The main argument of the letter is now complete, but typical of the writers of New Testament letters John has a few additional thoughts to add before he is done.
This is the fourth occurrence of the term “confidence” (παρρησία) in the letter. The first three occurrences of the term concern our confidence in our salvation, our confidence in prospect of the last judgment. Here the confidence John is speaking of concerns our free access to God. So, while most of the letter concerns how to have confidence that we possess eternal life, here at the end John adds another kind of confidence that Christians may have: viz. that of answered prayer.
In the context it is not clear whether the “he” in the phrase “he hears us” is a reference to Jesus Christ or to God the Father. It is a small point because of the perfect unity that exists between Father and Son in the Godhead. It is through the Son that the children come to the Father and by the Son that the Father’s love is conveyed to his children. It is in the name of the Son that Christians pray to their heavenly Father, and so on. In the Gospels sometimes we read that Christ will answer our prayers, though, more often, we read that our heavenly Father will. Surely it is both/and, not either/or.
When in Holy Scripture we read of God hearing our prayers the idea is not simply that he knows that we are praying and knows what words we pray. In that sense when we are praying aloud together with others we hear one another’s prayers. The sound of them fills our ears. But in the Bible, to hear a prayer is to answer it.
Most of what John has had to say in his letter concerns the assurance of salvation: how to know that we have eternal life. But he did not want his readers to think that this assurance concerned only the future: the judgment day and their entrance into heaven. No; to be sure of your salvation is to be sure that God is already your heavenly Father and that you have full and free access to him already. Eternal life in the Bible is not simply a life of endless duration. It is a quality and condition of life that begins as soon as one is a Christian and grows in its goodness as time passes. Ho, hum; you think. I know that. We learned that when we were children in Sunday School.
“Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.”
But take yourself back to John’s day. What was prayer like for people then? There has always been prayer in the world. Every religion has it in some form or another. But what was prayer for people then? It was ritual: forms of words recited as part of worship. It was obligation: a requirement to be met. And it was investment: that is, it was done in hope of reward. What it was not and what it is usually not today is the personal, confident conversation of a child with his or her father. Prayer was never that in the ancient world and it is not that today for most people who pray. It was an absolute revelation to people in the world of the first century that the living God, the maker of heaven and earth, would care about them and that he would hear their prayers not as a performance at the temple but as the utterance of their hearts to one who loved them. That is prayer in Holy Scripture, that and that only is prayer in the Christian faith, but it is not prayer anywhere else. This kind of personal conversation, this sort of confidence in prayer to God, is another utterly unique feature of our faith and life as Christians.
It was, of course, inevitable that prayer should take on a completely different character in Christian practice. A God who is love itself; a God who exists in personal relationship with himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; a God who brings sinful men and women into a family relationship with himself so that he is their Father and they are his children; a Savior, the Son of God, who was himself a man of prayer and spoke to God in prayer as a son to his Father; and a promise that God will be with us wherever we go and stands ready to answer our prayers wherever we ask; I say, these things being so unique to our faith, of course Christian prayer must be very different from the praying of other religions.
So unlike the experience of the world, so unnatural to human beings is this deeper, richer, more confident prayer, that even Christians must admit that they are always falling away from it and finding their prayer becoming more like the world’s prayer—routine ritual, the recitation of words—rather than the utterance of the heart, the going through of motions rather than having a real and intensely personal conversation with our heavenly Father and with our Savior.
But let me remind you that Christian prayer, the kind of open, natural and confident conversation with God himself that John describes here, is always one of the very first things that people discover when they become Christians. It is an essential feature of Christian faith. One of the great conversion narratives of recent years is that of Chuck Colson. I realize that more than a third of a century has passed since Colson’s autobiography, Born Again, was published and there may well be a number of you who don’t know who Chuck Colson is. For those of us who were adults at the time Chuck Colson was for several years a household name in the United States. He was an influential advisor to President Nixon, a powerful man in Washington D.C., but he got caught up in the Watergate scandal that would eventually bring the Nixon presidency down, and eventually went to prison himself. It was in the midst of his personal catastrophe that he found Jesus Christ or, better, was found by Christ. Later Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a ministry of evangelism and discipleship to inmates incarcerated in prisons in America and around the world. Born Again is his intelligent and moving account of his life and especially his coming to faith in Christ. It was published in 1976.
