"We found that entire sermons and evangelistic opportunities were being wasted on the ears of those destined to damnation," head of missions research Dr. Cal Perkins told reporters. "Now we can focus our efforts on calling only God’s chosen people to faith and repentance."I laughed. It's a joke. I get it. But it highlighted (which, I think, was the point) the idea of wasting our time doing God's work.
It's frequently a problem for those of the Reformed bent. "If we can't know who are the elect, how do we know who to preach to?" Now, I don't think you'd often hear such a thing, but I know that many think that. The answer is actually pretty simple. "You don't. You were commanded to 'Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.' (Mark 16:15) That includes the elect and the non-elect. So stop messing around and go do it."
But the problem also arises for many Christians in the realm of prayer. "How can I know what to pray? If it is God's will, He'll do it, but if it's not, He won't. I'll be wasting my prayers on things that are not God's will." At first blush, the answer is pretty clear here, too. "You were commanded to 'pray without ceasing' (1 Thess 5:17). That includes the prayers in God's will and the ones that are not. So stop messing around and go do it." And you would think that would be sufficient ... but it's not.
The difficulty, I think, is this idea of what is "useless" or "wasted". If I preach the Gospel to the non-elect, it is "useless". If I pray outside of God's will, it is "wasted". Do you see the basic premise behind the idea? Obedience is only valuable if there is a positive outcome. We can carry this idea out to all sorts of things. "Why read my Bible if I don't get anything out of it?" "Why go to church if I'm not getting anything out of it?" "Why love my neighbor if they never come to Christ?" Indeed, this can become quite daunting if you think it through. A person who is ignorant is less culpable than a person who is well informed. See, for instance, Jesus's words to the cities of Israel who had His works done there but rejected Him. He said it would be more tolerable for the worst of sinners who never had it than for those who did (Matt 11:20-24). So if you share God's Word with someone and they reject it, aren't you actually making it worse for them? Maybe you should stop sharing the Gospel entirely! This, of course, is wrong. It is a measurement of success by the wrong measure.
So, let's examine the idea. Let's start with an easy one because it is a definitive one. Is it useless -- a waste of time -- to pray for things that are outside of God's will? I think I can say for certain that the answer is "No." Why? Because we know from Scripture that Jesus did that very thing. He asked, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me." (Matt 26:39) It was not possible. His Father was not going to grant that request. Jesus followed that with what we all ought to include: "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will." We should always want God's will. But if it is useless to pray for something that is outside of God's will, then Jesus was praying a useless prayer. And since Jesus was never wrong, I don't think it's safe to lay that accusation at His feet. Thus, I would argue that it is not useless to pray for things that do not come to be. And, by extension, it is not useless to share the Gospel with those who may not accept it or to read your Bible even if you're not "getting something out of it" or ... you get the idea.
I think we have a mistaken idea that for obedience to be good and right it should meet our standards of "success". We do this in the face of God's assurance that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8-9). It would seem obvious, then, that obedience is never a waste of time. And we must realize that prayer and God's Word and fellowship with believers and sharing the Gospel and all the rest is always beneficial even when we don't see what we might call a "positive outcome". Perhaps what we need to rethink is the idea of "useful" in God's eyes.