When conviction for a desired outcome defines our faith, we have gotten off track. Many believers have stumbled over the belief that God will grant whatever we ask, if we are convinced of getting what we want and don’t allow doubt to creep into our thoughts.
In all fairness, Scripture sure seems to indicate that Christians ought to be convinced in receiving. All it takes is a willingness to declare out loud what we want, and then be convinced it is coming as we desired.
“For everyone who asks receives”. (Mt 7:8)
How straight forward simple. Ask and you will get what you want. That is the promise of the Lord! Those who believe what God says here are understandably convinced. However, the caution here is that this sentence is spoken in a larger context and those who prefer to isolate it, like some magical phrase, and expect to get what they ask for are deluded. There is more to this promise.
“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer”. (Mt 21:22)
Later, the same writer records a caveat—those who ask, must believe. This is not “also believe” (as in belief needs to accompany conviction), nor is it about believing in the outcome (as in faith in getting what you want). Such belief is not what the Lord expects of his followers, even though many think that is what he taught. Here is the larger context to this belief-in-prayer expectation:
“Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. ‘How did this fig tree wither so quickly?’ they asked. Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,‘ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’” (Mt 21:19-22)
The context shows that Jesus expects that his followers ask in “faith and do not doubt”, but the error that many swallow is in assuming that this faith-without-doubt is about the conviction in getting, but that is not what Jesus meant. That assumption is the natural interpretation for those who are devoid of the Spirit and are not careful in listening for the truth. On the surface, it looks like a recipe for how to get what we want, but that is not correct.
Again, Jesus instructs on what he specifically means by ask-and-you-will-receive, when he spoke about himself as the Vine and believers as the Branches. In this teaching, he reveals that it is in the producing of godly fruit, as a result of “If you obey my commands”, that sets the required context for God to grant “whatever you ask in my name”.
“I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (Jn 15:16)
In contrast to this necessary evidence, the Lord makes it very clear that those who come to him, but don’t “remain in me and my words remain in you”, can’t produce the kind of life-choices that display the fruitful evidence of Christ-likeness. Such barren trees, who think they are Christian, but don’t show this transformational evidence in their life, will be “thrown away” and burned (if they persist in their sin and refuse to repent). According to these words of Scripture, they should not think that God will answer their prayers, because that promise is extended only to those who “produce much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
The same teaching is repeated by James, regarding asking in faith for what we desire and doing so without doubt:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jms 1:5-8)
This faith, at face value, appears to be expressed in not doubting that we will get what we ask for, but that is not what either Jesus or James meant. That kind of faith—a conviction in getting what we want—is not Christian faith!
It is an ache to hear the lament of believers who express their disappointment and disillusionment when their child dies from an illness (as an example), that they had prayed earnestly about and were absolutely convinced that God would heal them. It is a hard burden to empathize with a heart-broken person (as another example), who prayed with conviction for the salvation of their loved one, but they have since rejected the Lord all the way to their death-bed. Why didn’t the Lord fulfill his promise to give them what they asked for in faith and without doubt?
The inverse of this same problem is observed in those who view answered prayer as proof of faith because God gave them what they wanted. This stems from pagan religions where followers become convinced that their god answered their prayer because they got what they desired. The idea of conviction, that God favors someone because they received what they wanted, is not Christian. There are numerous godless reasons for why a person might get what they want:
- Time-and-chance, or what many view as luck, or being in the right place at the right time;
- Cause-and-effect, like when a basketball player practices hard and then becomes skilled at making baskets for his team, which is a skill/talent issue where one gets a good return when they invest themselves;
- Kisses-of-an-enemy, which the Bible describes as favor from the Evil One to entice a person to continue down a dark and sinful path (yes, Satan can grant wishes in this temporary world);
- Divine-testing where God grants what a person asks, but not for their good (as Scripture warns “be careful what you ask for, for I may well give it to you”).
God commands believers to “test the spirits” and not to believe everything, even when it appears to be favorable to what we desire. Assessing our belief according to what we get is foolish and very dangerous to genuine faith.
