Let me begin this message by stating what we all know: we should pray frequently. We know the people who make the biggest impact for the Kingdom of God are those who pray the most fervently. We know prayer is the key to intimacy with God. That said, we must confess that prayer is often a struggle.
Do you ever wonder why we struggle so with prayer? Is it because,
- We don’t feel adequate; we feel like we are doing “it” wrong?
- Is it because this is the area where Satan attacks us most diligently knowing if he can keep us from praying, it is the equivalent of cutting off the supply line from a military unit?
- Is it because we feel like our prayers don’t do any good?
- Or is it because we resist the idea of being dependent on God?
Radio Pastor Steve Brown is fond of saying, “Non-Christians don’t pray, because they’re afraid God is there. Christians don’t pray because they’re afraid God is not there, and they don’t want to lose their faith.”
I don’t know why we struggle with prayer, but I do know that John offers us help in our text this morning. In 1 John 5:13 John told us that we can KNOW that we have eternal life because we put our trust in Christ. In verses 14-17 John tells us the difference that this assurance should make to our prayer lives.
WHY WE CAN PRAY CONFIDENTLY
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Notice what we are told. First God hears us. Sometimes we feel like a husband or wife who is talking to a spouse who isn’t listening. We pray but we don’t sense that God is hearing our prayer. John says, the child of God can know that God is paying attention.
It is said sometimes in the political arena, that a person “has the ear of the President”. That doesn’t mean that have cut off his ear and put it in a box! It means the President listens attentively to what these people say. In much the same way, John is telling us that we have “the ear” of God. He is listening.
Second, John tells us that we not only can know he hears us but we can know that We have what we have asked of him. That’s quite a statement. There are other passages in the New Testament that say, “If you ask, you will receive”. It is straightforward and seems to guarantee that we will receive whatever we ask to receive.
When we hear a promise like this we tend to think about the pleasures and comforts we would like to have. We want God to erase the consequences of our actions, fix our problems, and eliminate our struggles. That’s why we must read the text carefully and compare it with other passages in the Bible.
John’s promise comes with a qualifier: “If we ask anything according to His will, he hears us”. There are other places where we read similar statements,
- “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:21,22)
- “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)
- “Delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4)
- “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.” [Jesus Luke 22:42]
The Bible gives us several conditions or prerequisites for answered prayer. John mentions that we must pray according to God’s will. Practically this means that we are praying with a true heart of God. We are to pray with His perspective. But how do we gain that perspective? We gain it from God’s Word and from God’s Spirit that resides within us.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that we should pray according to God’s will. Here are three reasons: 1) God always acts with love; we sometimes act with selfishness. 2) God always knows what is best for us; we often find that what we thought was best, was not. 3) God’s will is always superior to our own because God sees the “big picture”. We do not.
Pastor E. Stanley Jones wrote, “If I throw out a boat hook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God. ”
So, in order to pray effectively we must desire God’s will, we must discern God’s will through diligent study, and we must do God’s will in the way we live our lives. If we are asking for what He wants for us . . . we can pray with confidence.
The Bible lists several other conditions for effective prayer,
- There must be no unconfessed sin in our life. The Psalmist writes, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; (Psalm 66:18) Unconfessed sin creates a barrier in our relationship with God. I am convinced that many people lack power in their prayer lives because they are harboring sin in their heart. They want God’s blessing without submitting to God’s will.
- We must have motives that are correct and true. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2,3) This is the negative side to the positive statement that we must ask according to His will.
- We must believe. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22). We must be careful with this statement. It has been abused terribly. Many people tell themselves that if they can only muster up enough faith, they can have what they want. So they visualize and proclaim that they have the object of their desire. That’s positive thinking, not Christianity! Jesus says we only need faith as large as a grain of mustard seed in order to tap into God’s storehouse of blessing. That’s not much. In truth it is not the quantity of your faith that ultimately makes the difference: it is where that faith is placed. I don’t think God is telling us that we must believe in what we pray for . . . He wants us to believe in HIM.
