I’ve appreciated the following words about prayer from pastor Tim Keller since I first heard them many years ago:
“God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.”
Among other things, this idea helps explain “unanswered” prayer—or, more accurately, prayer that God answers by saying “no.” We simply can’t foresee the myriad consequences that would result from God’s giving us what we ask for. To say the least, each petition that God grants us would have a ripple effect through time and space that would affect many lives, including our own. We don’t know the extent to which these ripples would be helpful or harmful. God knows; we don’t. And God’s Word promises us that in all things, including our prayer life, God is working for our good (Romans 8:28).
Moreover, the Holy Spirit is praying through our prayers: “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). So even when God doesn’t give us what we pray for, he will—without fail—give us what his Holy Spirit prays for. In other words, God always answers his own prayers for us—and we can be confident that what he prays for us is always for our good.
Keller is helpful here, too: I’ve heard him also preach that God always answers the “prayer underneath the prayer.” I believe this idea does justice to what both Jesus and the rest of scripture teach.
All that to say, Keller’s maxim is true, as far as it goes. But for my own sake, if not yours, Dear Reader, I would add this corollary:
God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows—and you had bothered to ask.
In other words, in order for God to grant us the “prayer underneath the prayer,” there has to be a prayer to begin with!
I’ve heard otherwise faithful Christians justify what amounts to a lazy prayer life by appealing to the pious-sounding idea that we want God’s will, rather than our own will, to be done: “I don’t need God to do anything for me; he’s done so much for me already.” Perhaps they don’t ask for God to do anything because, too often, they don’t believe he will! (Believe me, I’m preaching to myself, too!) This hardly accords with Jesus’ own example and teaching about prayer (one passage of which, Luke 11:5-13, I’ll be preaching on on May 26).
Just yesterday, I was journaling my way through the story of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, in Genesis 19:15-22. In this passage, the two angels who have come to rescue Lot and his family from the imminent destruction of Sodom, urge him, “Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (v. 17).
And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!”
I was indignant when I read this: Lot’s request is bold to the point of brazenness! After all, I thought, when firefighters rescue you and your sleeping family from an inferno, you don’t also ask them to clean the soot off the carpet!
But not so fast, Brent…
Lot acknowledges that he has “found favor” in the sight of these angels (and the God on whose behalf they’re working); God and these angels have shown him “great kindness.” He isn’t exactly presuming upon God’s grace; he recognizes that the angels could tell him no.
Besides, if we follow the logic of my objection all the way through, on what basis could I ask God for anything? God has given me my life in the first place, and he sustains it at every moment. Even more, he has redeemed my life through the infinitely valuable blood of his Son Jesus. Isn’t it presumptuous of me to ask God to do anything else? Hasn’t he done enough? Am I not being ungrateful in asking?
No… As in the case of Lot and so many other Old Testament saints who are as badly flawed as I am (including David and the psalmists, who frequently ask God to show favor, to rescue, to vindicate, and to make prosperous), we Christians can rightly tell ourselves something like this: “If it’s true that someone like Lot has found favor in God’s sight, how much more true is it for me? After all, unlike Lot, through faith in Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, I am a beloved child of the Father with whom he is well pleased; I am the one ‘on whom God’s favor rests’ (Luke 2:14); I am a brother [or sister] of Jesus himself (Mark 3:34-35; John 20:17), loved by my Father exactly as much as he loves Jesus (John 17:23, 26), entitled to a full inheritance befitting a son of the Father (Luke 15:22-23; Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 1:4-5).
I have exchanged my unrighteousness for Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). The blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin (1 John 1:7). Therefore I stand before God as holy and righteous, not because of who I am and what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done. On this basis alone, I approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16) and ask my Father for what I want or need—believing that he will give me what I ask for (Mark 11:24).
(Or don’t I?)
Indeed, Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). One characteristic of children is that they ask their parents for things—with boldness, with importunity, with no expectation of earning it or paying it back. The relationship of parent to young child is one of utter grace!
So be like Lot! Be as righteous and God-honoring as Lot is! Ask!