Learning to follow Christ can be quite a confusing experience at times.
Although He made it very simple for us, we are good at complicating matters. Or at least, I am.
An excellent example of this come from trying to read and understand Scripture. For a long time, I thought I knew how to read the Bible – because I assumed it was like reading any other book.
As a Catholic, I wasn’t raised with the practice of Bible study. It was not that we didn’t value Scripture. It held a very central place in every liturgy I attended. But the notion of “Bible study”, like “Sunday school”, had a sort of Protestant ring to it back in those days. We didn’t do that sort of thing.
So when I started reading the Bible more on my own, I discovered interesting things. Confusing, even troubling things, tucked in between the words of comfort and hope.
And some passages were both comforting and confusing. Here is one:
“And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13)
There are a number of other passages that offer similar promises that “anything” or “whatever” we ask for will be given. Some passages have specifications for the promised result, e.g. “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray” (Matthew 18:19), “believe that you shall receive it” (Mark 11:24), or “if you remain in me and my words remain in you” (John 15:7).
Such assurance is deeply comforting.
At the same time, it is deeply confusing.
How much each of us would love for this to be true! Yet are there any among us who haven’t experienced – or known someone who has experienced – making such a request and having it not be fulfilled?
We might respond to such profound disappointments by excusing God, indicating that Jesus didn’t mean that literally. Certainly He couldn’t have meant that we could ask for anything and we would definitely receive it.
Yet to say that Jesus didn’t actually mean what the Bible tells us He said is a slippery slope if ever there was one. Especially when three of the four Gospel writers report that He said it.
Once we have crossed that line, suddenly central aspects of the Faith are called into question. He couldn’t have meant literally, “This is My Body” when He broke the bread… And so on.
And yet we cannot understand this passage to mean that we can ask for anything, tack on the phrase “in the name of Jesus”, and be sure we will receive it.
To interpret these passages in this way is somewhere between ludicrous and dangerous.
This is where we discover that reading the Bible is not like reading any other book. I cannot simply sit down, open it up, read something and assume that I know what it means.
What could be wrong with taking these passages at face value?
Perhaps the most obvious is that a person might ask “in the name of Jesus” for something that is clearly wrong.
To illustrate the absurdity, imagine the devout mobster praying that the killing tonight goes smoothly so that he doesn’t get caught. Really? Counting on the promise of Jesus that you can ask for “anything”?
I doubt any serious reader of Scripture would imagine that Jesus was promising that. We cannot ask for help doing evil and expect that because we said, “in the name of Jesus”, God must now grant our request.
Minimally, this points to the reality that “in the name of Jesus” is not a magical phrase that we can pull out when we want something very badly. God can never be obligated to us or trapped by our technicalities.
So far, this much seems self-evident. But, if we stop here, we omit from consideration the vast majority of things we pray for that are not evil.
We can readily see that there is a dilemma: how do we know what we can ask for – and how we are to ask – in order to have this complete confidence when we pray?
OK, I cannot ask for something blatantly evil. And asking “in name of Jesus” means something more than just using those words as though they were magic. I get that.
But this is where things get sticky.
What if I am simply asking for something that I want? Perhaps something I desperately want. And something that is not trivial.
Here is where it becomes more than sticky. It becomes dangerous.
Suppose that what I desperately want is for someone I love to recover from a serious illness. Perhaps it is my spouse or my parent. Or maybe even my child.
Suppose the person whose recovery I am praying for is a very good person – or an innocent, like an infant.
Suppose I ask from a heart full of love for God, humbly begging that He grant me this favor. Suppose I am living my life sincerely as a follower of Christ.
Surely there is no evil in this request. I am not seeking “magic” or anything for myself. Can I not then, in this situation, turn to the words of Jesus and feel complete confidence that God will answer my prayer?
The reality is that God will indeed answer my prayer. But not necessarily by granting exactly what I asked for, exactly when I asked for it. Indeed, the person may not only fail to recover; he or she may die.
Herein lies the danger: when the result I want doesn’t occur, it seems that Jesus has broken His promise.
In my pain, I might cry out, “How could He deny me this one thing? Didn’t He promise? What “technicalities” is He going to produce to justify breaking my heart?
In such a moment, faith can be lost, sometimes forever.