At the time he became a Christian this highly intelligent, very successful man, who had been on the fast track to success since high school, was watching his life fall apart around him and very publicly. But a Christian friend, the president of a Fortune 500 company, reached out to him.
One summer night Colson, in anguish over the mess he was in, afraid of what was to come and needing something – he knew not what – visited this Christian friend. They sat together on a screened-in porch and his friend talked turkey to him about his life, about his sins, and especially about his pride. Colson sat there as his friend read to him the chapter on pride in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. If you’ve never read that chapter, you must; but prepare for the knife. You’ll be bleeding by the end if you have an ounce of honesty in you! Chuck Colson found himself being exposed as never before in his life. This was not the sort of truth people in his circles thought about or talked about. His friend then went on to speak of faith in Christ and the forgiveness of sins. And then he asked if he could pray for Colson.
“Would you like to pray together, Chuck?” Tom asked, closing his Bible and putting it on the table beside him.
“Startled, I emerged from my deep thoughts. ‘Sure – I guess I would – Fine.’ I’d never prayed with anyone before except when someone said grace before a meal. Tom bowed his head, folded his hands, and leaned forward on the edge of his seat. ‘Lord,” he began, ‘we pray for Chuck and his family, that you might open his heart and show him the light and the way…’
“As Tom prayed, something began to flow into me – a kind of energy. Then came a wave of emotion which nearly brought tears. I fought them back. It sounded as if Tom were speaking directly and personally to God, almost as if He were sitting beside us. The only prayers I’d ever heard were formal and stereotyped, sprinkled with Thees and Thous.
“When he finished, there was a long silence. I knew he expected me to pray but I didn’t know what to say and was too self-centered to try.
In a few minutes he had left his friend’s home with a promise to read the rest of Mere Christianity.
“Outside in the darkness, the iron grip I’d kept on my emotions began to relax. Tears welled up in my eyes as I groped in the darkness for the right key to start my car. Angrily I brushed them away and started the engine. ‘What kind of weakness is this?’ I said to nobody.
“The tears spilled over and suddenly I knew I had to go back into the house and pray with Tom. I turned off the motor, got out of the car. As I did the kitchen light went out, then the light in the dining room. Through the hall window I saw Tom stand aside as Gert started up the stairs ahead of him. Now the hall was in darkness. It was too late. I stood for a moment staring at the darkened house, only one light burning now in an upstairs bedroom. Why hadn’t I prayed when he gave me the chance? I wanted to so badly. Now I was alone, really alone.
“As I drove out of Tom’s driveway, the tears were flowing uncontrollably. There were no streetlights, no moonlight. The car headlights were flooding illumination before my eyes, but I was crying so hard it was like trying to swim underwater. I pulled to the side of the road not more than a hundred yards from the entrance to Tom’s driveway, the tires sinking into soft mounds of pine needles.
“I remember hoping that Tom and Gert wouldn’t hear my sobbing, the only sound other than the chirping of crickets that penetrated the still of the night. With my face cupped in my hands, head leaning forward against the wheel, I forgot about machismo, about pretenses, about fears of being weak. And as I did, I began to experience a wonderful feeling of being released. Then came the strange sensation that water was not only running down my cheeks, but surging through my whole body as well, cleansing and cooling as it went. They weren’t tears of sadness and remorse, nor of joy – but somehow, tears of relief.
“And then I prayed my first real prayer. ‘God, I don’t know how to find You, but I’m going to try! I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself to You.’ I didn’t know how to say more, so I repeated over and over the words: Take me.
