30 April 2009

A Question on the Promises of Christ Pertaining to Prayer in His Name

Reverend Fathers and Brothers in Christ, the Blackbirds have received an earnest request from one of our readers for an answer to his question concerning prayer. In particular, he desires to understand from Holy Scripture the promises of Christ Jesus pertaining to prayer in His Name. The reader has not posed the question anonymously, but has asked that his name not be posted publicly, so I am raising the question on his behalf. I strongly suspect that many other readers have questions of their own pertaining to the profound promises and mysteries of prayer, and I, with them, look forward to the comments that any and all of the Blackbirds may have to offer. In addition, the responses and comments of other pastors and lay readers are welcome.

Here, then, is the question as it was received, slightly abbreviated:

When I ask anyone whether I can expect God to grant me what I ask in true prayer (for not all that we call prayer really is prayer), the answer always seems to be the same. People tell me, "God will give you what you ask for, unless He sees that it would be bad for you," or "God will give you what you ask for, unless He sees that something else would be better for you." The standard response seems to be "what you ask or something better." Where is that written?
 
My question pertains only to the prayers of those who truly abide in Christ. Non-Christians and false Christians cannot pray at all, but only go through the motions of praying. They depend on their own or someone else’s righteousness, not solely on the righteousness of Christ. I am not talking about them, nor about things which they might ask but true Christians will not. There are things which true Christians never will ask of God, things which clearly are contrary to Scripture and for which true faith cannot ask.
 
Everything I read in Scripture tells me to believe that God wants me to ask of Him whatever I wish, depending solely on His mercy in the atoning work of His Son, and to expect Him to grant whatever I ask in Jesus’ name, which alone is worthy to be heard. He tells us many times that He wants us to pray to Him. Indeed, He commands us to pray, as the Large and Small Catechisms teach us.
 
In John 14:13-14, Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." In John 15:7, He said, "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." In John 16:23-24, He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full." He says similar things many times throughout both Testaments, and gives us many examples of His gracious answers to the prayers of the faithful. I cite these in particular because they seem to me to be the most clear, distinct, and explicit.
 
Jesus said these things to the Twelve in the last few hours of His earthly life, between the Last Supper and His betrayal. He was not speaking in parables, nor leaving any room for misunderstanding. And He said, "Whatever you ask," "whatever you wish." He did not say "unless I know of something better." The only qualifications He put on His promises are that we ask in His name, not our own or anyone else’s; and a description of those to whom the promises are given: "If you abide in me and my words abide in you."
 
I never have found any clear, distinct passages of Scripture which explicitly support the "that or something better" view of prayer. People often point me to 1 John 5:14, which says "And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us." They say, "See, here it says that God only hears us if we ask for things that are according to His will." But does "according to his will" refer to the thing asked, or to the asking? In other words, does He hear us only when the thing we ask is according to His will, or when our asking is according to His will, that is, in the name of Jesus, based on His truthfulness and righteousness alone? How would we know if a particular request is according to His will, since He gives us no extra-scriptural revelations?
 
The very next verse says, "And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him." If the answer to our prayer depended on what we ask, the Holy Spirit would not have caused St. John to use the words "whatever we ask," for God never makes mistakes, and always says exactly what He means to say.
 
Here I am told, "But we don’t really know what’s good for us. What if the thing you ask for would be bad for you? Surely a loving God would not give you anything bad, even if you, in your ignorance, asked for it. He would give you something better instead." In one of his sermons on prayer (God Grant it, pp. 422-424), Dr. Walther wrote, "God has still another wonderful way of hearing. He does not always give us what we ask for, but substitutes something else — and that something else is invariably better than what we requested. . . . Isn’t it still an answer when God gives us something better than what we desired?" Yes, it is an answer, but it is not the answer Jesus promised. Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in my name." He said, "Ask and it shall be given to you" (Matt. 7:7), not, "ask and it or something better shall be given to you." And as we see from the examples of the saints of old, in both Testaments, and in the whole history of the Church, God is in the habit of giving it and something better, beyond all that we ask or think.
 
Walther continues: "‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts know what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’(Romans 8:26-27). Here we see that we often do not understand our own prayers. With our words we ask for something that may be harmful to us, but the Holy Ghost, who dwells in us, groans without our knowing for something more beneficial. God, who understands this mind of our prayers, which is hidden even to us, gives us the better response. Isn’t this a true answer?" As before, this would be a true answer, but it is not the answer Jesus promised.
 
It is true that we do not know what to ask for, but that does not mean that God will not give us the things for which we do ask. Walther (and Luther) said that we might ask for things which would be harmful to us, and that God, our loving Father, would by no means give us such things. But look at the very next verse: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Knowing this, how can we think that anything we ask of God can harm us, even though we are all blind fools? Is God not able both to grant our prayers and to make them turn out to be the best thing for us?
 
An earthly father often must withhold things for which his children ask, because he sees that they would be harmful. But God is not an earthly father. He does not have to say, like an earthly father, "I see that this or that action would have good or bad consequences, therefore I will or will not do it." He can say, "I will to do this, and I decree that these shall be the consequences." Everything He does is totally voluntary. As Dr. Luther pointed out, "He is God. For His will no cause of reason could be assigned as a rule and standard of action, seeing that nothing is equal or superior to His will; it itself is the rule of all things. For if for it there were any rule or standard, or any cause or reason, it would no longer be the will of God" (From The Bondage of the Will, excerpted in What Luther Says, Plass, ed., p.1439).
 
