Seeking God’s Best
by Jack Wald | October 5th, 2008

I Samuel 8

Each fall I like to preach from the Old Testament. I Samuel was the text last fall and I focused on the life of the prophet Samuel. I ended in chapter 8 which is a turning point in I Samuel. Samuel does not die until chapter 25 and he still has a major role to play, but his leadership ends as he anoints Saul and then David to be king of Israel.

I went back to see where I had finished last year and was delighted to see I had preached on the themes of chapter 8 but had not touched on what was on my mind to preach from this chapter this fall.

If you are curious, you can go to our church website, www.rabatchurch.org , and read last year’s sermon on I Samuel 8. Just go to the weekly sermons for 2007 and look up the November 18 sermon.

In fact, let me give a plug for our website. There are some people working on a new and improved website for us. If you have ideas for us, please let me know. And from time to time, click on the site. This helps us to be more visible to those searching for us on the internet.

As I approached the text this time around, what most stood out to me is that God allowed Israel to have what he knew was not best for them.

God had a plan for leadership of his people.

God revealed himself to Abraham. God called Moses to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt. God worked with Joshua to conquer the Promised Land of Canaan. During the turbulent years of the Judges, God raised men and women to lead Israel in difficult times. God chose Samuel to lead Israel. God always, time after time, raised up leaders for Israel.

It is true that Samuel’s sons were corrupt, just as his predecessor Eli’s sons had been corrupt, but as God had done in the past, God would once again call someone to be his prophet/leader of Israel. God had a plan. He would raise once again a leader who would best lead Israel.

But the elders of Israel were not interested in God’s plan. The nations around them had kings, now they too wanted a king. God had a plan to lead Israel but Israel insisted on it’s own plan. God had plan A, what God knew was best for Israel and Israel insisted on a lesser option.

Israel was correct in seeing that there was a problem. Samuel’s sons were corrupt and would not be good leaders. Another leader had to be found. Israel correctly identified the problem but they insisted on their own solution rather than submit and ask God for his solution.

What is so amazing to me is that God relented. God stepped aside and gave Israel what they wanted. God warned them, through Samuel, that the consequences of their choice would come back to haunt them. But then he stepped back and let them have it their way.

And what is even more amazing is that God did not remove himself or distance himself from Israel. They rejected him and yet God kept using his creativity and power to work for them. He took their decision to have a king and used that as the context for bringing into the world his son, the Messiah, who came out of the line of David.

It is as if the water of a stream came to a large rock wall and instead of the water pushing off to the side and finding a way to go around the rock, the rock wall lifted up allowing the water to rush on where it wanted to go.

God had Plan A for Israel. God had his best for Israel but because Israel insisted, God gave them what they wanted and they were stuck with second best. It is true that God made second best something wonderful, but imagine how much more wonderful it would have been if Israel had allowed God to continue the kind of leadership he wanted for Israel?

As I thought about this, I remembered the parable Jesus told about the persistent widow.

Luke 18

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”

This parable of Jesus encourages us to persist in our prayers. When we want something and don’t get it, we should keep on praying and not give up.

My question is how can we persistently pray in a way that will move us to what God wants for us? How can we pray so we receive God’s best for our lives rather than have to settle for second-best?

When I was back in the US, my brother-in-law Bruce and I were talking about this and he suggested I look at a sermon outline from David Mains, a well-known preacher from the Chicago area of the US. Actually, it was when I was visiting his church in the spring of 1971 that I first made my move to submit to Jesus.

David Mains suggests that we ask six questions before we pray, or while we are praying.

These six questions are an encouragement for us to think before we pray, or to think while we are praying.

Notice that twice I have said before we pray, or while we are praying. Prayer is a process. It is not simply saying, I want something to eat. Prayer is a process in which my understanding changes and so my prayer will also change. I begin praying for something to eat but as my understanding changes, I may begin to pray for compassion for others who do not have something to eat. Prayer is a process.

When we pray we begin to understand more fully, more completely what it is that is driving us to pray. We begin to see more clearly the needs we have. We begin to see the difference between things that we want and things that we need. Prayer is a process.

So how can we think when we pray?

The first question to ask is: What is it I want?

Take time to think through what it is you want. Write in a journal or a prayer book to more clearly define what it is you want. When you pray, be specific.

When Jesus was teaching his disciples about prayer, he taught them the Lord’s Prayer as a model for prayer and then he went on.(Luke 11:5-6)

Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’

Notice that the request was for three loaves of bread, not just some bread. The man praying had thought through what he needed and asked specifically for three loaves of bread.

