What’s the point of praying? Nothing is guaranteed

Nothing is guaranteed when we pray, eh? But that’s not what Jesus said.

He said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” John 14:13, and in verse 14, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

And if that isn’t guarantee enough, Jesus said it again in John 15:7, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you,” and again in verse 16, “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” 

And if that still isn’t guarantee enough, he said it yet again in John 16:23, “my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” and in verse 24, “Ask and you shall receive.”

What more could Jesus say to hammer home that our requests in prayer come with a guaranteed answer? Which sounds great – but – we live in a world where warranties always have conditions attached. The warranty on a new fridge, for instance, only applies if we use the fridge for what it was made for, and any hint of misuse or improper care cancels the warranty entirely. So is that how it is with prayer too, that conditions apply as well?

Yes, but the conditions make total sense, like John 15:7 that says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, etc.” So, yes, there’s an “if,” a condition attached, but it makes the same obvious sense as not using a new fridge as a boat. Obviously we won’t ask for anything that doesn’t tie in with Jesus’ teachings, right? And obviously we’d only ask for something we know would please him.

And exactly the same conditions applied to Jesus in his prayers too. “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me,” John 5:30, and everything he prayed for was to bring “glory to the Father,” John 14:13 and 15:8, by Jesus always saying and doing only what the Father wanted said and done, John 5:19 and 7:16. In other words, Jesus stuck like glue to his Father’s teachings to please his Father because he loved him, just like we stick like glue to Jesus’ teachings to please him because we love him too. And with Jesus as our example, we know that’s what gets prayers answered. There are conditions, yes, but they are just as obvious in their reasons as the conditions attached to the use of a new fridge.

And all Jesus needs from us after that is John 14:12 – “I tell you the truth (it’s guaranteed, in other words) that anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” Trust him, and that’s that, an answer to our request is guaranteed.


Did Adam need to pray?

The question of whether Adam needed to pray, or not, came from studying Genesis chapter 2 and realizing he actually had God instructing him personally. In verse 15 God himself “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden,” and in verse 16 God personally “commanded the man” not to eat off a certain tree, and in verse 19 God actually “brought” animals and birds to Adam to name. Adam had God right there with him doing all these things. I’m assuming, then, that this was the kind of relationship God wanted with humans. It was never meant to be God “up there” and us “down here,” or the only contact being possible by prayer. It was meant to be face-to-face, and instructions given by God directly and in person.

The man didn’t need to pray for wisdom or guidance, therefore, because he could go to God in person and talk things over right there with him in the Garden of Eden. And God had chosen this man for just that purpose, to work closely with him, so that the man would know exactly how God wanted his creation to be ruled. And since God had also made the man in his own image, it made communication between them easy.

The woman then made the unfortunate mistake of not consulting with the man God had chosen when the serpent turned up. It was unfortunate because God had made it clear up to this point that he’d chosen the man to work with first of all, and then the woman later on as Adam’s perfect other half and helper, so it was certainly not God’s purpose for the woman to act independently of the man, just as the man shouldn’t work independently of God.

The unfortunate result was the loss of the free and open relationship God had begun with Adam. We see that in Genesis 3:8 when Adam and Eve both hid from God when they heard him walking in the garden. So even at this point God was still willing to be with them and talk to them personally, but they didn’t want that anymore. They preferred God to be distant, not up close and personal.

You could say, then, that it was Adam and Eve that stuck us with this distant relationship with God, where contact is now limited to prayer. And even Jesus in human form was stuck with prayer being the only way he could contact God too. It’s like texting instead of talking today, but thanks to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-26 that free and easy, one-on-one and face-to-face relationship with God that Adam had will be fully restored.

No prayer goes unanswered

We take it for granted that God listens to us when we pray, right? Of course he listens. But John takes us one step further, because in 1 John 5:15 do we take it for granted just as much that “whatever we ask, we know that we have what we asked of him”? Or as other Bible translations phrase it, “what we asked for is as good as ours,” or “is already ours.”

John is saying that God has set things up so that whatever we ask for he’ll answer us every time. God’s even put himself on the spot where he HAS to answer too, because it was he who gave us the Spirit and the Spirit is now stirring us to pray to him, so how can God resist himself?!

