“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
These are the words Jesus speaks this morning, and they are some of the last words Jesus ever spoke before He was crucified. And I believe this with all my heart, soul, and mind – this promise that whatever we ask the Father in the name of Jesus Christ, God will give us
I certainly believed them when I was a little boy at Twin City Bible Church in Champaign, Illinois – back when I was into G.I. Joes. I remembering perusing the G.I. Joe catalog with cool things in it, dreaming of further adventures. My favorite was the deep-sea diver suit, followed by the Jeep with large gun attached. One morning at church, I heard a sermon telling me that whatever I asked for I would receive. Coming from a family in which my oldest brother, when he was about a year old, was pulling the Santa Claus mask off my Grandpa Jones, and in which I and my twin brother were arguing with our fellow kindergarteners that Santa couldn’t be real because it would be impossible for him to travel so far and visit so many houses all in one night, I reserved the right for a little square of skepticism within me.
But I believed and wanted to believe: I grew up with a very simple but real faith in God. So I put this theory to the test. I distinctly remember asking for God to take a G.I. Joe Fire-fighter’s truck, equipment, and suit and place it in the downstairs of our house, at the corner of the basement, utility room, and downstairs den. I wanted it waiting there when I got home from church, so I would know it was God.
Would you believe it?! You know what?
God didn’t deliver. Maybe he had the truck and stuff all lined up and just forgot to put it precisely where I’d asked for it, so I didn’t get it. But I’m afraid that some of us believe as well that in believing this promise of Jesus Christ, we must first lose our minds. What I mean is that if we literally believe these words, then we are bound to believe that whatever we truly ask, God must give us. But we all know from our experience that we have asked with faith for things that God didn’t give us – and this is confusing to us. We are left with only a few options.
We can believe that Jesus Christ was simply wrong, and therefore we shouldn’t expect the Father to answer our prayers. We can believe that whenever we ask and don’t receive, it must be because we simply didn’t ask “hard” enough.
Or we can dig deeper and see what Jesus is really telling us about prayer. We must dig deeper because even though prayer is the most fundamental thing that a Christian can do, even though it is very common, it is also very mysterious because it involves us so deeply in the presence and person of God.
And so this morning, I want to look at the proper means, conditions, and purposes of prayer.
First, the proper means of prayer. There is one means of prayer, and this is it: to God on our knees. Prayer assumes that we acknowledge our weakness before God and His strength and goodness. We must ask the Father, the Son teaches us (verse 23), because He is the one with whom we must be brought into a right relationship. We must ask the Father because He, and not just the Son, is loving and good, for as the Son teaches, the Father Himself loves you (verse 27).
Furthermore, we must ask in Jesus’ name. This isn’t some magical incantation that we add at the end of every prayer to make sure it’s done right and the gods will hear us. There’s something much deeper at work here: we ask in the Son’s name because it is only through the Son that we have access to the Father and have a right to be heard in the first place.
The Father loves us because He loves the Son and through our love for the Son (expressed as faith), we are united to Him, so that when we ask in Jesus’ name we are asking through the one who is now one with us. And we are asking through the High Priest who sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us.
Conversely, prayer that is prayed to a false god (and there are many these days), places no obligation upon God to be heard.
Just as the proper means of prayer is to the Father, through the Son, and on our knees, there are proper conditions of prayer. We must ask according to the Father’s will: in other words, there are limits on our prayer. The goal of prayer is union with the Father and His will, and so God, in His mercy, feels no compulsion to “answer” our prayers when He knows what we ask for will not be good for us or others.
This matter of the conditions of prayer is where we must learn to read our Bibles rightly, which means intelligently. There is no one in the world who respects the Bible as the Word of God more highly than I do, and many Christians would even label me a fundamentalist. And yet I’ve learned that you must read the Bible with your brain turned on. One of the first rules of biblical interpretation you learn, when reading with your whole brain, is that you should look at other Scripture to understand Scripture.
We hear these words in I John 5:14: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that,
if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us.” Prayer is more to bring our wills in line with the will of God than it is to bring God in line with ours. The will of our Father who is in heaven, and our wills, are 2 paths that should merge. But in order for this to happen, guess whose will has to be changed?
Praying according to God’s will means we must know God’s will. At the general level we do; specifically, we often don’t, and this is where faith becomes crucial. I’ve often wondered about praying for sporting events: do we really believe it is the will of God for certain teams to win over other teams? I might have been tempted to pray for the Cubs in 2003 at playoffs time. A case could be made that they certainly needed it!
