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From the Winter 2008 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

The Prayer-Obedience Relationship

by W. Bingham Hunter, Ph.D.
Vice President and Academic Dean, Phoenix Seminary

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  In a brief essay entitled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer,” C.S. Lewis claimed the New Testament describes two types of prayer—which cannot be reconciled: (A) a form which submits to the will of God (“Thy will be done”); and (B) a form which asks, on the ground of the petitioner’s unwavering faith, whatever the petitioner wills.3 He sees the A-pattern as submissive and doubtful and the B-pattern as assertive and confident. The former Lewis associates with “the very weakest,” and the latter with those who seek miracles. He concludes the essay with: “I come to you, reverend Fathers, for guidance. How am I to pray this very night?” It seems to me, Lewis’ struggle is grounded in an apparent conflict between 1 John 5:14, “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us,” and 3:22, “whatever we ask we receive from him.” What He wants or what I want? God’s will or my will? The way out of Lewis’ dilemma is the last clause of 3:22, “whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” It is through sustained obedience to Christ’s commands that—no matter how great or small our faith—we are spiritually conditioned by the Spirit to think God’s thoughts and hence, more frequently pray according to His will. As we internalize God’s will by reading, meditation, and study of Scripture and systematically reinforce its truth through obedience, my will becomes progressively conformed to His. As I diligently seek to be his obedient disciple, His will increasingly becomes my will.

The Prayer-Obedience Relationship Throughout Scripture

  Scripture assumes this process in much of its prayer teaching. Psalm 37:4 is an example: “Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart.” David takes it as a given that those who truly “delight” in our Lord will also hide His Word in their hearts, meditate on it, and earnestly follow His statutes (see Psalm 119:11, 14-15). Sustained “delight in the Lord” changes the desires of our hearts to God’s desires. This is why James 5:16 says: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power”—because such a believer has been trained by sustained reflection on, and the obedient pursuit of, God’s will, to comprehend life from God’s perspective. (Hungering and thirsting after righteousness leads to the sort of purity in thinking, motive, and behavior that enables a believer to see God and His world rightly—in ways consistent with spiritual reality.) The word “righteous” in James 5:16 does not imply unique spiritual clout. “Righteous” is an adjective describing one whose head, heart, and behavior are fully committed to God. Such persons often pray in tune with His will. The Bible regards “powerful” prayer as a natural spiritual consequence of “delighting” in God’s will in all of life.4

Conclusion: Let Scripture Shape Your Mind, Life, and Prayers

  God has not left it all up to you. Our Heavenly Father is gracious beyond measure. Through the intercession of Jesus, the Holy Spirit and other believers, He provides what we need—even when we pray in error or ignorance of His will. So whether you’re a recent convert to Christ, or have known Him for years, there is much to anticipate as you grow spiritually. And if you wish—as we all do—to become personally “powerful and effective” in prayer, to more frequently experience the joy of having our Lord give you the “desires of your heart,” then you must become committed to reading, memorizing, meditating on, and obeying the written will of God in the Bible. There are no short cuts, no seminars, no amazing prayer-power techniques, nor any “secrets” which bypass this reality. The path to spiritual maturity—to answered prayer—is the way of obedience.
  The emphasis above on obedience points to several uncomfortable conclusions: (1) Prayer is not a labor-saving device. God acts in response to prayer when the situation is beyond solution by those who are praying: God acts when He perceives help is actually needed. God will not do for us, in answer to prayer, what He has equipped His children to do for themselves. There is a time to pray and there is a time to act. (2) We are unlikely to pray better than our commitment to obey. There is no shortcut to effective prayer that bypasses basic Christian discipleship. (3) Those who want to be more effective in prayer must think very hard about the implications of Luke 6:46: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Unless we respond to this verse before we pray, we may well receive it as the answer to our petitions.

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