Friday, March 31, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (3)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

God, cash & prizes: a winning combo! Or not.
How Do You Read It? is kind of a series within a series, in which Immanuel Can and I discuss common misinterpretations of some very familiar verses. The first two installments can be found here and here.

Tom: IC, it’s been a year since we did one of these. Have you got one for me?

Immanuel Can: What about “Whatever you ask in my name …”?

The Can of Worms Opens

Tom: Whoa! That’s opening a can of worms. That one question might do for an entire topic.

Okay then, do you mean the Matthew 18:19 version, the Matthew 21:22 version, the Mark 11:24 version, the John 14:13-14 version, the John 15:7-16 version or the John 16:23-34 version? They all promise similar things, but each context is a little different, so a single explanation won’t really do.

IC: No, true. But I’m just thinking of the general use that gets made of that passage, especially by naive Christians, prosperity gospel people and such.

Tom: Oh, okay. Short version then: there’s a contextual limitation built into every one of those six statements. They don’t have to do with asking any old thing of God. They have to do with very specific, limited kinds of prayer requests, don’t you think?

“Whatever” Means Anything!

IC: Well, let me play “enthusiast’s advocate” here, if I may. Don’t they all teach that if we just want something, ask God for it and believe in it hard enough, he has to give it to us?

Tom: Sure, if we’re asking for the right thing. This is what I mean by “contextual limitation”: Say that my son and I are talking, and I’m explaining to him the arrangements I have made in my will. Aunt Vera is going to come over and select three things that are important to her, as is Uncle Fred and Cousin Bob. After they have done that, his two siblings will have the right to take three items of their choice, along with $50,000 in cash each. “After that,” I tell him, “whatever you like is yours.”

What the enthusiasts and prosperity people you refer to are doing is grabbing on to that last half sentence out of context, jumping up and down with excitement, and saying, “Look! Your dad promised WHATEVER YOU LIKE IS YOURS! That means ANYTHING!”

No, it doesn’t. There’s a contextual limitation to my promise, just like there is in all God’s promises about prayer, and any attentive reader of the context will quickly see it. But we love prooftexting, and our understanding of many things in scripture is hobbled by that bad, bad habit.

And the Catch Is …

IC: Okay, good. So, if you would be so kind, please take one of these allegedly “open” promises, and show us what limitations go along with it scripturally.

Tom: Sure. Here’s John quoting the Lord Jesus:
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
and then he follows it with this statement a few verses later:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
Both are conditional, but in the first instance the condition is explicit and in the second it is implicit.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you” is a clear condition, an “if” statement. In other words, IF you ask for something consistent with the character and teaching of Jesus, you can anticipate God will do it. When his servants are engaged in doing the sorts of things his Son did, God very naturally responds to our requests.

In the second instance the condition is implicit. To the extent that this applies to us as well the original disciples, we have been chosen and appointed for a particular purpose: the bearing of lasting fruit. This task of fruit-bearing is the implicit precondition to the promise: when we ask for God for things necessary for that service, we can be confident he will provide them.

But he’s only speaking within that very limited context. He’s not talking about asking for a nice house, a good job, a pool and five kids.

Banking on It

IC: Right. Likewise when the Lord tell us to “ask anything in my name”, he’s saying something very, very specific. My turn for an illustration, if I may ...

Tom: Absolutely.

IC: Suppose I go to the bank, and say, “Give me $1,000 out of Tom’s account.”

The bank manager will not say to me, “Well, you can have it if you have enough faith,” or “I’ll give it to you if you name it and claim it.” No. He says, “What’s your authorization for $1,000 out of Tom’s account?

So I say, “I have this contract here, directing me to pay down $1,000 on Tom’s mortgage, because he’s having a vacation in Florida right now and cannot do it himself.”

“Aha,” says the banker, “I see that you are here in Tom’s name!” That is, by authority of Tom himself, to do what Tom would do if he were here, or to do the thing Tom wants to be done — not to take his $1,000 and use it to put a down payment on my own new sports car. Now, absent authorization from Tom reassuring the banker that I am acting entirely as Tom wishes, in the spirit of what Tom wants and with Tom’s personal approval, the banker won’t give me squat. And rightly so. I didn’t come “in Tom’s name”. I may have tried to USE Tom’s name, but the truth is, I only came in my own name.


