Q. When I am praying for something for which I do know not know what God’s will is, such as for a recovery of someone who is very ill, or for the salvation of a loved one, should I always qualify my prayer with “If it be thy will…”?
First of all, when the Apostle John speaks about praying according to the will of God (1 Jn 5:14), it must be remembered that he is referring to the revealed, rather than the secret, will of God. Secondly, remember that prayer is a means instituted by God so that the child of God may pour out his heart’s desire unto God (see Ps 62:8). In other words, in prayer, the believer has a warrant to tell God what he would like to see happen in the future.
Now, since, the future has not been revealed, and prayer is for the expression of your desire so long as it is not contrary to the known will of God in the present circumstance, you may indeed pray without any qualification. For example, it would be sinful for a man who is married to pray that his wife will agree to divorce him so that he could marry another woman. It is clearly against the will of God for him to seek divorce to satisfy his adulterous design. On the other hand, it is not wrong to pray for the salvation of another person, given the fact that God has not chosen to reveal to you whether the person is elected or reprobated. Of course, if you should have reason to believe that the person has committed the unpardonable sin (WCF 21.4; 1 Jn 5:16), then you must cease to pray for the person’s salvation. Similarly, it is not wrong to pray for the recovery of someone who is ill, when there is a possibility of recovery, without adding, “if it be thy will.” But, if it become known that the person has no prospect of recovery, we ought rather to change our prayer for him, that he may prepare to meet His creator, and at the same time, we may then become more tentative in our prayer: “Lord, if you will, you can heal him, and we do greatly desire that he be restored to health, for we desire to see him turning unto thee… yet not our will but yours be done.”
So, it is not wrong to pray with the condition: “if it be thy will.” This is especially so if the reason is (1) that it is spoken as an expression of reliance on God’s sovereignty; and (2) that it is becoming increasingly apparent what God’s (secret) will is, in the particular situation. Our Lord Himself prayed in this manner as He contemplated the cross of Calvary: “Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42).
However, we must be careful that we do not pray the qualifier due to faithlessness or disbelief that God can answer our prayer according to our desire, if He chooses to. This is why the Lord teaches us: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Mt 21:22). This is also why James admonishes:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (Jas 1:5–8).
Furthermore, take heed that if you are praying in the hearing of the subject(s) of your petitions, that your prayer be not framed in such a way as to discourage rather than to give hope. Do not pray for an expectant mother by saying: “Lord, if it be thy will would thou give her a safe delivery, and if it be thy will would thou grant that the child be healthy.” Similarly, do not pray for an erring brother in his hearing by saying: “Lord, if it be thy will, would thou give him repentance unto life.” Such prayers are effectively non-prayers since prayer is a pouring out of our desire to God. But worst than that, such prayers may also discourage the persons we are praying for.
It may be tempting for those who know God as sovereign and immutable to want to preserve God’s name by making sure that He is not put “into a tight spot” by our prayers. But such an attitude is not only unnecessary, but reveals doubt in our heart concerning God’s character and power. Let us, rather, pray with believing hearts, as we pour out our heart’s desires to Him as He has warranted us. Let us come unto the throne of grace boldly (Heb 4:16), with the confidence of the psalmist: “I have called upon thee, for thou wilt hear me, O God: incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech” (Ps 17:6).