Follow your heart or listen to your head? When we make decisions in life, we have options – will I go with my gut or with the option that is logically and rationally sound? We regularly face this question when we’re shopping – which is one of the reasons it’s never a good idea to go to the grocery store when you’re hungry. We face it in our professional lives – do you take a risk on pursuing a new opportunity or do you stick with the job you have? We face it in the golden years of life: do you retire early while you can still travel and enjoy an active lifestyle, or do you put it off? In our subjective, relativistic culture, it seems that most of the advice you hear is to make decisions by following your heart, doing what feels right – and logic, not to mention morality, are hardly considered. Oprah Winfrey, talk show host and author of a book called What I Know for Sure reveals how she makes decisions. “Learning to trust your instincts, using your intuitive sense of what’s best for you, is paramount for any lasting success. I’ve trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life. And the only time I’ve made mistakes is when I didn’t listen.”  I’m sure every one of us has followed that or similar advice in the past – how did it turn out?
We can get ourselves into trouble when we trust our hearts more than our heads in making life decisions, but it’s far more dangerous to base things like our relationship with God, eternity and prayer on our hearts rather than our heads. And John says that when it comes to these questions, you don’t have to follow your heart, you don’t have to trust your intuition. You can and ought to know with absolute certainty that you have eternal life, that God hears your prayers, and that God answers your prayers.
How do you know that you have a real, living relationship with God? That’s a question believers have asked since the beginning of time. For the same length of time, false teachers have taught that a living relationship with God is something you feel. Religion, they allege, takes place in your heart. Faith isn’t as much about doctrines and confessions as it is feeling close to God and experiencing the presence of God. In this letter, John was combatting those ideas as they arose in the heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught that if you wanted a real relationship with God, it wasn’t good enough to know and trust in Jesus Christ – you had to have a personal, inner, mystical connection to God. In other words, they encouraged people to follow their hearts instead of trusting God’s Word.
Part of the reason that the gnostic, mystic heresy is so seductive is because as fallen humans we have a tendency to believe that we know what we need better than God does. In our shortsightedness, we tend to think that our greatest need is more money, a new job, more respect, a better home life or better health. We expect that if God really deserves our fear, love and trust, he better agree with us. Are those really our biggest problems? What is our greatest need? Biblical and Lutheran theology are clear. We were born spiritually dead in need of spiritual life. Sin and guilt are our biggest problems and redemption and salvation our biggest needs. God makes that need known and clear to us in his Law. He holds up his holy will and says “do this” and “don’t do that” or else. And yet, we haven’t done what God has commanded and we have done what God has forbidden and so we deserve nothing but the “or else”; eternal damnation in hell.
But God has provided the solution, he has answered our greatest need. John writes: I write these things to you…so that you may know that you have eternal life. God doesn’t want you to wonder if you have eternal life. He doesn’t want you to follow something as fickle as your feelings. He wants you to know it – with certainty. How can we be so sure, so certain? John is very specific: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God. People, and only people, who believe in the NAME of the Son of God can be positive they have eternal life. What does that mean? Why doesn’t John just say “If you believe in the Son of God you have eternal life”? What does it mean to believe in the NAME of the Son of God?
Remember that John is combatting the heresy that tells you that faith and truth are things “you just feel.” By identifying believers as those who trust in the NAME of the Son of God, he’s saying that being a Christian means knowing and believing certain things about God’s Son. Jesus’ name is more than his different titles – more than Messiah, Christ and Savior. Jesus is NOT a lump of clay to be molded into whatever you want him to be. Saving faith is not vague trust in God. A living relationship with Him must be based on more than our own best efforts and gut feelings. To believe in Jesus’ name means to believe in all that he is and all he revealed himself to be. Those all-important details are what we confess each Sunday in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. It means to believe that he is true man, born of a virgin. It means to believe that he is God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit. It means to trust that everything Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote about him was true. He really lived a perfect life in Israel, he really restored sight to the blind and caused the lame to walk. He really was persecuted, arrested, tried, beaten, hung on a cross, died and rose again. And to believe in Jesus’ name means to trust that everything Jesus did, he did for you, to give you life and salvation. Eternal life is not based on intuition. Heaven doesn’t become yours when you follow your heart. Eternal life is yours, and you can be absolutely, 100% positive of this because Jesus, God’s Son, lived, died and rose to buy it for you. Trust this. Believe this. Know this with certainty.
