"If we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us."—I John. 5: 14.
If an answer is sure for all prayer that is according to His will, how eager we should be to learn that will if possible. But "we know not what we should pray for as we ought.” Do we not rush into God's presence with our plans all prepared and importune Him to approve of them instead of waiting on Him to know His will for our life and then ask according to that will? Do we not try to win God over to yield to our desires instead of yielding to Him and praying according to His desires for us? We are cautious about doing things according to His will. Are we equally careful about asking things according to His will? We send up hosts of petitions to Him without the slightest confidence of answer, because we have not sought the "according to His will," which alone gives us confidence. Herein we are like children who, in capricious sport, launch their chip boats by the score upon the swift flowing river with no expectation of their return. Whereas we should be like thoughtful ship-owners sending out fewer crafts, but confidently looking for their rich-laden return because a definite cargo has been promised in the distant port to which they are sailing. There is an immature prayer life as surely as there is an immature Christian walk. In our earlier experience we make prayer a mere means of obtaining our own desires. In our later it becomes, as it should be, a mighty instrument for carrying out the will of God. Then we put up more petitions; now we get more answers. Then we sow more seed; now more of it comes up. The hound that hath a sure trail runs with confidence, while his doubting companion stands baying aloft in disappointed perplexity. The Christian that hath through the Spirit a keen scent (Isa. 11:3, Margin) to detect the will of God, prays with an assurance and power unknown to him who knows not what to pray for as he ought.
It is only as we ask according to the will of God that we can have this confidence or assurance in prayer.
For "This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us." If we are not asking in His will, this assurance of answer cannot be present.
Therefore seek so far as possible to know God's will concerning the object of your prayers.
Suppose you go to a man to borrow a sum of money. You know he is able to lend it. You know also that you sorely need it. But you do not know whether it will be convenient for him to give it; or whether he thinks you really need it; or will to be able to repay it. In short you do not know his will in the matter. Therefore, while you have hope, yet you have no certainty or confidence that the money will be forthcoming. While you have all faith in him, yet you do not know his will, and therefore must continue in doubt and uncertainty as to the result until you hear from him. But now suppose you have a letter from him in which he states that he has heard you are in need and promises if you call upon a certain day he will pay you a certain sum. You now come to him with more than faith. You come with absolute, unquestioning confidence, that you will get the money desired. You do not need to inquire as to his will for that is already revealed in the promise made to you. You now simply ask according to that will perfectly assured that you will receive. Exactly thus is it in prayer. We desire something. Coming to God as to a loving father we ask. But if we are not certain that our wish is His will in the matter, we can only say "if it be thy will," and leave the matter with Him. We may be trustful, and hopeful, but we cannot be confident if not asking according to His will. For our trust rests in the person of God and cannot be disturbed by ignorance of His will at some point. But our confidence of a certain specific answer to our prayer must rest in the fact that we are praying according to God's will, since we have no right to expect that He will give us that which is contrary to His will. Therefore when we pray in line with His will we are in the place of power. We wait quietly, trustfully, confidently. The thing asked for must come to pass, for He has willed it and nothing can frustrate it.
How then shall we come to know His will in order that we may pray according to it, and so have Him do for us that which we ask?
There are three means by which we may know God's will, namely:
By the Word.
By the Spirit.
Plainly, we may know His will first through His Word. For His Word is the revelation of His will for us and for the world, both now and hereafter. As we search for it, let us see clearly what His will is, and then definitely plead that will in prayer. Hence the value of knowing the promises of God in our prayer-life. When we find such a definite promise, it becomes the very base-stone of our confidence in prayer. We rest upon it with absolute certainty. We do not say, "if it be thy will," but "Lord, this is thy will, clearly revealed, and praying according to that will, I know I shall be heard." Think, for instance, of the words, "My God shall supply all your need." The promise is clear, not that God will supply luxuries, but that He will supply His children’s needs. There are things in life such as food, raiment, and the like, of which Christ said, "Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things." Therefore, when a child of God comes to his Father in prayer concerning these things, he is not to pray, "Father, if it be Thy will," but to plead, "Father, Thou hast clearly revealed that it is Thy loving will to supply all my needs, and therefore I pray according to that will with the greatest boldness and confidence, knowing that if I ask anything according to Thy will Thou wilt do it." Therefore, search the Word carefully for the explicit promises of God. Equipped with these, we have a supply of ammunition that never fails in battles with the evil one. It was because Christ could say "it is written," that He thrust at Satan with such confidence and success.
