So does truly successful prayer involve magic words?
It may seem like that at times, doesn’t it? We bring our prayers and requests to God. We know we need help with some problem that’s bigger than us, and we know that He should be able to help us. But even though we prayed, and maybe even prayed earnestly, our petitions are met with what feels like indifferent silence. And sometimes, when we’re praying for something trivial, like nothing but green lights on our commute or for the Vikings to finally win a Superbowl, we might be okay with that silence. But what about when we’re facing a serious crisis and we know we need God’s help to overcome it? Shouldn’t He actually do something? He says He loves us, right? So why would He stay silent? Why wouldn’t He act?
We might even point to Scripture to back up this view that God should answer all of our prayers the way we want. For example, we read in John:
Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
Or in Luke, Jesus promises us this:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
It seems like an odd contradiction, this promise to give whatever we ask, to seek and we will find, only to be met with silence. Faced with this seeming contradiction, some people may be tempted to blame the person doing the praying: “You don’t have enough faith! You don’t trust God hard enough! But if you dig deep and really, really believe, then God will give you what you’re asking for!”
Or others may sneer and say that this seeming silence is somehow proof of God’s lack of existence. “Of course you didn’t get an answer to your prayer. God’s little more than an imaginary friend, so how could he ever give you an answer?”
I’m not sure that either response is necessarily valid. I think the better question is this: do either of those verses truly turn God into a genie in a bottle?
I mean, that’s how we treat God at times. Rather than see Him as the Creator of the universe, supremely and inarguably Other, we treat Him like a cosmic vending machine. We pump in our quarter—or prayer, as the case may be—and we expect Him to spit out the answer we paid for. But is that really what God is promising us in those verses?
I don’t think it is. Let’s think about what it actually means to pray something in Jesus’ name. That’s not a case of Jesus giving us a super-secret formula for how to always get what we pray for. It doesn’t mean that all we have to do is tack on “In Jesus’ Name” to the end of our prayers and we’re guaranteed to get it.
Instead, we should ask ourselves, what does it mean to do something in the name of someone else?
It means that we’re acting on their behalf, right? We are standing in for that person, whoever it may be. If someone sends me to a negotiation with instructions to talk terms in their name, that means that I represent that individual. I speak for him or her and people will treat my words accordingly.
So then what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? I would say it means that we try to pray from a mindset that mirrors Christ’s. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we’re asking ourselves “What would Jesus pray for in this situation?”
The hard thing to realize is that sometimes, that means that our thoughts might not necessarily track with His. That means that, at times, when our requests don’t come from a Christ-like place, we might just hear that silence.
But that’s okay, because here’s the shocking thing: there was time when Jesus heard that silence as well. Think about when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had a very specific request:
My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.
To put it a little differently: Father, I know what’s about to happen. I know that the cross is waiting for Me at the end of this particular road. I know that there is only suffering and death ahead of Me. So if there’s any way to avoid that, any way at all, let’s do that instead.
And yet, in spite of Jesus’ fervent prayers (so passionate that He may have suffered from a case of hematidrosis), He still heard silence. He still went on to the cross.
But there’s something we’re overlooking in this passage. Remember how Jesus ended this prayer:
Yet not as I will, but as you will.
To pray in Jesus’ name means to entrust ourselves and our request entirely to God. It means that we recognize that our will and desires may not line up with what God is intending for us. Truly praying in Jesus’ name means surrendering our desires and our prayers to God’s holy will, knowing that He loves us and that all things work out for the good of those who love Him.
But what about that whole “Ask, Seek, Knock” business? Well, we’ll take a look at that next week.
As someone who has struggled with the certainty of prayer — especially The Prayer (you know the one), but also in general — I can say that it’s pretty impossible to know for certain that you are submitting your will to God. I’m always double-minded, and I hope God listens to whatever part of me might be sincere.