In ET August 2016, ‘Teach us how not to pray’ looked at some bad ways people pray, putting their desires above their legitimate needs and not considering God’s will for their lives.
But why do Bible-believing Christians behave this way? It comes down, I think, to at least two issues. One is fear, the other overfamiliarity.
The fear issue is probably the simplest to understand. Although we might ‘have the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16), we, like Peter in Mark 8:33, do not always ‘have in mind the concerns of God’.
There are times when our concerns appear so overwhelming that, rather than seeking God’s purposes, our fear of what might happen if he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we wish are allowed to overpower us.
So, rather than seek his face and will, we merely canvass his blessing, fearful of what will happen if he doesn’t do as we ask. And yet, as President Franklin D Roosevelt said at his inaugural address in 1933, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’.
We forget that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’, that ‘God is for us’, that whatever happens to us, we are ‘more than conquerors through him who loved us’, and that nothing can ‘separate us from the love of God’ (Romans 8).
So, whatever happens to us — even if it involves suffering — occurs within God’s providence and is for our eternal blessing: producing perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-5). So, knowing that God is for us, we should pray in the knowledge that he will answer in a way that’s for our everlasting good, or the good of others, even if the answer may not necessarily be the one we’d like!
Of course, if Christians all had happy, trouble-free lives, with all their wishes and requests met, nearly everyone would want to follow Christ. But they’d only do so to have a nice life, rather than serve and glorify God. They’d be looking for the gifts, rather than the giver; the loaves and fish, rather than the master baker and creator fisherman.
And if we did have happy, trouble-free lives, how then could we comfort those with the comfort we ourselves received in times of difficulty and distress (2 Corinthians 1:4)? Jesus was himself a man of suffering, familiar with pain (Isaiah 53:3), so how can we, his servants, as John 15:20-21 reminds us, expect any less?
But there’s another issue too. Why, when Jesus is Lord, do some of us tend to treat him as if he were little more than an eternal home-help? The reason, I believe, lies in a misunderstanding of Jesus’ nature and mission and an overemphasis or overfamiliarity with the fact that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45).
Now, it’s true Jesus took the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8) and that he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-10). But he did this as an example of how we should serve (13:12-17), rather than how we should expect him to serve us.
Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16), seated at God’s right hand (Luke 22:69); the one coming to judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1). But we’re sometimes so used to regarding him as the one who was gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29), that we forget the true extent of his power, majesty and lordship.
To treat Jesus this way has as much integrity as an organisation that once sent letters to Christians telling them that, for a particular sum of money, it would pray them out of poverty. A little later, it sent out another communication asking for funds because it had gone drastically overbudget. I was sorely tempted to reply that, if they sent me £1,000, I would happily pray for their debt to go away!
Yet whenever our view of Jesus becomes unbalanced, our ill-thought-out prayers reveal our spiritual bankruptcy. There’s another problem too: the way we can sometimes ask for things in Jesus’ name. Now this, in itself, is clearly not wrong, as Scripture makes clear. But it is how we ask that can sometimes be wrong.
In Acts 19:13-16 we read about the seven sons of Sceva, who tried to invoke the name of Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. But their attempt at tacking on Jesus’ name to their prayers was a spectacular and revealing failure. And yet, at some prayer meetings I’ve been to, there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that, whatever we asked — provided we added ‘in Jesus’ name’ to the end of the prayer — we’d receive.
But that isn’t what the Bible teaches. It’s not a case of using a magic formula, such as ‘open sesame’ or ‘abracadabra’, to get our needs met. It’s a case of asking for something in the name of someone infinitely superior to us.
If my father runs out of milk and needs it urgently for some important guests, and I say to a neighbour, ‘Can my dad have some milk, please?’ I’m basically asking in my father’s name.
If, on the other hand, I want a pay rise I don’t deserve from a Christian company that can’t afford it, then, whatever form of words I use, I’m basically asking for it in my own name and for my own comfort and satisfaction, rather than seeking it for the sake of Christ (I’m hoping my boss at Christian aviation organisation MAF isn’t reading this!).
I remember as a child being intrigued at the thought of someone being arrested simply by having hands laid on them and being told, ‘I arrest you in the name of the law’. But this can only be successful if the person doing this is operating within the law and is, therefore, legally entitled to arrest someone who’s broken it.
And that, to some extent, is what we do when we pray in Jesus’ name. We’re asking, in his power and on his behalf, for something that’s in accordance with his sovereign wishes. It’s about God’s glory, rather than our own.
‘When you ask’, James 4:3 warns us, ‘you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives’. Getting everything we want isn’t good for us. It can make us selfish, lazy and ungrateful. But God wants us to be more like Jesus, not like the overindulged child who has everything.
A friend, seeing a toddler in a supermarket having a meltdown, once said, ‘My kids would never behave like that. I wouldn’t allow it’. ‘What would you do?’ I asked.
‘Oh’, he grinned, ‘whenever they put something in the shopping basket they want, and are likely to make a fuss if I take it out again, I let them keep it. No tears, no hassle, no shouting, no yelling. Works every time.’ He paused, then added, ‘Mind you, no self-restraint, discipline or discernment either!’
Jesus didn’t come down from heaven to please himself, but came in his Father’s name, to do the will of the One who sent him (John 6:38). This, I’d suggest, is a good pattern for us to follow.
So, when we use Jesus’ name, we need to ensure that we take it seriously. It’s the name of our Lord and Saviour, the one who saves, and through whom people find salvation. Scripture tells us to call on his name (Acts 22:16, 1 Corinthians 1:2), believe in his name (1 John 3:23), preach in his name (Luke 24:47), and be baptised in his name (Acts 2:38, 10:48).
It is in Jesus’ name we see people healed (Acts 3:6), forgiven (1 John 2:12), sanctified and justified (1 Corinthians 6:11). We’re told that at his name every knee should bow (Philippians 2:10), that we should give thanks in his name (Colossians 3:17), and that, ‘In his name, the nations will put their hope’ (Matthew 12:21).
Using Jesus’ name is not a selfish mantra to get what we want, but a means of asking in God’s name for God’s purposes to be fulfilled, on earth as in heaven. If we remember this, put our fear at the foot of the cross, and avoid treating Jesus with an easy overfamiliarity, our prayers should be more effective and far more pleasing to the Lord.
It’s not just about putting the right name on the envelope, it’s about ensuring the contents themselves are appropriate.
Gary Clayton is married to Julie and father of Christopher (13) and Emma (10). He worships at Hayes Lane Baptist Church, served for 15 years as managing editor of the Hudson Taylor mission OMF, and is now copywriter and editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship. To learn about how MAF aircraft help some of the world’s remotest and most isolated people, in 26 developing countries, visit www.maf-uk.org