Staying in balance seems difficult for people at times, and that’s true for Christians too. It’s much easier for us to fall into one extreme or another. What are the extremes we should avoid when we pray?
Some teach that God will give us precisely what we ask for in prayer, but we must be absolutely, 100% certain God will do what we’ve asked him to do. If we waver in our rock-solid certainty, then we’re somehow denying God through our doubt and it won’t work. (Of course, this prompts the question in what sense we’re asking God for anything if we’re guaranteed to receive anything we confidently “request.”)
Some even take this further and teach how we need to be specific in our prayers. Don’t just ask for a bike, we’re told. Specify a red, 10-speed bike, if that’s what you want. I guess it’s like placing your order. You want to make sure you get it your way. Others go further and don’t really ask God for anything, they “claim it in the name of Jesus.” Never mind, that the Bible never tells us to claim anything in this way. (FYI: The Bible doesn’t tell us to “bind” or “rebuke” the enemy when we pray either.) This kind of prayer goes from making requests of God to presumptuously declaring what God is going to do for us. This is a dangerous extreme.
But there are problems on the other end of the pendulum swing too. Many of us are leery of Christians who are too loud and demanding in their prayers. So we tend to bend over backwards the other way. “May your will be done” can come to essentially mean: “We’re not really expecting anything at all to happen here. We’re not really sure why we’re praying about this, but here we go anyway.”
What should we expect from God when we pray? Obviously, we need to go to the Bible for our answer. But we need to examine the Scriptures carefully and thoughtfully. There’s an old reminder that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’ It’s way too easy to rip one verse out of context and ignore all the other passages that teach about prayer. We need to get a well-rounded, thoroughly biblical concept of prayer.
For instance, we could look only at a passage such as Matthew 21:21-22:
Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”
At first glance, this actually seems to confirm one of our extremes, doesn’t it? Isn’t this giving us an absolute promise that we can pray for anything we want to and—if we really believe—that we’ll get it? Assuming this promise is for us (some scholars feel Jesus is speaking specifically to those who would be his Apostles, with the corresponding power to do signs and wonders), is Jesus giving us carte blanche to throw mountains into the sea at will? Is he giving us a blank check to ask for anything we happen to desire?
Would you give your children such a promise? Would this be responsible parenting? Maybe the Bible has more to say than just this. And maybe we need to take all of what God says about prayer into consideration.
Imagine this scenario. You take your kids to the store and tell them they can buy anything they want up to $20. Your youngest keeps bringing items up and asking, “Can I buy this?” “Can I buy this?” Finally, you insist, “You can have anything you want!” Whereupon—before your very eyes—your innocent 8-year old child morphs into a shrewd lawyer. “Anything I want?” So now you have to add a clarifying legal clause: “anything up to $20, just as I told you before.” Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re like that child, aren’t we?
So what other things has God told us that show us what to expect when we pray? Let’s look at some more passages.
Pray with right motives
James explains why we sometimes don’t get what we pray for:
. . . you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.
Sometimes we pray for something, but we’re praying from entirely wrong motives. Why should we expect God to give us what we ask for when we ask from a wrong heart? This only makes sense, doesn’t it? We may even be praying for something God would be delighted to give us, but he’s more concerned about our long-term well-being than he is our immediate gratification. So we have to pray with right motives.
Pray in Jesus’ name
There are many passages that give promises to us when we pray ‘in Jesus’ name.’ Here’s one classic example:
You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!
This is a wonderful promise. But what exactly does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Does it just mean tacking on “in the name of Jesus” at the end? “Lord, please provide me with a brand new Porsche—in the name of Jesus.” Is this some kind of magical incantation like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘Simon says?’ Or does it have a deeper meaning?
When I was a kid, I loved swashbuckling movies. Remember the scenes when they would pound on the door and say, “Open this in the name of the King!”? What did that mean? It meant they were acting in the king’s stead. The king had given them the right to do something in his place. They represented the king.
In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, and we need to keep this in mind. This may color the way we interpret and apply the promise. They were directly commissioned to be his representatives— Apostles of Jesus Christ. If anyone was able to act ‘in Jesus’ name’ it was surely these Apostles. But even if we apply this to us today, what does it mean? It means that if we are acting in Jesus’ stead, doing what he would do, asking for what he would ask for—then we can ask for anything and God will do it!
