“…nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
- Matthew 26.39
We are considering the life of prayer, why it matters and how to improve it. We have seen thus far that, as important as most Christians consider prayer to be, prayer is simply not one of our strong suits. But if we can learn to embrace the promise of prayer and to adopt prayer with the same priority God Himself does, we might begin to find in prayer the kind of haven and stronghold faithful saints in every age have known.
But before we simply charge into the work of prayer and begin practicing it more diligently, we need to make sure that we have fulfilled the one crucial prerequisite for an effective life of prayer.
We must be willing to submit, in every aspect of our lives, to the will of God.
So Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6.10), and so He Himself demonstrated, even though the cost was so very, very great (Matt. 26.39-42).
Allow me to explore four implications of this prerequisite of prayer, after which I will try to summarize the will of God in a succinct manner and suggest some initial applications of our teaching to the hard work of prayer.
Four implications present as essential to submitting to the will of God.
First, we must actually know the will of God. I will say more about this in a bit. For now, I simply wish to remind us that the will of God is plainly revealed in His Word (Ps. 19.7-11), so that careful and consistent reading and study of the Scriptures can put us in a better position to understand what God’s will might be for us in any situation.
The danger of neglecting Scripture, of course, is that we will be prone to error in a great many things (Matt. 22.29), and, when it comes to prayer, we shall undoubtedly do most of our asking in a manner not in line with the revealed will of God, but guided instead by our own lusts (Jms. 4.3). We cannot expect such prayer to prevail with God.
Further, if we neglect to study the Word of God and to give ourselves diligently to the task of understanding His will therein revealed, we may actually end up making our prayers an abomination before the Lord each time we come before Him (Prov. 28.9).
There is no knowing the will of God apart from what He has revealed in His Word. The more we make recourse to the inspired truth of God, the more our prayers can be shaped by what we are able to discover of His will there. And if we are asking according to the will of God, we may ask what we will, and we may be assured our prayers will receive a good hearing with the Lord.
A second implication is that we must not only know the will of God; we must also delight in it. We cannot expect our prayers to prevail with God if we are only grudging in our willingness to be governed by His will. Our attitude must be that of the psalmist, who found the will of God so appealing that he delighted to do it (Ps. 40.8). We must be able to say, “I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love” (Ps. 119.47, 48), or we will not know the joy and power of prayer. When our attitude toward the Word and will of God is like that of Jeremiah, for whom these were “the joy and rejoicing” of his heart (Jer. 15.16), then we shall be able to come gladly, eagerly, and expectantly before the Lord in prayer.
If we know and delight in the will of God, it follows that we will doubtless seek God’s will all that much more fervently. Seeking the will of God involves daily searching the Scriptures (Acts 17.11), waiting patiently and silently upon the Lord (Ps. 27.14). We must learn to listen for the promptings and guidance of the Spirit of God (Ps. 139.23, 24), including those which come from the counsel of others, and to persist in such an attitude without growing weary (Matt. 7.7-11; Jer. 29.11-14).
The more we seek the will of God the more we may expect to discover it, and the more we will then be able to delight in it as a prerequisite for coming to the Lord in prayer.
A final implication is that we must be willing to do what we learn about the will of God. We must not presume to call Him Lord yet fail to do what He clearly reveals to us (Lk. 6.46). The people of Israel deceived themselves into thinking that they wanted to know the will of God when they besought the prophet Jeremiah; however, upon hearing God’s will, that it did not coincide with their own desires, they rejected it and forfeited all future privileges with God (Jer. 42, 43).
It does us no good to know, delight in, and seek the will of God if we do not intend to submit to and do it.
The will of God
But what is the will of God? Can we outline, in general terms, the will of God in such a way as that we may be able to improve our knowledge of, delight in, and obedience to it consistently and increasingly?
I believe we can. Here is my five-point summary of the general will of God for all people at all times:
- Above all, in all, and through all, glorify God and lift Him up for praise.
- In all things and at all times, seek the increase of God’s Kingdom.
- Look to the Lord for your daily needs so that you might do numbers 1 and 2 tirelessly and with powerful effects.
- Keep a clean slate with God and others concerning the matter of sin.
- Seek to grow through temptation and trial unto greater faith and maturity in the Lord.
Everything else God calls us to do or instructs us to obey falls within these general categories of the will of God. If this were not the case, Jesus would not have given us these categories in teaching His disciples to pray “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6.9-13).
As you study the Word of God for greater clarity and focus in knowing His will, keep these five categories in mind, and let them guide you in learning to discern the leading of the Lord for each day.
Finally, a few brief initial applications, which should be self-evident if we intend to fulfill the prerequisite for a more powerful and satisfying life of prayer.
First, we must improve our knowledge of God’s will by making the reading and study of Scripture a more central and constant feature of our lives. Our prayers will never be what God intends until we bring them into line with His will. And we can only do this as we devote ourselves to the more faithful and diligent reading and study of the Bible. We’ll know that we’re beginning to achieve this objective when we can say with Job, “I have esteemed the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23.12).
Next, work hard to improve your practice of God’s will. What you learn, do. Don’t be like the person who sees himself in a mirror and walks away unchanged, though it is clear changes are in order (Jms. 1.22). Let the will of God shape your thinking, redirect your affections, firm up your priorities and convictions, and lead you into daily words and deeds that express the will of God in all the categories outlined above.
Finally, improve your appeal to God’s will in prayer. Go to prayer more often. Linger there more attentively. Seek His presence and glory, so that you might be transformed by His Spirit into the image of Jesus Christ.
Make more time for prayer, and make your time in prayer more effective for the purposes of God’s will.
We shall have more to say about this in our final installment.
A conversation starter: Ask some Christian friends what they understand to be the will of God for their lives, and how this relates to their prayers. Share what you have learned in this column.
In The Ailbe Bookstore you will find excellent helps for enriching your prayer life. John Nunnikhoven’s two volumes of Voices Together will lead you in simple, everyday prayers through the psalms. T. M.’s book, God’s Prayer Program, will show you how to make praying the psalms a more consistent part of your daily life. And The Ailbe Psalter offers you all the psalms cast in the melodies of familiar hymns, so that you can sing your praise and thanks to God each day.