Prayer is not a Blank Check Signed in Jesus' Name
Posted September 29, 2017 by Amy Wang
Photo: yohei131 / 123RF Stock Photo
Although the purpose of prayer is not simply to ask God for things, that is often foremost in our mind. Then, when we don't get what we ask for, we are tempted to think God does not exist. When our prayer requests are not answered the way the Bible leads us to expect, we suspect the Bible may be untrue. But could we have misinterpreted the Bible or taken verses out of context? Let us first look at passages that are clear to help us understand those whose meanings are unclear.
The Bible provides a few keys to effective prayer which are quite clear. For example, if we want God to answer our prayers, we can (a) keep God's commandments (1 John 3:22-24, John 15:7), (b) ask according to God's will (1 John 5:14), and (c) persevere in prayer (Luke 18:1-8, Luke 11:5-13). Furthermore, we can reconsider our motives (James 4:3), repent of iniquity in our hearts (Psalm 66:18, Proverbs 15:29,28:9, 1 Peter 3:12, Isaiah 59:2), and so on.
The Bible makes it clear that sin can prevent God from hearing the prayers of the wicked, and God may even answer "No" to the righteous, when their prayer request is not according to His will. Where then have we gotten the notion that God can answer any random prayer request as if He were giving us a blank check? Below, we will look at some bible passages that are less clear and provide some possible interpretations Christian theologians and thinkers have offered to clarify potential misunderstandings. In particular, we will look at bible promises regarding (1) asking "in Jesus's name", (2) receiving when we keep on asking, (3) receiving whatever we ask in faith [pistis], and (4) receiving what two or more agree on. These interpretations are subject to error, so please take this with a grain of salt and study the Bible to seek out the answer for yourself.
#1. What Does it Mean to Ask in Jesus's Name?
I believe a large portion of misunderstandings about bible promises regarding prayer hinge around the words "in my name" (John 16:23). Jesus said we would receive anything we ask "in His name," but what does it mean to ask for something in Jesus's name? Simply appending these words to the end of every prayer does not make them effective. Below, we will look at how various Christians interpret this verse:
1. Wayne Grudem interprets "in Jesus' name" as being in accordance with Jesus's character:
"Jesus did not mean that we must take the phrase "in Jesus' name" onto every one of our prayers. Instead, he meant that our prayers should be prayed based on his authority as our mediator and in accordance with his character." (Grudem, 50)
2. Andrew Murray similarly suggests that asking in Christ's name means praying according to His nature, which will include seeking the will of God. He writes,
"It means we are praying according to His nature, which is love that doesn't seek its own will, but only the will of God and the good of all creatures." (Murray, Ch.24).
He writes that "the use of the name always supposes the surrender of our interests to Him whom we represent." (Murray, 168) He suggests that the union that gives us the power to use Jesus's name may be a legal union, as in a marriage or adoption (where one does actually gain a new name), or a spiritual life union involving a union of interest, life, and love with Jesus (Murray, Ch.24). Union might also be thought of in the sense of branches being connected to Jesus as the vine (John 15:1-10).
3. Likewise, Arthur Pink says asking "in the name of Christ" involves surrendering our wills to God's and asking only what Christ would ask:
"To apply to God for anything in the name of Christ, it must needs be in keeping with what Christ is! To ask God in the name of Christ is as though Christ Himself were the suppliant. We can only ask God for what Christ would ask. To ask in the name of Christ, is therefore, to set aside our own wills, accepting God's!" (Pink, ch.9.)
4. W. Bingham Hunter believes that "in His Name" must imply abiding in Him, to be consistent with John 15:7. He points out that in John 16:26, Jesus indicates that "in my name" cannot mean that Jesus intercedes on our behalf. Rather, the following verse John 16:27 suggests that "in my name" implies that we love Jesus and believe Jesus is from God. If we love Jesus, this means that we obey his commandments (John 14:21). Thus, "in my name" may be the equivalent of abiding in Jesus, i.e., keeping his commandments.
In conclusion, if we want to pray in Jesus's name, let us abide in Him, keep God's commandments, and ask according to His will, which is in accordance with his character (1John 3:24, John 15:17, 1John 5:14). Let us also avoid hypocrisy, which blasphemes God's name and disagrees with his character (Romans 2:23-24, 2Timothy 2:19).
#2. Will We Really Receive if We Keep on Asking?
Another bible passage suggests that as long as we ask, we will receive (Luke 11:9-10, Matthew 7:7). However, we need to check the context of the verse(Luke 11:9-10). In the gospel of Luke, in the immediately preceding verses, Jesus is talking about the importance of persistence. Therefore, some have interpreted the verb tense to involve a continuous asking as in keep on asking. In other words, this verse may be calling for perseverance in prayer, which is one of the keys to effective prayer.
