In his book “Prayer,” writer Philip Yancey gives examples of some well known prolific prayers.
He says that the 17th century English Bishop Lancelot Andrews devoted 5 hours a day to prayer. The 18th and 19th century English minister Charles Simeon rose daily at 4am to pray for 4 hours. -There’s an order of Catholic nuns who pray in shifts and where people form their order are praying all day, everyday. Martin Luther would pray for 2-3 hours, or more, a day.
Prayer is a practice that the Bible calls us to and values. Over 650 prayers are found in the Bible. Prayer is something that the vast majority of Americans value. In research polls, I saw numbers ranging from 55-65% of Americans saying that they pray everyday.
But there’s often a disconnect.
Even though we know it’s important. Even though we do it, for many, prayer is a struggle. The prayer life is not full of joy and expectation, or intimacy with God. Prayer can feel cold and stagnant. It can feel like a waste of time, or feel pointless.
There are prayer warriors today, like the people I mentioned a moment ago. But I think that most of us, if we’re being honest, are much more likely to have an unsatisfactory prayer life.
But why is this the case?
Yancey suggests that the prosperity in our society might also inhibit prayer.
We can be tempted to rely on ourselves, our abilities, our talents, instead of prayer.
I think that part of the problem with prayer is that American Christians are often not poorly taught about the purpose of prayer.
And I think that John 14:13-14 gets at the heart of the Christian prayer life.
Jesus says: Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.
What does that mean? Does that mean that he will always give us what we want? Some interpret it that way. There are even other verses in the gospels which say similar things.
John 15:7: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
John 15:16: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
John 16:23: Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
One verse later. John 16:24:Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
And it’s not just in John’s Gospel that we see this.
Matthew 21:22: whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
And there are other places to which we could look. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.
In that case, I’ll have a mansion. And a private jet. And a private lake. And a fleet of cars.
But that’s not what the verses are saying. None of these verses actually gives an unconditional promise that all prayers will alway be answered in the way in which they want.
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.
That is not an unconditional promise that we can always get what we want in prayer. It’s what we ask in Jesus’ name. And the point of that is not that just a perfunctory addition of Jesus’ name to a prayer is what causes the prayer to get answered. That wouldn’t be prayer. It would be witchcraft.
Just say this incantation.
But that’s not what the verse is saying. Nothing in this passage is saying: you can get whatever you want. In fact, this passage is not primarily about us. This is a passage which revolves around God. It’s a passage that is Spiritual. It’s a passage that is missional. It’s a passage that has a heavenly focus. And in these verses, it’s a passage which deals with the glory of God.
And in looking at John 14:13-14, I want to look at the object of prayer, the purpose of prayer, the power of prayer.
The Object of Prayer
Verse 13:Whatever you ask in my name
As with many other things that Jesus says in his ministry, we can lose sight of how radical his words are. If Jesus isn’t God on earth, and the savior of the world, then what he’s saying here is totally insane.
That we are to pray in his name. It’s blasphemous if Jesus isn’t who he says he is.
All the people you’ve ever met in your lifetime, I doubt that any of them ever instructed you to pray to them. To invoke their name as a source of blessing in your prayers.
But Jesus does. Because he’s the Lord. Whatever you ask in my name.
It’s also interesting considering how much time Jesus spends in this passage talking about the Father, and honoring and glorifying the Father. So again, the point isn’t just that we pray for what we want and then just attach Jesus’ name onto it and that’ll cause it to happen.
Praying in the name of Jesus is a sacred task. And we should never be flippant about that.
Now prayers are often addressed to God, to the Father, to our heavenly Father, to our Father in heaven. But the prayer is in the name of Jesus. He is the one who enables us to go to God in prayer. It is because of his name, because of the salvation that he brings, because of the life that he invites us into.
The Purpose of Prayer
Remembering the object of our prayer is Jesus and that he’s instructed us to pray in his holy name and to pray for his holy purposes.
In his commentary, Grant Osborne says: “to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in union with who and what he is, to pray in accordance with his will. Self-centered prayers are not answered.”
When Jesus is telling the disciples to pray and he gives what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, he says in Matthew 6:10:Your kingdom come, your will be done,
We see similar language in Luke 11:2, when Jesus again is talking to the disciples about prayer and he uses the phrase your kingdom come.
In a different event, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about prayer: Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
God is glorified through his son. He is glorified through his sovereign will in the world. He is glorified through his coming kingdom. Jesus answers prayers so that the Father can be glorified through the work of the Son. Prayer is a transformational spiritual interaction between creatures and our creator where we are invited to speak to – and be heard by – the Almighty.
Prayer is God inviting us into his presence in adoration of his goodness, in confession of sins, in lamentation for the sins in the world, in thanksgiving for blessings, and in making intercession on behalf of our lives, families, church, and world around us.Prayer should always be in pursuit of God’s will in creation and in our own activities for the sake of the glory of God.
So to summarize. Prayer to God is meant to conform our hearts and wills to the will of God for the glory of God.
To quote Tim Keller from his book: “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.” “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.”