In the face of all this, how can I accept the teaching that God will give me what I ask only if it would be the best thing without His intervention? Why are the things we ask in prayer assumed to be excluded from "all things," as if God could not also work them together for our good? I have tried for years to accept the teaching of "that or something better" and "unless it’s bad for you," and every time, I am stopped by the clear words of Christ: "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do." So I ask again: Where is "that or something better" written? Why is it that this teaching seems to be the standard answer to questions about prayer? I am not interested in implications or inferences, in rational arguments, or in experience. I am interested only in clear, distinct passages of Scripture.

31 comments:

James T. B said...

Romans 8:26 ff comes to mind. Verses 26 & 27 tell us that the Holy Spirit knows us better than we know ourselves. He proofreads and perfects our prayers so that they already ask for what is best in a way that is beyond our ability to ask. Thus God already works with prayers that have been perfected by the Holy Spirit.

Then verse 28 teaches us that God works things out for our good. Since it is God's intention to work things out for our good and since He is working with perfect prayers passed on by the Holy Spirit. How could He not give us what is best for us?

After all: "Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:9-11, ESV)

Rev. James T. Batchelor

Susan said...

I am not one of the ones being asked, but I'm going to toss out Psalm 27 anyhow:
One thing I have desired of the Lord...
Consider how that passage jives with Jesus' giving us "whatever we ask in His name"?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for the comments so far. Susan, you and anyone else are welcome to respond. That is one of the purposes and benefits of a public forum.

I'll just offer, by way of my own initial observations, that our reader's question is more profound and difficult than it may appear on the surface of it.

It touches upon the question of why a Christian prays at all. We know it is because God has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. But for what purpose or benefit? We are still given to pray, even if we cannot fathom the reasons why; yet, it is not inappropriate to consider the why and wherefore of it. This was the impetus of Origen's magisterial treatise on Prayer in the third century. And it is a question that has occupied the attentions of theologians and other Christian thinkers all along.

If God is simply going to give us what is good and best, even apart from our prayer, then why does He have us pray? Is "God's heart moved by prayer," or is it only the movement of our own hearts?

The question touches upon the broader consideration of the way that God joins His work and activity to our own human work and activity, especially as His dear children. He allows us both our freedom in the world, and our glorious freedom of faith, and He does not ride roughshod over that freedom, but rather works in it and through it in accomplishing His pruposes for us and for others.

Whenever a Christian intends and purposes to do something, and moves to accomplish that purpose, he or she is proceeding in faith, which is a kind of prayer even when it is not voiced as such. There is a realm of true freedom between "good" and "evil," and not every choice a Christian makes may be "the best" (if there even is a "one best option" in any case); yet, God does not wait for His Christians to get things "just right" before He is actively and graciously present to sustain and uphold them in all their ways. It is by faith in Christ, not by one's own works, that a Christian is righteous and pleasing to God. The reader has suggested that our prayers are similarly righteous and pleasing to God, and honored by Him, not by the inherent virtue of the request, but by faith in Christ. That is, in my opinion, a perspective worth pondering.

God remains free in His own sovereignty, of course, but that is hardly a Lutheran approach to the question. The Cross itself sets before us the most remarkable and definitive example of the Lord our God at work, to will and to do His own merciful purposes, within the chaos and confusion of human life in the sinful world. Not by divine fiat, but by God's own self-sacrifice and passion unto death.

True Christian prayer, which is "in the name of Christ Jesus," is conjoined to His prayer to the Father on our behalf, and carried by the intercession of the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness. He Himself, in His Cross and Resurrection and Ascension, is our prayer; He is set forth before the Father like incense on behalf of all His saints. But in Him, and in His priestly prayer for us, as we ourselves are pleasing and acceptable to our Father in heaven, He has not overturned the particularities of our own hearts and minds, nor the concreteness of our own bodily life in the world.

The question, therefore, if I have understood our reader correctly, pertains to way our God and Father answers those prayers of ours which arise in faith out of those particularities of our vocations and stations in life.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

A few quick thoughts while on the road for a brief break.

1. The distinction between the Spiritual and the Physical. I have assumed that those things which the Father will always give are the things that are Spiritual, that are the gifts of the Spirit. Pray for patience, and the Lord will aid with patience. Indeed, praying, which is speaking back to God His own Word, focuses one upon the things of God.

2. Prayer is meant to be a comfort to us - not a matter of instruction to God about what is good. I have been thinking about prayer, noting that I have been doing it more informally (not to the lessening of formal prayer, but just seeing a lot more quick, silent prayers). A life of prayer constantly reminds one that even with the problems of physical life, that God is in control, and that even if we do see sorrow now, He shall turn all things to joy.

Chris Jones said...

Reverend Fathers,

A couple of points that are noteworthy about this question:

The original question was framed in terms of the personal petitions of an individual; but the Scripture verses cited all address the hearers in the plural -- not "thou" but "ye" and "you." (Another reason for Christians who have little or no Greek to keep a copy of the Authorised Version handy.) This suggests to me that our Lord is speaking not of individual prayer but of the common prayer of believers. This is reinforced by the consistent qualifier that our Lord is speaking of prayer "in His Name," which brings to mind His promise to be in the midst of those who gather in His Name (Mt 18.20).

This brings me to the second point, which is that the answer to the question certainly turns on the meaning of the phrase in My Name. This phrase is rich in meaning, and it certainly means more than just adding "in the name of Jesus" as a tag-line to whatever we feel like praying for.

Taken together, these two points strongly suggest to me that the answer to your reader's question is fundamentally liturgical.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Rev. Batchelor,

I am well aware of all these passages, and cited the first two in my original question, which Pastor Stuckwisch posted. But I don’t understand what you intend to say by referring to them. Will you please elaborate?