However, if we persist in asking for something which is against God's will, I still doubt that we will receive it. God is not giving us a blank check to receive for whatever we want. Paul asked thrice for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, and God answered No. Should he then persevere in asking?
James McConkey suggests that nowhere does this verse promise that we will receive the very thing we ask for. Those who keep on asking may indeed receive an answer, but if the request was not in accordance with God's will, what is received may be different than what was requested. McConkey suggests it may instead be something better than what was requested and the very thing actually needed. (See McConkey, "The Certainty of Prayer").
#3. Will We Really Receive Whatever We Ask For in Faith?
Some verses suggest that whatever we ask, or all things we ask for, in faith [pistis], will be answered, e.g., Matthew 21:21-22, James 1:6 and Mark 11:22-25. To make this consistent with other passages, we may either need to understand "whatever" and "all things" to be limited in scope, or else understand faith [pistis] differently. These two possible interpretations will be discussed further below.
Possibility #1: Limiting the meaning of "whatever" and "all things"
John Piper suggests that the word "whatever" in Mark 11:22-25 (or "all things" in some translations) is limited to things in accordance with God's will. He uses the example sentence, "I'll eat whatever you have" to point out that the word "whatever" is not a blanket word that includes everything, but it may exclude certain things like pencils. When we say "I'll eat whatever you have," we are obviously limiting "whatever" to include foods only. Since elsewhere in the Bible, it is made clear that God answers prayers when they are in accordance with His will, John Piper thinks it would be reasonable to assume that "whatever" we ask for should also be conditioned here by the context of scripture (John Piper). Likewise, the Bible's use of the word "all" is often limited in scope. When we say "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), Jesus is naturally excluded. 1Corinthians 15:27 is an even more explicit example in which the word "all" is said to have an exception.
Possibility #2: Considering the other meaning of the Greek words "pistis" and "diakrino"
A second possibility is that we have misunderstood the word "faith" [pistis]. In our English translations, Matthew 21:21-22 and James 1:6 suggest that if we have faith or ask in faith and do not doubt, God will give us what we ask for. The problem I have with this verse is that I have in the past tried to believe I have received what I asked for from God (e.g., someone's salvation), but the prayer request was still not answered, even if I tried to believe it happening within a certain timeframe. Thus, I think we may have misunderstood this verse. To say that all you have to do is convince yourself that God will give you the power to fly, and then you can fly, almost seems to be bordering on sorcery. Is this what God wants our prayer life to be like? The missionary Amy Carmichael once asked God to change her eye color to blue, but He did not grant that request. I do not believe the problem was her unbelief in the power of God. I believe it simply was not God's will, because if she had blue eyes, she might have stood out too much as a foreigner when she was rescuing temple girls in India.
Recently, I came across an explanation that the original Greek words translated to faith and doubt/waver in these verses are pistis and diakrino. However, both of these words have dual meanings-- pistis in the narrow sense may mean mental belief or trust, but in the broader sense may refer to loyalty or faithfulness. Similarly, diakrino in the narrow sense may mean doubt, but in the broader sense may refer to withdrawing or deserting. Thus, is it possible that this verse is promising that we can move mountains if we are faithful to keep God's word? That might be more consistent with other promises in the Bible about prayer, which talk about keeping God's word (1John 3:22-24).
I am not sure which of these interpretations is correct, if any, but it is encouraging to see that the verses in the Bible may actually be consistent with one another when we carefully look at the context.
#4. Will We Really Receive What Two or More Christians Agree Upon in Prayer?
Matthew 18:19-20 says "if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven." However, even when other Christians have agreed with me on something I asked for, it has not always been answered. I believe there are several possibilities here. One is that Jesus is referring to two people gathering "in Jesus's name" (Matthew 18:20), which as discussed earlier, may imply that the two or more people are keeping God's commandments and asking according to God's will.
Another possibility is that this verse is speaking specifically about church discipline, judging from the immediately preceding verses. The agreement spoken of here may actually be agreement regarding to the discipline of the sinning brother. Two or three witnesses were gathered to deal with the brother who sinned (Matthew 18:16). (Ref: Midwest Apologetics)
- Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know Ed. Elliot Grudem; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
- Arthur Pink, The Sovereignty of God, ch.9
- Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, Ch.24
- James H. McConkey, Prayer. Pittsburgh, PA: Silver Pub. Co., 1905. Chapter, "The Certainty of Prayer"
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