A spiritually-minded friend of my wife and me recently made this comment: “I struggle with the idea of praying according to the will of God. Since I know that some things are clearly according to God’s will, why can’t I just pray directly about those things and know for certain that they’re going to happen? But that’s not the way it works with my prayers. For example, I know that God doesn’t want Christians to get divorced. But I’ve sometimes prayed that God would preserve a struggling marriage that still ended up in divorce.”
She, of course, was referring to 1 John 5:14-15 in her comment about praying according to the will of God. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
This seems like such a wide-open promise. Pray according to the will of God and your prayers will be answered. So why can’t we simply ask—and expect to receive positive answers—when we pray about something that is God’s will?
We can. 1 John 5:14-15 couldn’t be clearer. But we need first to answer the question: What is meant by “His will” in these verses, and indeed in other places where the concept of God’s will shows up in the Bible? If we can grow in our understanding of the various ways that the Bible speaks about the will of God, it may help us figure out how to resolve this legitimate and practical question in our prayer life. Yes, theology has many practical applications.
Here are three ways the Bible speaks about the will of God:
Category #1: God’s Sovereign Will
God chooses and orders all that has and ever will take place (examples: Ephesians 1:11; Acts 4:28).
Category #2: God’s Moral Will
God has communicated his standard for right and wrong based upon his own holy and righteous character (example: Exodus 20:1-17).
Category #3: God’s Permissive Will
Because sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, God currently allows certain things to take place in this world that he would not allow in a sinless world (example: Acts 14:16). God, of course, is using it all to further his ultimate purposes.
Obviously, category #1, God’s sovereign will (by which he determines everything that takes place), is not relevant to the discussion of 1 John 5:14-15 since we are not privy to the secret counsel of God. But either or both categories #2 or #3 could play a part in what it means to pray according to God’s will. Praying “according to the will of God” in 1 John 5:14-15, I believe, is praying according to God’s intended action, which could be either his moral will (category #2) or his permissive will (category #3).
When our friend connected praying according to God’s will with asking God to stop a divorce, she was viewing the “according to his will” in 1 John 5 as equivalent to category #2 above—the moral will of God. The logical conclusion she drew from that connection was that she should be able to pray confidently against a divorce—and God should answer it—since she was praying according to a moral precept clearly stated in the Bible. But she wasn’t factoring in the possibility that God’s permissive will might also be at work (category #3).
Actually, praying against an impending divorce may provide a helpful case study illustrating the difference between the moral will of God (category #2) and the permissive will of God (category #3) since Jesus references both categories in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19. Jesus begins by tying into the creation narrative in verses 4-5, thus reaffirming that God’s moral will is that people stay married and do not divorce. Jesus summarizes his comments about the moral will of God with, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 6). This is a reaffirmation of God’s moral will (category #2) regarding divorce, that is, people who join together in marriage should not divorce.
But in the following verse, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (v. 7) Jesus replies by connecting his answer with the permissive will of God (category #3), “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (v. 8) God permitted divorce in certain instances—and still does, such as in cases involving sexual immorality (v. 9)—not because divorce is in accordance with his moral character, but because in a world that has been twisted by sin there are instances in which it is better to allow divorce than not.
How does this relate to praying for someone who is moving toward divorce? We can open up our hearts to the Lord and express to him how grieved we are that someone we really care about is seeking a divorce. But we cannot know with certainty that God will answer our prayer that a couple not follow through with a divorce based solely upon our knowledge that divorce is against the moral will of God (category #2). It could be that God’s permissive will (category #3) is at play. That is, God may allow a couple to divorce because he is working toward other purposes that are for his greatest glory and the couple’s greatest good, even if we cannot see it.
Hopefully, the reader has not gotten so distracted by my use of divorce as an illustration that he or she has forgotten that this little article is about praying according to the will of God. I used the example of divorce for two reasons: first, because it was the example our friend used with us, and second, because it shows that the praying “according to his will” in 1 John 5:14-15 is not in all cases identical to praying according to the moral will of God.
This means that although we should never pray for something that is against the moral will of God, we should give allowance in our prayers that God may have purposes he is seeking to accomplish by allowing people to continue in their willfulness and sin. It may be, as in the story of Joseph, that God will allow something that looks so terribly wrong in the moment to further his good longer-term intentions (Genesis 50:20). Remembering this might help us the next time we wonder what it means to pray according to the will of God.