“I stayed there in the car, wet-eyed, praying, thinking, for perhaps half an hour, perhaps longer, alone in the quiet of the dark night. Yet for the first time in my life I was not alone at all.” [112-117]
Did you catch that? “And then I prayed my first real prayer…” It wasn’t the first time that Chuck Colson had ever uttered words that were ostensibly addressed to God, but this was his first real prayer. How many people could say that! It was in coming to Christ, it was in the dawning of faith in him that coincided with their praying their first real prayer. That is, for the first time, they opened their heart to God in the confidence that he would actually hear them. For the first time when they lifted their hearts to heaven they were conscious that someone was listening, someone who cared about them, someone who wanted them to pray to him and would never ignore what they said, however haltingly, however poorly they said it. And when once they began to pray that way, they couldn’t stop. They must pray that way for the rest of their lives. Once one has talked to God, really talked to him, there can be no going back.
It is this genuine, personal, emotional, practical, confident interaction with God that we find in the Bible from the beginning to the end. We have it pictured in Jacob’s wrestling with the Lord all night by the Jabbok. We have it in the psalms: in the outpouring of emotion, in the personal appeals, in the arguments that we find everywhere in those prayers. We have it in the arresting teaching of the Lord about prayer, a favorite subject of his: whether the parable of the man who knocked on his neighbor’s door at midnight, or the tax collector who beat his breast and pled for mercy, or that of the widow who continued to pester the judge until he gave her justice. We have it the Lord’s own prayer in Gethsemane when he turned to his heavenly father in his hour of great need and poured out his fears to the only one who could help him. We have it in Revelation in the prayers of the saints already in heaven, crying out to the Lord for the vindication of his name and kingdom in the world.
Everywhere there is this personal quality, what John here calls “confidence” or “boldness” in the practice of biblical prayer. Everywhere and always in the Bible it is the same:
“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”
But, someone immediately asks, Christians don’t always get what they ask for. How can John say that we will have the requests that we have asked of God? Why, we even sing a hymn in our worship here in which we ask God to give us “the patience of unanswered prayer.” We are certainly aware of many prayers reported to us in the Bible that were not heard, that is, the request made in the prayer was not granted. Moses prayed to be allowed to enter the Promised Land and was refused. Jeremiah was told flatly to stop praying for the staying of God’s hand of judgment upon Judah because the Lord’s intention to judge his people was fixed and irrevocable. The Lord Jesus prayed in Gethsemane for escape from the ordeal through which he was to pass the following day but his request was not granted. Paul asked the Lord repeatedly for the removal of his “thorn in the flesh,” whatever physical ailment that was, but the Lord did not remove it. And, of course, many of you have long prayed for something that the Lord has not yet given you. John, of course, knew this about the prayers of even the most faithful saints. He knew that even the most heartfelt requests made to God were not always granted. But how then can we be confident or bold that our prayers will be heard?
Well, first take note that John carefully qualifies the promise he makes. What he said was “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” Of course, we realize that. God did not turn over the running of the universe to us when he made a promise to hear our prayers. Still, we have all been tempted to hear that qualification as if it nullifies the promise. God is going to do his will, so we think, so what difference does it make if we pray or not? But surely it is not difficult for us to see, certainly for us who have been Christians for some time to see that were we allowed to ask anything we liked from God and he was obliged to indulge our wishes, that would not be good for us or for others. As Calvin says in commenting on v. 14: the problem is that we “seethe with…harmful desires.”
We never ask for thorns in our flesh, though God knows that we need them. We never ask for trials but they are absolutely necessary for the building of our faith, for the softening of our hearts, and for the cultivation of a distinctly Christian love. We want to be happy and God wants that for us too; but even more God wants us to be holy and knows that in some cases our temporary happiness must be sacrificed to our long term holiness because the one is so much more important than the other. And so he refuses some of our requests.
I suspect that when the books are opened we will find that he did not refuse us very often. We will also find that we might have had many more wonderful things had we only asked our heavenly Father for them. And we will find that most of our important prayers were answered clearly and unmistakably. We often forget what we have prayed for something and fail to realize when we have it that it was our prayer that was heard. I am ashamed to admit how many times this has happened to me and how many more times it must have happened than I am aware of.
