Prerequisites for Answered Prayer

When Faith & Prayer Do Not Work

By Grantley Morris

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The Secret of Answered Prayer

How to Get Your Prayers Answered

This thoroughly biblical exploration of prayer will surprise many Bible believers. Many of us are floundering because our understanding of how to get prayers answered has seemed Bible-based and yet has become somewhat distorted.

We all want quick, easy answers. If that’s all it takes, however, you would have had the answer already and would not be looking for more.

I understand being so desperate that you want quick answers. Sadly, however, haste can produce shallow results that end up delaying rather than speeding the answer we so greatly need. It is alarmingly easy to waste years blindly dismissing something as irrelevant, certain it could not possibly apply to our situation, when deeper reflection would reveal it is actually the critical missing piece of the puzzle. Are you willing to slow down just a little and join me in seeking God for a deeper, more accurate insight into the mysteries of prayer?

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God’s Longing to ‘Spoil’ Us

A divine goal of prayer is that “your joy may be full” (KJV). In the words of the NIV:

    John 16:24  . . . Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.

How exciting is that!

We will explore other facets of prayer that might initially seem more sobering. Our perception of divine reality will be distorted, however, unless we keep in focus that our joy is the thrilling goal God has for our prayers. It is important never to lose sight of this, especially since we will discover below that reaching this joy is often a bumpy journey.

Like the world’s most doting grandparent, God delights in ‘spoiling’ his loved ones, in the sense of showering them with blessings infinitely beyond what they could ever earn or deserve. It makes God’s day! On the other hand, he loves you far too much and is too wise a parent to spoil you in the sense of harming you – giving you something you clamor for and initially enthralls you but eventually ends up hurting you. The joy that God wants for you is joy that lasts forever, not something you end up regretting or turns out to be second rate.

The gulf between what the immature want and what is in their best interest is a significant source of friction between little children and good parents – and between immature Christians and the good Lord. No matter how much ‘faith’ we try to muster and how much we nag God and whine and sulk, we will not corrupt our holy, loving Lord into someone who, just to shut us up, gives us things that end up robbing us of his best.

Nothing is more fundamental to the nature of God than him being greater than us, and therefore smarter than us. Only he can know the intricate chains of events sent rippling through time and through all humanity by tiny actions. He alone knows the future. This means that God’s understanding of what is best for us is necessarily vastly superior to our own presumptions. It makes it inevitable that we will often ask him for things that he knows will end up being less than the best for us – sometimes alarmingly so – even though we, in our arrogance and ignorance, are convinced nothing could be better. Scripture puts this truth succinctly: “We do not know what we ought to pray for” (Romans 8:26, NIV).

There is nothing more central to Christianity than the cross (Scriptures). If the cross reveals anything about God, it is that he loves us so passionately and selflessly that he is willing to be despised and rejected in order to give us his best. So what can we expect if we desperately pray for something he knows is not his best for us? Would he who set the cross as his eternal precedent, love us enough to risk our hot displeasure – and even us temporarily despising and rejecting him – in order for us to have what he alone has the foresight and wisdom to know is in our best interest?

More often than we realize, if God were so weak or spiteful as to give us what we clamor for, we would end up resenting him when it all turns sour. Our loving Lord is always working toward your everlasting joy; never a high that eventually fizzles and comes hurtling back to earth with such a devastating crash that you would be better off if it had never happened.

You have heard fables of a genie in a bottle or lamp who grants favored people whatever they wish for. The word genie can be traced back to Arabian beliefs about demons or false gods. This is appropriate because, if you think it through, anyone who grants people their every wish would have to be evil. Surprisingly, the fable of King Midas, who lived to regret wishing everything he touched would turn to gold, also warns us of the danger we would face if we had a God so malicious as to answer our every prayer.

Loving and serving God are the exact opposite of trying to use faith to manipulate God into giving us what he does not want to give us. And it is ludicrous to imagine that God’s love means he wants us to have things that seem good but end up harming us. A pervert might want what he lusts for, a lazy slob might want what he calls an easy life, a hateful person might want revenge, a greedy person might want money, a drug addict might want more highs, but granting them their wishes would ruin them. We can see the folly of other people’s wishes being granted but seldom do we see the folly of our own wishes.

