Sunday, September 4, 2011

1 John 5:13-21

"Successful Praying"
 MasterPiece Church
04 September 2011

Are your prayers being answered?

14-year-old Ann Carmichael had only prayed for two things in her entire life.

When she was seven she'd prayed that God would give her the beautiful baby blue 10-speed bike that she'd seen in the bike store.  She'd never had a bike of her own.

Her Sunday School teacher assured her that God hears and answers prayer-- if she'd only have faith. So Ann decided that she'd pray two times everyday -- once in the morning before she got out of bed and once at night as she crawled into bed.

She prayed and prayed--all summer she prayed -- and nothing happened. In September she found a picture of a bike in a catalog and clipped it out and stuck it to her mirror. She prayed all fall and on into December, figuring that God would probably surprise her with it at Christmas.

And on Christmas morning with great anticipation she ran downstairs -- and sure enough there was a bike parked next to the tree!

But it wasn't baby blue. It was a faded brown second hand bike with scratches and just one speed.

Ann learned her lesson. She told herself that she'd never ask God for anything again. He couldn't be counted on.

But she got desperate when she was 14. This time it wasn't even for herself but her grandmother.

Grandma Martha had diabetes and was losing her sight. Ann felt so helpless as she assisted her grandmother with household chores. Grandma could no longer cook as she loved to do. Obviously she couldn't drive. And she spent most of the day sitting in a chair in her small apartment.

Ann couldn't stand it. "Please God, do something. Don’t you care? PLEASE give Grandma her sight back." Ann even phrased the prayer with words that she once heard an adult use -- “In the powerful name of Jesus heal her -- let her see again so she'll be like she was.”

Not such a difficult thing for God, she figured, especially since Jesus healed so many blind people in the Bible.

But it was not to be.

Ann's grandmother continued to loose her sight -- until she was completely blind.

And once again Ann gave up on prayer -- figuring that it just didn't work for her. Either God didn't hear or care or she didn't have enough faith or she didn’t know how to do it right.

Whatever the problem was it just didn't work. Ann even began to wonder if she was really a Christian -- after all, she figured, God must hear the prayers of Christians.

And Ann was perhaps right in questioning her faith -- her relationship with God. For the apostle John says that answered prayer is a mark of genuine faith. It is a mark of a genuine relationship with God. Thus if your prayers are not being answered then something is wrong.

Listen again to 1 John 5, starting at verse 13: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life.”

Remember that John is writing his letter to counter the teaching of the pseudo-teachers, those who were offering false confidence. They were offering unusual experiences and knowledge as the assurance of eternal life.

But John says, as we saw last week, that eternal life is only in Jesus, the Son of God.

Now, he adds,
"I want you to experience confidence in your relationship with God through his Son....I don't want you wavering back and forth falling prey to the pseudo faith of the false teachers."

“I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life.”
And how is this confidence worked out? Catch this...
Verse 14: “And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.”
How do we know that we have eternal life? How do we know that we have a relationship with God? We know because he hears us when we ask anything of him.This phrase at the end of vs. 14 and again in vs. 15, “he hears”... suggests that he favorably hears us.

This is how we know that we know God and that we have received eternal life—GOD ANSWERS OUR PRAYERS.

The apostle goes on in vss. 16-17 to give an example of how this works:

“If you see a Christian brother or sister sinning in a way that does not lead to death, you should pray, and God will give that person life. But there is a sin that leads to death, and I am not saying you should pray for those who commit it. 17 All wicked actions are sin, but not every sin leads to death.”

Now, unfortunately, when we usually read this verse we home in on the phrase -- "there is a sin that leads to death."

Then we try to figure out what John meant by that. Is there an unpardonable sin? What is it? I wonder if I've committed it?

We get waylaid on an issue in which scripture is somewhat ambiguous -- and we miss the point of the illustration.

The sin that leads to death, while worth examining sometime, is really just a somewhat parenthetical note here.

John's point is that God answers the prayers of those who believe in his Son...thus if you, a CHRISTIAN, pray for a fallen brother he will be restored.

God answers the prays of those who believe in his son.

This is the very thing, however, that was not happening in Ann Carmichael's life -- the very thing that isn't happening in many of our lives.

Does God answer your prayers? Do you really feel like God is hearing you?

There's a lot of corroboration in the Bible to reinforce this point.

Remember all those verse that you memorized as a child?
  • Matthew 7:7 ~ "Ask, and it will be given you..."
  • John 14:14 ~ "If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."
When we couple these promises with our verse in 1 John, we have to ask
  • "Why is it that God doesn't always answer our prayers if answered prayer is suppose to be a point of confidence or boldness for us?"
  • Is there something wrong with his hearing?
  • Or perhaps there is something wrong with us -- our asking... 
  • Maybe we're not using the right formula -- you know, using the wrong words.
  • Or maybe we just don't have enough faith.
Let me suggest that it's a little goofy to talk about God needing “Miracle Ear” since he doesn't have ears in the human sense. We talk about God hearing our prayers -- but we're really just using the human language that most closely resembles divine activity.

