Read the series so far.
I groaned when I read the first sentences of a WORLD magazine article that appeared last fall: “My husband lost a week’s pay. It must have fallen out of his pocket at the hardware store.” I’d sure hate to be that guy! I don’t even want to think about what losing a week’s pay would do to my family’s budget.
But how does a Christian respond to this kind of problem? What does responding with biblical faith look like? Hopefully, most of us get quickly to where the article’s author did: “My reaction was to pray immediately.” But how should faith shape the prayer? At least four options are available (or some combination of them):
- Pray specifically that the money will be located and returned, trusting God with outcome.
- Pray specifically that the money will be located and returned, and trust that God will do exactly that.
- Look prayerfully within for some sense of God’s leading. If we believe God is going to return the money, use option two.
- Pray generally, expressing confidence in God’s care and seeking His continued provision.
Does Scripture call us to choose option 2 or 3? Many teach, either directly or in testimony services and the like, that options 2 and 3 are what prayer and faith are all about. The Spirit gives you a sense of what to ask for, then you pray accordingly with full confidence that God will grant the request.
In Scripture, people of sterling faith do not always get what they pray for. David’s earnest and fervent prayer did not avail much when he fasted, seeking God’s deliverance of his first child by Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:15-18). Similarly, Job’s pleas for a fair trial before God (Job 10:2, 30:20-21) did not result in such an event.
Arguably, these are special cases. David’s newborn child was taken as judgment against his sin (2 Sam. 12:14), and Job’s experience was part of a much larger sequence of events he knew nothing of (Job 42:1-6). But aren’t we all subject to God’s fatherly discipline, and aren’t all the events of our lives part of a larger plan we know little of?
In the NT, we also find examples of ungranted prayers uttered by persons of strong faith.
No less than Paul the apostle sought God three times asking very specifically that a “thorn in the flesh” be removed from him (2 Cor. 12:7-9). God’s reply was clear—to paraphrase, “Nope. You’re stuck with it, but trust Me. This is good for you.”
And surely we shouldn’t overlook the case of Jesus Christ Himself at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39, 42-22). Jesus asked the Father three times to spare Him from the cup of suffering Jesus knew He was about to drink for all of us. After this period of prayer, Jesus had a clear answer—“No.”
If the Bible is clear that even the most faith-filled do not necessarily get what they ask for in prayer, what are we to make of the famous prayer promises?
- “Delight yourself also in the Lord, And He shall give you the desires of your heart” (ESV, Psalm 37:4)
- “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (ESV, Matt. 7:7)
- “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do…. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
- “…so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (John 15:16)
- “…whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. … Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23–24)
- “…whoever…does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. … whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24)
- “…ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6–7)
Who can be faulted for thinking that proper Christian faith asks for specific things from God, fully believing that God will grant them? Yet the examples of David, Job, Paul, Jesus, and others remain, as do the reminders that we do not know what the future holds (e.g., Prov. 16:9, Prov. 27:1, James 4:13-15, Acts 1:7, Acts 18:21).
So how are we to understand the “prayer promises” and the relationship between faith, prayer, and getting the results we want?
Option 3 in the list above is not a solid answer. Though passages do refer to being guided by the Spirit (John 16:13), walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, Rom. 8:4), being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:18, Rom. 8:14), and praying in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18, Jude 1:20) they do not say the Spirit’s work takes the form of inner impressions of peace and confidence that God will act in a specific way in the future.
The best answer probably derives from reading the “prayer promises” with keen attention to context, both their immediate contexts and the larger context of Scripture as a whole.
A Look at the Contexts
The larger context of Scripture reveals the ungranted requests and calls to humble uncertainty I described earlier. The close contexts of the prayer promises are revealing as well, though more complex.
Psalm 37:4’s “shall give you the desires of your heart” occurs in the context of God’s covenant with Israel. Verse 3 calls our attention to “dwell[ing] in the land” in “faithfulness.” The promise is a poetic expression of all the conditional blessings of the covenant, and the desires of the heart are the basic human longings for peace, security, and material abundance. The passage reminds us that there is blessing in faithfulness and that God is eager to keep His commitments. It does not provide a basis for certainty that God will answer a specific prayer in a specific way.
The prayer promises in John 14-16 all occur in the context of Jesus’ preparation of the Twelve for His departure. A clear theme is that their relationship to all three persons of the Trinity is going to change. The Spirit will relate to them in a new way, Jesus Himself will be physically absent, and their interaction with the Father will now be in Jesus’ name.
The result is that, although we tend to read these statements with the emphasis on “whatever you ask” and “I will do it“—as though Jesus was offering a blank check—His point was actually to reassure the Twelve that His departure was not going to leave them helpless and cut off. They will still be able to communicate with both the Father and with Jesus, and the relationship will still be a responsive one.
The prayer promise in James 1:6-7 also requires that we note the immediate context. When James says “ask in faith, nothing doubting,” he is referring to the prayer for wisdom described in James 1:5. Many read “wisdom” there as “revelation of exactly what you should do and what outcome you should expect,” but that is, frankly, imaginative. What the passage promises is that God is eager to help us grow in wisdom and we should seek that wisdom from Him in full confidence that He is its true source (Col. 2:2-3, Psalm 111:10, Prov. 1:7) and we will find it in Him.
This may be the most difficult prayer-promise passage. Jesus speaks on the topic of faith (Mark 11:22), connects faith to prayer, and seems to say that the decisive factor in getting what we ask for is believing we’ll get it (11:24).
But Jesus’ true point comes into focus if we look back at Mark 11:20-21’s fig tree object lesson and correlate the passage with Matthew’s account in Matthew 21:20-22 (cf. Matt. 17:20). This expanded context shows that Jesus is making a point about how faith works—a point about scale: mustard seeds vs. moving mountains.
As He laments Israel’s lack of faith (through the fig tree object lesson), He develops the principle further: we only need the tiniest bit of genuine faith (“as a mustard seed”) to put ourselves in the center of God’s enormous power (“nothing will be impossible for you”). Jesus isn’t saying “ask anything and then just believe.” Rather, He is saying that when we pray with a genuine trust in God, that faith connects us to all of what God is, even if the faith is immature.
When Your Paycheck Falls Out of Your Pocket
The writer of the WORLD article—and her husband—went with option 4. They prayed generally, expressing confidence in God’s care and seeking His continued provision. It’s a good choice, but Jesus does encourage us to bring our desires to our generous Father (Matt. 7:11), and in that situation, who doesn’t want to get the money back? Options 2 and 3 lack biblical support, but certainly 1 and 4 complement each other. When it comes to prayer and faith, our duty and privilege is ask for what we need in full confidence that God’s response will be sufficient, wise, and good.