Q&A: What should we really pray for?

My dear friend Cam submitted a question to me through the site a while back and I’ve just now gotten around to answering it.  Along with being very gracious and patient in waiting for my response, Cam has also allowed me to post our exchange (below).

Question from: Cam Beck

Every day I pray for my will to be conformed to God’s. In the abstract, this is very easy to say. “What do you want?” – “I want for God’s will to be done.”

When I get to what is typically called “prayer requests,” or supplication, I struggle, because I want to have joy in whatever happens, as long as I have a deep and abiding relationship with our Lord. I find myself asking for something and then backing up, wondering if I should be asking for anything but God’s will, for I don’t know if what I’m asking for is, in fact, God’s will, whether my request be for myself or for others.

From my own perspective, of course I WANT this or that situation to go well for my friends… even my enemies… as long as THEIR relationship with God be established or strengthened rather than the opposite outcome. He always knows better than I do. And I don’t ever want to presume that He doesn’t.

So, applying the example of Jesus at the Mount of Olives to submit to God my heart’s desire while still truly wanting “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done,” may appear as a contradiction of my heart’, as it did in Christ’s case (The cup was not removed as Jesus requested, but the perfect will of our Father was done).

This is not to say that God does not care for our needs. I am confident that He does, even if those needs are not as we define them in our prayer requests. If we love the Lord and lack any material comfort or blessing of this world, I’m equally confident that we didn’t really need it, and we can still rejoice in His goodness and presence.

How would you recommend I reconcile this dichotomy to lead to a more fruitful prayer life, in the sense that it ultimately would conform my heart to His will?



First off, thanks for the question!  It’s a good one, and I think a lot of other people struggle with this concept – especially those of Reformed conviction.

My response and comments above should in no way be misconstrued to say that we shouldn’t pray – Scripture is very clear to the contrary when Paul says pray without ceasing, James tells us to pray in all situations, and Christ himself prays constantly.  But we should offer our prayers up to the Lord and let him answer them as he sees fit.  This is, I think, the epitome of faith in prayer.  If we pray and become dissatisfied when God doesn’t answer our prayer the way we want or expect, then we’ve essentially told God that he doesn’t know what he’s doing and that we do.  And if we don’t pray because of a defeatist mindset (‘God will take care of it… I don’t have any bearing on the situation’) then we have gone against Scripture.  So then I think the Scriptural way to pray is to say “God, here is what I am feeling – I desire that this should happen and that you would get glory in this way, but I submit this supplication to you because you are the one who hears and you are the one who has dominion and sovereignty over this situation.  Shape my heart to come into alignment with what you are doing, and let me see the glory that you are getting in this situation, and to trust you when I cannot see.  I have these wants and desires, but it is not my will but yours that will be done.  I want to trust you more – let me trust you more in this prayer and whatever your answer may be I pray that I would worship you in it. If I am sinful in my wants, show me how so that I can know you and your will more deeply.

The long and short of it is that the more you grow in your knowledge of and dependence on God, the more robust and earnest your prayer life will be.  I know I’ve become much more conversational, confessional, and intimate in my prayer with God over the past few years and it has been a huge blessing for me.  I know my God who speaks to me in a myriad of ways, and he has built in me a trust that I can know his voice and follow where he leads, even if the road is uncertain and the path seems hard to follow.  And then there are times where I still disobey and reject him – and he disciplines me and rebukes me.  But as you grow you’ll find that God’s voice is familiar, comforting, and brings much wisdom and peace.  I have found that praying in this way has made me more patient, more relaxed, and more confident in my walk with Christ, and I am truly thankful for how he has grown me in my communication with him.

I think you said it best when you mentioned “I want to have joy in whatever happens, as long as I have a deep and abiding relationship with our Lord.” That is the excellent priority – this is where you should stay, and the joy will come out of that close relationship.

