How God Helps Us Pray According to His Will
The Spirit of God will use the word of God to help the people of God pray increasingly according to the will of God.
Pray about Everything
To pray the Bible, you simply go through a passage line by line, talking to God about whatever comes to mind as you read the text. See how easy that is? Anyone can do that.
If you don’t understand the meaning of a verse, go on to the next verse. If the meaning of that one is perfectly clear but nothing comes to mind to pray about, go on to the next verse. Just speak to the Lord about everything that occurs to you as you slowly read his word. You do this even if—and this can be easily misunderstood—even if what comes to mind has nothing to do with the text.
Now, let me defend that biblically. What does the text of Scripture tell us to pray about? Everything, right? The Bible tells us that in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We may bring “everything by prayer” to God. Everything is something we may pray about. Every person, every object, every issue, every circumstance, every fear, every situation—everything in the universe is something we may bring before God. So every thought that enters your mind as you are reading a passage of Scripture—even if that thought has nothing to do with the text before you at the moment—is something you may bring to God.
Interpreting vs. Praying
I want to make a crucial distinction between what I wrote in the previous paragraph and interpreting the Bible accurately, a process formally known as “hermeneutics.” Correctly handling the word of God does not permit making the text say what we want. To understand the Bible accurately—which is essential for right belief and living, for truthful sharing with others, and for authoritative teaching and preaching—we must do whatever is necessary to discover (or “exegete”) the single, God-inspired meaning of every verse before us. The text of the Bible means what God inspired it to mean, not “what it means to me.”
When we come to the Bible on all other occasions I can think of, our primary purpose is to understand and apply it. So let’s say we are doing Bible study. Primarily we are putting in the mental effort (and perhaps physical effort too, if we are using other reference tools) to understand what the text before us says and means. Secondarily we are praying. “Lord,” we might ask from time to time, “what does this mean?” or occasionally pray, “How do I apply this?”
As I said, that’s our mind-set, more or less, on almost all occasions when we come to the Bible, whether it’s a deeper level of Bible study or simply the daily reading of one or more chapters of Scripture.
But that’s not what we’re doing here.
With what I’m advocating, our primary activity is prayer, not Bible intake. Bible reading is secondary in this process. Our focus is on God through prayer; our glance is at the Bible. And we turn Godward and pray about every matter that occurs to us as we read. Do you see the distinction?
Let me use a ridiculous illustration to make the point. Suppose you are praying through Psalm 130, and you come to verse 3: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” And when you see that verb “mark,” your friend Mark comes to mind. What should you do? Pray for Mark! You know that verse is not about Mark, but it’s certainly not wrong to pray for Mark just because he popped into your head as you were reading Psalm 130:3.
Here’s a more realistic illustration. Let’s consider Psalm 23:3: “He restores my soul.” One of the things this verse might prompt you to pray for is the salvation of a person with whom you are trying to share the gospel, to pray that God would restore that person’s soul from darkness to light, from death to life. If I were to preach on Psalm 23 and say, “This verse is about evangelism; about God restoring the souls of those in spiritual darkness,” I would be sinning. That verse is not about evangelism, and I know it. It’s about a believer’s soul being restored to the joy of God’s salvation. Were I to declare to others that God’s word here means one thing when I know it means another would be, at best, to misuse the text. We never have the right to claim that the Bible says something it does not.
But if, while you are praying through Psalm 23:3, your non-Christian friend comes to mind, and you use the language of this verse to say, “Lord, restore my friend’s soul; restore him from darkness to light, from death to life,” that’s fine. This isn’t reading something into the text; it’s merely using the language of the text to speak to God about what has come into your mind.
So, again, simply turn every thought Godward as you read the passage. At some points you will pray exactly what the text is about, as when you pray, “Lord, restore my soul to the joy of your salvation.” At other times you will use biblical language to pray thoughts unrelated to the text that come to you while reading the text, as in, “Lord, restore my non-Christian friend’s soul from death to life.”
Confidence in the Word and the Spirit
I have enough confidence in the word and the Spirit of God to believe that if people will pray in this way, in the long run their prayers will be far more biblical than if they just make up their own prayers. That’s what people usually do: make up their own prayers. What’s the result? We tend to say the same old things about the same old things. And without the Scripture to shape our prayers, we are far more likely to pray in unbiblical ways than if we pray the thoughts that occur to us as we read the Scripture. So while it’s true that people may use this method and pray about things that are not found in the text, I contend that will happen much less if people will pray while reading the text. By this means, the Spirit of God will use the word of God to help the people of God pray increasingly according to the will of God.