And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:13, 14)
When we read verses like those, it sounds like prayer is a blank check drawn on God’s bank account; all we have to do is fill it in. It sounds almost too good to be true. In fact, the way some Christians interpret those verses it is too good to be true. Prayer is not a blank check and those who think it is end up having very unsatisfying prayer lives.
Our Lord never meant for us to pray meaningless prayers and prayers void of power. What He said in John’s Gospel was meant to encourage us to pray and to show us how powerful proper prayers can be. What we must do is discover what “proper prayers” sound like so that we may unleash the potential of John 14:14.
1. Prayer: A powerful weapon
Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:11)
The greatest war ever is being fought all day, every day, all around us and most Christians are blissfully unaware of it. And because so many of us are either ignorant of spiritual warfare or choose to ignore the reality of it, we open ourselves up to its effects. We may not believe in spiritual warfare, but it is real and it does affect us. There is a chilling account in Daniel 10 where the angel Gabriel comes to a praying Daniel with this report:
“Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.” (Daniel 10:12—14)
This is a classic example of spiritual warfare. Daniel had been praying and fasting for 21 days and, according to Gabriel’s own testimony, the angel had been dispatched to answer that prayer on day one! But because of his struggle in the unseen spirit world against “the prince of Persia,” the answer to Daniel’s prayer had been delayed. The purpose of this study is not to debate who the “prince of Persia” was, but to show how spiritual warfare touches the lives of all believers. Daniel’s motives were pure and his heart was right, yet he was dealing with the effects of a struggle beyond this world.
That struggle continues to this very day and committed Christians are in the crosshairs whether they realize it or not.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6:12, KJV)
But we don’t have to fall victims to this struggle. Paul admonished his Ephesian friends to do something in response to the very real dangers of spiritual warfare: put on the full armor of God. Each piece of that spiritual armor is for defense except for two weapons of offense: the sword of the Spirit, otherwise known as the Word of God; and:
…pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:18a)
Praying in the Spirit is a weapon of offense! But notice, it’s not just any kind of prayer, it’s prayer prayed in the Spirit. This idea is offered by Jude, as well:
But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. (Jude, verse 20)
The context of Jude’s advice is that his readers needed to “keep the faith” in the face of the dangers of false teaching and apostasy. Praying in the Spirit, then, is something that enables believers to live right in a world that is trying to get us to live wrong.
2. Prayer: A weapon of power
We now know that there is a spiritual battle going on all around us. Ephesians 6 teaches that we are participants in that battle and that we have two weapons to help us prevail: the Word of God and prayers prayed in the Spirit. Furthermore, Jude teaches that prayers offered in the Spirit will keep us living right.
The thing is, though, not one believer has the ability to “live right” and “fight the good fight” on his own. We are just too weak and too ignorant. There isn’t a believer who can measure up to God’s standard. That’s why Jesus made a plan:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you… (Acts 1:8)
God does not expect us to engage in spiritual warfare alone; we have been given the glorious Holy Spirit to help us. He is the great Helper who lives in every Christian, Whose job it is to enable us to live the kind of life that God wants us to live.
Similarly, the power of our prayers is in direct proportion to how much freedom we give the Holy Spirit in our lives. The most powerful, effective prayers are ones that are prayed in the Spirit. But what exactly does that mean?
The apostle Paul sheds some light on the issue:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. (Romans 8:26)
Sometimes we just aren’t “in tune” enough with the world around us and with God’s will to pray effectively. This is why so many Christians get so frustrated with their prayers. They don’t know about needs people have so they can’t pray with knowledge and they don’t know what God’s will is. When we pray prayers in ignorance, they yield no results. When we open ourselves up to the moving of the Holy Spirit, though, He helps us to pray. When we don’t know what God’s will is and what we should be praying for, so we need the help of the Holy Spirit. Praying glib prayers, ordering God around like we know what He wants all the time may sound good, but those kinds of prayers are generally useless.
We learn something of praying in accordance to God’s will when we look at how our Lord prayed. Not long before He was crucified, Jesus was alone praying and He said this:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Jesus was praying in the Spirit that night and we see in this one sentence the primary purpose of prayer. It is NOT to get God to do something we want Him to do, but to get us to do something God wants us to do. There is virtually unlimited power in prayer when we pray according to God’s will.
The Holy Spirit helps us to pray like that. We don’t know how we should pray, but the Spirit does because He sees things from heaven’s perspective. Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t see things that way. Powerful prayers need to be prayed from God’s perspective.
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. (1 John 5:14)
It can’t be any clearer than that! The condition for having prayers heard and answered is praying according to the will of God. Now that’s a weapon of power!