As far as your concern over whether what you’re praying is right or not, This is a good concern… but God doesn’t call us to be 100% accurate with our prayer requests; he does call us to be holy and to bring our concerns to him.  It’s his business how he answers them – we are only called to submit them and relate to him in his response.  And that goes along with your next thought, that God knows better than we do and we can’t presume otherwise. Exactly – you are right-on.  God’s wisdom is infinitely higher than ours, and we cannot know everything in our limited perspective.  But there’s nothing wrong with wanting or thinking… it just matters whether you exalt that and say ‘God should do this’ and then get frustrated or angry when he doesn’t.

My response to you wondering how to resolve the dichotomy of praying to know God more deeply rather than for specific things is that I think you’ve got a good understanding of prayer… but I would challenge you to think in the following way as well. C.S. Lewis’ example from ‘the efficacy of prayer’ is that of a man who kneels down to propose to a woman who accepts his proposal.  Is her acceptance of that proposal the result of him initiating the question, or is it more that all along she acted in such a way as to elicit that question being asked?  Basically, did the guy ask her because he felt the desire to, or was it because she didn’t turn him down for a ton of dates and conversations? In other words for the situation at hand, do we pray for an effect (does God respond to our prayer), or is our prayer an effect of God working in our lives to build dependence on him?  To put it yet another way, does God act so that we must pray to come into alignment with him, or are we praying to affect God’s actions?

I hope this makes sense – Enjoy.

– nj

To my current reader(s), what do you think about this?

Did I miss anything?  Any other thoughts?

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Q&A: The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

1. How is the old covenant different from the new covenant?

The Old Covenant is different from the New Covenant in that Jesus is the hinge – he is the substance of which the Old Testament is the shadow.  By that I mean that everything in the Old Testament points to Jesus and tells us about him.  From Genesis 3:15 on we see that Christ is present and echoes throughout the Old Testament.  We also see that the Law given to Israel in Exodus points to Christ (priests, sacrifices, a temple, etc. – Hebrews talks about this, especially chapters 3-10), and that he is their fulfillment – see Galatians, Hebrews, etc.  We also see in Romans 3:21-26 that under the Old Covenant God’s grace is seen in forbearance of sins – that is, he put off judging them until Christ so that they would be holy and in heaven, and also so that their sins would be punished in Christ on the cross.  The New Covenant is realized in Christ – there is no forbearance… Our sins are already atoned for.  There are many differences, but just like the Bible they all point back to Jesus in some way shape or form.

2. In the old covenant, did people receive the Holy Spirit?
> If people did receive the Spirit, then how is that different from how we receive the Spirit now?
> If people did not receive the Spirit, as Ezekiel 36:26-27 seems to hint, then how did they have faith to believe in God? How were they able to follow God apart from his Spirit?

They did receive the HS temporarily, but not in a lasting way.  We see the Spirit of God on his prophets, David, some of the judges (Samson), and Moses – but the Spirit doesn’t stay with them.  In the New Testament we see that the Spirit of God is sent by Christ (see John 14-16) and is our helper, our teacher, the one who rebukes, convicts, encourages, intercedes for, and leads us.  While both Old Testament believers and New Testament believers were regenerate believers in Christ (the work of the Spirit), I believe that the Spirit was sent to dwell in humanity after Christ sent him following his death and resurrection.  So in the OT we see the Spirit at work around and through humans, in the NT we see the Spirit at work in us as well.  I believe that regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit are not necessarily one and the same.  This doesn’t mean that I believe in a second baptism, etc.  But what it does mean is that I believe that in the Old Testament before the Holy Spirit is sent by Christ to dwell in God’s people, the Spirit regenerated believers and helped them, but not from within – not from dwelling in believers. I don’t know that I’d die on that hill, but that’s the best answer I’ve got for right now.
I guess I don’t understand how the people in the OT were able to follow God if they didn’t have the Holy Spirit inside them. Do you mean that for certain tasks God filled them with the Holy Spirit, but not for daily life? For example, God gave his Spirit to those who were building the temple for that specific task. But, after they had built the temple he took his Spirit away?

