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Today: 31 May 2020


Great Expectations

First published 31/03/2019

Christians often pray “in the name of Jesus”.  That is a tradition based on Jesus’ own words when he said, “Whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15, verse 16).

I remember a very good friend who took those words very literally.  He was desperate.  His daughter was dying and he pleaded with God to save her.  Surely Jesus wanted her healing too. He was shattered when his prayer went unanswered.  Having been down a similar path myself, I understand now even more than then, what that feels like.

How then should we understand those words of Jesus?  They seem to promise so much and raise our expectations of God.  The point is all the more pressing because those same or very similar words are recorded in chapters 14, 15 and 16 of John’s Gospel no less that six times.  Jesus is telling us something hugely important.

Possibly the problem is that taking it literally we naturally focus on the words “whatever you ask”.  On its own that would make our prayers automatic.  We could ask for anything and expect to receive a favourable answer.  But it clearly doesn’t work like that, and especially if we are asking for someone’s healing, we might be desperately disappointed if no answer seems to come.

The better focus in the prayer would be on the words “in my name”.  That must mean that our prayer is in line, not so much with “my name”, in other words with what I want, but with Jesus’ name, with what he wants.  Our prayer then, for instance for someone’s healing, has to have the caveat that Jesus himself spoke - “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22, verse 42).  Jesus spoke those words of self-surrender in the face of his own suffering and death.  What Jesus wanted was not death or its avoidance, but a different kind of victory.

We face a great mystery here.  Sometimes our prayers are answered and people are wonderfully healed.  Sometimes, despite our great longing and heartfelt praying, our prayers seem unanswered, they are not healed.

The alternative might help our understanding.  If our prayers were prayed with enough passion, or often enough, or if we used the right formula, and then always got favourable answers, then our relationship with God would be automatic and impersonal.  People would only need to know the ‘secrets’ of prayer to get the answers they wanted.

But our relationship with God is built not on our getting our way or even understanding what is going on.  We may be ‘grown up’ in lots of ways, but here we are more like children who have to trust over things too big for them to fully understand.

In the end, we put ourselves in God’s hands - that is the ultimate point of prayer - it is an act of acceptance and surrender.  We take our deepest concerns to our Father, but say, with Jesus, ‘nevertheless…’.

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Lord, when there are no simple answers, give me courage to trust in your love and purposes of good.  In grief or perplexity help me to know Jesus shares my griefs and is companion of my prayers.

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