Jesus rarely works in the way we imagine he will. The Apostle Matthew told a story about Jesus. Jesus was out teaching in the marketplaces and the tax collectors came around. And Jesus and the disciples didn’t have any money. And one of the tax collectors asked the Peter, on of Jesus’s disciples, “Hey, isn’t your teacher going to come pay his taxes?”
So, Peter went and asked him about it and Jesus told him to go down to the sea and cast his hook in and pull out the first fish he gets a bite from.
Peter followed his instructions. He went down. And immediately caught a fish. And he opened the fishes mouth to pull out the hook and there was a coin in the fishes mouth. So Peter went and paid the tax.
This is a fantastic story, but some of you have stories of God’s provision that are even more awe-inspiring, stories of amazing things that God has done.
But, it’s interesting. Can you imagine being Peter in that moment? Of all the ways that Jesus could have paid the taxes?!? Could Peter have ever imagined that God would work in this way? It’s almost ridiculous.
And we often go to Jesus and we ask for help and he does exactly this, though, he answers us—he answers our prayers—but not in the way we expect him to and not in the ways that we ask him to.
Today we are going to look at a story of a man who had a skin disease who showed immense faith when he came to Jesus and extract some principles from a very simple statement he made that is going to help us to keep our eyes open to understand the way we ought to see God’s working in this world, especially when it comes to the way that He answers our prayers.
We already read the story. The man was called a leper, which means that he had an incurable skin disease called leprosy. The disease would spread over the man’s body until he began to lose fingers, toes, maybe an ear. And then eventually, he would lose limbs until one day, the disease would take his life.
The disease was so horrible that lepers were not welcome in the city, but were usually forced to live in colonies outside of the city.
It’s terrible if you think about it. This guy was going on about his business, living his life, and maybe enjoying it. He might have had a wife and kids and friends and a home. And one day he finds out he has this skin disease and everything in his life changes. His diagnosis causes his entire life to spin uncontrollably out of order and he loses absolutely everything. And not just him. Imagine what must have become of his family because of the disease.
To some degree, most of you can probably relate to that kind of circumstance. There are things about your life that just have not gone the way you would have hoped. Maybe it was a medical diagnosis. Maybe it was a job loss. Maybe it was the loss of a loved one. There are all sorts of events that take place in our lives that we really don’t have any control over.
And when life goes this way, we come to Jesus in prayer and we ask him to heal or to fix our circumstances, just like the leper did. But, I want you to notice how the leper spoke to Jesus. We often pray, ‘God give us,’ but he prayed, ‘If you will, you can.’
Today we are going to flesh out his prayer into three questions we should ask when we come to God in prayer that will help us to understand the mind of God and see how He responds to our prayers. And I hope that this will inspire you to be more prayerful people, be more thoughtful in how you pray, and allow you to see how God works in response to your prayers.
The first question we should ask when we pray is…
The leper was well aware that Jesus would only heal him if it accorded with God’s purposes. He said to Jesus, ‘If you will.’ When someone uses the word will they are asking a question, even if they don’t frame their sentence as a question. When the leper said, ‘if you will,’ he was asking Jesus, ‘Are you willing to heal me?’
Often, there is a great chasm between what I am able to do and what I will do and this is true for God as well. You have to be careful how you ask for the salt at my dinner table, because, if you say, ‘Can you pass me the salt?’ your words really mean, ‘Are you able to pass me the salt?’ and my kids know that, so they’ll exclaim, ‘Yes!’ and go on with their dinner without passing the salt. You have to ask, ‘Will you pass me the salt?’ ‘If you will, pass me the salt!’
Too often we come to God with our prayers, our requests with the attitude that God should do whatever we ask, but the reality is, God only works within his will. He is not willing to do anything we ask. He is only willing to do the things that accord with His good and perfect ways, and so we must remember to pray, saying, ‘If you will.’
