God is no cosmic Santa Claus or fairy godmother standing by to grant any and every wish that comes His way. No, God is holy and in many ways does have expectations about what prayers He will answer and why. Fortunately, He has told us what to do.
Perhaps somewhat obviously, we must be directing our prayers to God—the one true God of the Bible. It does us no good to pray to false gods, a god we construct in our own image, angels, dead people, or a higher power we assemble from the stuff we like from many worldviews. First Corinthians 8:5–6 says, "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from who are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist."
There is one God who is true and only He is able to answer prayer. We have access to God only through Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:19–22; 1 Timothy 2:5). In part, it is for this reason that we are told to pray in Jesus' name (John 16:24). In fact, Jesus sits at God's side, making intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).
In Matthew 21:22 Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith." James 1:6 also talks about this. Having faith is a condition for answered prayer. Of course, even the act of praying to God and believing He hears your prayer takes a certain measure of faith. Our faith is in God, not in how we want Him to answer our prayer or in the amount of faith we have. The faith to which God responds is faith that believes Him and trusts Him to do what is best. Faith is essential to pleasing God (Hebrews 11:6).
Our prayers that are aligned with God's desires, with His will, will be answered affirmatively (1 John 5:14–15). Jesus modeled this for us, praying for the will of God to be done in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13) and even when He struggled with God's will (Luke 22:42).
Jesus also taught us to pray for our "daily bread" meaning for the things we need today. God knows what we need and can provide it (Matthew 7:11; Philippians 4:19). James 4:3 cautions against praying for things simply out of selfishness. To clarify, this does not mean that we are not allowed to pray for things that we want. Rather, our intention in prayer should be to honor God and bring Him glory (Colossians 3:17). Part of bringing Him glory is sharing our desires with Him in prayer, and gratefully receiving all that He gives. But, as stated before, our prayers should ultimately be that His will is accomplished. We tell God our desires as part of the intimate relationship with Him to which He invites us, we pray that He will align our desires with His (Psalm 37:4), and we pray for that which is needed to accomplish His good purposes (Romans 8:28).
When we pray, we must have a clean conscience. Hebrews 10:22, James 5:16, and Psalm 66:18, among other passages, guide us to confess our sins to God to clear a path to Him to pray for other things.
We are to pray continually, and with thanksgiving (Luke 18:1; Philippians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). We are also instructed to pray with an emphasis on God's kingdom (Matthew 6:33) and not just for ourselves (James 4:3).
When you read through the Bible, you see time after time God answering prayers that advanced His purposes—sometimes through one person, sometimes through a community of people. Don't get the idea that you can earn God's listening ear or generous heart, or manipulate Him into giving you the things that currently seem pleasing to you. Daniel prayed for protection in the lions' den and God spared his life. Stephen, a Christian leader in the early church, was stoned to death. God's will was done in both circumstances.
God wants us to pour our hearts out to Him, not to be fulfilled in our earthly pursuits, but to draw closer to Him and find our solace and provision in our relationship with Him. Prayer is a vital part of relating with God. It is not simply a means to an end, but our line of communication with the God who formed us, loved us enough to send His Son to die for us, and invites us into life-transforming relationship with Himself.
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