Susan,

Will you, also, please explain more thoroughly what you understand this Psalm to mean and why?

Rev. Brown,

1. On the distinction between prayers for spiritual vs. physical things: Where is that written? Where does God make this distinction? Lord, let me receive my sight. Lord, enlarge my territory. Lord, give me victory over my enemies. Lord, heal my daughter. Lord, give me offspring. These are very physical requests. Also, where do we learn that prayer is speaking God’s Word back to Him? Many times in Scripture we see the faithful asking specific things of God in prayer, not saying His Word back to Him. Where does this understanding of prayer come from?

2. It is quite true that in prayer we are not instructing God on what is good. We are following God’s instructions: “Ask whatever you wish.” This is a command. If I do not ask of God whatever I wish, I am breaking the Second Commandment, as the Small Catechism teaches us. I never would dare to ask of God whatever I wish if He had not told me to. But He did. When we pray, we are not telling God what to do. We are doing what He has told us to do, and trusting Him to do what He has told us is His will to do. Is not “this I will do” (John 14:13) a clear statement of His will?

Mr. Jones,

I agree that the English language has become diluted and impoverished over the years. The disuse of the distinct singular and plural pronouns is an especially great loss. But why should the use of the plural pronoun mean anything other than that Jesus was speaking to each and all of the Twelve, rather than only one in particular?

Look at James 5:16-18: “…The Prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” It says, “The prayer of a righteous person,” (that is, one made righteous with Christ’s righteousness), not, “the prayer of the whole Church.”

Also, look at the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28), and Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Their requests were very personal: Heal my daughter. Let me receive my sight. They were not the prayers of the whole Church. Indeed, the rest of the Church (Christ’s disciples) told both of them to be quiet and stop asking. But Jesus granted their prayers.

As for asking in Christ’s name, I thought I had addressed that sufficiently in the original question, but it seems I need to go further. Jesus tells us what this means in John 15:7, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you.” Also, 1 John, 4:15: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”

Because of these Scriptures, I believe that your suggestion, that Jesus’ promises apply only to the collective, liturgical prayer of the Church, is incorrect.

Susan said...

I don't think the Canaanite woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter. She stated her difficulty in her situation: "my daughter is severely demon possessed." And she asked for the Lord's help. That doesn't necessarily mean she was asking for healing for her daughter, but may have been asking for patience or faith to endure. Just a thought...


As for Psalm 27: One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.

What does the Christian desire? To be with Christ. To live with Him. To behold His beauty. That is what faith desires.

If I am simultaneously saint and sinner, the saint will want what is godly. The sinner will crave what is evil. It sounds kinda like you're wondering whether God will give me whatever evil the sinner in me asks for. Will he grant my enemy's plea (even if my enemy is my own sinful nature)?

When you say that "Ask whatever you wish" is a command of God, and that we break the Second Cmdmt if we fail to "ask whatever we wish," that seems to make one of God's sweet invitations into Law.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Susan,

On the Canaanite woman: “Then Jesus said to her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matt. 15:28) She knew what she was asking, Jesus knew what she was asking, and He granted her prayer.

What I understand from the whole of Psalm 27 is the same as Matt. 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Certainly our sinful flesh remains in us, constantly raging against the faith God has wrought in us, and often appears to have the upper hand. But the flesh does not rule us. James 4:2-3 seems relevant here: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Even here, it is not the thing asked, but the asking “to spend it on your passions” that is condemned. As I mentioned at the start, there are things which clearly are contrary to Scripture, for which true faith cannot and will not ask, but we are not talking about those things.

I am not asking whether God will grant whatever the evil sinner in me will ask. I am asking whether there are any clear, distinct passages of Scripture that say we should not to take Christ’s words in John 16:23 literally, at face value.

In saying that God commands us to pray, I am following Dr. Luther in the Large Catechism: “The first thing to know is this: It is our duty to pray because God has commanded it. We are told in the Second Commandment, ‘You shall not take God’s name in vain.’ Thereby we are required to praise the holy name and pray or call upon it in every need. For to call upon it is nothing else than to pray. Prayer, therefore, is as strictly and solemnly commanded as all the other commandments, such as having no other God, not killing, not stealing, etc.” God also commands us to repent and believe in the Gospel, but that does not confuse Law and Gospel.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Cuthbert - This understanding that I have is influenced by Paul recounting his thorn in the flesh. There are times where God denied his prayer for that physical thorn for his good (and for his focus to be placed on the Spiritual). It's also informed by the Lord's Prayer itself, which includes "Thy Will be Done" - which again implies that our will is not to trump God's will.

As for the idea of prayer being speaking back God's Word to Him - you quote from John "If you abide in Me and My words abide in you." That's the idea - the key is to be in the Word, to be in-line with God's will.

At least this is how I come to grips with it. It is frustrating when things which we ask for do not happen - but it happens, even to Paul.

James T. B said...

The original post as I understand it questioned how we can come to the conclusion that God answers prayers in a way that is best for us rather than giving us exactly that for which we pray.

Romans 8:28 is an example of a passage that indicates that it is always God's intention to give us good things (even if we don't think they are so good at the time). Therefore, God's working of things for our good is a general principal that applies to all of God's dealings with His children. Paul then brings this aspect of God to mind as he discusses the subject of prayer. If God works all things togehter for our good, then prayer is a specific instance of all things.

