Just this past week, I was praying by myself for a friend who is a missionary. And I was about to launch into a prayer for his influence on the nation for the sake of the Kingdom of God when my mind flashed to the story of Jesus rebuking Peter with such strong language, saying “‘Get behind me, Satan!'” (Matthew 16:23, ESV). Jesus said this in response to Peter telling Jesus that he should not be thinking that he (Jesus) was going to be killed, even though Jesus just told them he was. And when this thought flashed into my mind, I was instantly aware of what the Holy Spirit was saying to me: “Don’t assume that what appears to be a great success by human standards – even by standards the Church would say is successful – is what God’s will is.”
When I heard that, I realized that I was doing what I often do: rushing into prayer, asking of God things that seem right, but not necessarily for things that line up with what He wants. So in response to this message, I change directions and asked God how He wanted me to pray for my friend, and what He wanted to do in and through my friend. When I sensed His answer, I was able to go forward and pray more of what I perceived to be God’s will, rather than what I had previously assumed that God wanted.
Jesus explained to Peter after the strong rebuke that the reason he was being rebuked was that, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23, ESV). And while the Son of God being killed certainly seemed to all Godly people of the day like it was a devastating loss, they soon saw God’s richer plan in Jesus’s death on the cross, followed by His resurrection. Where would be be today without that happening? What appeared to be a great failure was the most unexpected and marvelous success!
I suspect that Peter and I are not the only ones who thought we knew what God’s will was in a situation, based on our perception of what success should look like for God, and neglected to find out what God’s will really was.
So how should we pray? If we want to pray things in accordance with His will, is it not appropriate to ask Him what His will is? How would we know what God’s will is without asking? One good answer I find to this question is that we have the Bible that reveals God’s will. And I would agree that in general prayers, like for all people to be saved – which is what the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:4 is God’s will – we do know what God’s will is. But for the more specific prayers that are time-constrained and space-constrained, I am certain that the Bible fails to give us fool-proof certainty in many circumstances. So that is why I believe asking God is the best strategy to know God’s will.
Now I know that hearing God’s answer is a challenge for most of us. It is not an easy thing, because it requires stilling our hearts so we can listen – and that takes time and effort. And even when we think we heard Him, it doesn’t always mean we did. Yet this is the way for us to learn to intercede in more profound ways, and it is the only way to grow in intimacy with God.
But to keep balance on the issue of how to pray, I want to remind us all that the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:5-7 “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NIV). This means that even if we don’t know God’s will in a circumstance – even if we ask Him and don’t really know what He is saying to us — we can still pray asking God to intervene and provide what seems to be needed.
This reflects the fact that there are various kinds of prayer, with at least two broad categories address here. In the Philippians passage, we see describe an “asking prayer”. In the other type of prayer that I was doing for my missionary friend which we might call “intercession”, which is more of a prayer of agreement with the Lord, declaring His will and purposes in a situation. The former can be done, as a child going to her father. The latter, as a person speaking on behalf of a close friend.
So from now on, whenever I pray, or whenever I am making decisions in life, I will seek to hear from Him about His will before I pray in or go in a direction. But I will also just cry out for help when I don’t know what to do. And between these two approaches, my hope is to continue to grow in love and faith.