The logic is irrefutable: for God to give us whatever we ask for, he would either have to be as dumb as us or not love us – and neither of these is ever going to happen.

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More Complex than it Seems

So one prerequisite for answered prayer is that we have asked for something that will genuinely complete our joy.

Our dilemma is that this is significantly more difficult than we dare imagine. This is crystalized in Romans 8:26, which says we desperately need the Holy Spirit’s intervention because we do not know what (KJV, NIV and many other versions) to pray for.

Some commentaries on this Scripture mention pagans who became so convinced that they could end up praying unwisely that they concluded it is better not to pray. You might smirk but I commend their humility. Most of us could use a huge dose. Thankfully, we have the Holy Spirit, who is eager to intervene and prevent disastrous answers to our prayers.

Even if we lack appropriate humility, however, do we at least have enough faith in God’s goodness to thank him for not allowing our dangerously short-sighted prayers to be answered the way we think they should? Or will we disgrace ourselves by resenting God or envying others when he mercifully protects us from our own ignorance?

Why our requests are not divinely granted can easily get surprisingly complex and beyond our puny minds to compute, unless the Lord eventually solves the mystery for us. For example, a woman recently shared with me how a long time ago she had asked God to give her a cross she could wear as a necklace so that she could make her faith publically known and use it to witness. What could be more harmless, selfless and honoring to God? She could have bought one herself but she wanted it to be something special from God so she could use the story of how he provided it as an additional witness. No cross ever arrived. Twenty years later, she finally mustered the courage to ask the Lord why he never granted her request. He replied that giving it to her would have put her in bondage. She would, for example, have feared never wearing it, lest by doing so it might be letting God down. The Lord told her he chose not to answer her prayer for a necklace because he wanted her to be free from such bondage.

Of the millions of other examples, here’s just one more. A missionary’s monthly allowance failed to reach her. Her prayers for money or food went unanswered. For quite a while all she had to eat was oats. To make matters worse, she was sick. When she later returned to her home country she mentioned this to a doctor, who happened to also know about the serious stomach condition she had had at that time. The doctor informed her that not only was oats the ideal diet for such a condition, a normal diet could have killed her. Yes, the Lord could have both healed her and given her a better diet but no doubt he used this remarkable experience to bolster her “faith, which is more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:7).

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The What and the Why and the When

You can fail to have your prayer answered because you ask for the wrong reason. Having the wrong attitude often results in asking for the wrong thing. But not always. Two people can pray for the same thing and get quite different responses from God because of their different motives. For example, it is one thing to pray for a million dollars because you want to spend a portion of it on yourself; it is very different to pray for the same thing because you want to use it all to feed the poor. But we can drill down even further. Do you want to feed the poor solely due to compassion or partly because you want the ego boost of impressing people with the power of your faith or with your generosity? Or you might want it as a sign that you are special to God because you are too lazy to take God at his Word when his Bible declares he loves you.

We can go even deeper: we can pray for the right reason but focus our prayers on a wrong method. The method could be blatantly wrong such as praying for the death of one’s enemies. Or what we ask for might simply not be as effective as some other means God has in mind that we have not been smart enough to think of. For example, would God giving a million dollars for food aid be as helpful for the recipients as the breaking of drought? Or is there some other way of meeting their need that gives them greater dignity and frees them from dependence on handouts?

Then you can pray for the right thing for the right reason but the timing is not right. Timing is critical with God. Again I will give just two of countless examples, this time from the Bible:

    Genesis 15:16 In the fourth generation they will come here again, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.

The time would come for the Israelites in Egypt to enter the promised land. This would mean the expulsion of those currently living there, however. They had to wait four generations because God’s patience with the Amorites had not yet been exhausted.

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    Answered Prayer: More than Faith

    We are beginning to see that precisely because God is good, wise, and loving, there is more to answered prayer than faith and persistence. Let’s explore some more factors.