In the preceding verses, Paul speaks of our inability to pray properly, but then gives us the great comfort of knowing that the the Holy Spirit "groans" on our behalf. These groans must be a perfect communication since the Holy Spirit is God and God is perfect. Since the Holy Spirit knows us better than we know ourselves and since the Holy Spirit knows what is best for us as well, we can rest in the comfort of knowing that the Holy Spirit has "augmented" our prayers so that they are perfect.

The result of Paul's reasoning is that God will answer our prayers in a way that is superior to the request that we make in our prayers.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Rev. Brown,

Did God deny St. Paul’s prayer that the thorn be removed from his flesh, or did He merely make Paul wait for the rest of his earthly life? Must all prayers be granted in this life? Paul no longer has the thorn in his flesh, nor will he have it in the Resurrection. God has not promised WHEN He will grant our prayers, but He has clearly promised THAT He will grant our prayers. I will quote Dr. Luther again: “The Word of God teaches that the time, the place, and the manner of the disposition of a matter should be entrusted to God, and that we should simply ask for the matter as such, confident that our request will be granted in His time and place. But if the help is deferred, we should not stop praying for this reason.” (From an excerpt in What Luther Says, Plass, ed., p. 1091)

Of course our will is not to trump God’s will. But how do we know anything about His will unless He tells us? And has He not told us what is His will concerning prayer? “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.” (John 14:13) What do the words “I will” mean? If someone says, “I go,” it means “I do go,” or “I am going.” So, does not “I will” mean, “I do will,” “I am willing”? It is God’s clearly stated will that those who abide in Him ask of Him whatever they wish (John 15:7). It is God’s will that we believe everything He tells us. He tells us that it is His will to give us whatever we ask in Jesus’ name. How does that set our will in opposition to His? When we ask of Him whatever we wish and trust Him to do it for us as He promised, are we not merely obeying Him? Where is there any trumping involved?

As I said before, I am not basing my thinking exclusively on these passages from the Gospel of John. I keep citing them because they are so clear and easy to remember.

Rev. Batchelor,

I’m afraid I didn’t state my main question very clearly in my letter to Rev. Stuckwisch. The main question is, why should we not take Christ’s words, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13), and His words to the same effect in the two following chapters, literally, when they are so clear and explicit, and are reiterated so many times throughout Scripture? We take His words of institution literally, and these words about prayer are no less clear. How do Christ’s words about prayer admit of any other than a literal interpretation?

I am fully aware that it is contrary to reason to think that God would promise to give miserable sinners and blind fools whatever they ask of Him, but that is exactly what He did. God contradicts reason all the time, but He never contradicts Himself. The incarnation of Christ, and the real presence of His body and blood in the sacrament also are contrary to reason. Why do we take these literally, but not His promises about prayer?

In all of this, I am trying to follow Dr. Luther’s advice concerning God’s Word: “We should not take offense at the Word of God even though it may sound strange, unlikely, and impossible; but we should firmly insist that if God has said it, it must also come to pass. For no one should ask whether it is possible but should only determine whether God has said it. He is mighty and faithful enough also to do it. Therefore we should believe it. But he who does not want to believe it blasphemes God to the highest degree.” (Quoted from What Luther Says, Plass, ed., p. 1472) On interpreting Scripture, I am taught that we are to look for clear, explicit texts. Passages which are less clear are to be interpreted in the light of the clear, explicit texts. Is this not correct?

I do not want to blaspheme God to the highest degree. I must go with what is written, regardless of whether reason agrees with it or not. That is why I keep asking, where is it written that the answer to our prayers depends on our asking the right thing, and not entirely on God’s omnipotence, grace, and faithfulness?

Sir Cuthbert said...

By the way, I don't know that we'll end up agreeing on prayer, since it has been a point of confusion for so many centuries, but I am very grateful for your efforts to help me understand it.

Susan said...

Sir Cuthbert, I'm trying to reconcile what you wrote originally with what you wrote today. You first said that we can expect God to give us what we ask for. You said today that the yes-answer to our prayer may come in heaven if it does not come here in time. Was your original question (that we "expect Him to grant whatever I ask in Jesus' name") NOT confined to time? Maybe it was just a faulty assumption on my part that you meant we could expect Him to answer in the affirmative now (or soon) and that this wasn't about our prayers being answered ultimately in heaven.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

It is God’s will that we believe everything He tells us. He tells us that it is His will to give us whatever we ask in Jesus’ name. How does that set our will in opposition to His? When we ask of Him whatever we wish and trust Him to do it for us as He promised, are we not merely obeying Him? Where is there any trumping involved?Not everything a Christian asks for is necessarily good or good pleasing - we are still sinful, and there are times when we err, especially in our desires. When we are in error, we certainly cannot expect God to grant such prayers. The prayer of "Lord, help me rob this bank" is not something we can expect God to give heed to.

Also, you give the idea of the extension of time - that is true, God works on His own time - but generally when people think of God "not answering" prayer it is a matter of time, especially with temporal blessings. The verses from John are often used to demonstrate the idea that if you pray for the Mercedes Benz, you'll get it. If you are will to put forth that such things might not happen in this life, that is a fine and wonderful approach - however, that is not the typical approach given by prosperity Gospel folks.

If we desire wickedness, it conflicts with God's will. If we desire temporal blessings at a specific time, that may not be in line with God's will. Regarding blessings, ask, but ask in humility and trust - and things are fine then.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Susan,

Neither in the original question, nor at any point since have I said anything about God granting our prayers now or soon. I apologize for giving that impression. God made Joseph wait for many years before reuniting him with his father. He made Abraham and Sarah wait until they were old before giving them a son. It’s been a part of my thinking on prayer for so long that I took it for granted when I shouldn’t have.