Our tendency is to treat God like a genie in a bottle. When life is good, we are functionally atheists, we aren’t intentionally aware of God’s working around us. If someone asks, ‘Do you believe in God,’ sure, the answer is ‘yes.’ But, we don’t live as though God is present and working in all things.
But, when a hardship comes up in life, then our latent belief in God comes to life. We begin to pray and ask others for prayer. We go to church more faithfully. We read our Bibles, looking for answers to life’s problems.
And then, when we hit the point that only God can fix our problems, we come to God with a ‘you must’ mentality and if God doesn’t deliver what we need, when we need it, and the way we want it, we conclude that God must not be real or at least he has no concern for us.
But it’s not that God isn’t present and it’s not that God has no concern for us. The problem is that we have come to God to accomplish our wills, our purposes.
But, the leper knew better. He knew that God was working through the tragedy that was his circumstances, so he asked Jesus, ‘If you will…’ He was more concerned about what God wanted to accomplish with his life, than what he wanted to accomplish, even if that meant that he remained a leper and die a leper.
As a father, I have to hold motivations in tension all the time. When we get ice-cream, my kids always ask, ‘How many scoops can we have?’ On one hand, I want to say, ‘eat the whole thing!’ because I want good things for my kids and I want them to enjoy the good things God created, even ice cream.
But, I have to balance that with another motivation, because I don’t just want them to have fun in life; I’m thinking about the long-term consequences of the decisions they make. So, I have to consider how much sweets they have been eating that day and that week. And I need to consider what time of day it is and how the sugar will effect their sleep. I have to consider what we are doing tomorrow and if getting sugared up right before bed is going to have consequences for tomorrow.
And then, I answer with my will, my purpose, my desire for them, which is probably not going to be the same exact thing that they desire. I’m probably going to say two scoops when they just want to eat the whole bucket of ice cream.
And this is how God works. John wrote,
God doesn’t listen to every prayer. His purposes go before our purposes. He answers our prayers when they are truly the best thing in His eyes.
So, you must pray, but you must pray and then watch expectantly for God to work. But, you must remain aware that He will rarely do exactly what you ask in exactly the way you expect it. You must trust that God is working for your good, even when you can’t see it.
And, don’t forget that God has a greater capacity for knowledge than you do and He sees all things in a way that you probably never will.
A second question we must ask when we pray is…
The question is, ‘Can God?’ That might seem like it’s obvious, but hear me out.
The leper came to Jesus and testified regarding the sovereignty of God when he exclaimed, ‘You can make me clean!’
Believe it or not, most people in our culture believe in God and they believe that God is sovereign and powerful over all things. If you were to ask the average person in East Palmdale a big picture question, like, ‘Do you think God can get rid the world of hunger?’ or something like that, they would say, ‘Yeah, he could if he wanted to.’
The problem is that most people—whether they can articulate this belief or not—also believe that God must act—not just that he can, but that he must. So, when disaster strikes, either in your personal life or in the world, maybe a devastating hurricane or something like that, or the tragic loss of a loved one, the questions arises, ‘Where is God in all of this?’ ‘Doesn’t God care?’
It’s hard, then, to reconcile your belief that ‘God can’ with your observation that ‘God isn’t.’
And that conflict inevitably moves people to the position that either God doesn’t exist or God doesn’t care.
You see, the problem isn’t so much that anyone believes God isn’t powerful enough to help them in their situation, but we live as though God can’t when we begin to believe God doesn’t care or God doesn’t exist.
But, it doesn’t logically follow that if God doesn’t act that he can’t or even that He doesn’t care. We don’t hold anyone in the world to that standard. When someone fails to come through with something you want or need it’s rare that they can’t do what you want. It’s rare that they just don’t have the ability.
I was at work the other day and Jami texted me asking me to pick up a few things at Target on my way home from work. But, I texted her back, ‘I can’t. I have a meeting to get to.’
I said I can’t, but the reality is that I could if I really wanted to. I had the ability to go to Target. I might have had to cancel or postpone my meeting or just be a total jerk and show up super late, but I had the ability to go to the store. ‘Can’t’ isn’t really the correct word to use.