There are some people in the church looking for an apartment or villa to rent. It is not enough to pray simply, Help me, father, find a place to live. You need to think it through. I want a villa with at least a small garden, a quiet neighborhood, three bedrooms, a room for an office, a salon large enough for thirty people to meet.

When you pray, think about what you need and pray specifically. And then keep thinking as you pray because what you pray for at first may not be where you keep on praying. Because prayer changes us, our prayers will also change.

Take time to think through all that it is you want and then pray specifically. It is very helpful to keep a prayer diary. Write down what it is you are praying for. Over time, as you think and pray, you might write down the ways in which your prayer changes. You may realize that it is more important to you to be close to a particular neighborhood or that an apartment would better suit your needs. You may decide to pray for an extra room to use for guests who pass through.

It may be that you and your spouse are having a lot of tension and so you might begin praying that your spouse will change his or her behavior but as you continue to pray, your prayer may change to you asking God for help to be more loving and understanding or to come take the Marriage Course being offered this fall (just a little plug for the course).

You may begin praying for a car and end up praying for a minivan. You may begin praying for more money and end up praying for more discipline in the way you spend your money.

As you think specifically about what it is you want, your prayers will shift and hopefully, move closer to what God wants for you.

Paul prayed three times to have his “thorn in the flesh” taken away. Scholars speculate that his “thorn in the flesh” was a problem with his eyes but no one really knows. All we know is that Paul would have been a lot happier and perhaps would have suffered less if God had healed him and taken this thorn away. But God did not. And as Paul persisted in praying, his prayer and understanding changed. (2 Cor.12: 8-9)

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

As Paul prayed, he became aware of deeper issues related to his “thorn in the flesh”.

Pray specifically and keep thinking, keep analyzing, keep trying to articulate as well as you are able what it is you really want and you will move toward God’s desire for you, God’s best for you.

The second question to ask is: Can God grant my request?

Too many times we pray timid prayers. We lack faith to pray as God wants us to. Sometimes we pray but don’t really expect the prayer to be answered. Sometimes we pray but our minds are not open to the full answer God has for us. Sometimes the situation we are in is so overwhelming we pray but can’t imagine any possible way it could be answered.

But listen to a benediction Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians (3:20)

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

God can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha Course talks about a man who came to church and asked to see him afterwards. He was separated from his wife and unhappy with his life. He prayed with Nicky and gave his life to Jesus. And then he and Nicky began to pray that he and his wife would be reunited. But the wife, through her solicitor, said she did not want to renew the relationship. Even when Nicky talked with her and told her that her husband had changed, was a different person, she thought about it and said no. She had moved in with another man and her life was going on. Time passed and it seemed impossible.

Then Billy Graham came to London and had a revival meeting and the husband sent his wife two tickets, one for her and one for the man she was living with. He no longer fought against what was inevitable but he still cared for her and wanted her to experience Jesus as he had. She declined. Billy Graham extended his meetings for one more night and the husband sent two more tickets. The preliminary divorce papers had just come through and perhaps the wife felt safer at this point. This time she accepted and asked if she could come with him. He happily said yes.

They went and when Billy Graham gave an invitation at the end of his sermon, she went forward to give her life to Christ. They moved back in together and went to the judge to ask, to his amazement, that the divorce papers be stopped. And when Nicky Gumbel tells the story, he reads from his prayer journal where he wrote, Is there anything too great for you, Lord?

God is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine.

Here at RIC we came to the conclusion that it would be best for our community if we had our own facility. Being sandwiched between the Korean and French services limits us. We have no center for fellowship or meetings. We have to travel across town for Sunday School. Our community would be enriched if we had our own facility. But to buy land and build in Rabat is very expensive and we have difficulty meeting our budget, as small as it is. It seems impossible. But a couple years ago, when I was at a weekly prayer time at the association office, I saw a picture of what our church could look like and for the first time was bold enough to pray for what I see as impossible. Only time will tell, but I have been encouraged to continue praying for funds to buy land and build our own facility – and to receive permission from the government to do so.

God is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine.

We need to step out in faith and see the power of God to do even great and seemingly impossible things. As we pray and ask this question: Can God grant this request? our prayers may change and grow in the vision for which we are praying.

A third question to ask is: Have I done my part?

When you pray you are asking God for something. But what is it you are supposed to do? What is your part in all of this? It is not a quid pro quo. It is not that you do something so you can get something. God is not a store where you exchange some form of currency to get what it is you want. But there is something we need to do. There are things we do or don’t do that can block our prayers.

Matthew 5:23-24

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

If we have not forgiven someone or if we have not asked for forgiveness for something we have done, then our prayers are blocked. We need to live in harmony, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I Peter 3:7

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

If a husband does not treat his wife properly, loving her as Christ loved the church, then his prayers are hindered.