Another Luther quote:

“For about thirteen years Joseph cried and continued to pray God to help him. But the longer the worse; the more he prayed, the worse he faired. To this day this is what happens to Christians. When they have called and cried for a long time to God, they feel no improvement, but things grow worse as they did with Joseph. If God had liberated Joseph, Jacob, his father, would no doubt have been glad; but Joseph would have remained a sheepherder. However, since the help was delayed so long, he became a lord over all Egypt, so that certainly no greater man can be found in Holy Scripture, no one who rose higher as a world ruler than did Joseph.

“Thus God still intends to deal with us. After He has denied our petition for a long while and always said no, but we firmly cling to the yes, it shall finally be yes, and not no, for His Word will not lie: ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, He will give it you’ (John 15:16). But our reason is highly offended at this delay and would gladly have God answer us promptly. So it is necessary not to be offended. Let our Lord God say no and suspend the answer to our petition for a year, two years, three years, or longer still, and let us only watch that hope and faith in His promise are not torn from our heart. Something will come of our prayer in the end, and God will give far more than we asked Him to give.” (from What Luther Says, p. 1090)

God has not promised that all our prayers shall be granted in this life. Indeed, we see that many of our prayers are not. For example, when we pray for someone who is sick to be healed, and he dies. But if he dies trusting in Christ for salvation, he not only will be made whole in the Resurrection, but more whole than he ever has been in this life.

I do maintain that there are some prayers which can be granted only in this life. The one that comes to mind would be a prayer for a godly husband or wife, and godly children. Christ Himself tells us to pray for these when He tells us to pray for daily bread, as we learn from the Small Catechism. But these can be granted only in this life, for in the Resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, as Christ tells us in Matt. 22:30. I still maintain that we should confidently wait for such prayers as this to be granted in this life, though not necessarily at a time we desire or expect.

Rev. Brown,

I have acknowledged twice already that there are things which clearly are contrary to Scripture, and for which true faith cannot and will not ask. We learn from both Catechisms that to call upon God’s name in support of wrong is to take His name in vain. That is not praying at all. If someone prayed for help in robbing a bank, he would be sinning intentionally and unrepentantly, not abiding in Christ. Therefore he would be excluding himself from those to whom Christ gave His promises. He would not be praying, but uttering blasphemy.

As for the prosperity gospel types, I am not those people. The prayer for a Mercedes Benz most likely would be covered by James 4:3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” I say “most likely,” because it might be possible for someone to ask such a thing rightly, not in order to spend it on his passions. I don’t know how that would work, but I can’t say it’s impossible.

For my thoughts on when we should look for prayers to be granted, see above, in my answer to Susan.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Sir Cuthbert,

If you allow that only prayers given in faith and in accordance with God's Will are the ones to be granted, and that those answers may not be immediate, I don't see where there is any problem or misunderstanding with your position.

Whenever I've had to talk to people about God answering prayer (or more specifically, God seemingly not answering prayer) and they bring up "ask and it shall be given" the thing that they have forgotten is that our will is to align with God's, we are to trust in His love for us, and we shall receive all good things when He so desires to give them.

If you understand this, I don't see what question remains.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Rev. Brown,

Now, having cleared up all the things I said poorly and the things I should have said but didn’t, we come to the real point.

Here is the question that remains:

I quoted Dr. Walther in the original question: “Here we see that we often do not understand our own prayers. With our words we ask for something that may be harmful to us, but the Holy Ghost, who dwells in us, groans without our knowing for something more beneficial.”

He was following Dr. Luther: “The granting of our prayer is so to be defined that God does not always do what we desire but does what is beneficial for us. For since God is good, He can give nothing but what is good. However, we often ask for our children, often for our friends, often for ourselves, not what is good, but what seems to us to be good. In such cases God grants our prayer even when He does not do what we ask. This is why in the Lord’s Prayer we pray for the hallowing of the name of the Lord, for the coming of His kingdom, and for the fulfilling of His will before we pray for our own concerns and the necessities of this life, that in such matters God may do, not what SEEMS good to us but what IS good.” (What Luther Says, p. 1096)

This seems to contradict not only what Luther said on other occasions, as may be seen from the quotes in my previous comments, but also the clear words of Scripture. In addition to the passages from the Gospel of John which I already have cited, we read in 1 John 3:21-23, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Again, the inspired Word of God says, “whatever we ask,” not, “whatever God already was planning to give us, whether we ask for it or not.”

Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It does not say, “delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you whatever he sees is best for you, whether you desire it or not.”

As I said at the beginning, God is not only omniscient, but also omnipotent. Not only does He perceive what will be good or bad for us, He is able to dictate what will be good or bad for us. An earthly father often must say, “you asked for this but I see that giving it to you would have bad consequences for you; therefore I will not give it to you because I love you too much.” But to say that God ever must say such a thing is to deny His omnipotence.

Why is it assumed that God’s promises can be made void by our folly and ignorance? When Christ says, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), why should we think He meant anything other than exactly what He said? Why do people say, “He couldn’t have meant that because it doesn’t make sense to give fools whatever they ask. He must have meant something other than what His words clearly say”? Are we to turn Calvinist when we come to prayer?

If I ask something of God not knowing whether it is the best thing, but trusting in Christ’s merit, grace, omnipotence, and truthfulness, is God not mighty and faithful enough both to grant my prayer and to make it turn out for the best? Are our prayers excluded from “all things,” which He works together for good to those who love Him and are called according to his purpose? Why should I not simply take Christ at His word, and believe the very simple, clear words He actually spoke? Why should I think that Christ meant anything other than exactly what He said?

To put all of this into the briefest form I can think of: Why should I believe that Christ didn’t mean exactly what He said? Why should I believe that my ignorance can prevent God from keeping His promise?

Sir Cuthbert said...

After reading all this discussion, my father tells me that I am talking too much, going into too much detail, and confusing things. He says I need to put the question into one sentence. So here is the sentence:

Where does Scripture EXPLICITLY say that God will give us what we ask OR SOMETHING BETTER?

Chris Jones said...

Sir Cuthbert,

When I said that the answer to [your] question is fundamentally liturgical, that does not mean that Jesus’ promises apply only to the collective, liturgical prayer of the Church. It means that the liturgy provides the context within which the question should be answered. An individual's personal prayer life should never be divorced from the Church's liturgical worship; even when we approach the throne of grace personally, we always do so as a member of the Church, together with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

In any case I was not purporting to provide a definitive answer to your question, but only to identify some principles which might help provide an answer.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

It seems to me that you are trying to. . . work your way though some of the tension that is inherent in the Scriptures.

I'll try and address your questions as best I can (and hope others might do it better).

If I ask something of God not knowing whether it is the best thing, but trusting in Christ’s merit, grace, omnipotence, and truthfulness, is God not mighty and faithful enough both to grant my prayer and to make it turn out for the best?Sure, He could very well. However, being faithful to you might be sparing you something that is good, yet painful and difficult - or it may be letting you endure that which is painful and difficult. Is God's might and faithfulness determined by Him doing our will or His will?

I'd also ask here what the point of prayer is. Is our prayer meant to be an attempt to tie God's hands to where He will work things for our good the way we want them, or is prayer a discipline where we learn to take our cares and concerns and place them before God?

I would submit that it is the later - as prayer is something that we continually learn to do be (Lord, *teach* us to pray). A place to think along these lines would be the introduction to the Lord's Prayer, where we are instructed to entrust our petitions to God. Part of that trust is letting Him decide how to best do what is indeed best.

Why should I believe that Christ didn’t mean exactly what He said? Why should I believe that my ignorance can prevent God from keeping His promise?I would suggest here that part of this issue needs to be the examination of context. We can see other examples in Scripture where specific requests are denied. James and John don't get to call down fire and brimstone when they clearly want to, Paul's thorn isn't taken (and he asks three times, so he's not simply thinking of it being taken away some day far in the future, but now). Thus, I'd suggest looking at context of the various texts you quote.

For example, you quoted John 16:23 - and of note are the words "ask and receive, that you *joy* may be full." If you look at the preceding verses, the joy there is is tied to the joy of knowing Christ's resurrection. Moreover, throughout this chapter there are repeated warnings of sorrow and troubles in this life - so if you want to read this as to be a rubber stamp of temporal blessings, I don't think that is an accurate reading of Christ's words.

and finally - Where does Scripture EXPLICITLY say that God will give us what we ask OR SOMETHING BETTER?I would look at a place like Revelation 21:3-4: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.""

Or you might consider the passages where heaven is described as what eye has not seen and ear has not heard. God will move to what is better.

One other note - I don't think we can bind God to do evil, even if we ask for something that is unknowingly wicked.

Hope this helps or makes some sense. I think some of this is just that you are pushing things really hard here - trying to ram through the tension and mess of the life that we have as sinner and saint at the same time.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Mr. Jones,

I think I understand what you meant now. Thank you.

Rev. Brown,

What do you mean by tension? I frequently have heard people speak of Scripture being in tension, but never understood what they meant. Normally, I understand tension to mean two or more forces pulling against each other, but that implies contradiction, and we know that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. All Bible texts that speak of the same subject must agree. If two passages appear to contradict each other, we still know that both must be true at the same time. If a passage allows us to draw more than one possible conclusion from it, we must draw the one which agrees with the clear, explicit texts on the same subject. Is this not correct?

You ask, “Is God's might and faithfulness determined by Him doing our will or His will?” But has God not said that it is His will to have us pray and to grant our prayers? That is part of what I have been trying to ask from the start: Has God told us that it is His will to grant our prayers, or has He not? If He has, how is this setting our will against His? If He has told us this, then when we confidently expect Him to grant our prayers, we are not asking Him to submit to our will, but are submitting to His will.

When you speak of tying God’s hands, what does that have to do with true prayer? Remember that true prayer means the prayers only of those to whom He gave His promises, and only on His terms. Anything else is not prayer at all. When we pray, are we not rather binding ourselves to His command and promise? How are we trying to bind God’s hands when we obey His command to pray, joyfully grasp His invitation to ask whatever we wish, and believe His promise to grant our prayers?

The point of prayer is, as you say, to teach us to cast all our cares on the Lord. I do not see a conflict between this and anything I have said. But I would add that prayer also is to teach us to seek all good things from God alone, to depend on Him and none other. Also to glorify God’s name, as He shows His faithfulness and might by granting our prayers.

On James and John, I would point out two things. First, they didn’t ask Jesus to call down fire and brimstone. They asked Him if they should, and He said no. This doesn’t look to me like a prayer at all. Second, in John 16:24, Jesus said to the Twelve, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name.” This was long after they asked Him about the fire and brimstone. It also was after they had asked to sit at His right hand and His left in heaven. On that occasion, He also told them that what they asked was not His to grant. That was similar to asking to know when the Last Day will be.