When we say ‘can’t’ what we really mean is that we are prioritizing our lives in such a way that we won’t. Usually when we say ‘I can’t’ its a will issue not an ability issue.
It’s no different with God. When God doesn’t act in areas that we think He ought to, it’s not that He can’t. It’s not that He is too weak and unable to do what needs to be done. It’s not that he is incapable of repairing whatever problems are plaguing your life. It’s not that he can’t fix problems happening in the world. The reality is, that he won’t, because he has different priorities than we do.
So, the next time you pray and you beg God to work in a situation and he doesn’t respond in the way you think he should, take a moment to recognize God’s will. Praise Him for His sovereignty. Praise Him for His all-knowing nature. Praise God for His power. And even though you can’t see what God is doing and you don’t understand why He doesn’t work when you ask Him to heal and repair and build things that are good in this world, praise Him for the wisdom to make those difficult decisions.
But, you also don’t have to leave it there, because it’s unsettling. I’m not saying you should have blind hope. You also ought to pray for wisdom to see God’s working in all things. James said,
God is generous with wisdom. When you pray, don’t just ask God for things you think you need or want. But, pray that you will have the wisdom to see how God answers your prayers. Remember, He rarely answers in the way we expect Him to.
So, when you pray, ask, ‘Does God want to do this?’ and ‘Is God able?’ and then finally ask…
The leper believes that God could act and that He would if he saw it fit. When we submit ourselves to that model, we demonstrate authentic Christian character.
Because the person who rejects God or distances themselves from God on the grounds that either God can’t or God won’t is so self-consumed that they refuse to allow God to do what He knows is best. Think about that for a moment. When you distance yourself from God, because you don’t like how he is working in the world or in your life, you are making a statement that you know better than God. You are making yourself the judge of God’s activity.
And that’s what the world does. Today’s standard of morality is completely self-defined. Every person decides for themselves what they think is best based on their worldview and their set of circumstances. About the only thing that is immoral in society today is making a judgment on someone else’s moral standards—there’s an irony in that.
And don’t think that reading your Bible or calling yourself a Christian makes you any different because it doesn’t. To some degree, everyone interprets the Bible according to their worldview and suppositions.
Many Christians lean towards lawlessness. They set a standard of morality that is much lower than what the Bible actually teaches. You make excuses to soften some of the edges of the scriptures in order to remain somewhat moral in your own eyes, while you live in sin according to God’s judgment. This is hypocrisy because you probably make judgments about other people who don’t live as morally as you do, yet you yourself are not living up to God’s standards.
And other Christians lean towards legalism as they stack laws on top of what scripture teaches. This is really a form of hypocrisy too because you admit you are a sinner yet make judgments of other people’s behaviors that aren’t even judgments God makes. People who are legalists lump their personal convictions in with the teachings of scripture and want everyone else to follow all of their rules, even when they are not God’s rules.
What you have to realize is that both of these situations—legalism and lawlessness—are rooted in the preferences of the individual. The lawless person likes things that God calls sin and so they find reasons to justify their preferences. The legalist has their own preferences on morality, so they find reasons to justify their preferences.
And that’s what the rest of the world does, too. They define morality according to their preferences. Everyone starts with the same base set of moral understandings that God has given all people—we call that the knowledge of good and evil. That moral guide undergoes social influences from family, friends, church or other religions, and society as a whole. And then, as a unique individual, you find that you have a personal bent in one way or another according to the unique way God has designed you. And that’s how everyone gets to their unique moral perspective.
That social training accomplishes two things. 1) It guarantees that you don’t share your moral convictions 100% with anyone else, and 2) it guarantees that you don’t share your moral convictions 100% with God.
And that’s fine if you don’t care what God thinks. But, the task of the Christian is to replace their own personal preferences with the preferences of God. The biblical word for this is humility. You submit yourself to God and His ways as demonstrated in scripture, no matter how badly that violates your personal convictions and no matter how badly that damages your ego.
