A Definitive Guide to What You Can and Cannot Pray For
I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. (Luke 11:8)
For many months I had been spiraling downward into a severe autoimmune disorder that two famous teaching hospitals could not diagnose. A few close friends and I pleaded with God for relief, but instead of getting better I was getting worse.
One day I read, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Jesus Matthew 21:21-22).
I said out loud, “That’s not true.” Immediately I asked God to rehabilitate my theology of prayer.
The teaching of Jesus on prayer could not be more clear: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you…. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer…. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it…. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you…. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”
So why is it that when we ask, sometimes we get what we pray for, but sometimes we don’t? Do our prayers alter outcomes, or do they only align us with what God was going to do anyway?
The first rule for understanding a text is that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In that vein, I was drawn to 1 John 5:14-15 which says, “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, emphasis added).
This rounds out the meaning of Matthew 21:21-22—God will give us “whatever we ask” when it aligns with the larger perspective of His will, purpose, and plan. But there’s more.
In Luke 11:5-8, Jesus told a parable about a man who asked a friend for three loaves of bread at midnight. But the friend told him he couldn’t help because he and his family were already in bed. Jesus concluded by saying, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:8, emphasis added). “Shameless audacity” (shamelessness in Greek) is variously translated as “persistence, boldness,” or “keep knocking long enough.”
But what if “as much as you need” is not as much as you want? When Paul prayed three times for God to take away his thorn in the flesh, Jesus told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The abundant life is not without hardships. I still have an autoimmune disorder. To date I haven’t received “whatever you ask for in prayer.” Yet, like Paul, the grace of Jesus has been “as much as you (I) need.”
So what is the definitive guide for how we should pray? Ask God for anything with shameless audacity, then trust Him to give you as much as you need.
And what is the definitive guide for how God will answer? God will grant whatever you ask if it’s in His will, but never less than as much as you need.