No, I really doubt that the problem is with God's hearing.

And I also doubt that the problem centers around a lack of faith -- although that is an occasional problem.

I mean, didn't Jesus say that even if you have the smallest amount of faith – faith the size of a teenie-weenie mustard seed you'd be able to do great things like moving mountains into the sea? Contrary to your Internet spam, size doesn’t matter. God doesn't just respond to super saints and giants of faith.

So what exactly is the problem?

Let me suggest that it lies in the fact that we often overlook a small parenthetical clause in verse 14 – “anything that pleases him”

“And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him.”

Or the CEB -- “This is the confidence that we have in our relationship with God: If we ask for anything in agreement with his will, he listens to us.”

God has a plan that he is carrying out and he is most responsive to prayers that fit into his plan. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemene right before his betrayal and execution, he said to God -- "not my will but yours."

In the Lord's Prayer we pray, using the very words that Jesus used to instruct his first disciples--YOUR WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IN HEAVEN.

The great English churchman, John Stott, has said: "every true prayer is a variation on the theme, 'thy will be done.'"

Unfortunately we often--and I'd venture to say, mostly, see prayer as a means for OUR WILL to get done -- a means to get our way, to accomplish our agenda -- be it good or bad.

I don't mean that we're overtly greedy but that we tend to see God as a cosmic Walmart, set-up for our convenience. And so we pray -- but we ask for our way instead of God's way. No wonder he doesn't always “hear us.” For we often ask for that which are unimportant or that he is not favorable disposed toward.

Now, sometimes he lets us have what isn't in his plan. As I was growing up my parents monitored my spending habits pretty closely. But I remember my parents allowing me to buy some cheap plastic toys on occasion.

I begged for a plastic machine gun -- you know the kind that make obnoxious noise and shoot fake sparks.

You wouldn't believe how much I wanted one of those guns. And my parents could see how worthless a toy it was and they didn't really want me to waste my money. But eventually they let me buy it -- I’m sure, so that I could see the value of their counsel. They did this many times.

And I was inevitably disappointed with such purchases. I think my machine gun broke in a day or two.

Sometimes God gives us what we want even though it's not according to his plan, standards, or will. But generally speaking God answers prayer when it coincides with his way, his will, his agenda. And this principle is presupposed in all of the scriptural promises that talk about asking in order to receive from God.


Solomon is a good example of this principle. God blessed him because he asked for wisdom, which was a part of God's will. He didn't ask for wealth or power but for something that was a part of God's will.

And if you will ask for anything according to his will he will hear you, too.

What do you think? I wonder if maybe, just maybe, our prayers seem to flop so often because we are not praying for God's will to be done. We're praying for my will to be done. Our orientation is off.

Perhaps we need to learn to pray for God's way. We need to tune into what God wants us to ask him for.

In Richard Foster's best selling book Celebration of Discipline, he writes:
In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God's thoughts after him; to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves. Progressively we are taught to see things from his point of view.
We need to learn to pray for God's will. For we are successful at prayer only as we pray for God's way.

But how do we know what God wants us to pray for? How do we know his will?

I mean, you'd think that he would want a little girl to pray for a new bike. How could he be against a little girl's desire for a new bike.

Frankly, I don't know why God didn't allow Ann the bike she wanted? I certainly wouldn't discourage other children for asking for bikes or anything else they think they want.

And how about the grandmother who went blind -- how could it not be in God's will to heal her?

Let me assure you that Grandma Martha's blindness will be healed – for on the day of the resurrection, according to 1 Corinthians 15, we will all be given new and whole bodies. She will be healed –- but not necessarily in Ann's time -- rather, it will be in God's time.

So how do we know this? How do we know how to pray?

Let me offer three brief guidelines that will help you know what to pray for. Three ways that you know God's way.

First and most obvious is the biblical guide.

God has revealed himself through the Bible and thus a large portion of his general will has been revealed already. So don't go praying for something that God has already said in the Bible that he dislikes.

Do not pray that God will bring you a new spouse when you tired of the old one. It's not God's will.

Do not pray that God will strike down your annoying neighbor -- you know, fry him with a bolt of lightening or something. It's not God's will.

And do not pray that God will make you filthy rich when he has strongly advised us against the pursuit of wealth.

If he gives it to you great, but don't spend your life pursuing it or asking for it because he said "seek first the kingdom of God."

Secondly, we learn God's will through trial and error.

The apostle Paul pleaded with God three times that God would remove from him what he called his "thorn in the flesh." We're not sure what it was but many scholars reading between the lines of his letters suspect that it was a problem with his eyesight.

But God didn't remove it and Paul concluded that God left it there so that he could be glorified in his weakness.

The point is that Paul failed three times before he figured out that God's will was different than what he was asking for. At least for that point in time.