So we have to actually pray and make our requests, we need to pray with right motives, and not only with right motives but with the motives of Christ himself. This may seem like somewhat narrow criteria, but why would God answer prayers that were asked with selfish, un-Christlike motives? And did you notice what Jesus’ motivation is in this verse? “That the Son can bring glory to the Father.”
Pray in strong relationship with Christ
In another place, Jesus says:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!
We should have expected something like this if we are to pray in Jesus’ stead. To be motived by the same things that motivate Christ, to act in his place and to ask for what he would ask for, we must be in vibrant relationship with him. Everything that we are as the true branches flows from the true Vine. And notice how, in the following words, Jesus connects granting our requests with us bearing fruit:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
Apparently what we are asking for—because we are remaining in Christ, praying in his stead, praying with his motives—has to do with us bearing spiritual fruit. And, once again, we see the ultimate emphasis on bringing glory to the Father.
Pray according to God’s will
And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.
1 John 5:14-15
When does God hear our prayers? When we ask for “anything that pleases him.” Older translations read here: “according to his will.” But how can we know what’s according to God’s will? Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?
Can we know whether it’s God’s will for Sally to be healed? Can we be certain that God intends for Tom to get the job he applied for? We have to acknowledge that God doesn’t promise us—in this life—to always receive healing, prosperity, success, etc. [If this is a surprise to you, let me know and we can explore this at greater length in a future post.]
So, how can we know what God’s will is? Well, is it God’s will for us to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for us to become more like Christ? Is it God’s will for us to learn how to love unlovable people? Is it God’s will for us to help those who are hurting? Isn’t this how Jesus prayed for us according to God’s will:
. . . keep them safe from the evil one. . . . Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word . . . I pray that they will be one . . .
Does this mean we never pray for anything if we aren’t certain it’s God’s will? No. But we need to remember that, though every prayer is answered, sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ and sometimes it’s ‘no.’ Paul prayed for healing three times, and each time God told him ‘no’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). If we don’t know exactly what God’s will is in a situation we don’t presume to declare what will happen. That’s God’s prerogative, not ours.
But we also don’t pray passively, not expecting anything to happen. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his will, that he will act in power, that he will act out of his love and grace and wisdom and perfect timing. We expect him to directly act in the situation; we just don’t presume to tell him how he should do that. We make our requests as best we can with the wisdom he’s given us, and then we do what Moses told the people to do: “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today [Exodus 14:13].”
Why does God sometimes say ‘no?’ Because he’s a wise, loving Father. Sometimes he has to say no because the timing isn’t right yet, like a 10-year old asking for a driver’s license or a child asking for a candy bar when—unbeknownst to them—there’s cake and ice cream waiting at home. Sometimes we’re wrong, like an irresponsible child asking for a puppy or a wasteful teenager asking for a huge sum of money. Sometimes we’re asking for something that can harm us—even if we don’t realize it—like a child asking for a pet alligator or a stick of dynamite.
Some people may be frustrated with these answers and biblical qualifications. ‘Why does God want us to pray at all if we’re only supposed to pray for what he wants anyway?’ But this reveals a faulty understanding of God and prayer. Why are we praying? To convince God to do what we want him to do? That’s not a biblical understanding of prayer, it’s a pagan one. We’re not trying to coerce or cajole God into answering our prayers. Prayer doesn’t bring God’s will down to match ours; it raises up our spiritual eyes until our will conforms to his. As CS Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me.” If I’m in a boat and I reach out with the boathook and pull, am I pulling the land to me? Or am I pulling myself closer to the shore? This is what prayer does for us.
God wants us to be involved in what he’s doing. He’s made us part of his mission. And our prayers are partly how we share in that. The more we pray, the closer we grow to God. The closer we grow to him, the more we’ll share his concerns, his motives, his desires, the more we’ll pray according to his will—and the more we’ll have absolute, rock-solid assurance that the will of God for which we pray will be accomplished. And that, through this, God will be glorified.
But what about passages that say we shouldn’t give up, but keep on praying? Does this mean we’re supposed to somehow wear God down with our prayers? We’ll look at this next week.
Prayer: Expecting an answer [see above]