When we begin to roll up our sleeves and get serious about being Christians we rouse our minds as well as our hearts to action. Increasingly God uses the Bible to shape the minds and hearts of his people. By God’s grace he molds us. We begin to think his thoughts after him and likewise long for his glory. We cry, “Hallowed by Thy name” even as God resolutely declares that his name will be hallowed.
But it’s not that easy, is it? As we endeavor to respond to God’s Word amid the world, we feel a tension. It’s sometimes confusing, and other times it can frankly be discouraging. Let me flesh this out a bit. You read the Bible and find what God loves, but then you look in the world and you see things happening that God does not love. What is going on? How do I pray?
Furthermore, what am I to conclude about God himself? Is he not so powerful that he could stop all of this injustice, pain, and hurting? And if so, then why not? Does he know everything that is going to happen? How do I work through what is happening in light of what God has said?
It is important first of all to remember that these types of questions are not marks of immaturity or sinful doubt. If sincere they reflect a heart and mind that is attempting to interact with what is in God’s Word and what is seen in the world around us.
Second, it is helpful to remember that the Bible speaks in a couple of different ways about God’s will. The most helpful categories are the hidden and the revealed will of God. We see this distinction in Deuteronomy 29:29:
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.
The hidden will of God refers to what God has decreed. He has not told us everything he knows or everything he is going to do. He has his secrets that belong to him alone. God’s hidden will comes to pass according to his sovereign decree, and we do not know what these things are until they happen (Ps. 33:11; Isa. 46:8-10). Then we have the revealed will of God. This is what God shows us in the Scriptures. Here we learn about what is good, true, and beautiful in God’s sight. We learn about holiness and love. We are given a sufficient revelation of God’s will in terms of his precepts—we have what we need in order to know and follow him (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
So far you have the fact that God knows everything, decrees everything that comes to pass, and then reveals to us his perfect law. But what about that point of tension between the hidden and revealed will? How do we think much less pray about that space in between? Read the papers; there is enough injustice overnight to make a sensitive saint nauseous. Furthermore, what about the strangeness of how God seems to decree certain things that are clearly against his revealed will in order to accomplish his big plan? One might consider the story of Joseph for example, or more to the point, the death and resurrection of Jesus. In both cases we have violations of the revealed will according to the decreed will.
How should we pray when we hear of persistent immorality like abortion, murder, sexual assault, or terrorism? How do we process through faithfully the plight of our unbelieving friends’ hardness of heart toward the gospel? What about the physical suffering of a friend who, by all accounts, does not seem to deserve such affliction? What about a wayward child or church member or friend?
Let me give you some examples that I’ve found helpful when trying to pray through this apparent tension. Let’s call them five reminders.
(1) Remember the context.
Much of our longing comes from the perspective of longing to be home. God’s Word reveals to us the beauty of Eden, the destruction of sin, and the untarnished glory of the coming city of God. We long to be there. But our groanings echo in a broken world. Our eyes look around and see pain in the tear-stained faces and the horrible headlines. As we process what we see we must remember that this world is broken even as we know that God is making things new through the gospel. As Christians we understand the context: we are in the midst of the time whereby God is calling people to himself through the gospel. The world and its inhabitants are broken. This period of time exists in order for God to make things new. God’s revealed will teaches me to prayerfully trust him and his plan.
(2) Remember your free access.
When we look around and see things that don’t line up with the Word of God we may have a tendency to retreat back and, in despondency and fear, avoid prayer. However, this is just the opposite of what we are to do. The Bible teaches us that God has given us free access to him through Christ (Heb. 4:14-16) whereby we may come and cast our cares upon God (1 Pet. 5:6-7). We have such an infinite resource in prayer. We have a God who is all-powerful and all-loving who has bidden us to come to him with our hearts all tied up on knots that he might untie them. May the tension you feel and see as you attempt to apply God’s Word only serve to drive you to him in prayer.
(3) Remember to frame prayer by what you already know.
God has revealed much to us in his Word. This Word should frame our praying. When we remember that God seeks and saves the lost (Lk. 19:10) we are encouraged to pray for our lost friend. When we remember that God desires that his name be hallowed and his will be done (Mt. 6:9-10), we are compelled to pray that injustice and the immoral assault on the sanctity of human life would be thwarted. When we remember that God comforts (2 Cor. 1:3) and draws near to the broken-hearted (Ps. 34:18) we can pray for those who are afflicted even when they are so greatly struggling. Finally, let the fact that God is good (Ps. 119:68), unchanging (Mal. 3:6; Jam. 1:17), and always does what is right (Gen. 18:25) serve to refresh and remind you as you prayerfully navigate through the tension. In other words, when you have uncertainty, trust in God’s perfect character should fill in the margin.
(4) Remember the mystery of God’s providence.
If we are people of the cross then we must embrace the mystery of providence. God’s decrees are executed by means of creation and providence. He has ordered all things that have come to pass—even the cross of Christ. When you’re unable to fathom what God might be doing, remind yourself of what God has already done. Romans 8 is a common passage for Christians to run to when life doesn’t make sense—and rightly so. However, too often we don’t let the passage press upon us in such a way to make us trust. We remember that God is working all things together for good for those who love God and are called to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). What great news! No matter what happens to a believer, God is working it for good. And he has proven this to by the cross:
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32)
You want proof, there it is. God is working things together for our good and his glory—just look at the cross. This means to show us that there are some things that we don’t know. We may not fully understand what God is doing and why; however, we can trust that behind our murky understanding and obstructed view of providence there is a God who is all-wise and equally benevolent. He is working out his will perfectly. The mystery of providence drives me to pray with hopefulness rather than despair. He can certainty hit a bull’s eye with a broken arrow.
(5) Remember the widow’s persistence.
In Luke 18 we read of a persistent widow who continued to come to the judge and plead her case. Why did Jesus tell this story? He said it was so that his disciples “ought always pray and not lose heart” (Lk. 18:1). The widow continued to come and make her case. She cried for justice from those who oppose her. The lesson?
“And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18:7–8)
Keep on praying. Be persistent. Cast your cares upon him. Frame your praying in and with the revealed will of God and learn to trust in the goodness of God that you might not only acknowledge but also embrace the hidden will of God.