And if that were not bad enough, there is another danger lurking behind the first. “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I didn’t ask the right way or with enough faith. If I had more faith, my loved one would still be alive.”
To console me, some well-meaning believer then says, “Do not blame yourself. It is God’s will.”
“So God wanted to break my heart, to devastate me? What kind of God wants an innocent child to die?”
What started out seeming simple has suddenly become horribly complex.
The words that once consoled now appear to be lies – broken promises. Why bother to pray at all?
Before I continue, there are a couple of things that must be said.
First, I must concede that I have never personally experienced such devastation. I have spoken to more than a few who have – but it’s not the same.
What I write next is not intended to talk anyone out of their feelings of pain or anger or sorrow. Feel what you feel and find a loving person to listen as you wail and rage. Anything less would dishonor your soul.
The purpose of what follows is to open up reflection and understanding about why we pray and how we are to understand the promises of Christ.
That being said, I must also concede that I know nothing. Who am I to teach you or anyone else anything? Quite truly, I am no one. I have no answers.
But I offer myself to the Spirit, prayerfully making myself available, should He choose to guide my words.
Acknowledging my unworthiness, I will rest and pray, returning later to see where He leads me.
Many others have interpreted these promises of Christ, most I am sure, far more worthily than me. I don’t know any Greek or Hebrew. I have no degree in theology.
But I will write of what I am being taught and pray that I not mislead anyone in the process.
Let us back up to the fundamental question: why do we pray?
Often, if we are honest, it is often because we need or want something. But, if it is no more than that, we have profoundly misunderstood the gift of prayer.
Prayer is, first and foremost, a gift. It is the means by which we have contact with God. And we could not have this contact unless God allowed it.
We would not know that God exists, that He is personal in His Being or that He cares to hear from us, had He not first revealed these truths to us.
His revelation, His invitation to us to enter into discourse with Him is gift beyond our comprehension. Considering the immensity of the universe and the billions of people who inhabit our Earth alone, it is almost unfathomable that God should want to hear from me.
And yet He does.
If this is not clear under the Old Covenant, it is certainly made plain by Jesus Who instructed us to pray.
So one reason we pray is so that we might have relationship with God. And, hopefully, this is not just a passing interest on our part but a true longing – a longing with all of our hearts to know God. To love and be loved by Him.
We pray in hopes of experiencing the union with Him for which we were made.
Truly, we do not understand fully what this means – but the longing has been built into our hearts. We will feel it if it has not been buried too deeply under the emptiness and lies that the enemy has planted in our world.
Out of such longings and exchanges with God come forth hymns of praise as we behold the goodness of God and His creation, as we experience His love and mercy. These irrepressible hymns of our hearts are another reason why we pray. We cannot help it once we begin to experience God.
Yet a third motive for prayer is that we recognize we cannot manage life in its current state on our own.
Of course, we were never meant to manage “on our own” for we were designed to live in harmony with our Creator and the Way He laid out for all living things. However, after the Fall and many, many generations of transmitting the impact of that first sin, we have become increasingly aware that we cannot manage.
Not only did our ancestral choice fail to make us gods, it left us with much pain and suffering. The seeds sown by the evil one have developed deep roots and both our personal and our global situations have grown grossly out of control.
And so we pray. We pray for help and comfort, for healing and relief, for direction and answers.
In other words, we ask for things, tangible or intangible, because we want, we fear, we need.
Is there something wrong with our prayers if God does not grant what we ask for? Or did He not really mean that He would do whatever we ask in His name?
As noted above, it is quite problematic if we expect God to always fulfill our every request, no matter how well presented. To understand the problem, we must return to the first purpose of prayer – to know God, be in relationship with Him and eventually live in union with Him.
If we treat God as a vending machine, i.e. I put in what I am supposed to put in and therefore should get out what I have chosen, there is no true relationship. God and prayer, in this model, exist only for me.
In telling Him what I want, I am expecting God to obey me, rather than for me to obey God.
Herein we find the essence of the original sin, me trying to make myself god – thinking that I should be able to control God, that my way is the best way, the right way.
If I approach prayer of petition in this manner, it should come as no surprise that there will not be complete fulfillment of my requests.
Certainly Christ’s promise in Scripture was not intended to elevate the sin of Adam and Eve to become our standard.
