Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Prayer Versus a Wish

Sometimes you want things to work out for someone a certain way, and the appropriate statement seems to have become, "I'll pray for that to work out in that certain way."  However, you don't know if it is God's will.  You don't know that you are praying in God's will.

A good and scriptural alternative to saying you'll pray for something to occur, which you aren't sure will occur, is to say, "I hope the best for you in that endeavor," or, "I am wishing that it will turn out that way for you."  That doesn't mean you now must pray for it, when you don't think you should pray for it, because it isn't something you know is God's will.  God hasn't promised it.  It's not wrong to want, but you don't know you'll get it.

Is there any basis for what I'm writing here?  Yes.  In two words, the optative.  The optative is a rare mood of the Greek verb in the New Testament.  I've read that there are 63 of them total.  In other words, I haven't counted them all up myself.  Papers have been written that categorize their various usages.

Overall, the optative is a mood that expresses wish or hope.  It is used to express wishes and is sometimes used for what is called a benediction, which I think that some of you can relate with, where you express to an audience at the end of a presentation that you hope they have a fine evening.  Paul shifts to the optative at the end of 1 Thessalonians 3, and by doing so, he does introduce some of what he will address in the next section of the epistle.  It also serves as a benediction to the end of the first part of the book.  Someone night confuse verses 11-13 for a prayer, especially when one includes verse 10.
10 Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith? 11 Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. 12 And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: 13 To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.
As an apostle, I think we should think that Paul knew things that we don't and can't know, that God reveals to him.  When he writes in the indicative mood, "praying," he communicates the requests with two aorist infinitives:  "to see" and "to perfect."  He makes it back on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:4).

Prayer must be in the will of God.  Prayer must be of faith, so we believe that we will receive.  Jesus said (Mark 11:24), "Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."  What you believe that you will receive is reality.

Paul shifts then in verse 11 to the optative with "direct our way to you," followed by another optative, verse 12, "increase," and, third, "abound."  There are three of our 63 optatives in the New Testament.  Verses 11-13 are wishes or a benediction to end the chapter.  They contrast with the prayer of verse 10.

Prayers are not wishes.  We wish for things that we are not sure about.  We want them and that will direct what we might do to see those wishes accomplished.  We have no guarantee that they will come to pass.  God might affect them to occur.  If we wish them, then they must be the right thing.  We just don't know we will get it.  That's why they are communicated by the optative.

Paul makes wishes.  We can make wishes.  There are things that we wish.  We can express those wishes.  We should.


Jeff Voegtlin said...


Do you think it is proper to express our wishes to God? If so, does this then become a matter of Christians lumping everything we say to God into the category of prayer? Like...worship is prayer; thanksgiving is prayer; intercession is prayer; praying is prayer; and wishing is prayer.

Thank you for the article. I learned from it and it was helpful.

Jeff Voegtlin

Kent Brandenburg said...


Thanks. What you are saying, I believe is expressed in scripture, that is, we can express wishes to God, like expressing laments to God. God is in the audience of a wish or hope, seeing it as a right desire. We can want things that we don't ask for. There is no guarantee we will receive them, but they are fine to communicate as a desire. One category of the optative is imprecation, like let him be accursed. It doesn't mean that he is accursed, just because we express that.

I'm glad you're interested. Prayer is one of my favorite topics, and one of the most messed up ones. I also think that I didn't understand it as I grew up and it has been one of the more important aspects of my life, to do so.

Jeff Voegtlin said...


I was reading Romans 15:30-31 this morning and it reminded me of this post. Paul asks the Romans that their prayers would include things that "may be." The "may be" items are in the subjunctive mood. I didn't check the "prayers" because that word is a noun.

I'm not very exercised in this type of thing, so I'm wondering what is the difference between the subjunctive and the optative? Right here, they seem very similar. It also appears that Paul is asking them to pray for things that might be, and as it turns out, did not happen.

What are your thoughts, explanations, etc.?

Thank you,

Kent Brandenburg said...


There is a difference between an optative and a subjunctive. The fulfillment of any request would not yet be reality, so it is upon the condition of their praying, therefore, subjunctive. All answers would be contingent of their request.