    Jesus told the paralyzed man to take his mat and walk, the blind man to wash his eyes in the pool, the ten lepers to show themselves to the priest (and we could add so many other examples from throughout Scripture) and they received only as they did what they were told to do. And so it is with us. “But be doers of the word, and not only hearers,” warns James 1:22, “deluding your own selves.” [Emphasis mine.]

    Too often we seem to act as if there were two different ways of obtaining God’s promises: we can either do as Scripture says or we can largely ignore Scripture’s directives and simply pray for it to happen.

    Consider these scenarios:


    The Bible tells us to work hard (Many Scriptures). Did God slip up every time he inspired a writer of Scripture to say that? Was he merely teasing us? Or can we ignore his directives by refusing to work as hard as we can, and expect God to answer prayers for finances?


    The Bible tells us to flee immorality (Scriptures). In fact, it says that the immoral or adulterous cannot enter the kingdom of God and that to look lustfully at a woman is to commit adultery (Scriptures). So when someone who lusts after women asks God to bless his marriage and family relationships, will God deny his own values, override everything he says about relationships and answer that prayer as if the Bible is wrong and people’s sexual mores are of no consequence to their marriage? In fact, we will later cite 1 Peter 3:7 that specifically states that a husband’s dishonoring his wife can sabotage his prayers.


    God’s Word tells us to keep reading the Bible, storing it in our hearts and putting it into practice (Scriptures). Doing this, it says, will make us wise (Scriptures). But is there some divine loophole that those too lazy to read the Bible can exploit? Can they ignore the Bible and get wisdom simply by praying for it?


    God tells us in his Word not to complain and to continually praise and thank God (Scriptures). Can we disregard this, and expect God to answer prayers to invent another pathway to joy?

    And of course there must be hundreds of other examples we could cite.

    To receive everything we ever request would make us as terrifyingly powerful as the Omnipotent Lord. Who would you dare let have such unlimited power? Would it be generous or irresponsible for the good Lord to use prayer to entrust Godlike power to anyone whose motives are not Godlike?

    Do we suppose the way to get our selfish way is by prayer to the God who demands we die to self?

    Having the audacity to imagine that prayer somehow allows us to bypass the need to follow Scripture’s God-given instructions is not only ludicrous but offensive to God. Dare we, for example, defile the holy Word of God by coming to the very Bible that devotes so much space and passion to denouncing the love of money, and then seize a verse about prayer as an open-invitation to use faith-filled prayer to feed our addiction to money and perpetuate our adulterous love affair with material things? That would be as atrocious as praying for guidance, wisdom and protection as we rob someone. It would be as perverse as praying God provide us with victims for a hideous sex crime.

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    Manipulating God?

    Do we really think we could dupe the Holy God into giving us anything that by his exacting standards is unholy, or that he would invite us to pray for such things? If it were possible for prayer to nullify the Word of God, we would not be praying to the God of the Bible.

    The unspiritual side of us, however, keeps hoping to avoid God’s way and find some cozy alternative. Alarmingly, the Deceiver has gleefully prepared many such options for those who prefer the easy road that leads to destruction. And he is delighted to let them remain smugly convinced they have got away with it.

    For example, we are sometimes so dominated by greed and self-centeredness as to twist God’s Word by ripping fragments of Scripture out of context about prayer without even realizing what we are doing. Consider this favorite Scripture:

      Psalm 37:4  . . . delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
      (Emphasis mine)

    It is time to check your medication if you imagine this verse is telling you how to manipulate God or get your own way. Nevertheless, this is exactly how some greedy soul (whether greedy for power, fame, luxury, ease, sex, chemical highs, or whatever) could misinterpret it.

    Put simply: the Almighty is perfect; we are not. Perfection can never be improved upon. God never changes (Scriptures). This is not because he is inflexible or stubborn or self-centered but because any change could only be a move away from perfect wisdom, perfect goodness, perfect love, and so on. The Perfect One can never improve. For us, however, it is a very different story.