If then I recognize that prayer cannot involve an expectation that God obey me, I must concede that it involves me obeying God.
And if it is not for me to control God, I must also relinquish the conviction that my way is the best way.
Which brings us to that thorny problem of “God’s will”.
While humanity has never particularly liked the notion of obedience, it is especially hard for people in modern times to accepting obeying anyone, much less a God we cannot see.
We are intelligent individuals. Certainly we know what is good and bad. It cannot be good for a child to suffer and die. It cannot be good for me to be ill or to lose a job. It cannot be good for tens of thousands of people to be killed in wars and earthquakes.
If I need to tell God that things must be stopped, there’s something wrong.
If God “wills” these things, I want no part of Him. I cannot obey that sort of God.
Oh dear. We are back in that uncomfortable place again. But let us not despair.
We humans have a lot of confusion about that phrase, “God’s will”. By virtue of using the same word, it seems that we are equating the “will” of God with our own “wills”.
Online dictionaries give definitions to the word “will” as involving choice, power, wish, desire, disposition.
Applied to God, we then take God’s will to mean what God “wants”.
Unable to comprehend God, we anthropomorphize Him into “wanting” things much as we want them.
This, of course, creates mass confusion among us. For if God allows a little child to die, God must “want” the child to die. If God does not grant my prayer for war to end, God must “want” war.
And obeying God then means accepting these outrageous “wants” of God. Or spending all our days pleading with Him to change His mind.
With such misunderstandings afoot, it is no wonder that so many have left the Faith – or never accepted it in the first place.
So much confusion… what does Christ’s promise about prayer being answered really mean?…why are some seemingly “good” requests not fulfilled by God?…what is the meaning of God’s will, if it is not what God “wants”?
The only thing I know to do in face of so much difficulty is to turn to Christ Himself.
Jesus was a human being who prayed. In fact, Scripture gives us many examples of Him praying. Sometimes He went off by Himself to pray privately. Other times He prayed publicly, before or after performing great signs. Most often, we are given accounts of Him praying for others, not Himself.
There are, however, a few exceptions – and it is to these we will turn.
What happened when Jesus, as a human person on earth, prayed for Himself? How did He pray and was His request granted?
Here is what we find: (similar accounts are found in the other Gospels)
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. (Matthew 26: 39-44)
Jesus prayed with humility, He “fell prostrate”. He called upon God as “My Father”. He told His Father what He wanted and how He felt. Then, He placed His will under the Father’s, “not as I will, but as You will”.
All of these aspects of His prayer are crucial to our understanding. But first we cannot avoid the burning question: was Jesus’ prayer answered?
If we are to understand and trust Jesus’ words of promise about prayers, we must know whether His prayers were heard.
An answer to this question can be found in Scripture itself:
In the days when he [Christ] was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him… (Hebrews 5: 7-9)
“He was heard…” And, even though He was Son, as a human being Who was afraid and did not want to endure the horrible suffering and death He faced, He had to learn “obedience” and be “made perfect”.
Did He get what He humanly desired? It seems not – the Cup did not pass without Him drinking it. He was not “saved from death”. How then can the Scriptures say “He was heard”, implying that His prayer was answered?
We must note that Jesus’ prayer had two parts: in the first, He told the Father what He humanly wanted; in the second, He told the Father that, even more than that, He wanted to act in accord with the Father’s will. If He could not have both, He made it clear that the second part was His choice.
And He was heard. The Father’s will was indeed fulfilled. He both died and was “saved from death” in His resurrection.
But what kind of Father would expect His Son to die such a horrible death?
Back that thorny question of “God’s will”. We have talked about what it doesn’t mean. Let us now talk about what actually does mean.
Well, I’ve certainly painted myself into a corner here, haven’t I? I’ve led you all to believe that I’m about to tell you what “God’s will” means.
I won’t tell you – but I will point to the words of Jesus so that we might learn from Him. He is the only one who lived God’s will perfectly and therefore offered that perfect prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus announced shortly before He was arrested these startling words: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14: 6)
What can this mean? Reflecting a bit further, I think we will see that what we call “God’s will” is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is how everything is when in its fullest perfection. I will try to explain what I mean.
The Way – the path that all living things are to follow to be in communion with their Creator and to be fully and most perfectly themselves. The Way is automatically followed by creatures not given a free will to choose otherwise. The robin in my backyard lives out its “robin-ness” perfectly. Our sin, of course, is our willful departure from that Way.