Tom: Definitely. You can pay my mortgage any time.

“… In Jesus’ Name, Amen!”

Oh, you mean the illustration? Yes, I think that’s a good way to look at it. And if we’re honest, I suspect we come to the Father more often than not very much in our own names with nothing more than personal interest at stake, and we simply tack a pro forma spiritual catchphrase on the end as if that changes everything. We say, “… for we ask it in Jesus’ name” the same way we might say, “Abracadabra” or “Hocus pocus”. But the mechanical invocation of the name of Jesus doesn’t magically change a selfish request into a Christ-honoring one. God doesn’t prick up his ears (if I may put it that way) for sloganeers. The seven sons of Sceva tried using Jesus’ name like that and found they were not thrilled with the results.

But tell me: do you think there’s anything actually wrong with asking for things that are not directly related to the kingdom, the service of God or the glory of his Son?

IC: A strange idea for a Christian. Is there ANYTHING that a Christian is supposed to be up to that is not in one or all of those categories?

Tom: I’m thinking of things like my health, for instance. It might be better for the sake of the kingdom that I live or that I die, but when I’m praying I have no idea which alternative is of more utility to God today. And of course I may find myself with a very strong visceral preference about the outcome. Jabez, for instance, prayed, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And we read that God granted what he asked.

IC: Hmm … yes, there doesn’t seem to be a lot overtly spiritual in that particular prayer, pulp theology notwithstanding.

Those Less-Than-Stellar Requests

Tom: Right, but I think it’s not too far away in spirit from many Christian prayers — certainly one or two of mine, if I’m honest.

IC: I see nothing wrong with praying for something like health, provided one has in mind that God has every right to make the decision about whether or not you get it, since he alone knows what’s best for your growth and his kingdom at a given time, and provided you are not asking for it as an end-in-itself, but because you are grateful for your health and wish to maintain the condition of your usefulness as long as you can. That seems just a matter of good stewardship of the opportunities God has given one.

Tom: What I’m really trying to get at is that people pray for all sorts of things, and it seems to me that God, who is gracious, often responds to our less-than-stellar prayers and sentiments. Any particular prayer I may pray is probably somewhere on a continuum: there are bad prayers, better prayers, good prayers and the best prayers. It’s not a binary thing. If I feel the need to ask the Lord about something, I’d rather take it to him than try to bear the burden myself, and I don’t always stop to parse out whether everything I ask is phrased optimally, I’m afraid. I think many people have that experience.

But in order to have real confidence in what we’re asking for, we need to be asking according to the Lord’s revealed will. As John puts it:
“This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”
IC: Ah, there it is again: “according to his will”, “in my name”, and so on.

Those Caveats We Can’t Ignore

Always there are conditions, and those are essentially that the prayer is offered in faith that “your will [may] be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s when the Lord’s interests and values are involved that we have these promises. It all reminds me of what we said in that earlier post about “where two or three are gathered together in my name”.

Words are so important, aren’t they? Ignore or misread a short phrase, and you can end up with confusion.

Tom: Yes. And it’s pretty lame to invoke promises we’ve never bothered to actually read in their entirety, don’t you think?

IC: Agreed. At the end of the day we’ve got to ask ourselves what the real purpose of the prayer is: is it to gratify our own desires, or to ask for the Lord’s purposes to be achieved? And if it has to be a prayer of faith, what is it faith in? Is it faith in our own ability to believe, or faith in the Lord himself?

I think the right attitude is this: I would rather suffer and see the Lord’s will worked out in my life than have all my earthly desires gratified and comforts met, and yet miss his purposes for my life.

How about you?


  1. It might have been more informative if you had attempted to answer the question why should one have to pray in the first place? What is the reason, the purpose, for prayer? Does God not know what we need and that we are experiencing trying circumstances, and should we not assume that he knows best how to resolve them? So, what type of prayer is there? The petition, the adoration, the need for contemplative quiet and peace, call for action in emergencies, etc.. Technically, with God knowing all circumstances and able to address all circumstances, is there really any other prayer needed except for adoration? How does it involve our growing as human beings and God's children?

  2. I'm not sure we've addressed all the issues you mention in a single post, Q, but we've definitely covered many in some detail. If you scan down the Topics sidebar on the main page in the right hand column to "Prayer", IC and I have written 23 posts to date on the subject.