I'll Pray About It

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Jan/Feb 2004

President George W. Bush has told the press that he prays about policy issues before acting. The San Diego Chargers pray before each game (not that it shows any signs of having a marked effect). We will often pray that we get this job or that special house, even though that means that someone else loses it to us. Sometimes we wonder whether God really cares about all of these details and are especially confused when it comes to whether God can be expected to root for the home team over the visiting team.

We are told cast our cares on the Lord and yet don't always quite know how to do that. There are those who believe that the simple fact that the president prayed over an issue entails his having got the policy right. Paul tells us, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6). Doesn't that mean that when the game goes into overtime and our beloved team is about to be cut from the playoffs we can shoot up a prayer that the rival team's kicker miss the goalposts? Undoubtedly there are Christians praying on the other side as well: do we just cancel each other out? These thoughts lead some to the other extreme: assuming that prayer does not really matter when it comes to the everyday stuff of life.

These two extremes are to be avoided in considering the work of the Spirit in our lives, particularly in the matter of his leading and guidance through prayer. On the one hand, we must avoid the tendency to relegate the Holy Spirit to the edges of our Christian experience. We must remember that "together with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified" (Nicene Creed). The Spirit does direct our paths. "If we live by the Spirit," Paul writes, "let us walk by the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25). In other words, if we have been regenerated and united to Christ by the Spirit (the indicative), we are to keep up with the Spirit in the pursuit of godliness (the imperative). The Spirit indwells believers as a "down payment" and "deposit" (Eph. 1:14), giving us the "firstfruits" of our full salvation to come-and even though we may not know God's secret will for our lives, the Spirit does and "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words … according to the will of God" (Rom. 8:26-27). Furthermore, we are encouraged to pray for wisdom in the practical circumstances of life (James 1:5).

On the other hand, we must avoid the temptation to regard the Holy Spirit as a freelance operator working independently of the Word. In this age, the Spirit does not inspire new revelations but illuminates our hearts to understand what he has already given us. In the Scriptures we have "all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises" (2 Pet. 1:3-4). We are given wisdom regarding a whole range of practical concerns, but we are not told whom to marry, where to live and work, or whether we should invest in stocks over bonds. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29).

From Genesis to Revelation we find practical wisdom and guidance for our lives and the Spirit who inspired these commands inwardly illumines our understanding and, through the gospel, animates our will to follow them. But when it comes to the "secret things"-what God has decreed for us from eternity, we are given the freedom to exercise sanctified discernment, with many possible paths open to us in most cases. The Spirit, therefore, leads and guides us, to be sure, but it is mediated through his Word and the "common grace" wisdom that God gives to all people-even nonbelievers, through experience, education, and the insight of family and friends.

A common misunderstanding of the Spirit's leading in our day is that believers (a) can decipher God's secret plan by way of "hunches," "nudges," and "promptings" and (b) can step out of God's perfect will (i.e., secret plan) by not following these clues. This view is often based on Romans 12:2: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." In the Authorized Version that most older believers learned, it reads, "that you may prove that perfect will of God." But in context, Paul is calling for godly discernment that comes from a familiarity with God's Word. God's "perfect will" here is not his secret will (although that, too, is certainly perfect), but his revealed will in the Scriptures. It is by being tested or trained in God's Word that we learn what is "good and acceptable and perfect."

"I'll pray about it" can become a clich that shifts the burden from our own responsibility for making choices and can also be used to claim divine sanction for one's choices and actions. I've actually had a parishioner justify her affair and separation from her husband with the words, "But I prayed about it." It is one thing to pray that one's friend will be healed of cancer or that God will give us wisdom for a major project coming up, and quite another to use our having prayed about something as a "get out of jail free" card.

Realizing that God is most concerned about our salvation and growth in grace, our prayers should reflect his heartbeat more than our laundry list. At the same time, the laundry list does matter. God does care. And even if we pray for the wrong things, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf for the right things. He knows God's will, even if we don't.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology