Great Themes of the Bible (#5-Prayer)

"I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete."

When John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a tragic plane crash last year, many of us were reminded of — and many more of you saw for the first time — scenes from his father's presidency that involved a two- or three-year-old little boy who, with his sister Caroline, had free run of the Oval Office. Cabinet officers or important visitors from other countries might be in conference with the President of the United States. But a little boy and girl would come bounding down the hall, burst into the room that was at the center of power for the free world, and set their course not for the president but for their daddy.

The Secret Service would stand back. Startled foreigners would stare in disbelief at such a breach of protocol. And members of the cabinet and inner circle would just smile at a family moment playing itself out against the backdrop of government and politics.

Don't you think something on that order constitutes a faithful interpretation of Jesus' solemn promise (i.e., "I tell you the truth") about asking things of his Father in his name? Can't you just visualize it through the eyes of faith? Mighty angels and archangels stand back when Christians pray. Saints of ages past are a bit stunned at such unblushing boldness in Jesus' name, for they had no such nerve in their time of altars, tents, and priests. But the Son and Holy Spirit rejoice that saved people are willing to claim the access we have been given.

Access to God in Jesus' Name

Dare we believe that our access to God is so personal? So immediate? Can God's children just waltz into the throne room of the universe whenever we take the notion?

In his book The Prayer-Centered Life, Dudley Delffs devises an interesting analogy to help us understand what it means to have this sort of direct access to God in prayer. He suggests that you imagine having a remote business relationship with the CEO of a conglomerate corporation worth billions of dollars. For our purposes, let's make it the CEO of the Honda Corporation in Japan. You're having a problem with the dome light of your six-year-old Civic that has 160,000 miles on it. When you open the door at night, the light doesn't come on like it's supposed to. So you write a letter addressed to "CEO / Honda Corporation" and post it to the company's office in Japan. You explain how frustrated you are with the problem, give an account of the trips you've made to a local dealer in Tennessee, and explain that you just want to know what to do next. Can he suggest something you've overlooked in trying to get it fixed?

In response to your letter, the CEO shows up on your doorstep. He calls you by your name, introduces himself, and pulls your letter out of his pocket. "I'm here to set things right with the car you bought from my company," he says. "I've brought these two expert mechanics with me. So if you will just show us where your car is, they'll get to work immediately." While they work, the company's head man sits with you over coffee and learns about your family, your job, your hobbies. It isn't long until the smiling mechanics reappear and take the two of you to see their finished work. As they prepare to leave, their boss shakes your hand and says, "We have a personal relationship now. You're not just a nameless customer with a car my company manufactured. I know you now, and you have direct access both to my office and home. I've written down my phone numbers for you on the back of this card. And my e-mail address is there too, just in case that's more convenient."

The problem is that the analogy is flawed. God is greater than a CEO. You have less claim on him than a customer with some years-old and out-of-warranty product. You have less reason to expect his personal, direct intervention on your behalf than someone you've paid for a product. But maybe the analogy helps you — as it did me — to grasp how startling it must have been to Jesus' disciples to hear his words about immediate access to and favor with God on the basis of his name.

The commonest complaint I hear from my fellow-believers about their spiritual lives is that they pray so little, that they are so easily distracted from prayer, that prayer is such "hard work" for them. If we are as prayer-bereft as some believers say, I would have to agree with R.A. Torrey's comment: "When I stop to think how little time the average Christian today puts into secret prayer, the thing that astonishes me is not that we are so little like the Lord, but that we are as much like the Lord as we are."

The HOW of Prayer

When some of us lament our lack of prayer, though, I suspect we are confessing a lack of formal, structured thanksgiving, confession, and intercession before the Lord of the Universe. And, true enough, Jesus gave us a model for prayer that we commonly call "The Lord's Prayer" at Matthew 6:9-13. It is a prayer that begins with praise and adoration, moves to a pledge of personal submission to his will, and acknowledges dependence on him for such routine necessities as daily bread. It both pleads for forgiveness and a forgiving spirit. And it further grants that, apart from God's sustaining grace against temptation, we would be hopeless before our enemy, Satan. So Jesus taught us to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

But there is another type of praying that God honors as well. It is one that I suspect most of us don't even acknowledge as prayer. Perhaps God accepts it as prayer for the simple reason that he knew how difficult and foreign so spiritual an exercise would be for us in our carnal existence. That he honors this alternative method of pleading with him as legitimate prayer stands as another evidence that his grace is the basis for all his dealings with us.

Here is the verse I have in mind about what I've called "alternative" prayer: "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Rom. 8:26). I do not understand this verse — as some do — of praying in tongues or via a private language of prayer. Neither do I think it refers to groans that come from the Holy Spirit, for I cannot conceive of a divine being who is inarticulate. To the contrary, I think Paul is referring to the groans, sighs, and stammerings that come from believers when we are confused and incoherent in our spiritual lives.

These are the angry complaints of teenagers and the disconcerted laments of their parents. They are the sobs of single mothers or betrayed and abandoned wives. They are the whimpers of a car wreck victim. They are the private anguish of a man who has just lost his job and doesn't know how he will support his family. They are the groans of someone dealing with cancer's pain or enduring the side effects of her chemotherapy. They are the sobs of a young widow and the wounded-animal cries of grieving parents. On the authority of Paul's apostolic interpretation of their meaning, I can assure you that the Holy Spirit transforms such inarticulate sounds into intercession on behalf of God's people. Isn't that comforting? Doesn't it reassure you? More than that, it affirms that most of us are not nearly so prayerless as we sometimes think.

