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All Christians believe in prayer, for the New Testament teaches us to pray; but some of the verses make us struggle with prayer. This is one of those verses. It forms part of the conclusion of 1 John and leads into a "health wish" (a standard part of the ending of Greek letters). It is not the place where we would expect radically new teaching on prayer, but a repetition of truths that the readers already know. Yet even what was a repetition for them may raise questions for us. What does it mean to ask "according to his will"? Does "he hears us" mean that he grants our request? If so, doesn't this fly in the face of the Christian experience of prayer? In other words, what is this "confidence" that John believes we should have? Is it something that makes sense in the light of the prayer experience of the church?
John has spoken of "confidence" three times before this in this letter. Twice it has to do with the return of Christ and the final judgment (1 Jn 2:28; 4:17). Once it has to do with prayer (1 Jn 3:21-22). In all three it is a confidence that we have before God; it is this relationship with God, not our relationship with the world, that is the issue.
The confidence here is that "if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." John makes it plain in the next verse what "hears us" means: "We know that we have what we asked of him" (1 Jn 5:15). Therefore the hearing is not simply that God registers our request, that there is a heavenly "Ah, hum, I see; I heard that." Instead it is that God hears and answers the request, the same thing that the expression means in John's Gospel (Jn 9:31; 11:41-42).
This answered prayer is conditioned by "ask . . . according to his will." In the Johannine writings there are a series of conditions for prayer:
Passage Condition:tx John 14:13-14 Ask "in my [Jesus'] name"tx John 15:7 Remain in Jesus/His words
remain in youtx John 15:16 Ask "in my [Jesus'] name"tx John 16:23-27 Ask "in my [Jesus'] name"tx 1 John 3:21-22 We obey his [God's] commandstx 1 John 5:14 Ask according to his [God's] willtx
All of these conditions boil down to being in an intimate relationship with God/Jesus. To "remain in [Jesus]" or "ask in [his] name" is to be in such a relationship with him. To "obey his commands" or for "his words to remain in [us]" are expressions of this relationship as one lives in obedience to the declared will of God/Jesus. This, then, is what asking according to God's will means; it is to ask in submission to that will.
Such a condition does not surprise us, for in Matthew 6:10 we are taught to pray, "Your will be done." Yet what John is talking about is not a general prayer, for such general prayers get general answers. In fact, if the Lord's Prayer is an outline for prayer and not a prayer itself, it too is not expressing a general wish. Instead, John is talking about knowing and praying the specific will of God in a given instance. This is not always pleasant; nor does one come to know and submit to this will easily. Jesus in Gethsemane also prays, "Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mk 14:36). He did not come to this submission without a struggle. He appears to have begun his prayer dreading what was coming and hoping that there might be a way in the will of God for it not to happen. In his struggle in those hours he apparently saw clearly that the Father had only one way, the cross. Therefore Jesus comes to the place of submission to that will. But it was not easy; it was not without groans and cries and sweat.
John, then, is suggesting to his readers a relationship with God in which they too will pray God's will back to him. It may be no easier for them than for Jesus, who, although he wrestled with bigger issues, did not have a background of sin and disobedience to fight against and had a more intimate relationship with the Father than believers experience. But the process is analogous. Believers live in obedience to God (having repented of sin); now they come in prayer, perhaps already knowing the divine will, but otherwise listening and praying until they know that they are in line with God. It is then that the confidence comes that this prayer will indeed be heard.
But why pray if one is only praying God's will back to him? Such a question, of course, tries to unravel the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Yet without being able to solve that mystery, we can answer the real issue it poses. That answer is relatively straightforward. God in his sovereignty has chosen to work his will through human prayer. It appears to be his will not to do what he might like to do if human beings will not pray for it. On the one hand, this makes prayer a privilege. Christians are invited to work together with the Creator of the universe. He has chosen to make their freely willed prayers part of his plan. On the other hand, this gives prayer a security. If a believer does not correctly perceive the will of God, God is not bound to answer that prayer. We do not have to walk in fear that we will mess up the universe through ill-advised prayers.
This passage is often read as if it meant, "If we ask anything, according to his will he hears us." We do the asking, and then God decides if it is his will to hear us. This is not the relationship with God that John is presenting, for it is no confidence at all. Instead, he is presenting a relationship in which meditation on the words of Jesus (and obeying them as they are understood) and listening prayer are central. Out of this struggle to hear and then, perhaps, to will that will oneself, the Christian prays. That prayer, says John, rising like incense to the Father (Rev 5:8), will certainly be heard, receiving whatever it is that is requested. This is not only the theory of John, but it is also the experience of the numerous people of prayer down the centuries who have taken the time to learn to pray in this manner.
For more information on listening prayer, see Joyce Huggett, The Joy of Listening to God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986).