And what if the Spirit is stirring us to pray about things that God just loves hearing his children pray about, like helping a friend (or an enemy) in need? Thanks to the Spirit we’re constantly thinking of others and what’s best for them. The Spirit has created that love in us, love which then stirs us to pray for others, asking God to do for them what we cannot do but deeply wish we could. But that was exactly what God sent the Spirit to create in us, so that when we pray we’re asking in love for the right and good things for others.

And that puts God on the spot, because it was he who gave us that love in the first place, and now he’s faced with us praying in love, love that HE created, which he knew would make us pray to him for help. Is he now going to stop there and not complete the circle? We’re praying, and we’re praying with the mind of the Spirit, so for God not to answer now would be going against what he himself put in place. It’s like a Dad telling his child, “If you have anything you need, son, just ask,” so that’s what the child does, he asks, but all he gets back from Dad is, “Well done, son, you asked” – and he leaves it at that!

What Dad has got on his hands now is one frustrated son, because what’s the point of asking Dad for anything if Dad doesn’t answer? And God faces the same frustration from us too if he doesn’t answer us. So he assures us that not only does he hear every word we pray, he ALSO goes to work on it to make it happen. It may take time, but never will God frustrate HIS children with no answer at all.

I need comfort too when others are suffering

It’s hard taking on board the suffering of others. It knocks my day to pieces when bad news comes through about a fellow Christian. It’s depressing. It’s depressing not knowing what to pray about too, because I have no idea if God intends to heal the person’s illness, or stop the person from dying, or if he’ll ease the desperate situation the person is in. I can’t read God’s mind, so I can’t promise the person a good outcome either. What do I say at his bedside, or at church? I feel utterly helpless.

So that’s two of us now suffering. The sick or dying person is suffering and I am as well, and I can’t just blank it out of my head and carry on my day unperturbed, because as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26 we can’t help suffering when a fellow Christian suffers. When one part of your body is in pain the whole body feels it. In the church that’s the way it is.

But Paul also made the rather startling statement in 2 Corinthians 1:6 that his suffering brought “comfort and salvation” to others. Oh, so in the church that’s the way it is too, is it? But how? How can suffering cause comfort? And Paul goes one step further too, when he says his suffering brought “salvation,” meaning it actually spared people from despairing.

Paul does not back off the fact in verse 5 that Christ allows us to suffer, but he adds a bit on the end of the verse, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” With Christ, suffering never travels alone. It is always accompanied by comfort. But not just comfort for the one suffering; it’s comfort for the ones watching and hearing about the person suffering too. That’s why Paul could say in verse 7, “our hope in you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” And I appreciate that, because I need comfort too when others are suffering.

Here’s how it works, says Paul: He explains how terribly he suffered in Asia, to the point that he and his coworkers “despaired even of life,” verse 8, but their hope was kept alive “as you help us by your prayers,” verse 10-11. And that’s where comfort comes from for those watching others suffer. It comes from knowing our prayers keep the suffering person’s hope in God alive. Jesus literally transforms our prayers into hope. And how comforting that is, that no matter how badly a person is suffering, our prayers guarantee God’s “gracious favour” on him, verse 11.

Does God also answer before we pray?

In 1 John 5:14-15 John tells us we can be absolutely assured “that if we ask anything according to God’s will, he hears. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.”

Assuming, then, that what we’re asking for is according to his will, like the ability to love one another in chapter 2:23, we know he’s heard us and we know he’s answered.

Ah, but when did he hear us, and when did he answer? Did he wait for us to pray and then answer? Or did he know we’d be praying that prayer, and rather than wait until we asked it he already answered it? I mean, if he knows us that well, and he knows what the Holy Spirit has put into our hearts (Romans 8:27), why wait until we finally form the words that express what’s already in our heart?

This was stirred by an intriguing statement by C.S. Lewis that “We can (in our prayer) at noon become part causes of an event occurring at ten a.m.” In other words, we may be praying at noon for some event to happen that God already answered and made happen two hours earlier, because he knew at 10 a.m. that we’d be praying about it two hours later. God already answered, therefore, two hours before we asked.

Does that mean, then, that God has already decided the outcome before we pray? In which case, why bother praying if God’s already decided? But that’s not the point Lewis is making. Here’s what he’s saying in more detail: “When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation the thought will often cross our minds that the event is already decided one way or the other. (And) the event certainly has been decided. But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering.”

