“This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” (1 John 5:14-15 – NASB95)
These words came from a late first-century letter penned by the Apostle John to combat false teaching that was shaking people’s confidence in their relationship with God. Above all, John wanted his flock to be quite confident in their standing before God and their daily relationship to Him. However I think a subtle misinterpretation and misuse of these words has taken root in modern church culture that actually undermines the Apostle’s teaching.
To head off a possible misunderstanding, let me first state that I believe God’s actions are always, and only consistent with His own will and purposes and that the Spirit of God intercedes for us during prayer because we don’t know how to pray as we should (Rom. 8:26).
Did your prayer “hit the ring?”
1 John 5:14-15 is frequently quoted to support the idea that if an action we request of God is in agreement with His will, then God will perform the action otherwise He will not.
This teaching reminds me of a fly fishing contest I saw at a sports exhibition. There were several long shallow pools of water of different lengths, each with a ring floating at one end. One by one contestants cast their bait toward a distant ring scoring points only when it landed inside the target.
It seems to me that this verse is used to teach people that prayer works similarly. One by one, we cast requests toward God, as Scripture tells us to do of course, (Philippians 4:6) and hope that one or more will land within the ring called “according to God’s will” and thus be granted. People even reinforce this concept by asking each other “Did God answer your prayer?” by which they mean “Did you get what you asked for?” “Did it hit the ring?”
Perhaps we think this way because we assume the meaning of God “hearing” us is that He grants what we ask for, so we try to make the content of our request match His will. Of course folks are smart enough to reason that since we aren’t very good at knowing God’s will, we should just ask whatever we want and the confidence we should have is that God will apply His good judgment and grant only the things that He determines are appropriate. It seems folks think this is the confidence John was talking about, and while not wrong, still causes us to settle for less than the Apostle had in mind.
What was John trying to convey?
First we have to start with how the verse is punctuated. The ancient Greek manuscripts from which translations are made have absolutely no punctuation. All the letters are run together without spaces to mark off words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs. Early readers/hearers had to rely on the rhythm of sounds and logical flow of thought for understanding. So the comma appearing after the phrase “according to His will” is added by translators and I think its location sends people in the wrong direction.
Place the comma after “anything” and read the text again.
This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything, according to His will He hears us.
The entire meaning is shifted. John wants us to know that it is God’s will to hear us – no matter what we ask! If my argument was only based on shifting a comma, you would do well to wonder whether I have any better insight than anyone else. But listen to John’s own words as he continues:
And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask…”
He purposely restated his idea just to be extra clear! How much clearer can it be? He said that we can have confidence that God hears us whatever we ask! I didn’t make it up. Read the two verses together again with this in mind.
“This is the confidence which we have before Him, that,
if we ask anything, according to His will He hears us.
And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask,
we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.”
Now how can that be? Hang in there with me.
What does it mean for God to hear us?
I suggest that we create a further obstacle to understanding by coming at these words with a focus on what we want God to do rather than on the relationship between God and us.
Consider that John wants us to come to God with absolute confidence that regardless of what we are asking God to do, it is His will to hear us.
What does it mean for God to hear us? It means that He cares about us. It means that He is concerned with our concerns the same way any loving parent cares about their child’s every concern. A good father or mother does not ignore their child’s concerns no matter how immature, misplaced or “out of the parents will” they may be. They listen and respond. God does too. At every request we make, He may begin seeking a way to instruct us in subsequent days so we will better understand His ways and come to view the situation we raised before Him in a new way and perhaps revise, refine or even withdraw our request as we learn of Him and want to align ourselves with Him. Or He may begin working in nature or people or angels so that a solution to our request will come about at the best time for all concerned – whether that be immediately or years later. John wants us to understand that not one request ever falls outside the circle of God’s active, loving concern – not one is ignored or forgotten.
You mean God cares about my every request?
Do you see the difference in viewpoint? In one view we are myopically focused on an outcome, concerning ourselves with the hope that the action we seek is “according to God’s will” and teaching ourselves to “be content” if it misses that target. In the other view, our affection, our confidence, our focus is in Him. Our strength then comes from knowing that as we come before the universe’s absolute sovereign, it’s creator, the almighty loving Father, the one whose very words bring universes and life into being, that this one will listen intently with great seriousness and take action to instruct, to fulfill, to bless and to work for good no matter what we ask. Now there’s confidence!
I can’t help but wonder if the traditional use of this verse comes from people who do not have a concept of what it means to come before even an earthly sovereign whose very wish determines whether you live or die, succeed or fail. Consider what confidence you would have as you brought some personal request directly before an earthly national sovereign- a Caesar, a King or Queen, a Dictator, a President. What attention would you expect to receive? Might not it depend upon who you are and what importance your request has to them? It bears repeating.
John wants us to have confidence that our God will always carefully consider each and every request we make and will always take the appropriate action. What more can we expect than one such as this concerns Himself with our every burden because He cares for us? Is this not what John means when he says that “we have the requests which we have asked from Him?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our every prayer is precious to God because we matter to Him. If this be so, can we really talk to one another as if there are any “unanswered” prayers or that God has simply said “no” to us and left us to our own devices? Rather our conversation should bear witness that we have a friend, an advocate, a counselor who gives us hope and comfort and in that we are satisfied, even if His final response in a matter is “my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9)?
Revelation 5:8: “When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
Psalm 35:1-3: “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; Fight against those who fight against me. Take hold of buckler and shield And rise up for my help. Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who pursue me; Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation.’ ”
Philippians 4:6: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
1 Peter 5:6-7: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. “
In light of these things, how might we now pray, and maybe more to the point, how might we think as we rise up and leave the throne of grace after having laid our requests there?