Note: In this second of a four-part series, Andrew Mills explains what we can pray for and how to know when what we are praying is God’s will.
According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.” In this second part of the series I will break down this definition to help understand it.
“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God…”
“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” – Psalm 62:8
A common question among new believers is: What can we pray for? The answer is simple. You can pray for anything and everything. Jesus tells his disciples “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22), and “whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). And if you’re still not convinced, He says, “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)
You may be wondering, well that sounds great but is there anything that I shouldn’t pray for? The answer is yes. You should not pray for anything that is against the law and will of God. The Apostle John writes, “and this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”
How do we know what the Will of God is? This is a big question that requires a lengthy answer, but to keep our focus on prayer I will provide a simple summary: The best two ways of knowing whether something is God’s Will or not are:
1. Read the Bible. The more you read God’s Word, the more you will begin to understand the heart and mind of God.
2. Pray and ask God. It is a great idea to ask the Lord if something is a part of His Will or not. God will often respond by giving you either a sense of peace or a spirit of restlessness about it.
Knowing the heart of God isn’t something that happens as soon as you become a Christian any more than knowing the heart of your spouse occurs the moment you’re married. It takes a life time of communication through both trials and tribulations, and times of peace and prosperity.
“…in the name of Christ…”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
– John 16:23b
The reason we are to pray in the name of Jesus is because he is our mediator. This has to do with the gospel. God is holy and completely without sin. We are sinful and thus a great distance exists between us for we are not worthy to stand in the presence of the Lord. When Isaiah encountered God he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah’s sins are then atoned for by a seraphim (an angel) in verse 7 and he is able to speak freely to the Lord. Our sins are fully atoned for by the obedient life of Jesus that earned our righteousness, the death of him which took away our sin and exhausted God’s wrath for us, and the resurrection of Jesus which confirms the gospel. The distance between God and man can only be crossed by the work of Jesus Christ. Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Praying in the name of Jesus isn’t a magical way to get whatever you want. It’s not a secret incantation. That would be witchcraft. Rather, praying in the name of Christ means that we are confident in his promises and dependent on his mercy. We have his authorization to pray in a way that is consistent with his will.
“…by the help of his Spirit…”
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” – Romans 8:26
This verse is a huge comfort to me because I often feel like I don’t know the right words to say. You don’t need to use a dictionary or adopt some sort of special prayer voice to be heard by God. There isn’t a prayer formula to ensure effectiveness. The Spirit knows what we need and He translates our words and brings them personally to the Father. This aspect makes our prayer Trinitarian. We pray to God the Father, with the authorization of the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The verse also tells us that we need the help of the Spirit to know what to pray for. Often we pray for things we think we want and then get upset when we don’t get them. I remember countless times that I prayed to win large cash prizes from various sweepstakes only to be disappointed. But we are often blessed when we are not given what we think we want. Like children who will ask their parents for permission to do something that their parents know will only bring harm (who in their right mind would let their toddler play with a venomous snake, even if the child asked politely?!), we often ask the Lord for things that are not in accordance with His good and pleasing will.
For example, we frequently ask the Lord to provide us idols to worship. An idol is something that you put in the place of God. We ought to find our identity, security, hope and fulfillment in the Lord but instead we turn to things such as money, power, control or comfort to name just a few. Then, we will pray for our success in business not to better serve the Lord but to give us more power or we will pray for more money not to bless the poor but so we can find security in it rather than in the Lord.
“…with confession of our sins…”
“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found” – Psalm 32:5-6a
One of the great blessings of prayer is that we can receive forgiveness for our sins. When we sin, it isn’t simply disobedience to an impersonal law or code of ethics. It is rebellion against a personal God. When we ask for forgiveness, God is absorbing the hurt. The great news though is that the blood of Jesus is sufficient for all sins and so we can always come to God and ask for forgiveness of our sins.
Daniel models how to do a prayer of confession in Daniel 9:4-20. Here is just a sample of that prayer:
“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets…To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame…O Lord, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy….because your city and your people are called by your name.”
“…and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.”
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” – Philippians 4:6
Mercy occurs when we do not get something negative that we deserve. For example, we deserve God’s wrath when we sin and so it is by God’s mercy that we do not experience His wrath because Jesus took our place. When we pray, it should be from a thankful heart that acknowledges the work of our savior.
Grace occurs when we get something positive that we do not deserve. God gives us incredible blessings that we did nothing to earn. It is by God’s grace that we are alive, have food, have clothing, shelter and so much more. If we are not thankful for the grace of God’s blessings, that is a sign that you are trusting in yourself rather than God.
Expressing thanks to God is very helpful in times when you are in need because it reminds you of the provision that God has given. Thanking God reminds you that He is present and working in the world. Thus prayers of thanksgiving are an important help in strengthening your faith.