A Pepper Grinder Post

Ask me for Anything

I believe many Christians have a bad habit when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  If two passages don’t seem to mesh, we often pay attention to the one we like and ignore the other.  The issue I want to look at today is one of those where I think some people have done this—the issue concerns whether God grants ALL our requests or only those that are prayed according to his will.

There is the camp that says God will do whatever we ask, and that the only barrier is our faith (which often is taken to mean feeling like God will answer).  The passages people in this camp use are ones like:
Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. (Matthew 21:21 NIV)
In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (John 16:23 NIV)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8 NIV)
Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19 NIV)

Then there is the group where I myself have tended to fall, who would maintain that God will only answer prayers that are made according to his will.  I liked passages like:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15:7 NIV)
Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. (1John 3:21-22 NIV)

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us--whatever we ask--we know that we have what we asked of him.  (1John 5:14-15 NIV)

path to deckWhen I used to read passages like the ones in the first set, I would get this slightly uncomfortable feeling and quickly remind myself that you have to take Scripture as a whole, and that these other passages made it clear that we have to be walking in God’s will and asking according to that will for a prayer to be answered.  And, honestly, I think that it IS true that we have to take all of Scripture together.  The problem I see with my reaction, as I think back to it, was the kind of emotional shudder I had.  For me, at least, asking God for something that doesn’t seem likely to happen naturally is scary.  What if he doesn’t do what I’ve asked?  It feels like rejection.  Also, when you have been fed the idea enough that your “faith” determines whether or not your prayers are answered, it also feels like a great failure if they are not.

On the other hand, there are people who act as if God has given us a check book and an account that has an endless supply of cash.  All we need to do is to start writing checks.  I think there are very serious problems with this view, and it seems to me that people who have it tend to ignore the passages that put limits on what you can ask for. On the other hand, I have to admit that this approach can be bold and trusting—like Peter stepping out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water.

What I want to do today is look at a passage that I would have said fell in the first camp—the ones that make it sound like you can ask for anything, and God will answer your prayer.  My hope is to try to understand which camp is more right, or better yet, to see the truth that surpasses both views!  Here is my translation of John 14:8-14:

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the father and we’ll be satisfied.”  Jesus said, “After all this time don’t you know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the father!  How can you say, ‘Show us the father’?  Don’t you believe that I am in the father and the father is in me?  The words I say to you didn’t come from me—the father living in me is doing his work.  Believe me when I tell you that I am in the father and the father is in me, or at least believe because of the things I do.  I’m telling you the truth, whoever believes in me will do the things that I have done, and even greater things, because I am going to the father; and whatever you ask in my name, I’ll do, so that the father may be glorified in the son.  Whatever you ask for in my name, I will do.

Remember that this is said to the disciples after the Last Supper.  Jesus is getting ready to die and to leave the disciples he loves.  This small part of the conversation starts when Philip tells Jesus that they’ll be satisfied if he will just show them the father.  I am guessing that he is thinking of something like the time in the desert when the 70 elders of Israel were allowed to see God (Exodus 24:9-11).  As so often happened with Jesus, his answer turned the questioner’s thinking on its head.  Philip asks for a mystical revelation, and he is told that by spending three years with this flesh and blood teacher, he already HAS seen God.  We could get into a big discussion here about the mystery of Jesus being fully man AND fully God.  While I don’t dispute that fact for a minute, here I want to focus on the reason Jesus gave for saying that Philip has seen the father: the father living in me is doing his work.  This will help us later on as we work to understand what Jesus is saying to the disciples about asking and receiving.

Jesus is extremely concerned that his disciples understand that all he has been doing and saying was being done by God through him.  He doesn’t want his disciples going off and searching for some further truth that will let them really know God.  They have been living with God for three years, and now Jesus wants them to understand that it is their turn to go off and be God’s representatives on earth.  It is in this context that Jesus makes the incredible claim that, “whoever believes in me will do the things that I have done and even greater things.”

path along bluffThe most amazing thing about this claim is that it actually happened!  Read the book of Acts and you will see amazing miracles happening.  Even in modern times, there have been instances where God performed many astonishing miracles.  I read a book recently called Anointed for Burial, by Todd and DeAnn Burke, about amazing things God did among the people of Cambodia just before the takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge.