    Infinite love means that God is utterly unselfish. As dramatically affirmed by the cross of Christ, our Lord is always seeking the well-being of others and never his own comfort. This makes God forever focused on inspiring us to change our hearts for the better; not on getting us to change or corrupt God’s heart.

    The Scripture just cited is not saying that if you desire something, the way to get it is to delight in God. Delighting in God will profoundly affect your very desires, and the longer you delight in him, the more your desires will change; just as the more you delight in wildlife and pristine wilderness areas, the less you will want to do things that harm the environment.

    To delight in God is to take your eyes off yourself and lose yourself in the majesty and purity of God. Anyone delighting in God loves him so much that he/she would never knowingly ask for anything that grieves or disappoints God. You would be so passionate about God that pleasing him means more to you than life or pain-avoidance or anything else you could ever crave. We see this exemplified in Jesus: despite being so horrified by the consequences that sweat dripped from him like blood, our Role Model prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”

    “Teach us to pray” the disciples had pleaded, and yet they slept through the greatest example of all.

    In The Treasury of David, C. H. Spurgeon comments on the verse in Psalms we have been examining:

      Men who delight in God, desire and ask for nothing but what will please God; hence it is safe to give them carte blanche [divine authorization to get whatever they want]. Their will is subdued to God’s will and now they may have what they will.

    He immediately adds:

      Our innermost desires are here meant; not our casual desires; there are many things which nature might desire which grace may never permit us to ask for; these deep, prayerful asking desires are those to whom the promise is made.

    It is safe to say, “Love God and do what you want,” precisely because no one who truly loves God would ever want to grieve his Lord by knowingly doing anything that clashes with God’s holiness or his plans. To love God is to obey him (Scriptures).

    The Word of God puts it this way:

      Psalm 145:19 He will fulfill the desire of those who fear him. He also will hear their cry, and will save them.

      1 John 3:22  . . .whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.
      (Emphasis mine)

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    Not the Killjoy it Seems

    Taken in isolation, the portion of divine revelation we have so far examined might seem a letdown. God is not the genie in the bottle some of us have been hoping for. Disappointment vanishes, however, when we realize that riding high in the full truth is that God is staggeringly bighearted. Our love-filled Lord is not only the one “who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20) but he delivers. He “gives to all liberally and without reproach” (James 1:5) and his goal is always that “your joy may be made full.”

    I will not repeat everything said in the above section, this time using only New Testament Scriptures. It could easily be done, however. For example:

      Matthew 6:33 But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.

    Despite greedy eyes lighting up when zooming in on just part of one verse, this is actually the very opposite of telling the greedy how to get their fill. The words “and his righteousness” should be enough to nail any such misconception. Many Scriptures confirm that lust, greed, selfishness, covetousness, slavery to pleasure, laziness, and so on are sin and therefore incompatible with righteousness. Moreover, we shall see that linking righteousness to answered prayer is a regular biblical theme. Two examples should suffice for the moment:

      Psalm 66:18 If I cherished sin in my heart, the Lord wouldn’t have listened.

      Isaiah 59:2  . . . your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.

    To make it still clearer that this is not an invitation to the greedy, Jesus introduced this promise by saying it is pagan to give priority to seeking first even the most elementary of human needs. Despite a superficial familiarity with this passage, please pause for at least one careful reading of the context:

      Matthew 6:24-33  . . . You can’t serve both God and Mammon [money]. . . . don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? . . . Why are you anxious about clothing? . . . Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness . . .

    The briefest glance at the context affirms that Jesus was not referring to a television, hot and cold running water, or even clothes that are fashionable. He zeroed in on the most basic necessities of life that even birds need, declaring that above even those things, we must seek the kingdom of God, and the other essentials are for God to worry about. In the words of Paul:

      1 Timothy 6:8-11 But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. But those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

    Unlike some preachers who have lost sight of Jesus’ priorities, our Lord never stooped to exploiting people’s greed as a way of enticing them into the kingdom. In fact, such an attempt is doomed because the greedy cannot enter the kingdom:

      Matthew 23:25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and unrighteousness.

