Lesson 7: Petition, Part 2
Good morning! Please find a seat, and we’ll get started. Last week was eventful for my family. We spent the week in sunny Porterville, CA, north of Bakersfield, helping with VBS at a sister church up there. We were living in a motorhome parked at the church, doing VBS in the morning, and also spending a good amount of time with various people from the church in the afternoons and evening. We did get to break away as a family and go up to Sequoia National Park on Thursday, which was neat, and I also was able to squeeze in some time to study for this lesson. It was one of those good, but busy, full weeks!
Today is our seventh lesson on prayer. We started out with two weeks of general introduction, followed by two weeks on praise, one week on repentance, and now this is our second week on petition. Last week, we discussed the implications of the fact that God wants us to address Him as Father. That means that we are supposed to love Him, trust Him, and be humble. It also means that we are to avoid vain repetitions and to pray boldly. All of that has to do with the “how” question: “how are we supposed to pray?” But today I’d like to tackle the “what” question: “what should we pray for?” But before we dive in, let’s ask God to bless our time together.
At first glance, the question, “What should I pray for?” seems simple, especially for those of us who’ve been saved for some length of time. However, it’s an important question to answer because some people really struggle with knowing what to pray for. On the anonymous survey I sent out at the beginning of the summer, one person indicated that he or she often feels guilty asking God for physical things. Is it right to feel that way? We’ll answer that question in a minute. But for now, it’s just important to recognize that some people struggle with those thoughts and feelings. Another reason why we ought to address the question, “What should I pray for?” is that we all have room to grow in this area. Our priorities in prayer reflect our priorities in life, and all of us are tempted to pursue wrong priorities.
In the next two lessons, I’d like to discuss four guidelines to govern petition. Today, we'll consider guidelines one and two.
Guideline #1: Nothing is too big or small to pray about.
Turn with me to Philippians 4:6. This verse teaches us to pray about our troubles. That’s very open-ended, isn’t it? First, Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything.” “Nothing?” “Nothing… except for cancer; it’s okay to worry about cancer. Oh, and terrorism; you can worry about that, too.” No! You’re laughing because those are the kinds of excuses we make for ourselves, even though we know that’s not what it says.
“But it’s so hard not to worry! I can’t just ‘stop it’! What am I supposed to do?” Paul gives the answer: “pray about everything.” The phrase, “in everything” probably means, “in every situation,” which means that this command applies to every foreseeable circumstance, whether you’re running late for a birthday party or you’re locked in a holocaust camp. Paul says, “pray about it. Tell God what you want, and then trust Him to do what’s best.” Notice that this verse sets no limits on prayer. There’s nothing too big for God to handle, and there’s nothing too small for Him to care about. So, pray about everything. If it matters to you, then it matters to God.
Turn now to Matthew 7:7-11. This passage teaches us to ask God for blessings. Once again, notice how open-ended this is! Jesus says, “If you want something, then ask God for it, because people who ask, receive!”
When Elise was a child, her grandparents had an interesting philosophy in regards to gift giving. They said, “We’re not going to mail you presents, but when we see you in person, we’ll make up for it.” My wife says that when her grandparents came to town, they would take her and her siblings to the store and tell them, “If you want something, just put it in the cart.” Elise said that idea was almost incomprehensible to them, because their mom was so frugal. Sometimes they’d get to the checkout line and one of her siblings would protest, “But Grandma, Elise got more presents than me!” And her grandma would say, “Well, who’s fault is that? You didn’t put very much in the cart!”
Now, just to be clear, God is not a doting grandparent who promises to give us everything we want. However, He is a loving Father who wants to give us everything that is truly good for us. However, according to this passage, there are times that He withholds those blessings from us until we ask! Why do you think God does that? Why does He wait for us to ask? I think it’s because He doesn’t want us to take His blessings for granted. He wants to teach us dependence and thankfulness.
Now, if we try to base our entire theology of prayer on this one passage, we’re going to end up with some serious problems. We’ve got to take into account, for instance, the importance of faith, the significance of God’s will, and what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. However, this passage encourages us to explore the extent of God’s generosity through prayer. What a thought!
Based upon these two passages, I would say that our failure in regard to petition is not asking for too much; it’s asking for too little. When we ask God for things, we are acknowledging His sovereignty, His goodness, and our complete dependence on Him. How can this be anything but pleasing to God, even when He answers “no”? The world has bought into the lie that spiritual things don’t matter. We know that’s wrong. But if we’re not careful, we as Christians can slide into the opposite extreme, that is, what some authors call “Neo-Platonism,” the idea that physical things don’t matter! Physical things do matter to God, that’s why Jesus said, “Give us this day our daily bread!” Now again, don’t forget everything else we’ve talked about! We learned from James 4 that’s is possible to “ask amiss,” that is, to ask with wrong motives. However, unless we’re praying for something that’s intrinsically sinful, I don’t think it’s possible to pray for the wrong thing.
So, let’s apply these concepts to a couple of real-life situations.