The WHEN of Prayer

As to planned and proper prayers of the first sort, we should all strive for more rather than less of them. Ralph Neighbour tells about meeting with well-known South Korean pastor David Yonggi Cho in Seoul several years ago. The two had an appointment and visited for some time. Then Dr. Cho's secretary entered the room to inform him it was time for his next appointment. The American visitor dismissed himself and sat in the waiting room outside his office to wait for a friend who was coming to pick him up. Fully a quarter hour later, he had still seen no one go into the office he had just left. So he asked the secretary, "Has Dr. Cho's next appointment been delayed?" She smiled at Neighbour and said, "Oh, no. They are together now. You see, each day he uses this time to talk to the Lord." Perhaps that explains why Cho's church is the largest in the world — with over 730,000 members!

Whether you are a minister or a mother, a businessman or an electrician, in school or in real estate, you would do well to reserve a time on your calendar each day for prayer. Book an "appointment" for prayer! If you aren't in a situation where that is either practical or inviting to you, then realize that prayer isn't a prescribed posture or a ritualistic form. C.S. Lewis once wrote: "No one in his senses would reserve his chief prayers for bedtime — obviously the worst possible hour for any action which needs concentration. My own plan, when hard-pressed, is to seize any time and place, however unsuitable, in preference to the last waking moment. On a day of traveling . . . I'd rather pray sitting in a crowded train than put it off till midnight. On other and slightly less crowded days a bench in a park or a back street where one can pace up and down will do."

I have a friend I have never met. She learned a while back that my mother has Alzheimers Disease and has been in touch with me by e-mail for several months now. Her husband, much younger than my 94-year-old mother, has Alzheimers too. So she has let me become her friend. We are an electronic "support group" for persons dealing with people we love but can no longer reach. Several of her e-mails have had the same subject line: "Crying again." I've tried to help her understand that her tears are received in heaven as prayers. And I've tried to reassure her that God will meet the needs of caregivers who love our mothers and mates but have to watch them inexorably slip away from us. She sells herself short for her impatience and tears, but God counts both as prayers by virtue of the Spirit's intercession. And he does that for you in your most trying moments as well.

I Can Ask for Anything? Anything?

"But what are we to make of Jesus' words about getting ‘whatever you ask in my name'?" someone asks. "Can we take that seriously? Can I just get anything I want from God — by asking in the name of Jesus?"

I suspect questions of this sort are generated by our tendency to treat every proverb and wisdom saying of Scripture as a law. Obviously there are some limitations on what we can ask for and expect to receive from God. Otherwise we would be reducing God to a "genie in a bottle" who grants three (or unlimited!) wishes to anyone who says the magic word. And that is superstition, not faith. It is the name-it-and-claim-it gospel rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God grants the things we ask in Jesus' name, provided they are consistent with his will. That much is said explicitly at 1 John 5:14. And James pointed out that first-century believers sometimes asked for things but didn't receive them because they asked from "wrong motives" and for the sake of their selfish pleasure (Jas. 4:3). The same sort of requests today will get the same sort of answer.

God grants the things we ask in Jesus' name, but he does so out of his wisdom rather than according to our folly. Do you remember the country song from a few years back about thanking God for unanswered prayers? The first time I heard it, I thought, "Now that's good theology on the country music station!" Would you have been blessed by getting all the things you've asked for? Can't you look back in your life at things you wanted desperately and prayed to have — that would have destroyed you, if you had gotten them? Paul prayed for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, but God told him that his long-term spiritual interests would be better served by letting that affliction teach him to depend on his all-sufficient grace (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

And Paul's experience leads to a third observation about our prayers that seem to go unanswered. We must trust God to answer our prayers in his own way and not by the method we expected. God answers every believer's prayer for healing, for example, but not always in the way we had in mind. If we don't get our healing from cancer here, we will certainly get it in the morning of the resurrection. In the words of another recent song, this one a contemporary Christian piece, God sometimes "stills the storm" and sometimes "stills his child" who is frightened by the storm's thunder and lightning.


Mrs. Oswald Chambers gave an account of an event in her husband's life that serves well to end this lesson on prayer. At the close of a public meeting he had conducted, a woman came to him and said, "Oh, Mr. Chambers, I feel I must tell you about myself." So the preacher's wife resigned herself for a long wait. But he was back in a matter of only a few minutes.

As the two went home that night, she said something about the speed with which he was able to deal with the woman's request. So he told his wife, "I just asked her if she had ever told God all about herself. When she said she hadn't, I advised her to go home and pour out before him as honestly as she could all her troubles, then see if she still needed or wanted to relate them to me."

Chambers knew the importance of encouraging people to take their troubles, heartaches, and doubts directly to the Lord himself in prayer. Done in sincerity and faith, the result he would have expected would be either a change in the person's circumstances or a change in the person's ability to deal with a perplexing situation — and sometimes both. In either case, the Lord would fulfill his word to supply the needs of his people. He will give his answer out of wisdom that is infinite and resolve that is redemptive always. I claim that promise for myself today, and I encourage you to do the same in your situation.


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