      Mark 7:21-23 For from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

      Luke 8:14 That which fell among the thorns, these are those who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures . . . (Emphasis mine)

      Luke 12:15  . . . Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness . . .

    Jesus never said or implied, “I am your cash cow.” On the contrary, his passion was to get the greedy to reverse their thinking so that if the change in their attitude to feeding their selfish desires is sufficiently radical they might be able to enter God’s kingdom, (the realm where God – not one’s personal cravings – is king).

      Mark 10:17-25 As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” . . . Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into God’s Kingdom! . . . It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.”

    Immediately after feeding the five thousand, we read:

      John 6:15 Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

    Jesus withdrew from anyone who thought he would meet their political or economic aspirations. Instead, he sought those who were desperate for godliness:

      Matthew 5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

    And what will they be filled with? What really counts: righteousness (selflessness).

    Of course, the rest of the New Testament says such things as:

      Romans 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

      Colossians 3:2, 5 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. . . . Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry

      1 John 2:16-17 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, isn’t the Father’s, but is the world’s. The world is passing away with its lusts, but he who does God’s will remains forever.
      (Emphasis mine)

    To be righteous, however, is to be like God. And God is the most dynamic and exciting and beautiful person in the universe.

    You were born for greatness and born again to be forever hailed a hero by following the path to never-ending glory; the trail blazed by our all-conquering King. Let go of the inferior that glitters and entices and fizzles and fails. Take God’s hand and soar to fulfillment and achievement beyond what you have dared dream.

    Life is not about getting our own way but about letting God have his glorious way in our lives. Stop resigning yourself to the inferior. Raise your aspirations to divine heights so that you will forever rejoice in the choices you have made.

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    When Prayer Turns God’s Stomach

    Prayer turns God’s stomach if it degenerates into an excuse for disobedience or spiritual laziness. If you baulk at that statement, read what God says:

      Proverbs 28:9 He who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.

      Isaiah 1:15-16 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourself clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. . . .

      James 4:3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

    Imagining that prayer can somehow allow us to bypass the need to follow Scripture’s instructions is not only mistaken but offensive to God.

    As already demonstrated, the Bible spells out the prerequisites for answered prayer a number of times. If, however, Scripture were to list all the conditions and exceptions every time any subject were raised, we would need a wheelbarrow to carry the Bible around and we would all be complaining about how tedious and boring it is to read.

    Doesn’t our long-suffering Lord have enough trouble getting us to read much of the Bible as it is? Imagine the burden if the Bible read like a legal document, spelling out all the conditions and exceptions every time it makes a statement, rather than assuming we have had the sense to read the rest of the most important book in the universe. We all do lip service to the importance of not taking things out of content, but let’s get serious: the full context is not just a couple of verses either side but the entire Bible.

    I would dearly love to be able to reassure you that, of course, we can claim for ourselves most Scripture. To be accurate, however, I cannot even say that of John 3:16. We must not gouge from the rest of God’s written revelation even this basic Scripture and, by ignoring the rest of the Bible’s teaching about salvation, read into this verse things it does mean.

    This is getting off-track but to stress the importance of this principle, I need to briefly explain. This verse is typical of the Bible in that it packs an enormous amount into a single word (in this case, believe) and it is unpacked only by studying the rest of the Bible.

    Suppose a doctor says you have two months to live, or someone hands you a check for a billion dollars. Whether you choose to believe either of these is entirely your choice. To truly believe in something of profound significance, however, profoundly affects our attitude (note the word attitude). And nothing is more profoundly significant than God.

    Other Scriptures reveal that genuine belief in God changes us so much that we repent (genuinely regret every time we have disobeyed God) and make Jesus our Lord (want, from now on, to always obey God, no matter what the cost). Note that regret and want are attitudes. They are not ‘works,’ nor even feelings, but a decision. They are a manifestation of the profound change of heart that accompanies truly believing who God is – believing that he is always right and that through Christ he loves and forgives us and empowers us to do what is right. Rationally and spiritually there is no other way to make God our God. Otherwise, we are own our God, and we relegate the true God to being our servant – the one we hope will obey us when we need him but whom we will disregard when his wishes clash with our own.