The problem here with what we expect to receive when we pray, and in how we interpret the evidence of what we do receive, is in the focus of the faith. To those who are well-meaning (but still deceived), their type of faith focuses on a conviction for an outcome, but that is not godly faith. The results should be desired and anticipated, but should not be the reason for having faith in prayer. Genuine Christian faith focuses on the Lord, not primarily on the desired results. It focuses on pursuing and upholding the revealed will of God, not on getting what we want, the way we want it, or in being convinced in receiving it right when we ask for it. Conviction may produce wishful thinking, but it is not faith.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (Jn 14:12)
Biblical faith focuses on Jesus. It concentrates on following him, obeying the details of his words, honoring his name is everything we do and ask. In fact, it never asks for anything other than what the Lord wants. This kind of faith emphasizes trusting him, not in getting what we personally desire. It restrains personal wants to only those pursuits that submit to the will of Jesus, to what pleases him.
“and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” (1 Jn 3:22)
” When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Jms 4:3)
“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Mt 12:39)
God will only answer prayers that fit with his will, that please Jesus, that submit to the righteous motives of the Lord. Personal motives—like seeing a loved one healed, or a marriage saved, or a job become successful, or pain removed, or the bad guys get what’s coming at the moment we ask for justice—can all come from wrong motives, because they are likely asking according to our human will. Those who pray such requests, can strain with all the conviction they want in things working out, but God will not likely give them what they want, when the expectation is about getting rather than honoring. Asking God to act according to what we pray is not a magical talisman to force outcomes to our ways and wants.
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (1 Jn 5:14)
Prayers in faith are about requests that fit within the will of God, that depend upon our trusting in who Jesus is and what he has revealed he wants to do. It submits our will to his intentions, and avoids making foolish requests to get what we desire.
Those who have this kind of faith, who believe in the Lord this way, will only ask God to curse a tree, when God shows them that is what he specifically wants to do in that circumstance. They will never astound their audience by casting mountains into the sea, unless God makes it clear that that is exactly what he wants done at that moment. The power of this kind of submissive trust in God and his leading is capable of doing the impossible and nothing they request will be withheld.
This is not to say that believers should only pray for what the Bible says specifically to pray for. Since Scripture doesn’t actually state our personal names, we wouldn’t have much to pray about then. Rather God’s word gives us parameters and guidelines to help us narrow our choices in how to act. Real faith strives to bring our desires under his will, but even when it looks like we are operating still within biblical boundaries, we can be mixing good requests with selfish motives, or in other ways not entirely submitting to his holy will. That truth should produce a fear of the Lord in how we approach prayer.
In this way, a faithful believer will be cautious in what and how they pray, rather than convinced they deserve whatever they ask. Their faith-without-doubt will focus on unwavering trust in his goodness, love, sovereignty, and plan of salvation, rather than in being convinced that trees will wither when we tell them to, or that mountains will jump into the sea at our voice, or anything else that we might be convinced we can get simply by asking for it.
Doubting the goodness of God is foolish. Doubting that Jesus is capable of saving us, in spite of disease, death, or sin, is the kind of doubt that the Bible condemns. However, doubt in our own goodness, is very right and necessary. Doubting that we have it all figured out is perfectly acceptable and appropriate. If we recognize we are in need of wisdom or other traits of Christ, and we strongly desire it, we should ask, not doubting that God might be unlikely to grant our request because of our struggles with imperfection and sin.
None of us are deserving of his grace, but that is not something we are to allow to prevent us from asking for it. We ought to doubt our goodness and worthiness, but not doubt that God desires to grant us his favor and grace because of his mercy and love. We doubt our abilities, but not him or his willingness to give good things to those believers who ask according to his will.
When Scripture declares that “Faith is being certain”, it is speaking of the certainty of “what we hope for” in who Jesus is, what Jesus has done for us on the Cross, and in his promised return to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him; it is NOT in the certainty of getting what we hope to receive in prayer. Biblical certainty and assurance is in God, not in getting things.