Did God give his Spirit only to some special people, like prophets, for certain tasks, but then took his Spirit away?

I guess, I don’t really understand what you mean by, the Spirit “helped them, but not from within”, what do you mean?

If God regenerated them, but then didn’t permanently give them the Holy Spirit, how could they follow him in daily life?

If they were regenerated they would want to follow God, but without his Spirit wouldn’t they be powerless to actually follow him?

That’s a great set of questions.  Remember that we Christians walk by faith and that’s how we please God.  Now at regeneration God gives us the faith to follow him, so that’s how we walk with him.  The Spirit is definitely at work and present in NT Christians’ lives, but people in the OT still followed God and not necessarily by the Spirit (think Abraham with Isaac and the almost sacrifice).  So in the OT we can see that God gives the Spirit for brief periods for certain tasks (prophets, etc.), but it’s not in a lasting way as though the Spirit was indwelling them like we see in the NT.  What I mean by the Spirit helping but not from within is that the Spirit came upon them and gave them the supernatural power to do something great for the glory of God, but it was not from a permanent indwelling – it was a temporary help or enablement.

3.  When the Bible talks about doing something in the flesh versus doing something in the spirit, what does that look like practically speaking? For example, what would it look like to repent of sin or to read the Bible in the spirit versus in the flesh?
> What is the difference between doing something in your own strength versus in God’s strength?

We walk in the spirit, but we are tempted in our flesh; we make decisions based on our will which is a mixing of the two… We are led by the spirit, but we are also tempted in our motives.  I think it all boils down to motive – are we obeying for God’s glory or because of a sinful tendency?  Are we reading the Bible so we can look awesome at home group or on our blog, or are we doing it so that we can know him more deeply and commune with our God on another level? Are you repenting for others to see or are you repenting to be nearer to God and put away your sin?  I believe that it all boils down to motive – whatever is good in us is the Spirit at work in us, but we can definitely screw that up by letting our flesh take over and give in to temptation.

Can I have good motives, like wanting to be closer to God, but still be doing that in my flesh?

Absolutely – think legalism here.  In a legalistic mindset we have a great desire to please God and to obey, but it if all we do is ‘white-knuckle’ it and redouble our efforts without prayer, dependence on the Spirit, or even acknowledging God’s role in bringing himself glory through us, we’re going about it in all the wrong ways.  So we say ‘I will be sinless in X way so that I can bring glory to God’ and then we completely ignore the Spirit working in us and we deny the cross by trying to circumvent it – we essentially say ‘the cross is not enough – I must do more to please God.’  Do you see the good motive (wanting to please God) and the sinfulness of trying to do so in the flesh, rather than relying on God to lead and leaning wholly on the cross?

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Why Does God Allow Evil?

How can a loving God allow (if he’s truly sovereign) an innocent child to be molested? That doesn’t seem like love.

This is a great question, and I’ve wrestled with it in the past for sure. The short answer is that God doesn’t prevent evil – he is sovereign over it.  The long answer is as follows:

God created the world to reflect his glory, and it does in many ways.  Man did rebel, though, and sinned greatly, rejecting God’s will and headship over creation.  When that happened, the world was broken and man’s desires became only evil all the time.  Since then, everything we do is tainted by sin and produces more sin.  We can see this in Genesis 3, and also in Romans 1 – man sins against God and bears the just penalty for that sin.  God, in his grace, sent Jesus the Christ to die on the cross for those who love God and trust in Jesus.  So God is not the author of evil – rather, he is the author and creator of good, and his essence gives meaning to terms like justice, righteousness, love, grace, and holiness.  But that doesn’t answer the question.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here.  We know that God is loving and that he is sovereign – we see this throughout Scripture.  But we also know that evil exists and permeates our culture and our lives.  So I would submit to you that rather than evil being in opposition to God’s plan, it is well within it. By that I mean that even though evil exists, it does not mean that God has failed.  Quite the opposite – it means that he will redeem that evil and use it for his own glory.  To be sure, the instance above (an innocent child molested) is tragic and I hurt for you if that is part of your story.  But let’s raise our sights a bit and see that God is in the redemption business, not the evil prevention business. I can see two main things that I’d like to address here.