    The Bible’s teaching on prayer is founded on the presumption that those praying have died to self (and hence to spiritual laziness) and are committed to doing things God’s way. Since the Bible’s promises about prayer were usually addressed specifically to people who were already devoted to God, there was no point in continually adding at the end of every verse,“Of course, this only applies if you are living this Book, i.e. have died to self, been spiritually transformed by spiritual union with Christ and are in total submission to God, in everything thinking and acting like him.” That would be as ridiculous as an instruction manual for a high performance vehicle stopping at the end of each statement to explain that what it says only applies to that particular vehicle.

    If, in an emergency, you gave your trustworthy adult daughter your credit card details, telling her, “Use this however you feel appropriate,” there would be all sorts of unspoken conditions attached but there would be no need for you to detail them – indeed, to do so would be to insult her intelligence and character. How would you feel, however, if her irresponsible, much younger brother, overheard and used it as he felt appropriate, claiming that your words to his trustworthy sister gave him the authority to use your hard earned money irresponsibly?

    Even though nothing a verse says should be taken in isolation, many of Jesus’ declarations about prayer specifically added provisos, the ramifications of which we often gloss over. Consider, for example, the implications of offering prayer in Jesus’ name.

      John 14:14 If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.

      John 15:16  . . . I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

      John 16:23-24 In that day you will ask me no questions. Most certainly I tell you, whatever you may ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now, you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.

      John 16:26-27 In that day you will ask in my name; and I don’t say to you, that I will pray to the Father for you, for the Father himself loves you . . .
      (Emphasis mine)


    Average Christians in our era rarely grasp the grave significance of this expression.

    I was taught as a child to tack on to the end of my prayers, “For Jesus’ sake, Amen.” Whoever initiated this tradition truly understood prayer but, like so many other children, I never bothered to consider what the words meant. For me, it was simply the way to let God know the prayer was ended. I might as well have said, “Roger, over and out!” or “Goodbye, God – Nice to talk to you!” I never for a moment stopped to wonder whether what I had been asking was for actually Jesus’ sake or merely for my own sake.

    So let’s investigate what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. If I were to do something in your name, I would be acting as your representative. That’s a huge responsibility. If, in your name, I were to do anything stupid or unethical I could ruin your reputation. If ever there is a time to ask oneself, “What would Jesus do?” it is when doing anything in Jesus’ name. You are putting his reputation on the line. If ever you were exposing yourself to divine judgment, this is it.

    At first glance, it seems that in some of Jesus’ promises about prayer he is handing us a blank check. Only a fool, however, would give a blank check to anyone who is not highly responsible. So if the eternal Son of God were handing out blank checks, as it were, you can be sure he is giving them only to people he could trust never to abuse the responsibility. And, of course, that is what God does, as shown throughout both Testaments.

    But first: a note about the proportion of Old Testament quotes in the Scriptures I will cite. We have already quoted from the New Testament:

      James 4:3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

    Expressed another way:

      1 John 3:22 and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.

      1 John 5:14 This is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us.

      John 15:7 If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.

      James 5:16  . . . The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective.
      (Emphasis mine)

    And there are still more New Testament quotes to follow. Since the Old Testament is significantly larger and is the foundation for the New, however, it follows that there should be a higher proportion of Old Testament quotes on this topic. A further reason is that the New Testament was addressed primarily to new converts – first generation Christians – who had a corresponding fervor for God. Much of the Old Testament, however, was addressed to people born into their religion and were therefore more likely to be lulled into merely going through the motions and not realize that there is more to serving God than that. Whereas for the original readers of the New Testament it was obvious, those who had never had a personal relationship with God, or had lapsed into little more than lip service, needed the conditions for answered prayer to be spelled out. Sadly, that describes many of us today. So let’s see some of these Scriptures:

      Proverbs 15:8 The sacrifice made by the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.

      Proverbs 21:13 Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he will also cry out, but shall not be heard.

      Micah 3:4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them. Yes, he will hide his face from them at that time, because they made their deeds evil.