The leper was totally there. He fully believed in God’s power at work in the world when he said, ‘…you can.’ And he was only willing to be healed from his leprosy if it was God’s will; he said, ‘If you will…’ He didn’t say this is my will that you heal me. He said, ‘If you will…’
We must allow our wills to be conformed to God’s will as Christians.
The Apostle Paul said this:
In other words, you can’t say, ‘Well, this is how I think,’ and use that as an excuse to seek your own will instead of God’s will. That is the pattern of thinking of the rest of the world. Humans by nature seek what pleases themselves. That doesn’t make it OK. So, Paul says we ought not to be conformed to the patter of the world, seeking what pleases ourselves, but instead we must seek what pleases God.
To do that, we need our minds or our thinking to be transformed. And the advice most preachers give here is, ‘read your Bible more,’ but I don’t think that’s precisely what Paul is talking about. Remember the lawless person is going to read the Bible and use what they read to make excuses for their sin. And the legalist is going to read the Bible and add laws to what God has written. Reading your Bible is not sufficient, because, we by nature read the Bible through our own lusts and passions.
Bible knowledge is good and necessary, but it’s not going to fix this problem.
If you want to really put God’s will first then you need to put aside everything you think you know—again, that’s humility—and look to the scriptures with fresh eyes and ask God to show you how He is working in the world. Honestly, it’s probably not more knowledge you need. Renewal of the mind is a change in the way you think about and process the things that are going on in your life.
The world compares every activity and interaction in life to the self—How does this effect me? But, the Christian compares every activity and interaction in the world to God—What is God doing through this?
The Christian life, then, is a journey of testing our wills against the will of God. Thats why Paul continues, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that…”
Every time you do anything you are testing the will of God.
Well, because every activity you do in life, you will do for a reason. And that reason will stem from either your own personal passions and desires or from God—from the small stuff to the big stuff. You might be applying for a job. That could go either way. Maybe that’s for self. Maybe that’s for God. Maybe you are applying for the job because it comes with money and status and you want the comforts that come with the paycheck. Or maybe you are applying for that job because you know God holds you responsible to care for your family and you want to honor God in your family.
How do you know which it is?
Well, you have to train yourself to consider your motives. You have to consider, do I want this job because it honors God or do I want this job because it pleases me?
The mature Christian actually will find that it’s both, because a mature Christian is pleased to do what pleases God. So, life is no longer about what you want. You have to ask this question, Does God want what I want?
I learned this lesson a long time ago. I learned that God really doesn’t care to give me what I want. Instead he wants to change what I want to reflect what He wants. And this was an easy enough lesson to learn, because living according to my passions and desires wasn’t working out very well for me. So, when the Spirit of God moved me to take my eyes off of myself and set my eyes on Christ and His purposes, it was a very safe and easy transition.
Now, I’m obviously not perfect at this—no one is—but I think I’ve lived my life in such a way that it would be hard for anyone who knows me to say I live by the patterns of the world and not by the patterns of God. About 5 years ago, we sold our house in Littlerock. And for about 5 minutes we had zero debt, which was awesome, but we also owned next to nothing. And I thought that was awesome too.
By the worlds standards, I was way behind the game. Owning nothing is failure. But, the Apostle Paul said that he and the other apostles were treated as if they were poor and had absolutely nothing, but in fact, from God’s perspective, they were rich, they possessed everything and their lives were spent to make others rich in Christ.
Christian, does God want what you want?
Have you laid aside every thought and desire of your will?
Have you begged God to instill in your heart His good and perfect and pleasing desires?
Have you searched the scriptures for God’s heart and laid aside every personal conviction that comes from the flesh so that you can see God’s heart in all things?
Have you begged God for wisdom to see His working in this world?
And if you have seen Him, have you joined God in the work that He is doing?
Set your eyes on Christ and His purposes and then when you want to make a plan, pray to God, ‘If you will, you can.’