The Truth – the One Who created all has full knowledge of the Truth of all that is. As humans, we tend to associate truth with factuality. Since we do not know all things, when we discover something with certainty (or think we have), we call it a “truth”. Our knowledge that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west is that sort of truth. God, however, knows the essential Truth of everything – all of the how’s and why’s and when’s and where’s for everything that exists – because He brought it all into being and sustains everything as it is meant to be.
(Evil, however, it must be noted, was not created by God nor is it sustained by Him. It is not a created thing. Rather it is the product of the exercise of free will by one or more of His creatures who were given the ability to choose. And, for now, God permits it.)
The Life – God is Life and all life originates in Him. God is love and our created world demonstrates the truth that it is love that creates – not just the emotion we call “love” but also the biology and spirituality of life giving up itself for new life to come into being. Since God is continuously loving, His Life creates more Life, His Love creates more Love, without ceasing.
The pronouncement by Christ , “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, is one of seven occasions in the Gospel of John when Jesus employs the words “I AM” – the very words the Lord God gave Moses when asked for His name. Though completely human, Jesus hereby reveals that He is fully one with the Father. He not only does God’s will, but He is God’s will. It is His name.
Can we fully understand this? Certainly not. Our tiny created selves cannot comprehend the Creator and the entirety of His plan. Furthermore, our stepping out of the Way inevitably resulted in our death, our separation from the One who is Life. Trying to live apart from Him makes us even less able to understand.
We must note that it is not that a wrathful God punishes us with death. Rather, we stepped out of Life. It is very much like walking out of the light; we inevitably find ourselves in darkness. It is a fundamental aspect of the Truth of how things are.
And so we would remain, in death and darkness, if not for Jesus. Living the will of God while fully human, He re-opened the Way for us, both by transforming our life from its “dead” state into Life and by demonstrating for us what it means to live in the Way
All we need to do is follow Him.
Let us now return to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane shortly before His arrest – the prayer that I deemed “the perfect prayer”.
One very important component of that prayer was the humility with which it was offered. It is one of the few glimpses into the prayer of Jesus involving Himself. In other words, He wasn’t saying the prayer to instruct others or to execute a healing for someone else.
It was very much about His own mortal life and self. He knew what He faced and, as a human being, He feared it.
His prostration reveals His humility. His words to the Father reveal that, humanly, He knew He was not in charge. “If it is possible” are not the words of someone who is full of his own power.
Next, He addressed God as “Father”. Now this certainly wasn’t the first time that Jesus called God His Father – in fact, this familiarity was one of the things that got Him into trouble. And He had taught His followers to say “Our Father”. But here, in this prayer, it is especially important.
Jesus does not call Him “Father” because He biologically begat Him – rather, because “Father” is the closest human image for the nature of their relationship. Ideally, fathers love, guide, protect and know what is best for their children. Addressing God as “Father” in this moment when humanly He did not feel in control, reveals His ultimate trust in His Father to love Him and know what was for the good.
Thus, in the next part of His prayer, He shared with His Father what He felt, what He wanted. He was open and vulnerable, not pretending otherwise.
And, crucially, in the final part of His prayer, He essentially told the Father that He trusted Him more than He trusted Himself, “not as I will, but as You will”. In such intensity of human fear and dread, He could not trust Himself to see clearly. And He was not about to let His natural feelings cause Him to leave the Way and fracture His union with His Father.
It is not difficult to see that, in so doing, He did the exact opposite of the sin of Adam and Eve.
He humbly brought His dilemma to God, trusted in His Father’s perfect knowledge of the Way and pledged His obedience to the Way, no matter how hard it was going to be.
And why was His suffering and death a necessary part of the Way? Because the Way is inextricably based on and bound up in Love.
As noted elsewhere, Love cannot help but sacrifice for the other – this is the deepest truth we know about Love. The sacrifice could be rooted in love only if made by one who had a choice. And, in order to redeem us, it needed to be a human choice made from the depths of all the fears and temptations to protect the self.
This was Jesus. And He chose Love instead of self.
It seems as though I have gone off on many tangents from the question where I began. Let us see if, drawing them together, we can better understand prayer in the light of the promise of Jesus.