1. You pull into Costco, and the parking lot is packed. Should you pray for a parking spot? Why or why not?
I would say that you should, and I would reject the idea that it is somehow unspiritual to do so. What's the alternative to asking for help with all the “little things”? It’s assuming that I can handle all the “little things” on my own! Is that an attitude that’s pleasing to God? No! It’s acting like an orphan, who has to scrounge for himself, rather than the child of a king. So go ahead, pray for that parking spot!
2. How about this one? A loved one is diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. Should you pray for God to heal her? Why or why not? Does God answer prayers for miraculous healing?
Here at Life Point, we believe that the spiritual gift of healing has ceased. However, God is still omnipotent! He can do whatever He wants, and He still performs miracles! Now, in this situation as always, it is important to submit your requests to God’s will. After all, Jesus Himself prayed, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” However, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask!
3. Now how about this one? You want new living room furniture. The old furniture still works; it’s just worn and outdated. Should you pray for new furniture? Why or why not?
This one is tricky; I asked it to confuse you. On the surface level, sure, pray for new furniture! There’s nothing wrong with that. However, you should probably ask yourself the question, “Why do I want new furniture? Am I discontent with what I have? Is lust of the flesh or lust of the eyes driving this request?” Those are questions you have to answer. Also, don’t you dare use prayer as an excuse for your own sinful or unwise choices. Don’t finances a $3,000 living room set and then say, “I prayed about it.”
That leads us right into our second guideline.
Guideline #2: Pray for guidance, but don’t blame your foolish or sinful choices on God!
Do you remember the story of Joshua and the Gibeonites? The children of Israel had just conquered Jericho and Ai. They were excited and confident. Then some visitors showed up wearing very old clothing. They said, “We’ve come from a very far country to make a peace treaty with you. We don’t live here in Canaan, where God told you to wipe out the inhabitants. We live far, far away.”
How did Joshua and the men of Israel respond? They listened to their story, looked at their clothing, and said, “that makes sense.” But what didn’t they do? The Bible says in Joshua 9:14, “but they did not ask counsel of the LORD.” They didn’t pray about it! And because of that failure, God allowed the Gibeonites to outsmart them. The whole story reminds me of the line from “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”: “Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” They should have asked God first.
There’s an important lesson in this for us, and that is that we too ought to pray for guidance. Are you trying to decide what to do for college? Pray about it! Are you looking for a husband or a wife? Pray about it! Are you thinking about buying a car or a house? Pray about it. Are you considering a career change? Pray about it. Are you trying to decide whether to move? Pray about it. If you make big decisions without consulting God, then like Joshua, you will regret it. Pray about big decisions. But also, pray about little decisions. As we’ve seen already, there’s nothing too small to pray about. If it matters to you, it matters to God. So, pray for guidance.
However, don’t blame your foolish or sinful choices on God! Most of you know that my dad’s a pastor. I’ve heard him describe counseling sessions in which a spouse tries to defend his or her decision to get a divorce. He may say, “It’ll be better for my wife,” or “It’ll be better for my kids.” By the way, both of those statements are lies. But his closing argument is this, “Pastor, I’ve prayed about it, and God’s given me peace,” as if, apart from the clear teaching of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit has given His blessing to this sinful choice! It’s ridiculous! Don’t say things like that! Don’t blame your own sinful choices on God!
But can I take it a step further? Don’t blame your foolish choices on Him, either. I don’t want this to become a long discussion about decision-making and the will of God; however, I do want to touch on this topic as it relates to prayer. As a pastor, sometimes people ask you for advice, and sometimes they just tell you what they’re going to do. To some degree, that’s okay; the pastor doesn’t need to be involved in every decision. However, sometimes people tell me about decisions that just don’t make any sense, and I have to wonder if the reason they didn’t ask me was that they knew what I would say and they didn’t want to hear it!
When I was in college, one of my friends told me he was thinking about taking a couple years off school to travel around the world. He wanted to circumnavigate the globe, and he wanted me to come with him. I had to say very kindly, “Dude, that’s a dumb idea.” According to James 1:5, God answers our prayers for guidance by giving us wisdom. According to Philippians 1:9-10, He deepens our love so that we are better prepared to make excellent choices. Proverbs 11:14 says, “In the multitude of counsellors, there is safety.” So, we shouldn’t expect God to answer our prayers for guidance by zapping us with a feeling, but by leading us through a process of biblical discernment.
Also, we ought to be very cautious when using the phrase, “the Lord led me.” Maybe He did lead you. Maybe that decision is a righteous act of faith. But it’s also possible that you’re mistaken. That’s why I prefer to say, “I think God is leading me this direction,” or, “these factors and these biblical principles seem to indicate that God wants me to do such and such.” And then, when appropriate, ask the question, “What do you think? Is my assessment of the situation accurate? Do you see any flaws in my logic?” So yes, pray for guidance. But don’t expect God to answer that pray by zapping you with an emotion.