We’ve all seen this on circuit assembly and district convention programs: An interview or a personal experience in which the brother or sister recounts how they were able to pioneer or remain in the fulltime service because of the near-miraculous answer to a prayer. Moved by such accounts, many have also reached out for pioneer service, believing that they too will have their prayers answered. How odd that what is intended to encourage others to greater works of zeal often results in quite the opposite—discouragement, feelings of rejection, even guilt. It gets to the point that some don’t even want to hear nor read any more of these ‘uplifting’ experiences.
I have no doubt that we all have firsthand knowledge of situations like this. Perhaps we’ve even experienced them ourselves. I have a good friend—a fellow elder in his 60s—who tried for years to remain in fulltime service while his savings dwindled. He prayed unceasingly for some type of part-time work that would allow him to continue pioneering. He made every effort to secure such employment. However, just recently he had to give up and take fulltime work to provide for his wife (who continues to pioneer) and himself. He feels discouraged and bewildered that in the face of so many success stories, his own prayers went unanswered.
Of course, the fault cannot lie with Jehovah God. He always keeps his promises and regarding prayers this is what he had promised us:
(Mark 11:24) This is why I tell YOU, All the things YOU pray and ask for have faith that YOU have practically received, and YOU will have them.
(1 John 3:22) and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we are observing his commandments and are doing the things that are pleasing in his eyes.
(Proverbs 15:29) Jehovah is far away from the wicked ones, but the prayer of the righteous ones he hears.
Of course, when John says, “whatever we ask we receive from him…” he’s not speaking in the absolute sense. A Christian dying of cancer isn’t going to have it miraculously cured because now is not the time for Jehovah to rid the world of disease. Even his most beloved Son prayed for things he did not receive. He recognized that the answer he desired might not be in accord with God’s will. (Mt 26:27)
So what do I say to my friend who is “observing God’s commandments” and “doing the things pleasing to Him”? Sorry, it’s not God’s will that you continue to pioneer? But doesn’t that fly in the face of every assembly and convention program we’ve had since…well, since I started going to them back when the earth was cooling.
Of course, I could always come out with something glib like, “Sometimes the answer to a prayer is ‘No’, old chum.” Yup, that would make it all better.
Let’s take a moment to address this trite little phrase that seems to have entered our Christian vernacular of late. It seems to have originated from fundamentalist Christians. With that kind of pedigree, we had better give it some close scrutiny.
John makes it clear that “whatever” we ask for will be granted as long as we meet the Scriptural conditions. Jesus tells us that God doesn’t give us a scorpion when we ask for an egg. (Lu 11:12) Are we saying that if while obeying God and serving Him faithfully we ask for something clearly in line with his will, he may still might say No? That seems arbitrary and capricious, and clearly not what He has promised us. ‘Let God be found true though every man be a liar.’ (Ro 3:4) Obviously the problem lies with us. There is something wrong with our understanding of this subject.
There are three criteria that must be met if my prayers are to be answered.
1. I must be observing God’s commandments.
2. I must be doing his will.
3. My request must harmonize with his purpose or will.
If the first two are being met, then the reason a prayer goes unanswered or perhaps—stating it more accurately—the reason a prayer isn’t answered the way we want it to be is that our request doesn’t harmonize with God’s will.
Here’s the rub. We are told over and over that pioneering is God’s will. Ideally, we should all be pioneers. With that firmly drummed into us, of course we are going to feel disillusioned if our prayers for Jehovah’s help to enable us to pioneer seem to go unanswered.
Since God cannot lie, there must be something wrong with our message.
Perhaps if we add two little words to point 3 we can resolve this conundrum of failed prayers. How about this:
3. My request must harmonize with his purpose or will for me.
We don’t normally tend to think that way, do we? We think globally, organizationally, the big picture and all that. That God’s will can be reduced down to the individual level might seem, well, a tad presumptuous. Still, Jesus did say that even the hairs of our head are numbered. Still, is there a Scriptural basis for making this assertion?
(1 Corinthians 7:7) But I wish all men were as I myself am. Nevertheless, each one has his own gift from God, one in this way, another in that way.