3. Prayer: It changes us for our good
By now we know prayer is not a blank check. The only prayers that are heard and get answered are ones prayed according to God’s will. As finite human beings, we can’t possibly know God’s will 100% of the time any more than we have the ability to live right 100% of the time. Just as the Holy Spirit enables us to live right, He also enables us to pray according to God’s will. The purpose of prayer is not to pray for any old thing we may want and expect God to give us the answer we want.
The apostle Paul found that out the hard way. Poor Paul; he had what he referred to as “a thorn” in his flesh. Ideas abound as to what the thorn was; from bad eye sight to some other physical ailment to a miserable wife. We don’t know what it was, but we do know Paul wanted it removed. In fact, Paul seemed quite desperate that it be removed:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. (2 Corinthians 12:8)
He “pleaded” with God three times! Paul didn’t just ask, he “pleaded.” We may well imagine how desperate Paul was. And yet, the thorn remained:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
It was God’s will for Paul to have his thorn. And Paul needed to be brought into line with God’s will for him. From God’s perspective, Paul needed that thorn, and finally Paul understood this:
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Paul discovered a secret about prayer a lot of us miss. Prayer is not given to us to get God in line with our will, but to bring us in line with God’s will. Now, the fact that we don’t have God’s perspective on things makes this particularly difficult for us. When we don’t have His perspective and when we don’t pray in the Spirit, our prayers tend to be selfish and self-seeking, even if we think we being selfless. James deals with this problem of motivation:
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3)
Motives are tricky things and human beings are complicated; rarely do we have pure motives for anything we do, and this is why we NEED to pray in the Spirit so that our motives will be pure. What is the right motivation for prayer?: that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Imagine how bad it would be if God answered all our prayers the way we think He should—as if we know what’s best for us. The Bible actually gives us a number of examples of where God went out of His way to answer a prayer the way the person wanted it answered. The results were disastrous.
Bad example number one: the children of Israel. During their wilderness wanderings, Israel on more than one occasion complained to God about their living conditions. But one time in particular must have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back” as far as God was concerned.
“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4—6)
Moses went to the Lord in prayer and told God about their complaint and God in His patient wisdom, determined to teach them a lesson, answered Moses’ prayer and gave the children of Israel meat to eat. But something else happened:
So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them. (Psalm 106:15, NIV’84)
And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul. (Psalm 106:15, KJV)
Yes, God knows what’s best for us because He sees things perfectly. We imagine the children of Israel regretted they treated God the way they did!
Bad example number two: Hezekiah. Another example of God giving somebody what they wanted is the sad case of King Hezekiah. He was a tremendous king, and a real man of God who became terminally ill. No less a personage than the prophet Isaiah came to Hezekiah with a word directly from God:
“This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” (2 Kings 20:1)
It was God’s will that Hezekiah die, so he sent Isaiah to tell him to get ready because his days were numbered. Instead of accepting God’s will for him, what did Hezekiah do?
Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, “Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. (2 Kings 20:2, 3)
In other words, Hezekiah went to the Lord in prayer to try and change the Lord’s mind. The result is interesting. God heard Hezekiah’s prayer and answered it. He gave the king another 15 years to live and even intervened to save Judah from Assyria. 2 Kings 20 relates God’s answer to the king through the prophet Isaiah in a matter-of-fact fashion, not making any observation or commentary. A misunderstanding of this incident has led many a believer to use it as a pattern for how God gives us what we want.
Hezekiah could have gone down in Hebrew history as the greatest king ever, except for three terrible things that happened during those extra 15 years. First, shortly after he was healed, an envoy from Babylon came to pay their respects and, inexplicably, Hezekiah did a foolish thing: he showed them all of Judah’s treasures of silver and gold. This caused a lot of problems later on. Second, he fathered a son, Manasseh, during those extra 15 years, who became the most wicked and vile of any of Judah’s kings (2 Kings 21:1). And fiinally, in his later years Hezekiah became puffed up with pride.
Clearly, nothing good happened to Hezekiah or Judah during these extra 15 years. It would have been better for everybody if Hezekiah had died at his appointed time. So, why did God answer the king’s selfish prayer? As the Bible often does, it doesn’t give us the answer. Instead, it lets us discover the answer by simply presenting the facts. It’s the unintended consequences of Hezekiah’s prayer are what we should take note of, not the prayer itself.
If we are discouraged with God’s lack of participation in our prayers, or if our prayer life has been leaving us unsatisfied or even dissatisfied, maybe we need to see how we are praying. Are we praying our wills or God’s? Are we more concerned about getting something out of God or giving more of ourselves to Him? Are we praying in the Spirit?
Prayer is supposed to the greatest weapon in the Christian’s arsenal. Yet it is often the weakest link in the chain of our Christian life.