On St. Paul, I already have pointed out that God often does not grant our prayers when we want. He has not promised to do that. True, He did not grant Paul’s prayer when Paul wanted it granted, but He granted it when His appointed time came, and He carried Paul through the rest of his earthly life until that time came. That which is delayed is not denied.

Yes, Jesus tells us both here and in many other places that we shall suffer because of Him. He also tells us in many places that when we suffer because of Him it is not an evil, but a cause for joy. How can we ask to have something taken from us when He tells us it is beneficial to us, however much it hurts? As I have pointed out before, though in other words, faith cannot pray against Scripture. Rather, we should pray that He carry us through our sufferings, and keep us steadfast to the end. Again, I don’t see a contradiction, as long as prayer is defined correctly. Faith clings to God’s Word alone, and therefore cannot ask for anything which is contrary to it. It is within the bounds of Scripture that God’s promises are given.

I don’t understand how Revelation 21:3-4 refers to prayer. I also don’t understand the idea of asking for something that is unknowingly wicked.

I do not object in the least to the idea that God greatly improves and surpasses our weak prayers. That is very clear. What causes me such consternation is the idea that Jesus would ever not say exactly what He meant and mean exactly what He said (excluding parables).

Sir Cuthbert said...

Since this question of the answer to prayer has not been resolved in the whole history of the Church, I begin to wonder whether I did well to ask it again. Someone please advise me on whether I ought to pursue it further or not. Also, please tell me if I have exceeded the bounds of propriety or blog etiquette. I see that I am requested to give my name, though I would prefer not to put it out in public. Should I do so now?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

1. I don't think you have exceeded blog behavioral standards with this - however, there are limitations on this medium. I have a feeling that if we were sitting around over a cup of coffee we'd have more movement and advancement in the discussion.

2. You do not need to give your name to anyone - feel no obligation whatsoever. You are asking questions and not attacking - feel free to keep your name private as long as you wish.

3. Here is what I mean by tension - from our perspective there is tension, there are paradoxes that are contained within Scripture.

Sometimes the tension is there because it is a truth that is beyond our ability to understand - like how Christ is Completely God and Completely Man - or even the Trinity.

However, sometimes we push Scripture and add in tension - and I think you are probably pushing too much here. You've already got the idea that asking in God's Name means according to His Will. And it is God's Will to grant us our prayers - and all manner of good things.

Does Jesus mean what He says? Yes - ask in His Name (according to His will) and He is glad and willing to answer and give. Pray, ask often, trust and hope in the Goodness of the Lord (which is part of the whole praying in His Name) - and if for God exercises a veto on a request out of His love for you - that is just another example of His faithfulness to you.

If we push any of that too hard (Saying God does what is good, so I shouldn't bother praying, or God has to do X even if it is bad for me) we lose the whole image.

At least this is how I balance it.

4. Some of this comes from the fact that we don't know, we don't the ends. God allows some sufferings, and others He makes brief. We should not feel guilty in praying for suffering to end, nor should we think God has abandoned us when suffering remains. If we read this passage and put the emphasis on our asking instead of trusting that the Lord is Good and ready to act for us, we can place a lot of unnecessary burden upon ourselves. God is God - I'm not, it's much easier on me this way. Pray - let your prayers ascend out of your own hands and be done with them.

5. Rev. 21 was just an example of God giving us something better, something we couldn't even conceive of asking for.

Christian Soul said...

I am a simple layman and this is my answer. When we pray in Jesus name we are praying in the name of the One into Whom we have baptized. We are praying with Jesus, to Jesus and because of Jesus. We could not even come into God's presence in prayer had He not earned favor for us in our Father's sight through His perfect life, death and resurrection. The cross which put us in God's good grace is the affirmative answer to all of our prayers.

Having now become God's own sons, we can freely ask anything in Jesus name and it will be given us in the cross. I find Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane helpful. Like Jesus, we can ask for another way out of our current situation and, like Him, we are given the cross. Of course our burden of bearing the cross is a blessing made light thanks to the suffering and dying Jesus already did for us.

I also find Mark chapter 10 helpful. Like the rich young man we can ask for the assurance of our salvation, and Jesus answers something like, "take up the cross and follow me." Once again the answer is the cross. Take and eat the body and drink the blood shed for you on the cross and you will be forgiven.

We can ask like James and John to be seated at Christ's right hand when He comes into His glory and Jesus will say, "You know not what you ask. Can you drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? Yes you can, but to sit at my right hand or left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given unto them for whom it is prepared." Once again the cross is the answer to this prayer because the lowliest servants who have served the servants and have been blessed by Christ's cross get to sit next Him in glory.

When I ask for things beyond daily bread it is almost as if I can hear Jesus say, "What's that, you want some nice stuff? Sure, here you go, have it, now you can give it to that poor guy over there and take up the cross and follow me. "

I believe Scripture teaches that when you ask for anything in Jesus' name you are ultimately asking for His cross, because the Source of all goodness has established His blessings through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.

Vicar John Sias said...

The closest thing to the "better gift" that I can think of is Luke's version of Jesus' instruction after the Lord's Prayer: "If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give..." (and here we expect to hear "good or better gifts," but are surprised when Jesus continues thus:) "...the Holy Spirit to those who ask him." (Lk 11:13) The Holy Spirit is the better gift. Every prayer in Jesus' Name sees the world restored and summed up in Jesus, and every such prayer is answered first in Jesus' resurrection and then in the hope of the resurrection of the dead in him. The one who prays thus, in Jesus' Name, prays under the working of the Holy Spirit, who shows us more of Jesus. One recalls Luther's Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio, in which prayer sparked by life in this world nonetheless grows from meditation in God's word and serves growth in the faith.