Ok, so the future’s taken care of; but what about the present? What certainty can we have that we are living in and with God right now? The way the apostle John sees it, our confidence for the present stems from our confidence for the future. The reason we can be confident of our right standing with God today is because we know he has already taken care of our future. We can pray with confidence because He has told us in his Word that Jesus has paid for our sins and earned our place in heaven.
Now, this is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. Why does John need to encourage us to have confidence in approaching God? Because it’s not a civil or spiritual right. We were born dead in sin and unbelief, God’s enemies, not his friends – and God does not hear the prayers of his enemies. Another false aspect of Gnostic, mystic teaching is that God will hear you if you are just sincere enough, if you have enough good feelings in your heart. Try that approach with the President. Try going to the White House and demand to be heard because of how sincere you are. Do we really believe it’s any different with the King of kings? In fact, God makes it clear that while he is certainly capable of hearing every prayer, he simply refuses to hear the prayers of unbelievers: surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. (Isaiah 59:1-3)
Does God listen to every prayer lofted his way? Hardly. But the surprising thing is not that God ignores some prayers – it’s that he hears any at all. Yet he does, and we can have confidence in that fact. Why? Because of what we talked about before. The redeeming work of God’s Son, Jesus, not only gives us eternal life, but it changes our status before God. Instead of being classified as natural born enemies, God sees us as his redeemed children. As children, God now grants us the privilege to come to him in prayer. He even gives us the assurance that he will hear us. That is why when we pray in Jesus’ name we can know with certainty that God hears us.
That is also why, while John encourages us to ask [for] anything, he places one condition on our prayers: if we ask anything according to his will. That’s a struggle for us, isn’t it? That’s why many prefer to have a mystical relationship with God rather than one based on his Word – because I want God to do my will and not the other way around. But that’s not how it works. And it’s not as if God’s will is entirely a mystery, God has told us plenty about his will for us. Worship and serve me alone, use my Word and my name properly. Honor those in authority. Honor human life and respect other’s property. Do not slander and do not covet. God has even revealed his broad will for all mankind: he wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4) And if we really focused on praying for those things, we probably wouldn’t have time to worry about anything else.
But there are many things God hasn’t revealed to us. He doesn’t tell us which hymns to sing or which portion of the Bible the sermon should be based on. He doesn’t tell us which purchase to make, which job to take, and when to retire. He doesn’t tell us who we should marry or how many kids we ought to have or what our destiny in this life is. So what does it mean to pray according to God’s will when we know some things about it and don’t know others? It means to pray in line with what God has revealed in his Word. (So guess what, if you don’t know what God’s will is, what should you do? Yep, go back and study his Word) Therefore, we will never, ever pray for anything sinful. We will not ask him to bring evil on anyone or ask that he give us something we should not want to have. We will pray for the things he has promised to give, things like peace and joy, forgiveness and contentment. And for all the rest? We ask and then we leave it up to him. We pray as Jesus did, not my will, but yours be done. (Luke 22:42)
And when we pray according to [God’s] will, we can know one more thing with certainty: if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. That seems to contradict our own experience, doesn’t it? What about our prayers that seem to soar to heaven and fall back to the ground unanswered? What about my prayer for guidance in my personal life, my career, my retirement? What about my prayer for healing, my prayer for a job, my prayer for a God-fearing spouse, my prayers for a child? What about those prayers? How can John say that we have what we asked of him? Well, remember Christian prayer means asking God to give us what He thinks is best, not what we think we should have. Sometimes God’s answer will be yes. But it might be no. It could be not right now. Those are answers, aren’t they? Just because God doesn’t give you an immediate positive answer doesn’t mean he doesn’t hear and hasn’t answered. It simply means that God has different plans. We may not like it, but we do need to accept it and trust it because we know that God would never do anything to harm us. And, more than that, we know from the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) that it is God’s will that we continue to pray, that we make heaven ring with our prayers, that we try to wear him out. You can trust that he will hear them and answer them longer than you can pray them. Don’t give up. Persist in prayer and know for certain that if God hears us, then we have what we asked of him.
All due respect to Oprah, but following your heart is not usually the best advice when it comes to making decisions. More importantly, it’s spiritual malpractice to trust your heart when it comes to matters of faith and eternity. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Because God has given us certainty. He has given us his Son whose life, death, and resurrection mean that we can know for certain that we have eternal life, God hears our prayers and God answers our prayers. Biblical certainty trumps intuition every time. Amen.