Who would God choose if this is what our prayers were about? Maybe God secretly calculates the number of people praying for a certain team, and then He multiplies that number by some fervency-in-prayer factor to decide which team will win. Somewhere around the fourth game of the NLCS in 2003, I guess us Cubs fans either stopped praying, or the Marlins fans started praying more.
The point is to seek God’s will in prayer. But God is after something more than a playoff victory for the Cubs – as miraculous as that might seem! He’s after us.
Another condition for proper prayer is faith. We must pray with faith, more specifically faith in Jesus Christ and the Father’s will effected through Him. How is it that we can more effectively pray according to the will of the Father? The best way to know someone’s will is to know that person better. Without me saying anything, Jackie knows that my will is that chocolate chips are made according to recipe and without skimping on butter or chocolate. And I know that her will is that there are certain things I shouldn’t let the kids watch (we’ve installed a V-chip in my skull that clangs and has a red rotating light on it).
Who is it that Jesus healed in the Gospels? Those with faith. In James 5:15, James says that the prayer of faith will heal the sick.
We must also pray with persistence, which is a natural ally of faith. This was the point of Jesus’ parable about the woman knocking on the judge’s door. Do we care enough about our prayers that we pray for them not only with faith, but faithfully? I think I knew somehow that the G.I. Joe firefighting unit and suit wasn’t that important. I think I prayed for it only that once.
We should also pray with fervency, for “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). If we truly knew to whom we prayed – if we truly believed that every time we prayed we were placing ourselves on our knees before the throne room of God – I believe we’d be a lot more fervent in prayer.
Often, the reason God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want has to do with the purposes of prayer: sometimes our prayers don’t appear to be answered. Even when we pray according to His will, even when we pray with faith and fervency, we have all known times when God did not give us what we asked for.
This is a serious issue, and we need a serious answer. It has everything to do with the proper purposes of prayer, only one of which is to receive the exact thing we have asked for. Although God is good and loves to hear our prayers; although He loves to hear our petitions and requests: God and His purpose in prayer involve much, much more than us treating Him like a cosmic Santa Claus who is here to do our will.
Prayer is about doing the will of the Father, and not our own will. Prayer is for the glory of God, which is why if prayer isn’t bringing our wills in line with His, then we are in prayer for the wrong business. Often, the worst thing in the world for our souls would be for God to answer our prayers quickly the way we wanted them answered. This kind of answer from God would require nothing from us and would effectively lock us into our selfishness. If God gave us all that we wanted right now, then God would become to us little more than an automatic gift dispenser, whose button we pushed to get something, and then promptly forgot about until we had our next craving. This is known as addiction.
God is like a good parent, sometimes saying “No” to His children. It utterly humbles me that even the Son, who prayed so fervently that His drops were like drops of blood, when He asked to have the Cup taken from Him had the Father tell Him, “No, my Son.”
If we pray and don’t receive what we ask for when we ask for it, and if we then become bitter and stop praying and start blaming God, then maybe we were praying for the wrong reason to begin with. If we only pray when we know God will answer us our way, then we don’t have a lot of faith do we (or humility)?
Prayer is to bring us closer to God because we need Him and because He will give us what we need, even if He doesn’t always give us what we want. To quote that great 20th century theologian, Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you wa-ant . . . . But sometimes you’ll find, you get what you need.”
Prayer is also to help us love God as He first loved us. Prayer is a relationship, not a coercive or manipulative power that we use. If we get this right, if prayer brings us closer to God and teaches us to love God and do His will, then what should be our deepest prayer (to love God more and be with Him more) will have been answered, even if our more specific and petty prayer has not been.
God wants to give us much more than a G.I. Joe firefighting vehicle (complete with firefighting paraphernalia). He knows that our deepest joy can only be satisfied by something much bigger and deeper than a victory for the Chicago Cubs (and yet how cool that sometimes He does give us neat G.I. Joe stuff).
He knows that it is by the very act of praying that we come to Him, and that this is the greatest joy a man can know.
Prayer: Lord, let me come to you this day in a spirit of humble prayer. Let me come on my knees, or standing, while driving my car, or prostrate, but let me come. Let me come confessing my sins, praising Your majesty and virtues, thanking You for every good gift, and begging you for what I truly need. Though I am tired and weak, ignorant and sinful, let me come. With humility and reverence, faith and perseverance, passion and ?, let me come. Giving myself and hoping to receive You, let me come and pray before You today. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Reflect on your life of prayer, your relationship with God. What parts are strong and what parts are weak? Which parts, reflecting on the means, conditions, and purposes of prayer, is God asking you to be more faithful in?
Resolution: I resolve to pray today keeping in mind the one weakness in my prayer life to which God wants me to attend.
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