(1 Corinthians 12:4-12) Now there are varieties of gifts, but there is the same spirit; 5 and there are varieties of ministries, and yet there is the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of operations, and yet it is the same God who performs all the operations in all persons. 7 But the manifestation of the spirit is given to each one for a beneficial purpose. 8 For example, to one there is given through the spirit speech of wisdom, to another speech of knowledge according to the same spirit, 9 to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healings by that one spirit, 10 to yet another operations of powerful works, to another prophesying, to another discernment of inspired utterances, to another different tongues, and to another interpretation of tongues. 11 But all these operations the one and the same spirit performs, making a distribution to each one respectively just as it wills. 12 For just as the body is one but has many members, and all the members of that body, although being many, are one body, so also is the Christ.
(Ephesians 4:11-13) . . .And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelizers, some as shepherds and teachers, 12 with a view to the readjustment of the holy ones, for ministerial work, for the building up of the body of the Christ, 13 until we all attain to the oneness in the faith and in the accurate knowledge of the Son of God, to a full-grown man, to the measure of stature that belongs to the fullness of the Christ;
(Matthew 7:9-11) Indeed, who is the man among YOU whom his son asks for bread—he will not hand him a stone, will he? 10 Or, perhaps, he will ask for a fish—he will not hand him a serpent, will he? 11 Therefore, if YOU, although being wicked, know how to give good gifts to YOUR children, how much more so will YOUR Father who is in the heavens give good things to those asking him?
From this we get that we all have gifts from God. However, we do not all have the same gifts. Jehovah uses us all in different ways, but all to the same end: the upbuilding of the congregation. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all organization.
In the verses from Matthew just cited, Jesus is using the relationship between a father and his children to illustrate the way that Jehovah answers our prayers. When I’ve been having trouble understanding something about Jehovah or our relationship with him, I’ve often found the analogy of a human father dealing with a beloved child to be most helpful.
If I, as that child, were to feel inadequate; if I were to feel that God couldn’t love me as he does his other children, I might rightly desire to do something to earn his love. Not realizing how much Jehovah does already love me, I might reason that pioneering is the answer. If I were a pioneer, I could then, in my mind at least, be assured of Jehovah’s approval. Encouraged by the results that others claim to have received through prayer, I too might start praying incessantly for the means to pioneer. There are many reasons to pioneer. Some do it because they love the service or simply because they love Jehovah. Others do it because they are seeking the approval of family and friends. In this scenario, I would be doing it because I believe God would then approve of me, and I would finally feel good about myself. I would be happy.
That’s really all any loving parent wants for their child, for him or her to be happy.
Jehovah, the perfect parent, might look upon my request with his infinite wisdom and discern that in my case, I would end up unhappy were I to pioneer. Due to personal limitations, I might find the hourly requirement to be too difficult. Striving to make it might result in my going out to count time rather than making my time count. Eventually, I would give out and feel even worse about myself, or perhaps even feel let down by God.
Jehovah wants me—he wants all of us—to be happy. He might see in me some gift that could benefit others in the congregation and result in my own happiness. After all Jehovah doesn’t count hours; he reads hearts. The pioneer service is a means to an end, one of many. It is not the end in itself.
So He may answer my prayer in the subtle way of the holy spirit which gently guides. However, I may be so convinced in my heart that pioneering is the answer, that I ignore the doors he opens to me and single-mindedly forge ahead toward my goal. Of course, I get tons of positive reinforcement from everyone around me, because I’m “doing the right thing”. However, in the end, I fail because of my own limitations and shortcomings and end up worse off than before.
Jehovah doesn’t set us up for failure. If we pray for something we want we have to be prepared beforehand for an answer we may not want, just as Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. People in Christendom serve God the way they want to. We should not be like that. We should serve him as he wants us to serve him.
(1 Peter 4:10) . . .In proportion as each one has received a gift, use it in ministering to one another as fine stewards of God’s undeserved kindness expressed in various ways.
We should use the gift he’s given us and not envy another for the gift he or she has.