I think there are two great errors among Christians when thinking about miraculous acts of God.  One is thinking that God has stopped performing miraculous signs.  Some people with this view act as though performing miracles was a dirty chore God had to do, like cleaning toilets.  Once the church was well planted, or the New Testament was written, he breathed a tremendous sigh of relief and said, “I’m so glad I can stop doing those messy miracles now!  I can replace those weird prophecies with nice orderly sermons, I can use doctors and drug companies to heal people, and I’ll just get rid of speaking in tongues altogether!”  The problem with this view is that I have never seen a convincing scriptural argument for it.  Jesus didn’t say, “You’ll do the things that I did and even more—for a little while, at least.”  Someone once told me that the passage in 1 Corinthians 13 where we read “but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears” (v 10, NIV) actually meant that once the New Testament was written, miracles would cease.  While I think that the New Testament is a tremendous gift, I do not think it has brought the type of perfection that Paul speaks of at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 (verses 11-12)—I do not think any of us on this earth know God and his truth as fully as he knows us.

The other error is thinking that God isn’t acting if supernatural signs aren’t happening.  Part of this misunderstanding results from an understandably telescopic view of events in the Bible.  The Bible tends to focus on times when special things were happening.  Thus, we hear very little about the 40 years Moses was a husband, father, and rural shepherd, BEFORE he saw the burning bush.  The Bible is almost silent on the years Jesus lived before his public ministry started.  We don’t know much about what regular day-to-day existence was like for the early New Testament believers.  It’s natural to assume that the peaks we see when looking through the lens of the Bible are the things we should see happening all the time.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think there’s anything bad about questioning whether we need to get closer to God if we don’t see God doing special things—I just think we need to bear in mind that there may be times God is using his supernatural power in ways that are less visible to us.  One of my biggest problems with some Christian gatherings I’ve been involved with is that the pressure to see miracles happen week in and week out produces what is at best a weak imitation of God working, and at worst is outright deception.  I’m talking about the kind of thing where someone stands up to give a “prophecy” which is just a rephrasing of a Bible passage or something so innocuous that no one could object to it, or where someone is healed of a slight headache and it’s milked for all it’s worth.  I’m not saying that God doesn’t ever say things he has already said in the Bible, or innocuous things (though it seems like a LOT of what Jesus said really rocked people’s worlds), or that God doesn’t heal headaches.  The problem I have is when things like this get built up to the point where we start acting as if God is doing things among us as he did in the early chapters of Acts, when he isn’t.  I think this happens because some Christians feel that unless God is acting miraculously, he isn’t moving at all.

deckShould we all be seeking to get closer to God?  Absolutely!  Should we be open to God moving supernaturally?  I believe that wholeheartedly.  I think the problems start to happen when we start to focus more on the supernatural signs of God’s presence, rather than on God himself.  I would love to see all Christians becoming more and more devoted to God, open to him doing WHATEVER he wants to do, and then just sitting back and letting him do it.  Maybe he wants to heal people, but maybe he also wants some people to become doctors.  Maybe he wants to deliver stirring prophetic messages, but maybe he also wants us to do practical things to help single moms in the community.  Some people will have gifts and callings in one area, some in another, and I so much wish we didn’t feel we had to say or imply that people with a very different calling from ours are either unspiritual or in error.  The big questions for anyone should be, am I drawing closer to God, and am I doing what Jesus wants?  Focus on that and let God worry about the results.  (End of sidetrack and rant).

The thing I most wanted to look at in this posting is the part of the passage where Jesus says, "whatever you ask in my name, I’ll do, so that the father may be glorified in the son."  What I really want to do here is unpack the phrase “in my name,” but first I think it’s important to look at the end of the sentence quoted above.  Sometimes when I read a Biblical passage, I find myself wanting to ask, “Why?”  Why weren’t the Israelites supposed to eat a kid boiled in its mother’s milk?  Why did Paul say that women will be saved through childbearing?  In this passage, however, the answer to the why is fed to us.  Why will Jesus do whatever we ask in his name?  "So that the father may be glorified in the son."  The answer is NOT so that we can have whatever we want.  This fits in with James, who tells us that we ask and don’t receive, "because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:3 NIV)  In the context of this passage, Jesus has been saying that the Father has been visible through him, and that part of what proved this was the miraculous things Jesus did.  “Now”, he is saying, “It’s your turn.  Now it’s your job to demonstrate God to the world through your actions.”  The question is not, “Do I have enough faith to get that Lear Jet?” but, “Am I seeking to do the things God wants me to do as his representative on earth?” 