Be that as it may, the real Christian, the one who truly believes that God is love, as John has twice said he is in this short letter, who knows that God has already made an infinitely great sacrifice for the sake of the eternal welfare of his children, I say the one who knows that will not doubt that he or she is better off, far, far better off not receiving the requests that are contrary to God’s will. No; we want God’s will to be done precisely because his will is the one will we can count on as being universally and always the best for us; his will alone invariably advances our true interests.
Those of you who are parents know this. You love your children more than life itself. They are precious to you beyond the power of words to describe. But they often ask you for things that you know you must not give them. You often refuse their requests because you know better than they what is right for them and good for them. Love declines as well as consents. True love must and will. We know that, hard as it may be to face it sometimes.
Look at us. What fools! Day after day we allow ourselves to imagine that our happiness depends upon our having our own will, and getting our own way. But whenever we stop to think we know better. There is only one who knows what is best for us and how to bring us at last into a state of perfect happiness and fulfillment, and that is our heavenly Father, the very heavenly Father we are talking to when we make our requests in prayer.
C.S. Lewis has an essay on “The Efficacy of Prayer” that begins this way:
“Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too. But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.
“It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident.
In the essay that follows Lewis went on to discuss how we might know that the barber’s prayer was heard by the Lord and Lewis’ decision to get his haircut anyway was an answer to that prayer. It is a fine essay and the answer he gives to the question is surely right: we know God hears our prayers because we know him. We know who and what he is and we have come to have absolute confidence in his love, his goodness, his faithfulness, and his commitment to us. It is unimaginable to us that God would listen to our prayers and be indifferent to them because we are his children and he loves us with an everlasting love. Jesus Christ himself is the proof of all of that and has settled any doubts we might have had. It’s personal with us, then, isn’t it? But then, for that same reason, we cannot expect every one of our requests to be answered according to the terms in which we made the request.
As C.S. Lewis wisely put it in that same essay:
“Prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable “success” in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic—a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.”
Well for that reason and in the same way faith is sure that when our Heavenly Father refuses he refuses with a smile; and when he says ‘No,’ he says ‘No’ in the spirit of ‘Yes’ and gives or refuses always in Christ, our Great Amen. [Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, 67]
But notice the other detail of John’s promise to us about prayer and God hearing our prayers. “We know we have the requests that we have asked of him.” Obviously the apostle does not mean that we know that we have the requests because we have already received them, we have them in our hand or see them with our eye. There would be no need to speak of our knowing that. Obviously the requests John is speaking of have not yet come to pass or there would be no need to say that “we know that we have them.” The point is here as it is in Mark 11:24 where the Lord told his disciples:
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
In other words, in the life of prayer the present and the future are connected by faith, by our confidence in the Lord. Having asked the Lord for something, we have it as it were in principle because the Lord certainly hears our prayers. But what we already have in principle we will some day actually hold in our hands or see with our eyes. The same point is made here: there may well be a delay between the Lord’s hearing of our prayers and our seeing the result.
The baby boy that is now at home in my eldest daughter’s house in Minneapolis is the answer to many prayers prayed over these past several years. For some time and through many difficult days we could not see how we had the request we had asked of the Lord but we did in fact have it those long months ago and now they hold that request, that prayer in their arms. That is what John meant when he spoke of knowing that we have the requests that we have asked of God. The day will come in which it becomes perfectly clear that your prayer was heard. In prayer as in everything else in Christian life we live by faith and not by sight.
The fact of the matter is that God’s people pray and have prayed throughout the ages and always in the confidence that their Heavenly Father and their Savior hears their prayers. Indeed, is it not revealing and striking that it is the universal experience of Christians to regret that they do not pray more and better than they do. Why would that be given the fact that some of the prayers they have prayed, and perhaps most ardently, have not been answered, at least so far as they can see? Would you not think that Christians would instead lose interest in prayer and lose confidence in it? And yet we continue to believe that prayer is powerful and that we would be much better off if we had more of it in our lives. Why? Because we have complete confidence in the love and faithfulness of God. We want to be men and women of prayer because we know the one to whom we pray.
We have the confidence, you and I; it is now ours to do something more with it than we have done so far!