These verses come right out of the promise of verse 13. If we know we have eternal life, then we know we can come before God in confidence when we pray. As John comes to the end of his letter he focuses on the promises he most wants his readers to understand. Combined with verse 13 this passage gives the Christian some of the most amazing and encouraging promises of the faith. We KNOW we HAVE eternal life. We have CONFIDENCE before Him. We KNOW He hears us when we pray according to His will. We KNOW we HAVE the requests which we ask from Him. John piles unbelievable promise on top of unbelievable promise. If we can grasp all that John says here and really live it we will transform our lives and radically change our perspectives on this world.
A note about the exegesis of this text. Any passage on prayer contains within it a sense of mystery. Since prayer itself is so hard to fathom, passages on prayer are always up for interpretation. We do not understand how the God of the universe acts on our prayers. We do not understand how One who is Sovereign responds to the prayers of those He created and controls. Thus we do not fully understand all the nuances and implications of most passages on prayer. Any explanation of verses as weighty as these must be prefaced by a disclaimer that says it is open to dispute and is certainly not the only answer. What is presented here seems to make sense – but no one claims it is fully (or only) right or comprehensive.
Note that verse 14 starts with the word “and” – he continues the thought of verse 13. Since we know we have eternal life, we can approach God in confidence. He again uses the present tense – this is confidence we have as we approach God now – as we come before Him in prayer. We will someday be in His physical presence on the new earth, but for now our entry before Him is through prayer. And when we come to Him in prayer we can come confidently – speaking freely and boldly – because we believe in the name of the Son and have eternal life. Do not miss this. We not only are granted access through the Son – we are to come confidently because we know we will be accepted. Our admission is not begrudged, it is welcomed.
Coming before God confidently, however, does not mean we come casually or come with a confident air. Our confidence is that we will be heard – not that we deserve to be there or that we can make ourselves at home with our Big Buddy. Whenever we approach God we come humbly before the God of the Universe who Himself made possible our entrance. We come poor in spirit knowing we deserve only unfettered access to damnation.
John’s discussion of our confidence before God amplifies the present tense aspect of verse 13. The eternal life we experience NOW is through relationship with God. Eternal life ultimately is perfect communion with God in His presence forever. Eternal life now is fellowship with Him through prayer and living in His presence through His Spirit.
This is the fourth use of the word confidence in the letter. In 2:28 John said when we abide in Him we will have confidence at Jesus’ second coming. In 3:21 – a similar passage to this one – he said we have confidence before God in prayer when our heart does not condemn us. And in 4:17 he said we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment if we abide in God’s love. John’s repeated use of the word shows his desire to reassure his readers of their standing before God. John is very black and white in his writing, but he also knows he has spiritual children in need of assurance. And that is great news for those of us who now read his letter and need the same thing.
He hears us
The confidence we have is that He hears us (when we pray according to His will – this is explored below). The word hear means more than just the physical act of hearing a noise. He actually listens – he pays attention to our words. He listens and understands and heeds our meaning. If we compare John’s words to Paul’s in Romans 8:26-27, we know that more than hearing, His Spirit actually prays for us and the Son hears the Spirit and represents us to the Father (another element of confidence is that we know our prayers actually come from God’s Spirit – God effectively praying to God). We have God’s ear in a way that is impossible in any other relationship. We pray, the Spirit prays in ways we cannot understand, the Son hears and advocates for us to the Father. There is no better listener than our heavenly Father.
Though John makes this promise conditional, it is still a promise to stop and meditate on. GOD HEARS US. Even more, He does not just tell us that He is willing to listen if we need Him to and He does not just tell us we can contact Him in an emergency or that this is a perk of belief but one we should be careful not to abuse. No – He WANTS to hear from us (I Thess 5:17). He WANTS to listen. How many people in our lives WANT to listen to us? He commands us to pray and tells us we can come before Him confident that He will hear us. And He is omniscient and omnipotent and sovereign. He knows all, has all power, and has control over all creation. How can anything be better than the knowledge that we approach the Eternal and Almighty One in CONFIDENCE because HE HEARS US?
Think of the people in your life you would classify as good listeners. Not many, correct? Listening is a selfless skill – and consequently one not practiced well by most. When we find someone who listens he or she becomes a treasure in our life. Yet even the most ardent listener cannot always understand us. They cannot get inside of our mind and know our thoughts – especially if we are not great at expressing them. But our heavenly Father CAN. This is what separates Him from our human listeners. He created us. He is omniscient. We do not have to worry that we are not saying the right words or we are not making ourselves clear – He KNOWS. That He knows our every thought can be sobering – but in the context of prayer it is unbelievably encouraging. He is the supreme listener and we have constant and everlasting access directly to Him.