But even as the very lighthouse which has oftenest guided a ship into the harbor would be the one which a foe would seek to blind, destroy, or misplace, if he wanted to lure that ship to destruction, so the very fact that the Word of God is what the Christian is depending upon for guidance, is what makes misquoted, misapplied, or distorted Scripture the most dangerous instrument the adversary can use to mislead the believer as to the real will of God. It was this Word which Satan used when he tried to lead our Lord astray. And every error, or false doctrine, which men propagate, owes its dangerous influence to the misapplied Scripture which is cited in support of it. Therefore it behooves the believer to search the Word with greatest care lest the adversary may be using this subtlety to deceive him in this regard. Let him be sure that the word, which men quote in support of their doctrines is God’s Word and not the opinion of men with regard to that Word.
The Word of God as we have it, being a translation from another language, needs to be searched for the new light that its newer translation may bring to us. Witness the passage in Acts 19:3. In the Authorized Version it reads, "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" This has given rise to the insistent teaching by many that the Spirit of God is not received at regeneration, but at some stage subsequent to it because the Word says "since ye believed." But when we turn to the Revised Version we find this passage reading, "Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?" which gives it an utterly different meaning, and shows that the Holy Spirit was expected to be received at, and not after, regeneration. So in I Thess. 4:15, we read that the living in Christ shall not "prevent" the dead. This translation fills the verse with darkness and confusion, because the word "prevent" which now means to "hinder" meant, when the Bible was first translated, to "precede." Immediately that we substitute as in the Revision this word "precede" the meaning becomes perfectly clear, and utterly different from the King James translation. Many other passages might be cited to show the need of our being sure as to the translation of the Word.
There is no misreading of the Word more common and none more fruitful of error than to read it without its context. Many, for example, quote i Jno. i: 7, "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin," as proving that by one definite act of faith the believer may be cleansed, by the blood of Christ, from the sinful nature within him. But mark the context,—"If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, the blood cleanseth, or keeps cleansing, etc. In other words the cleansing is a daily, continuous cleansing, conditioned on the believer’s walking in Christ. But if he does not thus keep walking, the blood will not keep cleansing. Without the context the verse can be, and is, wrested to mean an instantaneous work of the blood of Christ through an act of faith. But with the context the verse refers to the continuous work of the blood of Christ through the daily walk of faith, to the abiding of the believer, not to his standing. The condition is not "If we believe” but "If we walk." The result is not "cleanseth" by an act, but "keeps cleansing," by a process, as the word means. To tear a passage from its needed context in this fashion, is like catching a single sentence from the words of a passer-by without knowing the subject matter whereof he speaks. The process is as unfair to the speaker as it is fatal to the truth. Again:—
Many texts of Scripture are true for the especial individuals to whom they were written, but do not have application to God's people at large. There is prophecy for example, which was written for the Jew, and has no application whatever to the Church, save for such general spiritual lessons as all may draw from it. There are promises to the Church on the other hand, which are not applicable to Israel. Therefore, as we search the Word of God to know His will, it behooves us to ask, concerning any specific statement, "Does this apply to all, and therefore to me, or was it written to special persons or classes of persons only? Take for example the precious truth of the coming again of our Lord as prophesied in such passages as I Thess. 4:13-18. Many apply this to a coming at the death of the believer, arguing that Christ so comes at that time. The most casual study of the context can scarcely fail to show the glaringness of such a misapplication. We vividly recall the case of a recruit in an army camp during the war with Spain who came to our tent in great trepidation of spirit because he was assured, from a chance reading of Romans 15: 28, that he would surely be assigned to Spain before the war was finished. Scarcely less grotesque than this are the misapplications of God's Word made by many, by tongue and pen. The worst feature of errors of this sort is the serious injury to the faith of the person deceived. He pleads some promise of God from the Word, as he thinks, and then because God does not make it true in his life he loses faith in God and in the reality and power of prayer, whereas the failure to receive from God has been due purely to the fact that he has not been praying according to God's will, but according to his own false conception of it.