He’s saying my prayers may well be the cause of events that happened before I prayed. In other words, my prayers after the event may have been part cause of the event happening earlier, because God knew I’d be praying about it. God still decides the outcome, but he decided the outcome based on a prayer he knew I’d be making later.

Who knows what events God has already made happen based on a prayer I’m making now? But if it’s according to his will he hears. Or better put, he already heard it – and answered it – before I thought to ask.

I pray not for the world

In John 17:9 Jesus makes the rather startling statement, “I pray not for the world.” It seems to fly in the face of John 3:16, that “God so loved the world,” and verse 17, that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Why, then, would Jesus not pray for the world he was sent to save?

Because – as Jesus himself explains in verse 19 – “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil.” Why bother praying for people who loved being evil, had no interest in being saved from evil, didn’t want anything to do with Jesus or what he’d been sent for, whose minds were tightly shut against any glimmer of light entering in case “his (evil) deeds will be exposed” (verse 20), and all of whom, therefore, stood “condemned already” (verse 18)? It was like talking to, or praying for, a brick wall.

But – as Jesus also explains in John 17:6 – in amongst all those brick walls the Father had selected a few people “out of the world” and “you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.” It was in the Father’s plan to have some people recognize “that everything you (my Father) have given me comes from you,” so that when Jesus gave them the words the Father had given him they would accept them, verse 8, and  know “with certainty that I came from you,” and “that you sent me.” And these are the people Jesus was praying for in verse 9: “I pray for them, I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.”

This is where Jesus’ attention was concentrated; it was totally on revealing his Father and his Father’s words to those whom his Father had chosen. Jesus acknowledged that it was just to these select few that the Father had granted him the authority to “give eternal life to” (verse 2), and just in the minds of these few that the brick wall of rejecting him had been broken down, and just these few that the Father had sent him to teach. And this alone was “the work” the Father had given him to do (verse 4), to teach and pray for those the Father had given him at that time.

Jesus also acknowledged in verse 20 that his work of teaching and praying for those his Father selected would continue through the centuries, because this was the way the whole world would come to “believe that you have sent me” – not by Jesus praying for the world, but by praying for his disciples.

Our thoughts and prayers are with those….

Another year of disasters, of earthquakes, floods, fires, shootings, terrorist attacks, deaths in hit-and-runs, teenage suicides, and the endless list of tragedies on the News every night. And again and again the heart-rending public response to these horrible things is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with those” who suffered loss, injury and trauma.

And I understand the “thoughts” part, because I can’t help thinking how awful it must be to be injured for life, or lose someone you’ve loved, or have an entire family torn apart by a senseless killing or by sexual abuse. Some of those things affect me for days. They are deeply saddening.

But I wonder about the “prayers” part, and what’s said in those prayers, and why they’re said, and to whom. Are they prayers to a higher power, or prayers to oneself like, “I just pray that everything will be all right,” or because prayers are the expected communal response, a sort of mantra we repeat as a matter of course when tragedy happens? And are those prayers answered, in whatever form or reason they’re given? Is an answer even expected? And what answer is hoped for?

I find myself wanting to pray too, but I’m not quite sure what to pray for. I pray in sympathy for those suffering, I can’t help that, but what can I pray for that will get an answer, and how do I know it’s the right thing I’m praying for in that situation? Should I ask God to comfort the injured and their families, but comfort in what way? End their grief? Give them hope for the future? Enable them to forgive? Prevent them being overwhelmed with hatred and revenge? Provide a Christian who can counsel them? But can I ask God for any of those things for people who have no interest in him, and no hope of a life beyond this one? Should I actually be praying at all, except to share in the Father’s sorrow that all this has to happen to his children because humanity chose to reject him?

My prayer of late, therefore, veers towards, “I’m so sorry we humans had to go this route; it’s deeply saddening. If you can provide any comfort through me, please do, along with the wisdom and love to know what to say and do, because I don’t have a clue what’s best.” And it seems that most of us share that last part, in not having a clue what’s best, because again and again when tragedy strikes we don’t know what else to say other than the sad mantra of: “Our thoughts and prayers are with those…..”