This discussion of listening brings up another point, however. How does a good listener demonstrate that he is interested and paying attention? He asks questions. He follows up on your thoughts. He makes observations based on your information. As a matter of fact, a key characteristic of a bad listener is someone who always changes the subject back to herself as soon as you are done talking. But does God ask questions? Does He communicate with us in a way that shows He is listening? Not overtly. We can say prayer is a conversation, but it is not realistic to characterize it the same way we do regular conversations with other humans. God definitely speaks to us through His Spirit – but the manner of speaking is different and not predictable and not often instantaneous. So how do we know He is listening? Because His word tells us He is. We have His promise through the words of His Son and the words of His apostles. Thank God that He does not leave us wondering as to His actions – though we may not overtly hear Him or notice His listening, He does in fact hear because He SAYS He hears.
But what about times when it seems like He does NOT hear? What about David’s Psalms where he asks God why He does not respond? What about Job demanding an audience with God who is silent? Would David and Job qualify what John says? We should note that in these cases it is not said that God does not hear, just that He does not respond. Even Job, after crying to God for many days, found out when God spoke that God had been there all along and had heard all his words. God certainly puts His children through times of silence where prayers seem to go nowhere and He seems to be far away and inattentive. But this again is where John’s words are so reassuring. God HEARS. We have CONFIDENCE that He hears. Regardless of our feelings or our circumstances or our methods of praying, or whether or not we sense that He hears – He hears.
And that brings up yet another question. Are there times when God chooses NOT to hear His children? (We know He does not hear those who are not His children or else John would not make a point of addressing this specific promise.) Several texts shed light on this. Psalm 66:18 – If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear. Peter says in I Peter 3:7 that a husband’s (or perhaps a husband’s and wife’s) prayers are hindered if he does not honor his wife. Isaiah 59:1-2 tells the children of Israel that God no longer hears them because of their sin. Sin affects the believer’s relationship with God and consequently affects the believer’s prayer. Remember that John frames this letter in terms of fellowship (1:3), and fellowship with God is affected by sin. If our fellowship with Him is interrupted because of sin, it makes sense that our prayers are also affected. Without saying definitively that our prayers are not heard, it makes sense to say at least that God chooses to see them differently when unconfessed sin exists in us.
According to His will
John’s promise of God hearing our prayers (and thus answering them) comes with a contingency (as most passages focusing on answered prayer do). He says God hears when we ask anything according to His will. The promise is not unconditional. God only promises to hear and answer prayers that are within His will. So John’s promise comes with limits (we knew there had to be a catch, right?). But does this make the promise less encouraging? Does this mean God only hears and answers prayers that are for things He was already going to do? Does this make John’s promise so restrictive as to make it hardly a promise at all?
Again, comparing John’s words here to other scriptures is helpful. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:7-11) that God gives to everyone who asks, seeks and knocks. He clearly does not mean that every prayer for everything is answered. What He means is that when His followers seek to follow Him as He outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, God will answer their prayers. In John 15:7 Jesus tells His followers that if they abide in Him they can ask whatever they wish and it will be granted to them. But He goes on in verse 8 and says the Father is glorified when they bear much fruit. It follows, then, that the prayers He says will be answered are the prayers that come out of abiding in Him and are for the ability to bear fruit. In Psalm 37:4 David says that those who delight in the Lord receive the desires of their heart. Notice the condition – it is only those who delight in the Lord who will receive what they desire. If they delight in the Lord, it is the Lord Himself who is the desire of their heart. They will receive the One they delight in. And in Matthew 5:6 Jesus says in the Beatitudes that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be satisfied.
So what does it mean to pray according to the will of God? We know His will is for His children to glorify Him. We know His will is for His children to bear fruit. We know His will is for His children to obey His commands. We know His will is for His children to be in fellowship with Him. We know His will is for His children to spread His good news. We know His will is for His children to know Him and enjoy Him and love Him. We know His will is for His children to love others. It makes sense that when we pray for these things that we pray according to His will. We know He hears us.
Effectively, when we ask FOR HIM – He hears us. When we ask for lives that honor Him, glorify Him, obey Him, testify to Him, praise Him – these are the prayers John says He is sure to hear. Note that these types of prayers are anything but self-centered. They are prayers that serve to submit our will to His. He does not promise to hear prayers according to OUR will – He hears prayers according to His own. And the longer and more frequently we pray in this way the more our wills conform to His. Perhaps the best result of prayer according to His will is that His will becomes ours. Prayer is the means that God uses to give His people what He wants – Robert W. Yarbrough. Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending His will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to His. It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, embrace it and align ourselves with it. (John Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; 221.)
Thought: So does this mean we should not pray for anything else? Is it OK to pray for a job? Is it OK to pray for healing? For provision? For safety? For financial guidance? The answer to all of these (and many others) is ‘yes.’ Jesus Himself in the model prayer taught us to ask for our daily bread. And He certainly answered Peter’s cry for help when he began to sink in the Sea of Galilee. But we must understand that God answers these prayers always with the thought of what brings Him the most glory. And what brings Him the most glory may not at all be what we actually request. Prayer according to His will is heard. His will is always to give us Himself. Prayers that do not specifically ask for Him are not wrong, but they will be heard and answered through the lens of giving us Himself. And they may be answered ‘no.’