First is that God is a redeeming God.  What if, in light of the previously mentioned molestation this innocent child grows up in a life of sin and confusion and is given over to drugs, abuse, and heinous sin?  What if that child then becomes a Christian and understands the full weight of God’s immense grace in forgiving them of sin that was done to them, and the sins that they committed?  Would that child then not have a greater appreciation of grace?  I’ve heard many testimonies of those who have both endured and committed egregious sins, and to a person each one has always said something like “It has been a very hard road and I would not wish it on anyone, but I will also say that I am thankful because this has brought me to know Christ and his grace much more intimately – and for that I wouldn’t give up a single second.”  You see, for those who know and trust in Christ, God takes our darkest times and redeems them for his glory.  The former addict now has a recovery ministry.  The former porn star now shares the gospel to those in the sex industry.  Or, if we look biblically, the former murderer of Christians (Saul/Paul) gets saved and writes more than half of the New Testament.  Or the youngest brother sold into slavery by his brothers endures much sin, but ultimately fulfills God’s designs for his family and is able to provide for his family when they are in hard times.  You see, God does not prevent evil; he is sovereign over it.

We absolutely must weep with those who are enduring much pain and sin, and we must fight for justice and freedom because they are graces from God.  But we must also share Christ with them so that those dark times do not stay dark – so that they are redeemed for the glory of God and become a part of a beautiful testimony to the grace of God.  And I pray that those who, like me, do endure or commit many sins will (if not now) one day be able to say that what was meant for evil God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).

Second, God is a holy God.  Another main point to consider is that God’s main goal is not the absence of evil, but the recognition of his holiness and glory.  So while sin does grieve God, it does not worry him or make him waver in his pursuit of his own glory.  In the case above, if an innocent child is molested that is a truly awful thing.  But his justice can and will be seen in the molester being punished – and not in some court system, but eternally for his/her sin and rebellion against God to another’s hurt.  Or his grace might be seen in that sinner coming to know the grace of Christ while in prison or at some point in his/her life.  Either way God will have his glory known.  We are not at liberty to dictate how, when, or why because he is the Potter and we are the clay (Romans 9).  We, with our finite minds and limited perspective during our short time on this earth cannot say to him who is infinite, sovereign, infallible, omniscient, and eternal, “You’re doing it wrong!”  It just doesn’t work that way.  [And even if he was doing it wrong, we wouldn’t know because his ways are infinitely higher than ours.]

Rather than question God’s goodness in the times when evil does rear its ugly head, we must, like Job, worship in God’s provision and in the lack thereof.   We must worship with tears of joy and tears of pain.  We worship not because it’s easy, but because our God is the one who is sovereign over evil, and who can and will redeem it in his time.  We worship not because of circumstances, but because he is holy and worthy.

I hope that I’ve shed at least some light on the subject… if you have any other questions, feel free to submit them here.

Lastly, for further reading on this topic, a great article by John Piper is available here.


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Q&A: Fear and Abandonment

Do you have any thoughts on the fear of abandonment?

The most important thing right off the bat is to realize that people are sinners, but God is good.  People do cause hurt and pain, and do mess things up, but God says that He will never leave or forsake us (Joshua 1:5, 2 Corinthians 4:9, Romans 8:28).  From there,  I’d say that you need to realize the issue(s) if you don’t already, so that you can begin understanding and working on them.  If you’re a Christian, forgiveness is key – this doesn’t mean forgetting or downplaying the consequences, but forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation and healing.  Also, going to a good counselor is a huge step.  Counseling isn’t just for crazies (even though we are all crazy at some level), it’s for everyday people to work through issues and be able to live a more fulfilling life.

