifying our requests with “if you will”. My reason for thinking this is fairly straightforward. Jesus really does say in Mark 11:24 – “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”. And He really does say, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:14 ESV) In both of these passages Jesus is encouraging us to pray confidently and to expect that our requests will be granted. But oftentimes we say “if you will” precisely because we are not confident that the request will be granted. Instead we think ‘it will be granted if it is His will’ and ‘it won’t be granted if it isn’t His will’ (which are truisms) – but this means that we don’t actually “believe that [we] have received it” as Jesus encourages in Mark 11:24. Believing that we might receive it if it is God’s will is not the same thing as believing that we have received it. Do you understand?

Now at this point I have to confess that we have stumbled into another paradox – and it is a paradox I don’t ever expect to fully solve in this present life. On the one hand, God is sovereign over all things and orchestrates all that comes to pass – and more often than not we don’t know the details of His plan. Thus it is spiritually healthy to humbly acknowledge that we don’t know His will and that things will only happen if He wills. But on the other hand, Jesus invites us into partnership with Him and His Father in such a way that at least sometimes we have great confidence that God will act in a particular way. And thus we stand in the gap, pray with bold expectation, and our prayers (often in conjunction with the prayers of others) become the means by which God moves mountains and demolishes strongholds. Let the first part of the paradox cause you to rest in the Lord. Let the second part of the paradox push you to be more like Epaphras: “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12 ESV).

Now there are a number of keys to navigating this prayer paradox and becoming  effective ‘prayer warriors’. In this reflection I will mention one: be so full of Scripture that Scriptural realities come out of your heart when you pray. This is what Jesus teaches us in John 15: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7 ESV) While this promise is expansive (“ask whatever you wish”), this expansiveness is grounded and focused (“If… my words abide in you”). A person who continually meditates on God’s Word will pray very differently than a person whose requests arise out of their emotional, ungrounded, and untaught heart. Pray Scripture-fueled petitions. Let the Bible’s principles, priorities, and promises shape your outlook. As God’s holy Word instructs you in His revealed will, you will have increasing confidence to partner with the Father in the implementation of His revealed will by praying into it.

So, if you’re praying about a new vehicle or a career move or an upcoming trip, it is wise to have the attitude that prays “if you will”. But if you’re praying about the progress of gospel ministry and the spiritual growth of the church and the strengthening of Christian families and the pursuit of holy living that overcomes the world, the flesh, and the devil – then you ought to pray with great expectation that God will act to do these very things. For Scripture has revealed that these things are indeed the will of God.

To be clear, I don’t think that what I have said above ‘solves’ the prayer paradox. Sometimes there is going to be a tension in knowing whether a request is a thing about which we don’t know God’s will or a thing that we have rightly grasped to be God’s will. Don’t walk away from this tension. Avoid both the ‘name it and claim it’ error as well as ‘I can’t pray confidently about anything’ error. Let Scripture pour into you, and then pour out your heart in eager, expectant prayer. Then open your eyes to see what God will do.

NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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