“In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
When I was little, this was a decorative phrase, a finishing touch that made me feel like one of the grownups who prayed out loud in church. Speaking it, I felt big and half-wished we were Catholic so I could cross myself.
Later on, I read Jesus’ promise to give us whatever we ask for in His name (John 14:13), and my speaking of the phrase became a superstitious effort, the prayerful equivalent of crossing my fingers or, as my grandmother would say, holding my mouth just right.
Still, I seldom got what I asked for, at least not in the way I expected it.
It didn’t shake my faith, exactly. I knew that God was more than capable of answering my prayers with a yes. I knew all of the verses that told me so. I just assumed that I was doing something wrong, but rather than making the effort to figure out what, I fell back on the commonly held idea that God answers all of our prayers with a yes, no, or wait and delved no deeper into the concept or discipline of prayer other than to file quickly God’s answers into one of those convenient categories.
I learned nothing. Nothing about God. Nothing about myself. Nothing about the miraculous transformation that prayer can bring about in the human heart.
Still, for many years, I soldiered on, praying prayers that resembled Christmas wish lists, accepting with content resignation God’s no’s, and hoping against all hope for a yes now and then, pleasantly surprised and a little shocked when I got one.
The prayers of my own children made me nervous. They asked for things. Boldly. Things like nice weather, help with spelling tests, and for people they loved to get well. Inside, I cringed each time, wishing they hadn’t, as these were precisely the kind of prayers that had consistently received big, fat no’s from God on my part, and I didn’t want my children to be disappointed. I didn’t want them to love God less, lest they choose not to trust Him for their eternal salvation later down the line.
You see, I didn’t trust God, and that was the problem.
My prayer life to that point was a safe one, a clear, bullet-proof, plexi-glass window through which I communicated safely—and somewhat ineffectively—with God, He the inmate, dangerous and “contained,” and I the visitor, dutiful, yet safe.
Safe from what? Jumping in, diving deep, getting mixed up in who God was and what He wanted to accomplish. I had heard that “the prayer of a righteous man” was “powerful and effective,” you see (James 5:16), so I knew that to pray real prayers, to communicate with God the way He intended, was to become an integral part of something bigger than I, something completely out of my control.
Through a series of circumstances I would never have chosen for myself, God began to teach me about prayer. These days, I’m swimming in it—dog-paddling anyway—and am learning so much. I know from watching those who have been at it for a while that I’m still a novice and that the waters I’m swimming in get much deeper. Nonetheless, I’ve gained a little knowledge—even if I’ve not perfected the discipline—and I’d like to pass it on to you.
Want to get a yes from God? In no particular order, here are four simple steps to that end. Note that they are not mutually exclusive as some would have you believe. You don’t get to pick and choose.
1. Pray with the right motive.
“You want something, but you don’t get it…You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).
What’s the right motive? The same as God’s, His glory, or perfection on display (Eph. 1:11). Simply care more about advancing His reputation for perfection than you care about gaining, accomplishing, or preserving anything else. It’s a tall order, but Jesus did it (John 17:4, Phil. 2:8). Why should God not expect it of us, we who owe our very lives to Jesus’ obedience?
2. Live an obedient life.
“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” (1 John 3:21-22).
Would you give a willful, disobedient child what they asked for? Neither would God, apparently.
3. Pray according to God’s will.
“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 have asked of Him” (1 John 5:14-15).
This requirement goes beyond motive, or the desire that drives our requests. To pray according to God’s will is to know what His will is and ask for it to come to pass. As this is what He has purposed to do anyway with or without our input, albeit by means other than He might choose if we pray, our participation in the process is an opportunity to learn and take part in a miracle. It’s like having a hand on the wheel when riding with a NASCAR driver. Of course, in order to pray according to God’s will, you have to know what God’s will is. Fortunately, He’s told us. All we have to do is read the Bible. If we aren’t willing to do that, do we even deserve the promise of a guaranteed yes? No.
4. Pray in faith.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing…And I will do anything 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 14:12-14).
This is the passage that used to hang me up. Faith in what? That I would get what I asked for? Unless I am 100% certain that what I’m asking for is absolutely God’s will in every detail, such as might be the case when someone prays Scripture directly, this kind of faith amounts to little more than wishing with your eyes squeezed shut.
No, Jesus said, “[Have] faith in me.” To pray in faith is to pray against the backdrop of what we know to be true of God and what we know to be true of Jesus, trusting that God is able and willing to bless His children in keeping with His will and that Jesus will honor any request that comes from a sincere desire to glorify to the Father. To pray in His name is to pray as we believe Jesus did and would in our current situation.
I said they were simple. I didn’t say they were easy.
Friends, prayer isn’t about getting God to do what we want Him to do. It’s about learning to release our will in trade for His (Matt 26:39), adopt His eternal perspective (2 Cor. 4:18), and work toward goals that have little to do with the physical and everything to do with the spiritual (Matt 10:39).
So, what do we do about those Christmas list prayers? Stop praying them? No, not necessarily. We learn by doing, and practice makes progress. God doesn’t want us to become timid or hesitant in our prayers. In fact, He tells us to approach His throne with confidence (Heb. 4:16) like children (Matt 18:3). Why? So He can teach us.
As He already knows the dust we’re made of (Psalm 103:14), I suggest we pray continually (1 Thess. 5:16) about everything (Eph. 6:18), just as He has told us to do. Then, instead of quickly filing His responses into handy yes, no, and wait boxes without thought, let’s examine them against the truths above and consider why God chose to answer the way that He did. Only by doing so will we learn, understand, change, and grow into the powerful prayer warriors God created us to be. I have a feeling, by then, getting a yes from God won’t matter nearly as much as knowing Him even better.