And so the heart of prayer is not about trying to get God to align with our will. It is to get our will to align with God. It is to surrender to God. It is to let go and let God.
Romans 12:2 says: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Prayer is meant to have time set aside to put our focus on God. To focus on his goodness and his will. There are a million stresses, a million frustrations, a million questions everyday. But in prayer, it’s meant to be a time with God. Again, we so often don’t take time for that. Is it any wonder that we’re so often so worried and anxious?
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said:
“The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”
Your kingdom come, your will be done.
It’s not “my kingdom come, my will be done.”
Spirituality in prayer
We should pray for our needs, for our loved ones, for our church, for our nation, for people in our lives. We should pray and thank God for the many blessings he’s given to us and to confess our sins before God.
We often look at prayer from a material perspective, but prayer has a greater spiritual aspect to it. That God cares more about our spiritual blessings than stuff. He cares more about our sanctification and spiritual formation than our comfort or ease.
Early in the Book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul says: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places
God cares about our faith and faithfulness, he cares about our holiness.
We don’t always know the specifics of what God’s will is. And I think we can get too caught up on that sometimes.
It’s God’s will that we love him. It’s God’s will that we pursue holiness, that we have faith, that we worship him, that we don’t sin. It’s God’s will that we love one another. Those things alone really provide a pretty good life to how we’re to live.
There are certain prayers that God will always answer. God will always answer our prayers when we turn to Christ for salvation.
Romans 10:13: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
God always gives forgiveness when we seek it.
1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
God grants wisdom when we seek it.
James 1:5: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
As we pray for God, there are so many other things we can pray for. That we would know, love, and honor God more fully with every day of our lives. We can pray that we would grow in the knowledge of God, day by day. We can pray that we become ever greater witnesses to the world of the love and grace of our God.
We can pray for opportunities to reach people with the gospel. And we can pray for our church. For the people. And that we grow as people and as a church.
Those are just a few examples.
Prayer teaches us humility before God. That we are not in control. We are not in control of our own lives. We are not in control of our circumstances. It teaches us that what we go through, we can go through it with God. Prayer is a time to sit with God and bask in his glorious goodness and to reset in him.
Psalm 46:10 says: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Power of Prayer
Verse 14: If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
Verse 14 is almost identical to the beginning of verse 13. In both places, the point revolves around Jesus granting requests which are asked in his name. Given what Jesus has said in verse 13, and grounding the reason in the glory of God, he reiterates that the prayer which is made in his name he answers.
And so as we begin to wind down, I think it’s important to remember the power of prayer.
God answers prayers. And the more in tune we are with the will of God, the more discernment we have, I think the more we see God answering our prayers, out of his goodness.
Our God is a good God.
But we must also understand that not all prayers are answered in the way we want. Even some of the good things we pray for. A person healing from an illness, or recovering from an injury. We’re finite. We don’t always know or understand why a certain prayer has gone unanswered.
And those can be some of the hardest experiences we have in life. The world is ultimately fallen. And no matter how faithful we are, no matter how faithful a church is in prayer, there is still sin, and sorrow, and sickness, and death.
Sometimes we don’t get what we pray for. And we don’t know why. And it doesn’t make sense. But again, at the heart of prayer is meant to be a reliance in God. Sometimes a prayer is not answered because of the timing.
In the Book of Habakkuk, there is wickedness and destruction in Israel. The prophet has taken his plea before the Lord.
God says in Habakkuk 2:2-3:“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
Sometimes a prayer isn’t answered because God will because God’s will was to do something else.
“God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.”
Can you trust that? Sometimes it’s hard.
Job said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
In the book of Second Corinthians, Paul talks about some sort of malady he had been suffering. We don’t know specifically what the issue was. Paul simply refers to it as a thorn in the flesh. It’s generally assumed it was some sort of health issue and not a literal thorn.
But Paul talks about praying for relief.
2 Corinthians 12:7-9: a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
His grace is meant to be sufficient for us. That prayer was unanswered because God would be glorified through Paul’s affliction. And indeed there are immense challenges that we go through in life that are not good, but that God uses them to shape us into who we become. We don’t always know why God does or doesn’t do what we think he should. And explanations that people try to give us often don’t make us feel much better.
In the Book of Isaiah, the Lord says: For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (isaiah 55:8-9)
Sometimes people can grow cynical towards God because of that. We question why he doesn’t answer a certain prayer. But the reason why he answers any prayer is because of his goodness. We don’t inherently deserve anything good from God.
But he does so much good in the world and for his people.
The greatest problem of our world is not a lack of goodness on the part of God. It’s the sinfulness of humanity.
The story of George Mueller
George Mueller was a British evangelist and pastor whose life encompassed most of the 19th century, living from 1805-1898. He’s probably most remembered for his orphanages in the working class town of Bristol.
Thousands of children passed through Mueller’s orphanages. Mueller famously never asked for money, but relied on prayer for God’s provision. Some of the stories are absolutely incredible.
In his life, he wrote down more than 50,000 prayer requests that were answered by God.
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