Let’s begin by looking at what the Lord Jesus told Paul about how prayer works today in the dispensation of grace:
“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
“Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:26-28).
For those of us in the dispensation of grace, God never promises that He will give us everything that we ask. You can abundantly prove this by simply reading through the letters written by the Apostle Paul. He wrote thirteen letters, from Romans to Philemon, and we never read a prayer promise like “Whatever you ask,” or “ask what you desire.” Instead we read that “We do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26).
God has promised to “work all things together for good” in our lives, but He hasn’t revealed HOW He is going to do that. He has promised it, and we take that by faith and believe that He is working all things—even the “tragedies” of life—together for good for us; but we often don’t see it. But as Paul wrote, “We walk by faith and not by seeing.”
Since we don’t know how God is going to work all things for good, we don’t know exactly how to pray. How could God promise us that He will answer all our prayers, if He tells us up front that we don’t even know what to pray for?
Paul’s letters contain many testimonies of unanswered prayers. He knew how to pray in the dispensation of grace, and did not become discouraged his prayers remained unanswered. He believed that his Father in heaven had everything under control and was working all things together for his good. Furthermore, he gives us a great testimony of unanswered prayer in 2 Corinthians 12:
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
“Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
“And He said to me, `My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
We see in verse 7 that God allowed Paul to suffer with this “thorn in the flesh,” some physical suffering that came from Satan. And even though Paul pleaded repeatedly for the Lord to remove the problem, it was allowed to serve a good purpose in Paul’s life. We know this because of the Lord’s reply to the prayers. He did not say, “Whatever you ask you’ll receive, if you have faith!” No! Not at all. The Lord told Paul that His grace would be enough and that His power will bring spiritual strength in weakness.
It is common to want the Lord to just fix the problems. It is more important, however, that He wants to show the sufficiency of His grace, and the magnificence of His power working in our lives so that we can bear the fruit of an overcoming life that gives Him glory.
Paul’s entire outlook suffering changed as a result of this prayer experience. He goes on to say that he learned to take “pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We must learn from the bible that it is not God’s will to take away all of our problems or to fix all of our weaknesses. Instead, it is God’s will that in all the circumstances, He will give us all the grace and strength that we’ll need to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”, “who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil 3:14,21).
Next, look at how Paul prayed for the Colossian saints:
“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;
“That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;” (Col. 1:9-10).
He then continued in prayer that these saints would be “filled with the knowledge of His will” and the result would be that they would be “strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy [powerful!]” (Col. 1:11).
“Patience” here speaks of endurance and perseverance in the face of life’s circumstances, while “longsuffering” speaks of having a “long fuse” on our tempers when faced with unpleasant people and surroundings. And Paul instructs us to do this all with “joy.” God doesn’t promise to take away all our problems, or to answer all our prayers (remember, we don’t even know what to ask for). Instead, He promises to give us the grace and strength that we’ll need to overcome and to do it all with joy.
That is God’s picture of being “strengthened with all might according to His glorious power.” That is real power, and the Lord Jesus says to us today, “My grace is sufficient for you wherever you are, and whatever your problems may be, I’m working it all together for good, and My power is being made perfect. It reaches its greatest expression and demonstration when you are weak, but miraculously, you find that by faith you are `strengthened with all might…for patience and longsuffering with joy.’”
Paul never forgot the lesson that the Lord taught him from his “thorn prayer.” Many years later and from a prison cell, Paul would write to the Philippians:
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:
“I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).
Paul says that he has learned the secret of contentment, he knows how to abound [to have much], and also how to be abased [to have little]. So Paul writes that everywhere and in all things he has learned how to live, and how to live with joy. And the secret? “I can do all things through Christ who [constantly, daily] strengthens me.” We can almost hear those words from years before still ringing in Paul’s heart, “My strength is made perfect in your weakness” as Paul writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Should we pray today? Of course! Listen to Paul encouraging the saints to pray:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thes. 5:16-18).
But we can only rejoice and give thanks always when we understand what the Lord is doing in the dispensation of grace and in our lives today. God’s people are destroyed when they are told that God’s plan is to fix all their problems. The Lord never said made this declaration to the Apostle Paul for us in the dispensation of grace. There can only come disappointment, discouragement, and spiritual ruin when we claim a promise that God never made to us [Replacement Theology]. But what joy and what freedom there is when we begin to learn to hear the Lord’s promises for us today in this wonderful time called the “dispensation of the grace of God!”
“If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward” (Eph 3:2)