As a child I was taught that God answered prayer in three ways: yes, no, or latter. Paul's thorn in the flesh had to wait until later – and he learned that through trial and error.

This means that each time we ask for something we should be qualifying it -- at least in our hearts, with the clause, "should it be according to your will."

Don't be afraid to ask for miracles. Don't be afraid to ask for the outrageous. God doesn't get mad when you ask for something that he hasn't already told you that you can't have.

Just ask for it with the stipulation that you only want it if it is according to "his will."

Some of you know that our niece Robyn was in a critical accident a few weeks ago -- rolled a car seven times -- ended up in ICU with severe brain trauma.

And by the way, she is doing well -- out of the coma... tracking with conversations -- sitting up and wanting to walk. We are very optimistic about her full recovery but it is going to be a long haul.

Cheryl’s brother Charlie -- who is not only an astute business man but is also a great prayer warrior -- posts a daily update on Facebook. And everyday he includes a line in the update for those who would pray for Robyn. “Pray for 100% healing and 100% recovery for Robyn according to God's will.”

That’s got to be the hardest prayer for a father who has some very definite ideas about the outcome of this whole thing -- “according to God’s will.”

And it is looking like it is God’s will that Robyn would be fully healed -- that’s been my sense from the beginning -- I’m not sure why -- just a sense. And that’s how I’ve prayed, too.

But if after a while of asking -- and I'm not sure how long that while is -- if you are not getting what you want, then assume that God is answering, "no" or even perhaps, "not now."

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong or inappropriate to ask -- there are many biblical examples of perseverance in prayer -- and exhortations to “keep on asking” -- as indicators of faith.

BUT the fact is that even when we keep on asking we don’t always see the answers we expect. We are not rewarded for continuing to ask but for the faith that is behind the perseverance.

I mean, at times God promises something even before we ask for it -- that still doesn’t mean that it will happen as we think it should.

In Hebrews 11 we have a long list of people who acted on God’s promises but who didn’t see everything fulfilled in their lifetimes. Hebrews 11:38 reads -- “All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith.”

Thirdly, learn to listen.

Usually when we pray, we think that we have to be talking to God -- engaging him in conversation.

But prayer is a two way conversation -- and good two way conversations don't happen unless both communicators spend time listening to each other.

This is one of the great things that I'm learning in my life. I am spending less and less time talking to God and more and more time just listening for him. I feel free now to just sit down and say to God, "Okay what is it that you want me to do? What is it that you want me to be praying about? What is it that you want me to ask for?

Sometimes I sit there and nothing seems to happen but often the Holy Spirit will bring to mind specific ways I should be praying. And I end up praying for people and situations that I wouldn't normally have on my prayer list.

You see, the problem for me is that I've always figured that once I've gone through my list of things that I've promised to pray for then I'm done praying. But really, I'm only then beginning.

If I just sit and listen I'll find answers to pray. Sometimes I feel that God is pressing me to do something about the very things I'm praying about...he uses me as an answer.

But I never hear it unless I'm actively listening.

And this is not easy for me. I am not by nature a contemplative person. I'm an activist. I like doing rather than being. As soon as I stop to pray I find that my desk needs rearranging. Angry Birds need to be sent flying through the air. My books need to be straightened -- anything but just sitting.

I suspect that most of you are the same because our culture values doing over being.And that's okay – just don't feel guilty because you're sitting and listening for God to speak to your heart.

You don't have to be busy every single minute. You don’t have to manage your time that tightly. You don't have to be constantly entertained. Just slow down so you can listen -- and you'll find that the things you pray for will change.

And that’s because you'll start seeing things from God's perspective and you'll be praying for his will to be done. And isn’t that what being a Jesus follower is really all about anyway -- entering into his will -- in all its dimensions?

You know, I'm really glad that John brought prayer up at the conclusion of this his first letter. I'm glad because this is something to which we really need to give our attention. This is an area where we are in dire need of improvement.

I really sense that generally speaking we are not so serious about prayer. This is an area where we really need to grow -- and actually where people want to grow.

This is an area where we sense the need for more depth. But this depth will not come with just a commitment to pray more or have special meetings or prayer marathons -- or whatever the gimmick is this week.

The depth is going to start to come, and I believe it will, as soon as we start to tune into what God is doing – as soon as we begin to pray for God's way.

We could be on the verge of a great spiritual awakening in our congregation and in the nation as a whole -- but we will not cross over until we start looking for what God is saying to us in our unique setting and our unique place in time.

God is wanting to do great things through us -- perhaps things unlike what has been done before or which everyone else is doing. We just have to pause long enough and listen intently enough to hear what it is he wants us to be doing.

I challenge you to make prayer a priority -- not just any kind of prayer but prayer that echoes the Lord's Prayer with intense passion -- YOUR WILL BE DONE.

Let's pause now to practice what we preach. Let's stop and listen to what God is saying. Listen closely as we sit in silence. God wants to get hold of you -- begin to give him a chance.

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