Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


9. Prayer for wisdom and guidance

"If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you".
'O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly; grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what Thou wouldst have us to do, that the spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(William Bright)

Linked with the prayer for strength and boldness there is often the request for wisdom and guidance. In our weakness we need strength, and in our perplexities we need God's direction. In what we speak of as the Wisdom books of the Bible (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes) we have often, explicitly or implicitly, the prayer for God's wisdom. Proverbs 2:3-5 says, "if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures - then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God." Proverbs 3:5-6 says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."

Under the heading of prayer for wisdom and guidance we might list three kinds of prayer that we find in Scripture:

  1. Prayer for guidance and direction in specific situations.
  2. Prayer for spiritual discernment in life.
  3. Prayer for a growing knowledge of God and a deepening understanding of his ways.

There are beautiful stories in the Old Testament, as in the New, of those who prayed specifically for guidance and found it. There is the account of Abraham's servant as he was sent to find a bride for Isaac (Gen.24:12-61). There are accounts of Israel asking the guidance of God before going to battle (e.g. Jud.20:18, 27). David is often spoken of "inquiring of the Lord" before taking significant action. We read of his asking, for example, whether to go to battle against the Philistines (2 Sam.5:19 and 23). When the opportunity came to him to be king in Judah, he refrained from simply seizing it, but asked God whether or not, and how and where, he should assume rule as king (2 Sam.2:1). In fact repeatedly in critical situations in his life David prayed for guidance rather than attempting to go forward in his own wisdom (see 1 Samuel 23:2, 4, 10-12, 30:8). The casting of lots (as in Jos.18-19) was a means of seeking God's guidance on the basis of the conviction expressed in Proverbs 16:33, "The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord's alone." We read also in the case of Gideon, the request for a sign that the will of God might be clearly discerned (Jud.6:36-40). The Book of Psalms abounds in prayers that God will "teach" and "guide" those who turn to him, so aware were the psalmists of the perplexities of their situation and of the fact that there was only One who could be relied on to direct their ways.

From the outset of the life of the Church after the Ascension of Christ there was specific prayer for the guidance of God in the steps to be taken and in relation to people to be chosen for special responsibilities. We read the prayer of the disciples for guidance in the choice of one to replace Judas (Acts 1:24-25). There was no doubt prayer for guidance in the choice of the seven chosen to care for distribution of relief to the Hellenist widows in Acts 6. We certainly read of them being commended to God with prayer. There was prayer and fasting that led to the sending out of Barnabas and Paul on their first great missionary journey in Acts 13:1-2. For such prayer for guidance there was the example of the Lord himself who spent the night in prayer before the choice and calling of the twelve (Lk. 6:12).

Christians have always recognised the importance of following that example of dependence on God for guidance in the decisions of life. A delegation came to Abraham Lincoln to tell him he would lose the support of his cabinet unless he abandoned his anti-slavery campaign. He promised to give his answer in the morning. He spent the night in prayer and in the morning said, "No nation can endure half slave and half free".' Such prayers for guidance have a vital role both in our personal lives and in the life of the Church, and we neglect such reliance on God to our own great loss. Yet all too often their is failure at this point, and the life of the Church today is far removed from the early Church as it is pictured in the Acts of the Apostles. Sir Kenneth Grubb cynically, though not without a great measure of truth, speaks of church committees and ecumenical discussions where 'a prayer is usually offered, but no one seems to have any lively disappointment if it is not, or hope of success if it is' (19).

If we do not know how to make specific prayer, we can always, like the disciples of Jesus, say "Lord, teach us how to pray." Then we can be kept from asking lesser things when God has greater gifts to give, as the lame man at the temple gate in Acts 3 asking for money when he had the opportunity to find healing.

Secondly, prayers for discernment abound in Scripture. Manoah prayed for wisdom in bringing up the child given to him and his wife (Jud.13:8). David prayed for wisdom for his son Solomon, "May the Lord give you discretion and understanding when he puts you in command over Israel, so that you may keep the law of the Lord your God" (1 Chr.22:12). Solomon himself when he became king asked specifically for that wisdom and it was given to him (1 Kings 3:7-9 and 4:29-34). As in the case of Solomon , so in Jeremiah 33:3 the picture that we have is of the Lord's seeking to give wisdom and to reveal his ways, "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things that you so not know." We read of Daniel praying and setting his mind to gain understanding (Dan.10:12). We have seen also how the Old Testament records speak of people "inquiring of the Lord", and frequently this is done in the face of great perplexity, as it was with Rebekah in Genesis 25:22-23 and Joshua after the defeat at Ai (Jos.7:7-9). Later in the story of the book of Joshua we see the consequences of the failure to turn to God for guidance (Jos.9:14). David, puzzled when judgment came on Uzzah in relation to the ark of the Lord, asked in his perplexity, "How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?" (1 Chr.13:12).

The New Testament prayers for guidance are also often such prayers for discernment, as in Philippians 1:9-10 where Paul writes, "this is my prayer that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best ---." The spiritual realities of a situation are often able to be determined only as there is specific turning to God to seek discernment. A dramatic Old Testament example of this, as Elisha's servant was filled with fear because of the opposing forces, and the prophet's prayer was answered and the servant enabled to see the spiritual forces that were present for their protection (2 Kg. 6:17).

Such prayers for discernment are not usually answered in a flash of inspiration or vision as it was in the case of Elisha's servant, but through the understanding of the great principles of God's dealing with humanity. Daniel Jenkins speaks of the prayer for guidance, and how 'God's guidance is granted most clearly to those who are steeped in the world of the Bible and who live together with their brethren the common life of the Church'. The Bible and the church 'are the means God has appointed for maintaining His people in the way of His commandments. And He will not answer the prayers of His people for guidance if they turn aside from His own appointed means' (20).

Then thirdly, and especially in the New Testament, prayer is made for wisdom in the sense of asking to know God and his ways more fully. In Ephesians 3:18-19 it is the plea to be able "together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge". In Ephesians 1:17-19 Paul says, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe --." Paul says he asks for Philemon (v.6) "that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ." Colossians 1:10 is a prayer that Christians be "growing in the knowledge of God", while in Colossians 2:2-3 Paul asks that "they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.". (Cf. 2 Pet.1:2 and Rev.3:18.)