How would you answer this question: “As a child of God, what gives you confidence before God in prayer that He will give you what you ask for?” I suspect that there are many answers to that question, but I doubt that I would get the answer that God’s Word gives us in John’s first epistle (1 John 3:21-22):
21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;
22 and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.
John says, “Because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight, whatever we ask we receive from Him.” In other words, “Obedience to God is a condition for receiving what you ask for.” Commenting on this verse, John Stott writes, “Obedience is the indispensable condition, not the meritorious cause, of answered prayer.”
Now, at first blush, that may sound odd. How can that be? God only answers the prayers of the obedient? Well, first of all, whether we believe it or not, we have to confess that the Bible says it to be so. And, as we’ll see in a little bit, John is simply reiterating Jesus’ teaching on this subject.
An earthly illustration
But first, just consider the human relationship between a father and his son as an example of this truth about our relationship with our Heavenly Father. If a son lives in rebellion to the rules of the house and betrays the loving relationship with his father, and then, in the midst of that rebellion says, “Dad, will you please buy me a car?” What should the father do? Would it be the loving thing for him to reward his son’s disobedience, or should he withhold the car as a means of shaping the character of his son?
Remember, the condition of obedience is not meritorious. A son is not given good gifts because he earned them, but obedience is still a condition. The difference is in the intent of the father. If I withhold good gifts from my son and tell him that he must earn them by his obedience, then I am treating him not as a son, but as a servant or a slave who must earn his keep. On the other hand, if I withhold good gifts from my son, requiring obedience from him with the intent to shape and mold him into the man that he should be, then I am loving him and treating him as a son.
That’s looking at it from the Father’s side – from God’s side. But, let’s look at it from the son’s side. If a son knows that his obedience will get him what he asks for from his father, he may obey for the wrong reasons. A human father may be fooled for a while by that kind of ruse, but eventually, when the difficulty of the obedience outweighs the reward, it will become obvious that the son was obeying for the wrong reasons.
With God, however, there is no fooling him. Remember, “He is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3:20). If I think of my obedience to God as a way that I can get stuff from Him, rather than simply obeying because He is my Heavenly Father who loves me, He will know.
The key is in the two ways that John speaks of obedience at the end of verse 22. There, he defines obedience as “keeping God’s commandments” and “doing the things that are pleasing to Him.” Our hearts are right before God – we can have confidence before Him – not just when we keep His commandments, but when we do so from a desire to please Him.
A biblical example
Consider the obedient faith of Abraham as he took his only son, Isaac, up onto the mountain to sacrifice him based on the Lord’s command to do so (Genesis 22). Why would he do that? Was Abraham thinking about the reward that he would get from his obedience? Certainly not! He was simply walking with His God in obedience to the Lord’s command.
In his book Finding the Will of God, Bruce Waltke has some great insights into what we learn about the Divine-human relationship in the story of Abraham:
“The faith it would take to obey God in this situation amazes me. The fact that God stayed the hand of Abraham, arranging for a replacement sacrifice and blessing the descendants of Isaac, fascinates me. But the idea the Lord will specially intervene when He must, to shape the character of the man teaches me. Abraham did not seek a special message from God. He didn’t ask for a sign or demand confirmation from the Lord. He simply walked close to God and obeyed His Word. Those two elements continue to be the essential ingredients of a vibrant faith.” (Waltke, Finding the Will of God, 40).
That’s it, isn’t it? Walk close to God and obey His Word and you will have confidence that you will receive from Him whatever you ask. Think about this: there’s a phrase – a promise – from the Psalms that believers often cling to. And, rightfully so; it’s a good promise: “The Lord will give you the desires of your heart.” But, don’t miss the context. That phrase comes from Psalm 37:4-5:
4 Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
Did you notice the context of that promise? The point is simply this: If you are walking close to God in obedience, then He will give you the desires of your heart because your desires will have been shaped and formed to match His desires. Then, whatever you ask of God, you will receive it.
Above, I mentioned that this teaching in John’s first epistle is simply a reiteration of Jesus’ teaching on this subject. In John 15, Jesus teaches about the relationship between His disciples, Himself, and the Heavenly Father. He uses the imagery of a vine and its branches. Jesus is the true vine, God the Father is the vinedresser (or gardener), and we are the branches. Based in that imagery, consider Jesus’ teaching (John 15:5-7):
5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
7 “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
There it is, exactly what John teaches in his letter; Jesus says, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Bearing fruit or abiding in God’s Word – both refer to obedience. And, if you are walking close to God in obedience, you can have the confidence to go to Him in prayer, knowing that what you ask for is in keeping with His will.
We could sum all of this up this way: God’s sons and daughters are called to live obedient lives of faith – walking close with their God – such that finding His will, will become a moot point. Because when we abide in Him, and He in us, we will know His will, and pray accordingly.