- We must pray in the name of Jesus. In several places we are told that we must ask in “Jesus’” name (John 14:6, John 14:13; John 15:16). To pray in Jesus name is not simply adding the tagline, “in Jesus’ name we pray”. To pray in someone’s name, is to pray in line with that person’s character and desires. It is like a cabinet member working in the name of the President. Someone has said, “The ultimate test of any request is, can we say to Jesus, “Give me this for your sake and in your name”?
Now I know that these conditions seem to mitigate against the idea of being confident in prayer. The conditions on prayer could make us more tentative (wondering if we are doing it right). However, don’t miss what the Bible is telling us: prayer is not a grocery list we present to God . . . it is a request anchored to relationship. Prayer is effective when it comes out of our relationship with and love for God. God designed prayer not so much so we could have the things we want . . . but so that we could have Him.
WE SHOULD PRAY CONFIDENTLY FOR EACH OTHER
But John doesn’t stop here. Prayer is not just about us. It is certainly a way to draw close to God, but it is also a way to help others find Him as well.
16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
John tells us that our prayers for others will lead God to give them life. From personal experience many of us have discovered God’s marvelous strength that comes through the prayers of others. We will never know how many of us were brought to the throne of grace or turned from foolish ways because someone prayed.
To be honest, I don’t know how this works. Prayer is wonderful but it is also a mystery. Why does God work through us? Why does He want us to pray when He knows better than we do what is needed? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is the way God has ordained it to be and God does not have to explain to me or to you.
We Have a Responsibility to Each Other
John applies this confidence in prayer to our relationships with each other. He tells us that we should be alert to those who are caught up in sin. We should be quick to pray for those people. Let’s ask a painfully honest question: How often have we seen someone drifting in the wrong direction and simply looked the other way?
We need to realize at least four things: first, we are brothers and not competitors. Let’s be brutally honest, sometimes, in our sinful nature, when we see another believer falling into sin, there is a part of us that takes secret delight in their fall. It’s almost like we feel that we have “moved up a notch” because of their failure. We must always repent of such an attitude.
Second, we need to realize that no sin is minor. John says “all wrongdoing is sin.” Any drifting from the path God has set for us will lead to trouble in our relationship with God. When we begin to turn away from God we are moving in the wrong direction. The sooner we pray for someone in the process, the better.
Third, when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. When someone falls into sin it reflects on the whole community. When someone is caught up in sin, it impacts our fellowship. Many times in the history of Israel, the whole nation suffered because of the sin of one individual or group. Sin hinders God’s Spirit from working in our midst.
Fourth, you can’t be indifferent to sin if you love someone. We know from our study in 1 John that a true believer is to love the others in the body of Christ.
Suppose I see you compromising with sin. I know that this sin is going to effect your relationship with God. I know it is going to isolate you from Him. If I love you and care about you, I will be concerned. My first act of concern should be to pray for you.
How do we know whom we should pray for? I think a simple rule of thumb is this: if you see a potential problem, pray. If you know of a need, pray. If God brings someone to mind, pray. Be attentive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
What should we pray? The Bible tells us that since we don’t always know what we should pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. In other words, it may be more significant THAT we pray than WHAT we pray. Certainly we would ask God to awaken and restore the person who is drifting. When we pray we need to be prepared to take action if God so directs. It might be that we need to go and talk to that person. However, before anything else, we must pray.
The sin that leads to death
John tells us to pray when we see someone who is “committing a sin that does not lead to death”. He then goes on to say that “There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that.” This is one of the most difficult phrases in the Bible. There are lots of different interpretations but three primary ways of interpreting this phrase.
- It is a specific sin that leads to death. We see examples of this in the Bilbe. Moses died because of his sin. Uzzah was killed because he touched the Ark of God. Ananias and Sapphira died because of their sin of greed (Acts 5). Numbers records a man who was killed because he violated the Sabbath. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 seems to allude to people who had died because they were taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. It could be that John is saying, “If God has determined to put someone to death for their sin, there is no use praying for them.” In this case John is talking about physical death.