On the other hand, Jesus clearly says, "whatever you ask in my name, I’ll do," and then he repeats that phrase in the very next verse!  In discussing this, am I just throwing seeds of doubt on a clear statement that we are supposed to take at face value?  The key to understanding this is to understand the little phrase, “in my name.”  Is it just a little formula we are supposed to stick on the end of every prayer (inJesusNameAmen), to ensure we get what we asked for?  If so, I have to say that it doesn’t work well.  I imagine that we can all think of many requests that have ended with that phrase that were not granted.

To understand this, we need to understand the significance of a name in Bible times.  In our society, a name is just what you call someone.  If your name is Tyler, I don’t imagine you think you would be a completely different person if your parents had named you Jeff.  In Biblical times, on the other hand, a name was the essence of the person.  This is why Jesus sometimes gave people like Peter and Paul new names.  When an angel appeared to Samson’s father, Manoah, he asked,  
"What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?"  He replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding. " (Judges 13:17-18 NIV) 
I don’t think the point was that the literal name could not be understood, but that, as a heavenly being, the angel’s essence was beyond the comprehension of Manoah.  This is why God’s name was treated as sacred enough that someone who blasphemed his name in the Old Testament was to be put to death (Leviticus 24:16).  It was not that God was so thin-skinned that he couldn’t stand to have people make fun of his name—it was that by belittling his name, they were belittling HIM.

view of beachSo what does that mean for the phrase, “in my name”?  It gives it the meaning of “in my being”—of our acting out of Jesus’s essence.  To put it in a phrase which is more normal in English and less mystical, we could translate this as “acting as my representative.”  Imagine an ambassador sent from the United Kingdom to a third world country we’ll call Goria, which is ruled by a dictator.  Goria has natural resources which the UK desperately needs, and the ambassador has been charged with bringing about a trade agreement between the two countries.  The ambassador may personally despise the dictator of Goria, but he must put these feelings aside when he is acting in his capacity as ambassador.  As ambassador, his sole focus must be to carry out the wishes of his country—he is the flesh and blood embodiment of the UK to Goria’s ruler.

Jesus came to earth as God’s representative—the flesh and blood embodiment of God to the people of earth.  Now Jesus is telling his disciples that he is leaving and that THEY are to be his representatives.  Some of the passages that make clear what it means to do or ask something in Jesus’s name are right nearby in this section of John.  For example, in John 14:26 (NIV) we read,
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 
The Holy Spirit is sent in Jesus’s name.  Does that mean that he goes around inspiring people to say inJesusNameAmen whenever they end a prayer?  No, it means that he represents Jesus; that he is doing the things Jesus himself would do if he were here.

If we are asking something in Jesus’s name, it means that we desire and are asking for things that Jesus wants.  Do you want to see more of your prayers get answered?  Don’t concentrate on trying to drum up feelings that what you ask will be granted (that is a misunderstanding of what it means to pray in faith—more on that another time).  Instead, focus on getting close to Jesus, on desiring the things he desires.  As you do that, I guarantee that you will start to see requests being granted.  Will they always be granted?  Not unless you are perfect at desiring things that Jesus desires.  On the other hand, is it a terrible defeat if God’s answer to a request is no?  Does a good parent get angry when his adorable toddler asks for a cookie after she’s had her teeth brushed at night?  He’ll smile lovingly at her and say, “Not right now, sweetie.”  So try to have Jesus’s desires, but don’t feel you have to get it exactly right.

And do you want to pray a prayer that you can be sure will be granted?  Then pray this: “Jesus, I want to be closer to you.  I want to be your representative to the people around me.  Please help me.”  The response may take time, and it may not be easy, but if you pray that and really mean it, it WILL be granted and it WILL be good.