Another common experience of misguidance in the truth of the Word is this. A speaker or writer quotes a text of Scripture and quotes it correctly. But straightway he proceeds to deduce an inference of his own from the text, and presently the reader, if not very careful, is accepting that human inference as the Word of God. Most of the absurd teachings of Christian Science find their lodgment and their power of beguilement from this cause. Its victims, all unconsciously to themselves, are accepting weak, absurd, illogical statements of men as the very Word of God itself, whereas they are only subtle human inferences inwoven with the text. Safeguarding ourselves then against these errors by the above simple precautions we shall find the Word of God a safe and infallible guide for the revelation of His will in our prayer life.
A man's life may be so hedged by circumstances that they become a clear means of guidance to him upon points which the Word of God may not specifically touch. Thus the Word of God may call a man to go into all the world and preach the gospel. But to what part of the world that servant is to go, whether India, Africa, China or elsewhere, must be determined largely by circumstances outside of that Word. A man without a right arm would not be called by God into a work requiring the use of such. A man upon whom God had clearly laid the support of others who could not go into the foreign field could not go himself until God had changed those circumstances. God leads both by shutting doors of circumstance, and by opening them. Sometimes the clear closing or opening of the way by a circumstance becomes the chief sign we have of God's will in the matter at stake. The gifts which one possesses for Christian service, the joy he finds in doing it, the seal of success which God sets upon it may all be very definite circumstances to lead a man to the mind of God concerning his call to it. It must be noted, however, that circumstances alone are not usually the safe or the only means of guidance as to God's will. And the safe course here is always to
That is, in all cases of any doubt as to God's will, wait upon God in prayer until assured in the Spirit that the course to which circumstances seem to point is the one to be taken. In other words, there is sometimes a speciousness, a plausibleness in circumstances which may lead us astray unless tested and confirmed by the Spirit of God. Who of us has not had the experience of having all things seem to point in a certain direction, to a certain course of action, yet there has been a slight hesitancy of spirit, a lack of perfect liberty to so act. We delayed. And then as we waited in prayer the circumstances changed, or lost their weight with us, and we came to see clearly that we would have been mistaken in following them. This plausibleness of circumstances is well illustrated in the ninth chapter of Joshua. The Gibeonites were a part of the old inhabitants of the promised land who were to be destroyed, or driven forth by Joshua and the Israelites. Knowing the fate which would meet them if they were recognized as dwellers in the land, they came to Joshua feigning to be ambassadors from a distant country, and showing in proof thereof their bread, dry, musty and moldy from their pretended long and weary journey. Joshua and the Israelites were deceived by a circumstance—the dry and musty bread. In the graphic language of the text (Josh. 9: 14) "They received the men by reason of their victuals (margin) and asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord.” The inference is plain that if they had waited upon the Lord and taken counsel of Him He would have unmasked the guile of the Gibeonites and shown Joshua that the circumstances were false and deceptive. Even so Satan is ever ready to mislead God's children by all sorts of trickery and will bait his traps with any device wherewith he may ensnare them. The only safe course for us is always to "take counsel at the mouth of the Lord," and have Him confirm for a certainty all that is doubtful or even plausible in circumstances.
We may know the will of God also through the Spirit of God. For there are many emergencies in our lives in which neither the Word of God nor Circumstances can convey to us the mind of God, and unless there is a guidance by the Spirit of God His children must walk in darkness. The Word of God, for example, may call us to prayer for the sick, but there is nothing in that Word, nor in circumstances, which reveals to us whether it is, or is not, the will of God to raise up or to take to Himself the one for whom we may pray. And it is only as we wait upon God in prayer that we can receive, by the Spirit of God, the assurance of His will to heal or to take. The Word of God bids us to go forth into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. But there is nothing in that Word, which tells us into what particular part of the world a man so called is to go, and with nothing particular in the circumstances to guide he may be thrown entirely upon the leading of the Spirit of God for light. Indeed there are hundreds of details in our lives in which we need the guidance of God to keep us from going astray, and in which being guided directly neither by the Word nor Circumstances, the Spirit becomes the supreme, final and only revealer of God's will in the matter at issue. And why should it be thought impossible for the God who is a Spirit to guide those who have that same Spirit within them as a gift from Him? Yea, it is by the Spirit of God that the things of God are revealed. And does not our denial, or skepticism as to the guidance of the Spirit rather prove our lack of perception than His lack of guidance? The fact that no voice comes to us over a telephone does not prove that there is no such voice. It may only mean that we have not heard it. That we do not hear the voice of the Spirit does not prove the silence of God, but only the dullness of our spiritual hearing. It is not that God is mute, but that we are deaf. Let us not deny the fact of the Spirit's inner voice to the soul merely because we are too fleshly to hear it. The Word of God clearly proves that He spoke to men by the voice of His Spirit. Of Paul and Silas it is said in Acts 16:7, that they assayed to go into Bithynia but "the Spirit suffered them not." Of Philip that same word says that the Spirit said to Philip "Go near, and join thyself to this chariot." (Acts 8:29.) So we are told that Agabus spoke to Paul "by the Spirit." Acts 21:11. As the disciples at Antioch fasted and prayed we are told that "The Holy Ghost said, 'Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.'" (Acts 13:2.) Likewise does God speak by His Spirit to His children in these days?