Sometimes life gets overwhelming, and we realize we could use a little help. So we pray for our health to get better, for our marriage to work out, for success in our work that has taken a turn for the worse. There is nothing wrong in praying for these things, but they are not what our salvation is about. Don’t expect Jesus to save us by teaching us to depend on the things we are afraid of losing! He loves us too much to let our health, marriage, or work become the savior of our lives. He will abandon every crusade that searches for salvation from anything or anyone other than God. So He delays, He watches as we race down dead-end streets, He lets our mission du jour crash and burn. To receive Jesus as Savior means recognizing Him as our only help. Not our only help for getting what we want. But our only true help – M Craig Barnes.
Do not miss this word. While the promise to hear is conditional and predicated on praying according to His will, the prayers themselves are given wide latitude within His will. We can pray for ANYTHING. Any aspect of our walk – any need in our relationship with Him – any area where we want help. Anything. And while it is not specifically said here – anytime.
We know we have the requests
John completes his thought in verse 15. If we know God hears prayers according to His will then we also know that He grants the requests of those prayers. John – in his typical black and white way – says very plainly that God grants requests that are according to His will.
Prayers that ask to glorify God are answered ‘yes.’ Prayers that ask for lives that bring honor to God are answered ‘yes.’ Prayers that ask for help to obey, to bear fruit, to love God and others, to increase belief – all these are answered ‘yes.’ Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. He loves to say ‘yes’ to those who ask Him for Himself.
There is more, however. Note something else about this promise – something that makes it similar to the promise of eternal life in verse 13. John says we HAVE the requests. We do not just have confidence that God WILL answer these prayers, we have the answers when we pray. They are granted at once. Not just ‘yes’ but IMMEDIATE ‘yes’! God does not wait – He answers right away. The effect of the answer may take time – the results are not necessarily instantaneous – but we can have faith that the answer is ‘yes’ and the answer is now.
Now it is prudent to pause for a moment and consider what form these answers could take. Suffering can bring glory to God. Poverty can bring glory to God. Sickness (ask the Apostle Paul) can bring glory to God. These are anything but prayers for health and wealth and happiness. Praying for God to make us more conformed to what He wants opens up for Him every area of our life and enables Him to prune away what does not profit for eternity. The ‘yes’ prayers can be scary indeed from a strictly human perspective.
The fear of consequences, however, pales in comparison to the depth of this promise. We have God’s guarantee that He will answer sincere prayer offered up for the purpose of becoming what He wants us to be. We have help – guaranteed help. If our desire is honestly to become more useful for His kingdom and glorify Him with our lives – regardless of the cost – then He will grant our desire. If we want to be conformed to the image of His Son more than we want anything else in this life or world – He will honor that request. If we want Him and only Him, He is ours.
Thought: Knowing this, does it make sense to spend much time praying for temporal needs and problems? Again, there is nothing wrong with asking for practical help with daily issues. But with the guarantee that prayers according to His will are answered, should we not spend much of our time offering up those very prayers? If we know God answers prayers that make us more useful for eternity, why not spend the lion’s share of our prayer life asking to be more useful for eternity? And if we did this, would not many of our other life problems and issues go away? Or at least appear in a different light?
And does not John’s promise give us motivation to pray more overall? With a confidence that we are heard and a promise that our requests are answered, why would we not spend enormous amounts of time in prayer? What could possibly be a better use of our time?
Also – does this not mean that knowledge of God’s will as it is revealed in His word becomes even more imperative? If we know God hears and answers prayers that are according to His will, and if we know the Bible is God’s will revealed – should we not spend much time studying and knowing the Bible? And after studying it, spend time praying through it? What better way to make sure our prayers are according to His will than praying His word back to Him?
So John’s caveat, rather than being restrictive, is actually MUCH better news than if he simply said, “God answers all prayers for everything.” If God did that, our world would be in chaos because we would be in control. None of us wants to live in a world controlled by any of us. But what God promises, in His goodness and love, is that He will enable us to glorify Him. He will enable us to fulfill our created purpose. He will enable us to store up heavenly treasures. And that is the best news we could have. Our worldly mind wants a genie who answers all of our selfish requests for wealth and power and beauty. But the wisdom of our heavenly Father dictates that He gives us much more – He gives us Himself.
Now this just means in practice – and oh, how comforting this is – that these are the kinds of things we can pray for with absolute confidence. We can pray that all the precepts, all the promises, and all the prophecies with respect to ourselves may be fulfilled in us. “This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (I Thess 4:3); and if you pray for sanctification, you can be sure that God will sanctify you. It is God’s will that we may know His love; ask Him therefore to reveal His love to you by the Holy Spirit, and you can be certain He will do so. And the same with all these various other promises that are in the Scriptures: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 559.)