I’ve been grateful for the overwhelming response to my post I shared last week on the key that has changed my prayer life. Many people have testified that the idea of thanking God in prayer – rather than asking Him – is a revolutionary thought that not only makes sense, but is an awesome concept. There are others, however, who have been more reserved because of an underlying concern about a perceived contradiction by what I have proposed and what the Bible promotes. Even those who are really excited about this new way to pray have a lingering question – and, admittedly, it is one that I have wondered about and am still grappling with.
The question? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to ask when we pray? How, then, can we throw out asking, and rely solely upon thanking, if the Bible – including Jesus – gives us clear instruction to pray?
After all, there are texts like, “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7), and, “Whatever things you ask in faith, believing, you will receive” (Matt 21:22), and, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13), and, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14), and, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24), and, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).
Based on these verses, and others (including scores of Old Testament psalms and prophecies that betray a lot of imploring), isn’t it overwhelmingly evident that petitioning God must be an integral part of prayer?
Well, first, a few observations: As I survey the “asking” texts in the Bible, what I find is that the emphasis is as much on the fulfillment of the request as the command to request in the first place. In fact, I would say that the chief emphasis of these passages is to impress upon the hearers and readers the reality of the fulfillment of the petitioning. Thus, “Ask, and you will receive.” Or, “Whatever you ask in faith, believe, and you will receive.” So the large emphasis on these is the importance of having faith; of believing that God is, in fact, the granter of such requests. That’s why James says that when we come to God in prayer, we must “ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). If we ask while harboring even a little doubt, we are “a double-minded man,” who is “unstable in all his ways” (1:8).
Secondly, even when we do ask, we are to ask, according to Paul, “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:7). This is, I believe, another way of saying, “with faith.”
Thirdly, Paul also says, quite interestingly, that God is actually able to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). This means that when we come to God, asking Him in prayer, our requests are not too big, but too small! So why aim low by petitioning Him for something that is “exceedingly abundantly” smaller than what He is eager to do?
Beyond these initial observations, however, I have concluded that when I come to God in prayer about a particular subject, my first task is to learn God’s will. This I discover from searching His already-revealed-will, which is explained in His Word. If, in my searching, I can come to the place of determining what His will is, there is no reason I should ask Him for it. In fact, He is the One who has first asked me. He is longing for it to be fulfilled in my life, and when I finally come to Him about it, He says, “I’ve been waiting for you. I’m glad you’ve finally realized I have the resources to fix that problem.”
On the other hand, if I search God’s already-revealed-will and cannot find any prior promise about it, it is at this point that I ask Him about it, in faith, believing that He will answer my request, if it is His will.
With these two categories in mind, I have come to realize that, for the most part, they can also be categorized as those things which are of an eternal nature, and those which are of a temporal nature (there are exceptions, of course). There are many things, which are eternal in nature, that God has clearly promised in His Word. Thus, we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is God’s will that we – and everyone, even our angry neighbor – be saved (1 Tim 2:4), that it’s His will that we be sanctified (1 Thess 4:3), that it’s His will that bitterness, anger, and impatience be removed from our hearts (Eph 4:31-32). So why ask Him for these things, if they are His will and He has already promised them? We should just thank and claim!
On the other hand, most things of a temporal nature may not always be God’s will. Thus, when I pray with thanksgiving, I am not being presumptuous because I am not supposing that my specific material needs – food, shelter, clothing, etc. – are necessarily God’s will. So this is no “prosperity gospel” prayer. I don’t say, “God, thank You for giving me that $2 million house I just drove by.”
Here’s are two examples: if I am struggling with bitterness toward someone, do I have to ask God to remove it, as if I wasn’t sure how He felt about it? If I take this route, as I said the other day, that type of prayer is inconclusive and somewhat characterized by doubt. I would ask God to remove the bitterness, and then go on my merry way, waiting for Him to answer my prayer at some point. More than likely, I will still struggle with my bitterness and either try to stop myself from being bitter – which is a tiring and stressful and impossible battle to fight – or give up on the whole thing altogether, assuming it wasn’t God’s will. Either way, I will give up – either from exhaustion from trying on my own, or because I assume it’s not God’s will.
If I come to God, however, and understand that it is His will to remove my bitterness, I can simply stand upon His promise to “give me a new heart” and “put a new Spirit” within me (Ezek 36:26-27) and I don’t have to stay in a state of limbo, waiting for God to act at some point in the future. I can, with a thankful heart, believe that it is a present reality and live my life accordingly. Victory is mine. Now. And all I had to do was believe and thank. Victory is by faith. Indeed, righteousness is by faith, not by asking.
The second example is of something that happened to me yesterday: I was scheduled to visit with a person who I was trying to encourage in faith. I thought it would be helpful to share the book Lessons on Faith with the individual, and so I ordered it from Amazon.com via one-day shipping. However, it hadn’t arrived 30 minutes prior to me visiting with the person, and I was a little frustrated. I could have said, “Thank you, God, that You will get that book to me on time,” but I didn’t do this. I had no evidence to cause me to think that it was, 100%, God’s will for this person to have the book yesterday, and so I just asked Him, instead, saying, “God, if it is Your will, please get that book to me before I leave.” And, sure enough, about 10 minutes before I went to leave, FedEx dropped it off.
This second example was very simple, but there are scores of others that reflect this second category.
But here’s the cool thing: when I start searching God’s Word for His will, and thank Him when I realize it, standing upon His promises, I find myself becoming less and less worried about those things which are of a temporal nature, and more and more concerned about His will and those things that are of an eternal nature. And thus, my prayers become more characterized by praise and thanksgiving, rather than petitioning. Instead of begging God to remove illness from the life of my loved one, for example, I find myself at greater peace and joy that He is working through the sickness to touch hearts.
My friend, Stein Halvorsen, posted a quote on Twitter this morning that Ellen White had written in her Bible. It is quoted in Philip Samaan’s book, Christ’s Way to Pray. I think it reflects what I’m saying pretty well:
The prayer that does not succeed in modulating our wishes; in changing the passionate desire into still submission; the anxious tumultuous expectation into quiet surrender is not true prayer. The life is most holy in which there is least of petition and desire and most of waiting upon God, that in which petition often passes into thanksgiving. Pray till prayer makes you forget your own wishes and leaves or merges them into God’s will. The divine wisdom has given us prayer, not as a means to obtain the good things of earth, but as a means whereby we learn to do without them, not as a means to escape evil, but as a means whereby we become strong to meet it.
So let us go forward in faith – and with a thankful heart – standing on God’s promises.