There are three lessons we need to learn concerning the revelation of God's will through the Spirit. These are:
"If any man will to do His will he shall know."
To know the will of God we must will the will of God. Self-will is the surest and densest veil, which hangs between us, and the knowledge of God's will. To approach God in the spirit of self-will is like the plunge of a railroad train into a great tunnel—darkness and gloom are the sure result. It is through the heart, rather than through the head, that we discern the will of God, and rebellion or failure of submission in the heart means darkness upon the path. If we ask ourselves "Am I just as willing to have God refuse this petition of mine if it be His will, as to grant it?" we will find a sure test for unmasking self-will. And we will be amazed, as we apply this test, to discover how much of our prayer life is an effort to win God over to assent to, and carry out, our own will rather than an asking according to His will. To come to God then in the spirit of absolute submission to His will is a supreme essential to the knowing that will.
Haste is the parent of nine-tenths of our mistakes concerning the will of God. The man who hurries has many missteps to wearily retrace, whereas the man who waits has but few. Waiting on God is a kind of spiritual filter. The sediment of darkness and error precipitates for the man who waits, and the clear and luminous truth remains. Do not allow yourself to be driven to inconsiderate decisions under any pretext of haste. When you are in doubt you have a sure call to wait. It is astonishing how the mist will clear away and the light shine forth for the man who waits. The spirit of haste, on the other hand, is born of the flesh and results cannot fail to be of the same.
God is a Spirit. If we would receive the messages of the Spirit we must learn to walk in the Spirit.
Suppose from a loved one who has gone before a promise came that sometime tomorrow a message would come to you from that other land. Suppose, too, that since that message was to be from a spiritual being you yourself must needs be walking in the Spirit if you would hear it. When tomorrow dawned how careful would you be lest you miss it. How careful about waiting on God; how careful to have your ear attuned to the coming tidings; how guarded lest the clamor and boisterousness of every-day life might dull your spiritual hearing. How much time would you spend in quietness in the chamber of prayer, waiting and listening in the silence. How earnestly would you seek to be in the Spirit when that message came from your loved one on the other shore, so that you might receive, hear and know it? Just this should be our continual attitude toward God. We should strive just as earnestly to be in the Spirit to hear God's messages to us as we would be to receive the message of an absent loved one, if such a thing were possible.
Neither let us lose heart if we are slow about learning how thus to so walk in the Spirit that we may recognize the inner voice when He speaks to us. For this selfsame thing is the highest test of the closeness of our walk with God. We can afford to yield a costly tribute of time and patience here in return for so precious a blessing. More than a century ago godly Pastor Blumhardt was wondrously used of God in prayer for the sick. His power in this ministry depended, as does all power in prayer, upon praying according to the will of God. He testified that at the first when he began this ministry of intercession, he would spend many hours in prayer before he could ascertain the will of God as to the afflicted one. But after about two years he came to be so familiar with the inner voice of God that often he would scarcely have lifted his heart to God in communion ere the mind of God in the matter was clearly revealed to him. With us, even as with him, God is willing if we are but patient, prayerful, and trustful, Here, as elsewhere, the Lord will give us the desire of our heart, and in kind, if not in degree, shall it be true of us. His own children, that "The Father loveth the Son and showeth him all things which He Himself doeth."
James H. McConkey, Prayer, (Pittsburgh: Silver Publishing Company, 1931), 69-85.