Our eight-year-old daughter, Sarah, pushed aside the last half
of the sandwich we had served as if she were too full. She then took three cookies off the plate. I knew somewhere in the “good parent” manual there must be a page on this situation. My wife and I gasped as we hid our smiles and told Sarah, “You can’t have cookies unless you first eat your sandwich.”

Like parents who must teach their kids to want and ask for the right things, God teaches us to pray for the right things—things in line with His will. Those are the prayers God answers. The Apostle John wrote, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).

Pray according to God’s will
Out of context the words “we know we have what we asked” seem like a blank check from God. Can we have what we want just by asking God for it? Not at all. A condition precedes the promise: “If we ask anything according to His will.”

What is a prayer that is according to God’s will? First, it does not mean we simply receive a moderate number of the requests on our wish list. It means we should wad up our list, throw it away, take a fresh piece of paper and ask God, “What is your will for me?”

God’s will is that we obey Him. So praying according to God’s will means we should focus our prayers on how we can better do His will. This involves four requests.

Ask God to help us obey. God wants to help us be more holy, more joyful, and more loving.

Ask God to help us serve. We know that it is God’s will that we serve Him by loving our neighbors and spouses, and ministering to their needs.

Ask God for wisdom. We need His wisdom to help us discern His plan. When my daughter wasn’t accepted into the college she wanted, it was God’s will that she and I both have a godly attitude and wisdom for the next step.

Ask God for resources to do His will. As a pastor I know God answers prayers for ministry resources. When they don’t come as I want, God still answers according to His will by teaching me greater trust, patience, and focus on people.

God answers prayer according to His will. If we received all the material things, quick fixes, or more comfortable situations for which we asked, the answers would actually perpetuate flaws in our character. And that would violate God’s will.

Pray in Jesus’ name
Some Christ-followers seem to think it’s almost magic to add “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer—as if we can twist God’s arm by saying the code words. But praying “in Jesus’ name” is like praying “according to God’s will.”

Jesus told the disciples, “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23). To ask something in the name of someone is to ask based on that person’s authority. God answers prayers that Christ has already authorized.

During college I worked at a trucking company where I ran for parts for the mechanics. I could walk into parts stores and take away hundreds of dollars worth of truck parts. Why would they give all that to a poor student? Because I came with a purchase order. The owner of the company had ultimately ordered the parts and I was simply asking for them in his name.

I must submit all my prayers to what I know Christ has authorized. When I am worried about something, I may not know the outcome God has planned,
but I do know that He has promised to give me grace, strength, endurance, and joy.

Pray about necessities
As we pray according to God’s will, may we still pray about tangible needs? Of course. Jesus modeled that we should pray for daily bread. Jesus taught us how to keep our prayer life aligned with God’s will even as we pray for material things. He said,
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).

When we focus on God’s kingdom goals, He supplies our needs and often gives us many of our desires. He knows how to give good gifts to His children (7:11). If our primary desire is just a higher lifestyle, however, we can’t pray with any confidence. God’s will is that we be content and spend wisely with generosity and gratitude.

Pray for children
How do we pray for children according to God’s will? We should pray that they will obey, serve, and seek God’s will most of all.

If we want only our children’s immediate success and happiness, we probably desire those things for the sake of our own comfort
or image. But God is not listening to self-willed prayers. John wrote, “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us”
(1 John 5:14).

When our children are hurting or failing at something, it’s hard to stay focused on praying that they develop godly character,
but we know that is God’s will. And then we can trust God with our other hopes for them.

Pray about trials
As we learn to pray according to God’s will, we can also pray during trials with a new perspective. James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously … and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). In this context the wisdom for which we should pray is the wisdom to gain perseverance and maturity from the trials described
(vv. 2–4).

In our trials we often respond like a screaming child getting an immunization—demanding angrily that God take away the pain. But when we realize that God’s will is to produce perseverance and maturity in us, we can pray for those things and rejoice as God indeed answers.
I happen to love cookies as much as my daughter Sarah does. It is only my desire for fitness that overcomes my competing desire for a fistful of saturated fats. Likewise my most important prayer issue is the battle over what I really want. As I refocus my desires to pray for spiritual fitness and maturity, those are indeed the prayers that God answers.

Sid Litke (ThM, 1984) is senior pastor of Open Door Bible Church
in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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