On the more practical side, I think you’ve got to realize how the fear influences thoughts and behaviors.  Are you emotionally manipulative to get people to stay and/or express their feelings of love?  Are you willing to compromise morally (sexually, etc.) in order to keep someone from leaving you?  Do you alter eating and/or sleeping patterns because of worry?  Once you get that out on the table, it’s good to go through these issues one-by-one and see that any of these behaviors are sinful because they aren’t born out of love, but rather fear and hurt (1 Cor. 13, 1 John 4:18).

Finally, I think trust plays a huge role in dealing with abandonment issues.  Trusting that God will get you through the pain and fear, trusting that your husband/wife will stay (this can be most achieved by them loving and having a holy fear of Jesus as well as a covenant of marriage with you).  The key isn’t to make sure nobody leaves you; it’s dealing with the original hurt and realizing that your hope is in Christ, not in humanity.  Along with a good counselor, I would recommend writing and then voicing your concerns to loved ones (after reviewing and revising them), letting them reassure you, and then having a good accountability partner and/or group to walk through life with so that you can mediate your thoughts and behaviors – not just on abandonment, but everything else.

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Daily Decisions (Part 2): We’re Like Clay

Part two, continued from yesterday…

‘If God is sovereign and knows eternity past to eternity future and knows every decision we’ll ever make then it makes us like robots, right?’

I’ve got two responses to this question.

1) Honestly, I would frame it in a little more biblical language – I would say it makes us like clay in the Potter’s hands (see Romans 9).  God has formed us and shaped us.  He has secured and guaranteed our salvation and sanctification.  Why would we want to hold onto our own ‘freedom’ if we know our hearts are prone to wander?  A logical response to this is, ‘okay, so why do I sin?’.  Who’s to say that God isn’t sovereign over your sin and uses it to show you your depravity, but also for your good and his glory… to show you how much you still need him?  He uses affliction, suffering, hardship, and many other circumstances – why not sin?  Why not allow satan the leeway to tempt us to sin (like we see in Job)?  His ways are much higher than ours.  This doesn’t make him responsible for sin, but it does hold him as sovereign over it in such a way as to use sin to his own glory (e.g. stories of redemption and grace in sinful lifestyles, wicked situations, etc.).

2) Lots of folks are uncomfortable with saying that and following that line of thinking, so I offer this second response… Just because God is sovereign and knows everything because he’s outside of time doesn’t mean that we do.  We make decisions.  I choose certain shirts and meals to eat and sins to engage in.  God knows, and we are sealed, but it doesn’t mean he’s controlling every aspect of who we are and guiding our hand to sin.  It does mean that he knows the path he has set and how it all plays out, but that doesn’t mean that we in the passing of time in our lives don’t make decisions.  We must remember that God is outside of time and we are in it.  He knows eternity and we do not.

Even if God were controlling every aspect of who we are and everything that we do, we would not know it because we’re locked into a temporal mindset and cannot operate outside of that no matter how hard we try. Therefore, we operate as Scripture says to operate – trust God, fear him, obey him, and trust him with our sin as well.  He has guaranteed our salvation, set in motion our sanctification, and has propitiated our sin by Christ on the cross.  And that’s not merely our past sins, but our sins in the near future and the sins of our distant future.  Our grandchildren’s sins.  All of them were taken care of by Christ on the cross.

I see no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (though it is a very difficult issue to be sure), and none of this discussion should change what God has clearly revealed about how we are to live.  We must avoid and combat sin in our lives, pursue holiness, and give him the ultimate glory for it is he who is at work within us (Philippians 2:13).

If you want to read some solid resources, I would point you to “On Free Choice of the Will” by Augustine, “The Bondage of the Will” by Martin Luther, and “God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility” by D.A. Carson.  None of those are light, easy reads, but they will delve into this issue as well as anything I’ve read.

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