    * * *

    Let’s look at the following with new eyes:

      James 4:2-3  . . . you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

    By saying they do not ask and in the next breath saying they do ask, James is not contradicting himself but highlighting a matter that too often goes unnoticed: ‘ask’ can have two different meanings and we dare not confuse them because they produce opposite results.

    The people James was addressing were not asking for godly things, so they were not asking in the godly, biblical sense of the word. What the Bible means by asking the Holy Lord involves asking in submission to God and is motivated by godliness, not greed. Since they were not asking for anything Jesus would ever ask for, they were not doing what Jesus meant when he spoke about asking, and so his promises about asking do not apply

    Have we greedily interpreted certain Scriptures such as “ask anything” in a way God never intended them to be understood? To ask in the deep, biblical sense activates the Bible’s promises about asking. To ask in a shallow, secular sense is to ask in vain.

    James does something similar when writing about faith (Scripture). At first, one might imagine he is contradicting Paul’s teaching on the subject but, instead, he is highlighting that the biblical word can be misinterpreted and used in a non-biblical way.

    He points out that what some people think of as faith is mere intellectual assent and so shallow that it is does not affect their behavior. Such ‘faith’ will get us nowhere with God because it is not what God means by the term.

    James was emphasizing the importance of understanding the depth behind the biblical meaning of faith, just as we need to understand the depth behind what the Bible means by ask. God’s promises about asking apply only to the type of asking God meant, just like his promises about faith apply only to the type of faith he meant.

    In both cases, James was targeting the disturbing human attraction to interpreting Scripture in a shallow way that allows us to think we can selfishly get away with less than total commitment.

    * * *

    The teachings of the New and Old Testaments on prayer dovetail. Consider this, for example:

      Malachi 2:13-14 This again you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping, and with sighing, because he doesn’t regard the offering any more, neither receives it with good will at your hand. Yet you say, ‘Why?’ Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion, and the wife of your covenant.

    Note how similar this is to the following:

      1 Peter 3:7 You husbands, in the same way, live with your wives according to knowledge, giving honor to the woman, as to the weaker vessel, as being also joint heirs of the grace of life; that your prayers may not be hindered.

    The passage in Malachi not only mentions treating one’s wife as being critical in how God responds to our attempts to reach out to him (and Peter links this to prayer) but it says that offerings are useless if we mistreat people. Note how this dovetails with what Jesus said:

      Matthew 5:23-24 If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

    It also fits snugly with Jesus’ warning:

      Matthew 15:7-9 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.’

    Isaiah also proclaimed the following that fits this theme perfectly:

      Isaiah 58:4-9  . . . You don’t fast today so as to make your voice to be heard on high Is this the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to humble his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under himself? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh? . . . Then you will call, and the Lord will answer . . .
      (Emphasis mine)

    * * *

    God is all about love:

      1 John 4:7-8  . . . love is of God; and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God. He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.

      1 John 4:16  . . . God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.

      Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
      Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

    So prayer to the God of love must be all about love – verbalizing our love for God and wanting to know him better, to be more like him and to please him, glorify him and see his purposes furthered. Since love focuses on the beloved, prayer should be God-centered, not self-centered. And trying to make it God-centered just because you think that approach will better aid your quest to manipulate God into giving you what you crave is no improvement on any other self-obsessed attempt to exploit God’s goodness. God’s piercing eyes expose all such schemes. Prayer should be about companionship and intimacy and yieldedness. If it is all about me or about continually getting rather than giving, it is not real prayer; it’s a perversion.

    To claim for ourselves Bible promises divinely given to people who were more devoted to Christ than we are willing to be, is as fraudulent as tampering with someone’s last will and testament, by trying to erase someone else’s name and replace it with our own. It is not only taking Bible promises out of context, it is ripping them out of Christianity and putting them into a false religion. Hoping to exploit God for our selfish ends might bear similarities to voodoo or witchcraft – I know too little about these religions to be sure – but it most certainly is nothing like genuine Christianity.

    Consider these Scriptures:

      Joshua 24:15 If it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose today whom you will serve . . .

