"If it is Your Will"
If I make a request of God in prayer and include the words, “If it is your will”, is that not a note of uncertainty that will make it less likely that he will respond?
Posted on October 15, 2013
You have gathered with several others to pray earnestly for a friend who is suffering from a serious illness. In your prayer you cry out to God, “If it is your will, please heal him!” Afterwards, another member of the group scolds you for including the words “If it is your will” in your prayer. She asks: “How can we expect God to heal if we speak such words of doubt? Does not James 1:6-7 teach us that “when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” Is she correct to admonish you that way? As the illness of your friend lingers, the charge against the way you prayed becomes particularly troublesome in your mind.
When God has spoken clearly about a matter in his word and we ask for his help in living according to that instruction, it makes no sense to add the words “if it is your will”. So for example, there is no need to pray: "Lord, if it is your will, give me love for this person who seems to do everything he can to make life difficult for me". For we already know that it is God’s will that we “love our enemies”. (Matthew 5:43) We do not need to pray, “Lord, if it is your will, help me to be a witness of your love and salvation”. For we already know that God’s will in this matter from his declaration in Acts 1:8 “You will be my witnesses”. We also know that when we have confidence that we pray in a way that corresponds with the will and purpose of God, there is a readiness on God’s part to respond. I John 5:14-15 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.”
There are however many areas of life where it is hard for us to discern the will of God in a precise way. At many points we are compelled to confess that: “his paths are beyond tracing out.” (Romans 11:33) The reality and prevalence of disease in the experience of God’s people is one of those areas. Committed followers of Christ who study the same scripture have come to different conclusions on this question: To what extent is it God’s will for his people to live completely free of all diseases, infections, physical imperfections, allergies, etc. throughout their entire lives until at the ripe old age of 90+ when they die suddenly, painlessly, and peacefully?
It is difficult to deny two strands of teaching within the scripture: 1) It is only on the day of resurrection that our perishable bodies become imperishable. (I Corinthians 15:42) 2) God can intervene to bring about renewal in miraculous ways as signs of what is to come. (Luke 10:9) This leads to an inevitable conclusion: When it comes to individual situations, there is more mystery about the will of God in this matter of healing than many would like to admit.
Those writers and speakers who disparage Christians who pray words like "if it is your will" may be too presumptuous in their conclusions. How do they know what is really in the heart of a person who prays those words? Suppose those words reflect not doubts about God and his compassion and power, but a strong doubt about one’s own comprehension of all things. Suppose it expresses an enormous respect for the sovereignty of God. Suppose it is actually a statement of deep trust, yielding the future to God whose way are not our ways and in fact higher than our ways. Coming with that attitude, the words "if it is your will", are a beautiful refrain suitable for any prayer.
This principle applies beyond the matter of healing. One election year while we were in the Philippines, a certain wing of the church became very enthused about a certain presidential candidate whom they had come to believe was God's choice for the country. God was going to bring this man to power in a miraculous way. There were visions and prophecies to back it up. They "knew" it was the will of God and did not tolerate anyone praying things like: "May your will be done in this election". They argued that to pray in that way revealed weakness in faith, and God could not work in such an environment. However, many Christians who were equally concerned for their nation and the mission of God saw other candidates as better choices to be instruments of God's justice. So who determines in such cases what the "will of God" really is?
As we consider the choice of words in our prayer, it is also relevant to ask about the nature of the one to whom we speak in prayer. When we make our requests known to God, does he hear us an insurance adjuster looking to disqualify our claims on a technicality or to minimize the payout? Does God analyze the words of our prayer as an attorney looking for procedural errors such that no action need be taken? Does God hear us as a demanding conductor who calls everything to a halt because of one discordant note?
Or do we pray to one who is father-like in the best sense of the word – the one who knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8) and who is eager to give good things to his children (Matthew 7:11) – the one whose Spirit willingly intercedes on our behalf when we cannot figure out even what to say? (Romans 8:26). It is hard to imagine such a God refusing a request sincerely made based on the technicality of poor word choice. It is often in times of most desperate need that our mental states become less than ideal – fear mingles with hope, doubt mingles with trust, selfishness mingles with submission. In such circumstances, fathers are not focused on perfect word choices; they are simply glad that their children have come to them seeking their help in such a time of need.
To really know God as father changes a lot of things, not the least of which, the experience of prayer.
Lee Bertsch, October 2013