An email arrived with some common questions about prayer:
"I teach a Bible Study course at my local church. The question that was asked, 'Should I pray for something (believing the prayer will be answered) and then the next time I pray thank God for answering my prayer (although it has not come to fruition) or should I pray the same prayer request over and over again?'
Does it mean that if I ask over and over again I lack faith in God answering? If I thank him and wait, does that mean I am not praying unceasingly?Or is it a combination of the two. Sometimes we know in our heart the prayer request has been answered so we thank him and sometimes we are led by the Holy Spirit to ask over and over again."We’ve all wondered how long we should we pray for something. Here is the general rule I follow. You should pray for something until . . .
The answer comes, or
The circumstances change, or
God changes the burden on your heart.
We shouldn’t discount the importance of that third one. It’s hard to define a “burden,” but we all know what it is like to have deep concern for others. God may give us a burden to pray for our church or for revival or for the spread of the gospel in Thailand or for a certain city or for the people where we work. Burdens comes in all shapes and sizes. We should be sensitive to those burdens and use them as incentives to prayer. But we need not feel guilty when our prayers begin to change. God may be calling us to focus our prayers in a new direction. Obviously we will always be burdened to pray for our children and for our spouse and for our immediate concerns. But beyond that inner circle, our prayers will change over time.
But what about praying for the same thing over and over again? Is that a good thing or a sign of a lack of faith? Let’s begin by noting that many times when we pray, we simply don’t know how God intends to answer our prayers. That often happens when we pray for a loved one who is desperately sick. We generally don’t know in advance if God intends to heal them quickly or slowly or if he does not intend to heal them. And when we pray for certain things to happen, we don’t fully know the mind of the Lord. I often think of prayer as if we are peering through a keyhole and focusing on one tiny portion of a vast and ever-changing scene. Because we focus only on the part that interests us, we can’t and don’t see the bigger picture of how the parts of life fit together. Only God sees the whole landscape of life–past, present and future, with all its interlocking pieces.
There is another whole category of prayer that might be called prayer for spiritual growth. We may ask God to grant wisdom, strength, perseverance, discernment, courage, deeper understanding, a fresh anointing of the Spirit, a new desire to serve Christ, clear guidance or peace in the midst of trials. Those are extremely biblical requests, and we may be sure that God will answer those prayers. But the how and when rest in the hands of the Lord.
The last part of the question speaks to a situation that happens occasionally. As we pray, together or with others, we may sense that God intends to answer our request. In those cases, I see nothing wrong with moving from prayer to thanksgiving. However, let’s be clear that God is sovereign and he is not held captive by our subjective sense of what we think he will do in the future.
I have been encouraged by three particular Scriptures:
1) "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17 NIV).
Note the phrase “I keep asking.” Paul did not believe that if you made a prayer request, you never had to make it again. When Paul prayed for the Ephesians, he prayed the same request over and over again–that they would know God better. Sometimes I hear it said that since God knows everything we say before we say it and everything we think before we think it (which is true), that we should never repeat ourselves in prayer (which is not true). We don’t pray to inform God of anything. He knows what we are thinking long before we voice our prayers to him. But if he knows all, why pray at all? The simple answer is one you have heard before: “He’s God and we’re not.” We pray to express our total dependence on him in every circumstance of life. As we continue to pray for the same things for our loved ones over and over again, the godly desires of the heart grow stronger and we are reminded that every day we must be 100% dependent on him. We can’t live on yesterday’s blessings and we can’t depend on yesterday’s prayers. So just like Paul, we “keep asking” on behalf of our loved ones.
2) “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8 NIV). That means we don’t have to impress God or use big words or pray long prayers, We don’t have to repeat ourselves when we pray and we don’t have to worry about getting all the details correct or throw in flowery language when we pray. Since God knows us through and through, he knows our needs better than we do. He knew your need before you bowed you head. The Bible tells us that he numbers the stars in the sky, the sand on the seashore, and the hairs on your head. He even calls the stars by name (Psalm 147:4). Ponder that for a moment. Billions and billions of stars and he knows the name of each one. Think how easily you get flustered on Sunday morning trying to remember that person you met last week.
But God not only knows all the people in your church, he knows everyone attending every church everywhere in the world. More than that, he knows the names of all 6.5 billion people who call planet earth home. But even beyond that, he knows the names of everyone who has ever lived here and everyone yet to be born.
If God knows all that–and it’s not even a strain for him, do you think he going to be surprised that you’re worried about your finances or that you don’t like your job or that your kids are getting on your nerves? He knows your thoughts before you think them, your words before you speak them. So pour out your heart to the Lord. Nothing you say will surprise him.
3) “Jesus told his disciples a story about how they should keep on praying and never give up” (Luke 18:1 CEV). The King James says that men should always pray and not faint. Persistent prayer honors God because it expresses our complete dependence on him. Since God knows what we need before we ask him, we don’t have to repeat ourselves to get his attention. But that’s not the whole story. We all know from personal experience that not all our prayers are answered the first time we pray them. Sometimes we receive immediate answers, but often we must wait days, week, months, or even years before the answer comes. When I was in the pastorate, we had some people who prayed for years for their loved ones to be saved. I know because they filled out the same prayer request week in and week out. Is that a lack of faith? To the contrary, repetition is proof of faith. I would add that it sometimes seems that the more something matters to us, the longer we will have to wait for the answer to come. This is very often true when we pray for our loved ones to come to Christ.
Here is a very simple theology of prayer. Our part is to pray fervently, sincerely, and honestly, bringing our deepest concerns to the Lord. God’s part is to listen to our prayers and to graciously answer them in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
So pray, pray and keep on praying. You never know what God will do.
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