      1 Kings 18:21  . . . How long will you waver between the two sides? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. . . .

      Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters . . .

      Revelation 3:15-16 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.

    In the light of these Scriptures I must conclude that as much as it breaks God’s heart, he would prefer us to abandon Christianity altogether than remain in hypocrisy and self-delusion by pretending to be Christian when we are actually serving not God but ourselves.

    * * *


    Finally, let’s consider the role of faith in all of this. The faith the Bible speaks of should not be confused with screwing up one’s face and raising one’s blood-pressure trying to generate some magical force. It is focused not merely on getting an answer to prayer but on the whole character of God and submitting to him and to his ways.

    Biblical faith is simply resting in the thrilling fact that not only is the God of the Bible good, kind, caring, forgiving, generous, dependable, wise, powerful and honest, he is utterly superior to us in all these areas and more. Because of his infinite intelligence, wisdom and goodness, the Almighty is always right, and, because of his infinite love and selflessness, he loves us more than we could ever love ourselves and always has our best interest at heart. Anyone truly believing these truths about God would always want God to have his perfect way and never exalt his/her own longings above what the God of infinite love and wisdom deems to be best.

    * * *

    Final Thoughts

    The last thing I want is for any of us to miss God’s best by failing to ask for it.

    “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God,” said William Carey, the famous missionary known today as the “father of modern missions”.

    There is nothing stingy about God. As powerfully expressed by Paul:

      Romans 8:32 He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things?

    The problem, however, is highlighted in verse 26 of the same chapter that we do not know what to pray for. The rest of the verse explains that the Holy Spirit mercifully compensates for our deficiencies in wisdom. We should not grieve or quench the Spirit, however, by seeking things that offend his holiness or by supposing that we are smarter than him or insulting his love by imagining we have our best interest at heart more than he does. On the other hand, we should not freeze with fear over what we pray for. The Spirit of our gracious Lord is always eager to forgive. Nevertheless, he is also eager that we stop blindly repeating our mistakes, and especially that we not hurt ourselves by pulling back from God through being so foolish as to get mad at him for mercifully not giving us things that to us seem wonderful but are actually inferior – sometimes dangerously so – to God’s plans for us.

    Often we are like King Midas, having no idea of the consequences of what we request. In the fable, Midas was granted his greedy wish (that everything he touched would turn to gold) before he realized the devastating implications for every morsel of food and every loved one he touched. God would be too kind to answer such a prayer. How tragic it would be, however, if any of us were to turn our backs on God simply because it is beyond our comprehension how superior the divine alternative plan is to the one we have concocted.

    I saw a shop advertising free range eggs. “Look! Free eggs!” I joked to someone with me who enjoys a bargain. To my surprise, she immediately became excited about getting range eggs (whatever they are) for free, not realizing that “free range” refers to uncaged chickens. Many of us are like that with God’s promises; gleefully latching on to a few words without bothering to consider the intended meaning. If you would like to see them in a single glance, I have listed eighteen Scriptures commonly used to imply we can have anything we ask for in prayer, showing that in each case the immediate context states that the promise is conditional. See for yourself. Or you can click here for twenty-seven Scriptures emphasizing that sin renders prayer useless.

    My goal has not been to cover every prerequisite for answered prayer. For example, except for praying for spiritual salvation, there is no guarantee of answered prayer without first being born again (redeemed). (For more about this, see You can Find Love.) Even this, however, fits into the general category of needing to be submitted to God and follow Scripture’s directives if our prayers are to be answered. These restrictions are not because God is a kill-joy. On the contrary, he wants to give us his best and our tendency to focus on quick gratification or simplistic solutions means the “good” things we crave often kill joy more than we can comprehend.

    * * *

    Related Pages

    Prayer Mysteries: The Joy of Unanswered Prayer

    Name it, Claim it? Bible Based Help with Prayer

    Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2015, 2018. For much more by the same author, see   No part of these writings may be copied without citing this entire paragraph.



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The Secret of Answered Prayer

How to Get Your Prayers Answered