I was putting my sons to bed one night. I said my good nights, and I was just lying there for a few moments when I heard my six-year-old son say something under his breath. I asked him, “What are you saying?”
He said, “Good night, God.”
“Did he answer you?”
“Are you listening?”
I looked at him, and he had his hands cupped over his ears in order to hear better. He said it again, “Good night, God.” I was praying for a miracle, “God, show this little boy that you are alive and speak to him.”
Finally, I heard him say, “Oh well,” and he went to sleep. He wasn’t too bothered by the fact that God had not answered him.
But, how often do we pray to God and hear nothing? Prayers for family, for neighbors, for cancer to be healed, for finances, for a depressed friend, for help at work – the list is endless. And God is silent. How do we reconcile this silence with Jesus’s promise in John 14, “I will do whatever you ask in my name….”?
This is a hard topic, but this promise is easier to understand if we read it in the context of the Gospel of John. Here are three points from John’s context to consider as we reflect on Jesus’s promise of answered prayer.
First, we Christians should be working for the same types of things that Jesus worked for. Jesus sends us to continue the work and ministry that He began. John 20:21 says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” We are now the sent ones – sent by Jesus to do the work of God. Just before Jesus’s promise that He will “do whatever we ask in His name” in John 14:13-14, verse 12 says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” The promise of answered prayer comes in a specific context: we pray for God’s work/ministry to be accomplished, rather than for our selfish desires. We cannot fulfill the mission of God on our own strength, so Jesus assures us that as we pray in His name, He will help us. Our prayers are not just about us and our needs. They are about doing God’s work, and getting Jesus’ help as we minister in His name.
One of my fondest memories as a father was hearing my sons when they were younger say the words, “Daddy, help.” Whether it was unscrewing a lid that they could not figure out, or reach a cookie from high up on the shelf. They would look up at me and say, “Daddy, help.” And I helped them. I loved to help them. They’re my sons! In the same way, Jesus will help us when we pray prayers that are centered in doing God’s work/ministry in the world – a work that is too hard for us to do on our own strength.
Second, Jesus’s promise to answer our prayers is not about us, but about God and His glory. John 14:13 says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” Jesus answers our prayers so that we can continue on His work here on earth; and when we do this, it brings glory to God. That is what prayer is all about. It’s not about us and our glory, it’s about God and His glory. Prayer reminds us that God is behind everything we do; we receive His help and power through our prayers. God could have done it all by himself—or he could have used a donkey, as he did in Balaam’s day—but he gives us the joy and privilege of participating in the mission. We are co-laborers with Christ, to God’s glory.
Third, we pray “in Jesus’s name.” There are six texts in John 14-16 that talk about receiving whatever we pray for. Five of the six say that we must pray “in Jesus’s name.” The only text that does not have this phrase is John 15:7, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Why isn’t the phrase, “in Jesus’s name” found in this text? I think it is because the meaning of “in Jesus’s name” is synonymous with the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. In other words, to pray in Jesus’ name means that we must “remain in him,” or as other translations say, we must “abide in Him,” or “stay joined to him.”
Jesus can assure us that our prayers will be answered “in His name” because those who “remain in him” ask for things that resemble what Jesus Himself would want. I’ve been married for 32 years. Sometimes I know exactly what my wife is going to say when I ask her a question because I know her so well. When we go to a restaurant, I often can pick what she is going to order for dinner because I know what she likes. I know my wife. That’s the idea here. To pray in the name of Jesus means that we are so connected to Him, and know him so well, that we are in tune with His character and desires. As a result, we ask for the same sorts of things that Jesus Himself would ask for in His prayers.
When I left for the mission field, I gave my brother power of attorney, which meant that he could legally sign my name on anything—his signature was as good as my own signature. Upon returning to the States after six years in Spain, I learned that he had misused the power of my name. He was signing my General Motors dividend checks and depositing them in his own bank account rather than into my account. I easily forgave him because I only owned two shares of General Motors stock, and the dividend was only $1. So, it was not big deal. But praying for things that do not line up with the character and desires of Jesus is a big deal. Jesus has given us “power of attorney” to pray in his name—to cash prayer checks “in Jesus’s name.” We better be sure that we know Jesus well enough to know whether or not Jesus himself would sign that prayer check. This doesn’t mean that we always have to know God’s will before we pray; but it does mean that when we are not sure, we need to remember, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray for his work to be done, for his glory, and pray for things “in Jesus’s name,” we have the assurance that Jesus will answer.
If you want to know more about this story, see the video teaching by Dr. Matt Williams in the video Bible study series, The Prayers of Jesus and the accompanying study book. It is our hope that this study might motivate both individuals and groups to prayer.