In this way, we don’t insist on getting what we want; rather, we insist on trusting in Jesus. We ask without doubting his righteousness and intent on doing good even for those who are not worthy in themselves. Asking in faith, then, is not about conviction in getting what we ask, but rather in trusting that God delights in giving what is good.
With this kind of faith, we are encouraged to share our desires with God. We may restrain some of what we naturally desire so that we don’t make requests that are wrong or contrary to his revealed will. However, so long as we are striving to obey him, to produce fruit that displays the transforming and internal presence of his Spirit in us, to please him with our requests, then we are encouraged to share our heart’s desires.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (Jn 15:16)
Those who think they know what God wants, who have had some private communication from God, some vision of insight, some emotional swelling that strongly inclines them toward seeking something from God, should be wary of the source. The exact same experience can come from Satan, demonic influence, false teachers, deceitful friends, twisted motives, lusts, and wants of this life. God condemns those who claim that God spoke to them, when he didn’t. It doesn’t matter how convinced they are that they heard something. God doesn’t leave his communication open to doubt. He will eventually reveal what is of him, one way or another.
God may expose false faith by not answering according to what a person is certain about receiving. He may reveal those who don’t belong to him, by not allowing their prophetic declaration to come true as stated. He may leave a minister or over-zealous Christian hanging out to dry by themselves, in what they expect to get through their prayers, by not providing an interpreter or a confirming second witness to establish every matter as of God. He may test his own children by delaying the answer or even by not allowing things to turn out as desired at the moment, to see if they will trust in his goodness toward them even when disappointment feels crushing. Answers to prayers may often have more to do with revealing those “chosen by God” from those deceived into thinking they are Christians, but are not. God is more interested in seeing the fruit of Christ developed in a believer, than in our satisfaction at getting whatever we like at this time.
God wants to know what each of us like, what we desire, what is special to us personally. As long as it doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries noted in his word, it is perfectly fine to share it with God. This type of prayer is just fine, but the one asking should be cautious about what they expect to receive.
“You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (Jn 14:14)
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.“ (Jn 15:7)
The promise of receiving what we ask for in prayer, only applies to those believers who make their requests in submission to his name. As the second quote defines it, doing things in his name means that we remain faithful over time to what the Bible means to be a Christian, and that his words continue to fit with how we think and live. The expectation of answered prayer is conditional on “if you remain in me”.
By “in my name”, the Lord is conditioning the prayer. This is not specifically about using the label of “Jesus” or “Lord” in the wording of what we ask. Rather, what we ask for needs to come under the will of Jesus, fit within the boundaries of his own recorded words in Scripture, and strive to entirely represent Jesus as fully and carefully as his own name perfectly represents him. In this way, such prayers fit with Jesus like his name fits him. They represent him without blurring his identity with our own names, wills, wants, preferences, social pressures, agendas, and sin.
Prayers offered in the name of Jesus will always be presented in complete submission to what God wants, what Jesus represents, and in bringing unadulterated honor to the Lord. Whatever we ask for in this way, filters our expressed desires into words that submit to the leading desire of our Lord, and never stray from that priority, nor mix with ulterior motives. When God hears prayers that produce such a naming of Jesus for who he is, those are the type that God will “give you whatever you ask for in my name”.
It seems that many well-meaning Christians have replaced the meaning of faith with conviction, and thereby lost touch with what having faith in Christ is all about. Our faith should be in him, his promises, his goodness, his plan, his ability to always work things out for our good even when it appears hopeless. It should not be in the conviction of getting what we want or ask for. If our faith is rightly placed in him, and we allow for sharing our personal desires without expecting that God always give us what we want, then we show that our true heart’s desire is for what he desires even above and ahead of our own personal interests.
Those who pray with that kind of focus, know that God will give whatever we ask for in prayer, because what we really want is for him to do whatever He Wills.
“Lord, not my will, but your will be done. And that is really, really what I want!”