In the first message of judgment in his book, Isaiah wrote: (1:13-17)

Quit your worship charades.

I can’t stand your trivial religious games:

Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—

meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!

Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!

You’ve worn me out!

I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,

while you go right on sinning.

When you put on your next prayer-performance,

I’ll be looking the other way.

No matter how long or loud or often you pray,

I’ll not be listening.

And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing

people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.

Go home and wash up.

Clean up your act.

Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings

so I don’t have to look at them any longer.

Say no to wrong.

Learn to do good.

Work for justice.

Help the down-and-out.

Stand up for the homeless.

Go to bat for the defenseless.

If you want to have God listen to your prayers, then work at your obedience to him. Direct your energy and attention to things God is most concerned about. Work at living your life in a way that pleases God and then see what happens to your prayers.

A fourth question to ask is: What is my present relationship with God?

Who is it you are praying to? Is God a distant concept or a present comfort? Am I growing in intimacy in my relationship with God?

If I go to my earthly father to ask him for a loan to help buy a house or a car or something, I would want to make sure that I was on good terms with him. If I haven’t talked with my father for a couple years, why would he want to help me?

The apostle John wrote in I John 3:21-22

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

When you pray, ask how your relationship with God is. If the Holy Spirit brings anything to your mind that is a problem, deal with it so you can have an open relationship with God.

Remember when you pray that God loves you. God wants you to think of him as a loving father. When Jesus taught about prayer in his Sermon on the Mount, he said: Matthew 7:7-11

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

God wants to give you good things. When you pray, God will give to you what he knows is good for you. Grow in your trust of him. Grow in the knowledge that you are loved by God.

A fifth question to ask is: Who will get the credit if my request is granted?

God is not a disinterested party to my request. Have I considered God’s interests?

Often, when we pray, we are being very self-centered, considering only our own interests. This is not bad. We are meant to pray about whatever is making us anxious or worried, but it is not a good place to stay.

When Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be taken away, do you see how he moved from being self-centered (take this away from me) to seeing his situation from God’s perspective, that this was given to him to keep him from being overly conceited because of the great revelations he had received?

The Christian life is not principally about me. Jesus did not die on the cross so I could live a comfortable life, surrounded by all the world’s treasures. Jesus died so I could have life and life eternal.

God’s kingdom and my entering God’s kingdom is more important than my happiness. God is at work to build his kingdom and it may be that I am called to sacrifice the pleasures and comforts of this world so that the kingdom can grow.

When I speak at weddings, which is not so often, I generally say that the institution of marriage is more important than my happiness in marriage. Too many people put their happiness first and get divorced when they do not perceive their needs are being met.

And the truth is that when we put God’s interests first, that is where we find the peace and love we most deeply crave.

Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: (Matthew 6:33)

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Make God and his kingdom most important in your life, sacrifice for his kingdom and then you will discover that you have what you most want. Try to take a shortcut and go directly for the things you want, bypassing God’s concerns and his kingdom and you will find you have lost the things you most want.

I need to be willing to make sacrifices so that the Kingdom of God wins. Does my prayer build the Kingdom of God or only my own temporal kingdom? Let the answer to that guide and shape your prayer.

And finally, a sixth question to ask is: Do I really want an answer?

What would be the likely consequences if you received the answer you wanted from your prayer.

After having asked the five previous questions, when you come down to this one, there is likely to have been a great change of heart in your prayer and when you ask this sixth question, your prayer will have been shaped by the questions you have asked. Because your prayer has been reshaped by these questions, you will likely want an answer to your prayer.

But if you have taken a shortcut and skipped the first five questions, this one may stop you in your tracks and make you want to go back and think things through more thoroughly.

When I was younger I used to wish I was someone famous but what always stopped me in my tracks was that I could not just be that person, I would have to have their mind, their conscience and that always turned me away.

Think through the consequences of receiving the answer you want to your prayers.

So those are the six questions. I would encourage you to take your prayer list, be it in writing or in your mind, and work your way through these questions.

This is not an empty exercise. It is meant to help you be open to receiving from God his best for you.

What is it you want? For what are you praying? Do you want a job promotion? Do you want to get married? Do you want a house? Do you want a car? Do you want a certain lifestyle when you retire?

Are you struggling in a relationship with someone in your personal or work life?

Are you praying for healing for yourself or others?

Are you asking God for certain spiritual gifts?

God has a plan for your life. God wants to use you in his work to expand his kingdom. God wants to use you to help bring others into his kingdom.

God’s plan for your life is the best plan. Your best interests are served when you submit to his plan for your life. So use these questions to help you pray persistently in a way that will bring you to pray for what God most wants to bring into your life.