How do we ask?
It is very beneficial to our relationship with God to examine what we ask for. Many prayers go apparently unanswered but not because God cannot hear us. He made the ear (Ps 94:9). He is not like the man-made idols that have ears but cannot hear (Ps 115:6, Ps 135:17). There are several reasons why our prayers may seem to go unanswered. There are three basic responses we can get from God - yes, no, or not now. We all like the yeses, but the love of God sometimes has to say no. This is a good test of whether we are submitted to God and trust Him. If we turn our shoulder away when God says no, we need to grow spiritually. If God says not now, one possibility is that we are not ready to handle the responsibility that goes with a yes. It could be that God wants to give us what we seek, but He sees other factors that we do not and knows the timing is not right. It could be a test of our faith or a test to see how much we want what we ask for (Lk 18:18). God will only put His precious things into the hands of those who have demonstrated they understand the value of those things. What comes too easily is often lost too easily. He is a good Father. Sometimes God bears long with us because we are growing during the process, and then the answer comes quickly. Sometimes God just enjoys our time spent with Him and wants that more than being our spiritual Santa Claus. Sometimes sin is hindering our prayers (Ps 66:18, Is 59:1-2, Jn 9:31). The most effective prayers are those which ask for His will, for that is the ultimate purpose of prayer (Mt 6:10, Lk 22:42, 1Jn 5:15). Prayer is not about getting God to do our will. It is about God getting us to do His will. That is far superior.
Another aspect of prayer is not what we ask, but how we ask. The same question can be asked two different ways. After God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, they had to pass through a wilderness area en route to the land He had promised them. It was an eleven-day journey which they had waited 400 years to make (Gen 15:13, Deut 1:2). Instead of being filled with excitement and faith after seeing all those mighty miracles in Egypt, they began to complain and question why God brought them out (Ex 16:3, Ex 17:3, Num 14:3, Num 16:13-14, Num 21:5, Deut 1:27). They questioned whether or not the Lord was among them (Ex 17:7). God was so angry with their unbelief that He sentenced that whole generation to die in the wilderness within forty years (Num 14). Yet about 800 years later God spoke of this time from His perspective and remembered how their relationship was (Jer 2). He remembered how He and they were like a newlywed couple. Then He asked them in Jeremiah’s day what happened to that love. He wondered why they did not ask, “Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt…?”. He was disappointed the priests did not ask, “Where is the LORD?”. This is the same question that got Israel in so much trouble in the wilderness, but here God is saying they should have been asking that very question.
When the time of the first coming of Christ was arriving, an angel appeared to Zacharias as he was offering incense in the temple (Lk 1). The angel Gabriel came to him and announced he was going to have a son despite the fact that he and his wife were old and barren. Zacharias asked, “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” Gabriel said, “And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season (vs 20).” Six months later, the angel Gabriel went to Mary and announced she was going to give birth to the Christ. She also asked how this could be because she had not consummated her engagement to Joseph yet. Instead of rebuking unbelief, the angel explained to her how it was going to happen and encouraged her faith. She submitted to what God was going to do with her.
The book of Psalms is known as Israel’s song book. David wrote at least 73 of the 150 psalms in the book. He is known as “the sweet psalmist of Israel (2Sam 23:1). Yet when you read some of the psalms and pay attention to the content, especially some of the earlier ones, we see a lot of complaining about circumstances. Why is it that when Israel complained in the wilderness, they were punished for it, but when David did it, it is called sweet? When Israel complained in the wilderness, they were complaining about God. When David did it, he complained to God. The Israelites were accusing God of failing to supply their needs. They were not praying. David was praying about His circumstances to God and was not faulting Him. Why was God saying Israel should have been asking the same questions in the days of Jeremiah that He judged them for in the wilderness? Why was Zachariah made mute for nine months for asking the same question as Mary? It is in how they asked. Israel should have been asking why they were not close to God like they should have been. Zachariah should have had faith. The same sentences or questions can mean two very different things depending on how they are said. The word “really” can express a positive response to a good surprise, a disappointed response to a let-down, a disgusted response, or a disinterested one. The tone of voice can make a big difference. With God, motive is just as important as word and deed. We can say the right words, but God knows our hearts (Heb 4:12). We can be technically obeying on the outside but have a bad attitude on the inside. So, it’s not only what we ask. It’s also how we ask. It is much more challenging to have a right motive than to formulate the right words on the surface. God would rather hear a prayer that is not religiously polished but is sincere than a poetic and eloquent recitation of a superficial and hypocritical outward show (Lk 18:9-14). The Pharisee in this story was not even praying to God. He “prayed thus with himself (vs 11).” We need to look deeper to where God does. We need to examine not just what, but how. Then we can please God which is what we were created for (Rev 4:11).