We have learned some things about what it means to ask “in the name of Jesus”.
To ask as Jesus did is to talk to our Father as Father, humbling acknowledging that He knows the full Truth in a way that we cannot. We tell Him honestly how we feel and what we want. At the same time, we concede that we cannot trust our feelings to actually know what is best. What looks best and feels best to us may be totally at odds with the Truth that transcends this moment in time and space.
And so we trust Him. We trust that His love is greater than our love and His knowledge of Truth far exceeds ours.
Let us return to the enigmatic words I wrote above, that Jesus “not only does God’s will, but He is God’s will. It is His name.” We see more clearly here what it means to pray in His name. It is to pray in God’s will – which we can only do with our lives firmly united to Christ.
And we have come to see that “God’s will” is not some capricious desire of a more powerful Being. No, it is the Way, the Truth and the Life which emerges from the fullness of Love in its most pure and creative form. Love and Being totally beyond our comprehension.
Some questions may arise in light of the perspective offered here.
What if I do not know how to live my life “firmly united to Christ”? What if I’m not there yet?
That, of course, is perfectly fine, assuming we are genuinely seeking. To describe the promise of Jesus in the above terms does not mean that no prayers will be answered if they do not meet these criteria! Surely not.
God hears and answers every prayer. How could He not hear them, He Who knows the fullness of Truth about all that is? That He answers every prayer is something we believe. Why would the Lord Jesus emphasize that we pray relentlessly if the Father were to selectively ignore some prayers?
What is at issue is that, if not yet firmly united to Christ, the Father’s answer may not appear to be what we asked for. We may not recognize it as the answer or as being best for us because we are still outside of the Way. We are still blind to God’s Way, waiting for Jesus to apply the mud to our eyes that we might soon see.
It might be noted that this is where most of us are most of the time. When we read of the saints, both contemporary and of old, praying with complete confidence, it is because they are firmly united to Christ in their prayer. St. Peter did not pause and wonder if the beggar at the Beautiful Gate would be healed (Acts 3: 2). So united was he to Christ that he knew the man would stand up and walk.
Though we may seldom if ever pray with that level of assurance, recovering sinners that we are, God still can and does great things in us and through us. He is not limited by our weakness.
When He doesn’t appear do the great thing that we had hoped for, it is not that He has broken His promise or that we have not prayed correctly. It is simply that we do not yet have the eyes to see what is best – to see what is for the glory of God and our sanctification.
The question might also be posed as to why we pray, if God can and will do what He already knows to be best.
Returning to the question of why we pray, we are reminded that our primary reason for praying is to have a relationship with God, to praise Him and ultimately live in union with Him.
When we bring to God our feelings, wants and needs, when we come to Him as our Father, we are binding ourselves to Him more and more with each prayer. He is teaching us to trust in Him and He allows us to experience His love.
I read somewhere that God delights in answering our prayers because, through this process, we discover how much He loves us. If everything were given up front, our hearts would not burst with love and hymns of praise (the second motive for prayer described above). Our relationship with God would not be dynamic and growing without this exchange.
Further, the process of praying for one another bonds us more and more deeply to one another.
Through prayer, we are being taught how to keep the commandments, the two that Christ told us summarized all of the Law and the Prophets:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22: 37-39)
In other words, it is through prayer that we learn to love. It is through prayer that we are brought into the union with God and each other for which we were made.
Hence, even if we do not understand the answer to our prayer at a given moment in time, we continue praying as Jesus prayed that we might learn the Way of love more completely.
Surely the apostles did not understand the “answer” to their prayers during the span of time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. But, continuing to pray and love, they understood much more when they saw the risen Lord. And they understood even more completely when the Spirit came upon them.
They were then able to pray and preach and even die “for the Name”.
May this Spirit live on among us.
Merciful God, forgive me. Who am I that I dare write so boldly of You as though I understood?
I come before You with deep longing…longing for my life to be firmly united to Christ, that I might pray in His name – that I might do all things in His name.
But I am so very weak. And so I pray with the psalmist:
“Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel.” (Psalm 69: 7).
Loving Father, please be with everyone who reads the words that I have written here, that they may understand not what I have written, but Your truth which I have so poorly represented.
Bring us all together in Christ, in the Way of Love, together with the Spirit into Oneness in You.