Sem. John Sias

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Christian Soul - fantastic answer, which puts all of mine to shame!

Christian Soul said...

Rev. Brown,

I didn't have a chance to read all of the answers, but I am sure mine needs a lot of refining an in no way puts yours to shame. It is nice to be able to grapple with these issues with fellow Christians. I only hope I don't spew any heresy and I apologize for my poor grammar.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Dear brethren,

I find myself unable to continue participating in this discussion. Every time I try to think about it my mind fills with fog and I can’t think clearly. I seem to have worn myself out. Though I still am not convinced that I can take Christ’s words about prayer at anything but face value, I sincerely thank you for your kind efforts. You have been of great help and comfort, even though the question has not been resolved. If you would recommend anything for me to read in the future, about understanding Scripture in general, or about prayer in particular, I would be grateful. For the present, I have reached my mental saturation point and need to stop.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is always fun. . . .

Seriously, theological issues can lead to mental ke-thunk-age (the ones around time being created and eternity mess with my head if I think too long). Step away - go read something fun.

Thanks for the good discussion - and don't worry about having come to grips with everything right now - we get to spend our lives wrestling with theological issues - actually knowing and being aware of what your a wrestling with and why is getting a leg up.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Friends and brothers in Christ, thank you for this good discussion. I appreciate the persistence and politeness of all those who have taken part. There are some questions that exceed what can be accomplished on a blog, but such conversation is a stimulus to even more fruitful discussions over coffee or beer.

I have intended to add a few comments of my own, but have preferred to follow the thread of discussion while it was proceeding. At the risk, then, of anti-climatic redundancy, I'll add these thoughts and observations:

Sir Cuthbert has asked for an explicit Word from the Holy Scriptures that would qualify or clarify the promises of the Lord concerning prayer in Jesus' name. I would suggest that prayer in His Name is a joining of our prayers to Him and to His prayer, to His Cross and Resurrection and Ascension, by faith in His Gospel. Thus, to pray in His Name is to join our heart, mind and will to His own, and within such faith to pray to His God and Father as our very own God and Father. At the same time, Christ Himself, the incarnate Son of God, crucified and risen, is the Father's answer to our every prayer. He is God's "Yes" and "Amen," as St. Paul writes. And as we have recently sung, "I nothing lack if I am His, and He is mine forever."

As to our Lord's instructions concerning prayer, He says many things, and all must be taken together as part of the context in which we would understand prayer. When He teaches us to pray, He includes the petition, "Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven." I believe that others in this conversation have also pointed to that Word of the Lord. Sir Cuthbert, I also believe that it comes close to answering your question and resolving your dilemma. Consider, in particular, the way in which our Lord Himself prays precisely this in the Garden (as Christian Soul has noted): "If it be possible, Father, take this Cup from me; nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done." Whether verbalized or not in our Christian prayer, such a petition belongs to prayer in the Name of Jesus.

Asking our dear Father, as His dear children, involves not only the confidence to ask, but also the desire that He would deal with us in His mercy and wisdom, according to His good and gracious will, even where that involves something other than "all that we can ask or imagine."

Similarly, the Blessed Virgin Mary, a living icon of the Church and all the faithful, demonstrated the prayer of faith with her response: "Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your Word."

It is in such faith, and with such a Word, that the Lord has taught us and invited us to pray, and, yes, commanded us to pray and promised to hear us. That pertains also to our bodily life in this world. We should ask Him boldly and with great confidence, out of the desires of our heart and the needs of our body and life in this world. Yet, we do so in the hope of the Resurrection of the Body, in the view of the Cross, in the faith that Christ is our Life and our Salvation; so that, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.

What drives Dr. Luther and Dr. Walther to state things in the way they have is the actual experience of faithful Christians in their life under the Cross in this world. We do not see and experience that all our prayers are answered in the way that we have asked them. Indeed, when we examine ourselves and our life in this world, we still find and experience sin and death, which stand in apparent contradiction to the Words and promises of God concerning us. Faith lives in that tension between the Law and the Gospel, between the Cross and the Resurrection, in the sure and certain hope of Him whom we have not yet seen, but whom we love. Thus, when we do not yet see our prayers being answered, we do not conclude that our Father has denied or refused our prayer, but that He has heard us and answered us in Christ, in ways and manners far more gracious and abundant than we could ever have conceived.

The Peace of the Lord be with you, Sir Cuthbert, and with all the faithful, in Jesus' Name. Amen, amen; that is, yes, yes, it shall be so.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I have also wanted to share, with all of you here, a thoughtful response to the question that I received on my Facebook Wall. It comes from a faithful fellow pastor in my circuit. Here is what he has written:

"I don't blog anymore, but I appreciate your thoughtful post. You asked for Scripture. I think it might be helpful to address those situations in Scripture in which it seems that the desire of the heart of the Christian who prays in the name of Jesus go unfulfilled or when the answer is 'wait.'

"David's pleading for his son, 2 Samuel 12

"Daniel's plea for Jerusalem Daniel 9

"Jesus' prayer prior to the calling of his Apostles Luke 6

"Jesus' prayer for Simon not to fail Luke 22

"Jesus' plea in the Garden

"Paul's thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12

"These are just a few that came to mind straightaway.

"I don't know if this is helpful or not, but I also thought about how the prophets casually move between 'Thus says the Lord' and their own pleading. Often, there is no break, and it almost gives the impression that prayer and Word are contiguous or even the same thing. That is to say this, when you speak the Word, you are participating in how God speaks reality into being in the same way that you are with prayer."