The use of the optative itself says it is a wish. The optative expresses something with a sense of unlikeliness to it. Even if it isn't likely, I wish it would happen. Even if it doesn't happen, I wish it would. This is not a matter of faith.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Pastor Brandenburg,

Thank you for this post. I was wondering if you could comment on what Wallace says below in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pgs. 484ff.:

1. Voluntative Optative (a.k.a Optative of Obtainable Wish, Volitive Optative)

a. Definition

This is the use of the optative in an independent clause to express an obtainable wish or a prayer. It is frequently an appeal to the will, in particular when used in prayers. .


• polite request without necessarily a hint of doubting what the response will be. We have a similar usage of polite speech ourselves. I might, for example, ask my wife, “Do you think you might be able to help me with the dishes tonight?” This is much less blunt than “Please, help me with the dishes!” But the response expected from either request would be the same.

The voluntative optative seems to be used this way in the language of prayer. Again, as with μὴ γένοιτο, it is largely a carry-over from Attic even though its meaning has changed. This is not due to any substantive change in syntax, but is rather due to a change in theological perspective. Prayers offered to the semi-gods of ancient Athens could expect to be haggled over, rebuffed, and left unanswered. But the God of the NT was bigger than that. The prayers offered to him depend on his sovereignty and goodness. Thus, although the form of much prayer language in the NT has the tinge of remote possibility, when it is offered to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, its meaning often moves into the realm of expectation. If uncertainty is part of the package, it is not due to questions of God’s ability, but simply to the petitioner’s humility before the transcendent one.

The voluntative optative is the most common optative category (at least 35 of the 68–69 uses belong here).88 One set idiom makes up almost half of all the voluntative optatives: μὴ γένοιτο, an expression that occurs 15 times (14 of which occur in Paul).

. . .

1 Th 3:11 Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ ἡμῶν καὶ ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦς κατευθύναι τὴν ὁδὸν ἡμῶν πρὸς ὑμᾶς

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our path to you

There may be some significance in the use of a singular verb with this compound subject. Some possibilities are: (1) At this early stage of the new faith (1 Thessalonians being the second earliest Pauline letter), a clear distinction between the Father and Son was not yet hammered out (but the distinction in persons is made by the distinct articles before each name); (2) the optative is uniting the Father and Son in terms of purpose and, to some degree therefore, placing Jesus Christ on the same level as God; (3) as is common in the NT, when a compound subject is used with a singular verb, the first-named subject is the more important of the two89 (though this normally or exclusively occurs in narrative literature, and typically with the indicative mood).90

2 Tim 1:16 δῴη ἔλεος ὁ κύριος τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ

May the Lord grant mercy on the house of Onesiphorus!

This is an instance of polite request. There is an evident expectation of fulfillment in the request.

2 Pet 1:2 χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη πληθυνθείη ἐν ἐπιγνώσει τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν

May grace to you and peace be multiplied in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord

There is every likelihood that the author expected such blessings for his audience. The language, borrowed no doubt from the Pauline corpus, adds the optative

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Thomas,

As you would suspect, I knew that not only Wallace, but also commentators use the language Wallace did about these types of usages. What is a wish could be a prayer, but a prayer is not a wish. There is some overlap there. Even though the volitive is a normal usage, when you look at those 63 usages, which I did, not much looks like an actual prayer, except that wishes can sound like prayers. In other words, in an actual prayer, what we know is a prayer, the optative isn't used.

Some healthy suspicion, if at least a little, should be directed toward Greek grammarians. Their theology affects what they say. You also want to take what they are saying in context. Prayer is an obtainable wish. A wish is a wish. These wishes are not directed to God. They are directed to people. If they are actual prayers, why would we say them to people? Jesus preaches to direct our prayers to the Father, not even to Himself. What we wish from people sometimes is what Jesus would do, so if it were a prayer, an actual prayer, that would violate what Jesus said too.

KJB1611 said...


I don't have time to pursue this more now, so I'll leave it at that.

Kent Brandenburg said...


We've had a go around already on this, so it isn't worth it at this point, IMO. I don't think it's that difficult. What I wrote is saying that you can wish things that are good for people if you want, even communicate those wishes to them, without saying I'll pray this. It's helpful. It's not even intended to be technical at this point.