- It is the unpardonable sin. Jesus said there was a sin that could not be forgiven: the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, this is another phrase that is difficult to understand. Most people believe a person has blasphemed the Spirit when they finally and fully reject Jesus as their Savior and Lord. In this case the death John is talking about is spiritual death.
- It refers to the sin of the False Teachers. This may be the most logical understanding based on the context of this letter where John directed so many of his comments at the false teachers of the day. These were people who denied Jesus’ deity and acted immorally. They were not just mistaken, they were militantly antagonistic and deceptive.
No matter which interpretation you choose, John seems to be saying that there are times when prayer is (I speak cautiously) a waste of time. On occasion, I will get e-mails from people who have questions about something I have written. I try to answer their questions. However, if it becomes apparent that the person is not interested in understanding or in finding truth, but is only concerned with tearing it down, I stop writing. It is a waste of time. Sometimes a situation we are praying about is like that. The person is hardened and their future is determined.
Let me make a couple of additional observations.
- John is not saying that we must NOT pray for these people. By all means, if in doubt, pray! By praying, you are not sinning.
- Just because we have doubts personally does not mean that we have committed the offense that leads to death. What is condemned is deliberate rebellion or a hardened denial of the faith, not honest questions.
- This does not mean we should not pray for unsaved friends. Unbelievers are not generally antagonistic, they are uninformed or unenlightened; they don’t understand. We should certainly continue to pray that God would open up the hearts of those who do not currently embrace the truth.
John is calling us to exercise the privilege that we have as children of God. We have the Father’s ear. He hears and answers our requests. To pass up this resource is just foolish. So let me give you some specific ideas on how to take advantage of the privilege of prayer.
- Trust Christ for salvation. When you are in school there are a number of classes you cannot enroll in unless you have fulfilled certain prerequisites. It is the same with prayer. You will not have the “ear of God” until you have received the grace and new life that He offers you through Jesus.
- Pray the Scriptures. In other words when you read a promise or see something that shows you what God’s will is for your life or the life of those around you, ask God to make that thing a reality in your life. For example, when you read “be angry but don’t sin” you might pray, “Father, help me to be angry for the right things and in the right way. Forgive me that so much of my anger is rooted in my own pettiness and impulsiveness. Help me to have the controlled anger of Jesus.”
- Pray for people as you think about them. Instead of saying to yourself, “I need to pray for that person or situation”, do it right then and there. If you are like me, you sometimes forget why you walked into the next room. Don’t risk missing the opportunity to respond to the prompting of the Spirit. Pray for the people on our prayer list. Pray for the missionaries we support. Pray for those people who hear our radio broadcast or visit our website even though you don’t know their names. Pray for the people you encounter on a daily basis. If you don’t know what to pray, simply ask that God would shine His light on their heart.
- Pray for the work of the church. We know that God wants us to reach out to others, we know He wants us to be a community of people who love each other, we know He wants us to be growing in faith and discipleship and we know that He has promised to supply all our needs. Since we know these things we should ask God for these things with confidence and boldness.
- Listen while you pray. Prayer can only be a dynamic communication with God if we give God a chance to speak to us by His Spirit. Listen for the Spirit’s guidance. Be attentive to God’s counsel and application of the Scriptures to your life. Be ready to repent of the sin that God reveals. Make prayer a two way conversation.
Prayer is only difficult because we make it difficult. Our focus should not be on whether or not we are praying as much as the next guy. This is not a contest; it is a relationship. We should delight in prayer because it is time spent with the Father who loves us. We should delight in prayer because God is listening to us. Our goal in prayer is not to get what WE want but to become what HE wants.
Let me give you one final suggestion: let’s pray for each other that God will teach and enable us to pray with the confidence He desires us to have.