In part one of this series we established the object of our prayers, that God is the healing, not the one who heals outside of Himself. But if God Himself is the answer to our prayers, why pray at all?
We often wonder what prayer is for if God is sovereign. If we pray “Your will be done” every morning, our prayers, which usually coincide with our will, couldn’t be answered unless they align with God’s will, right? That is indeed one way of looking at things, but it needs further explanation. This will be our goal for this post.
A verse that often comes up when discussing the nature of prayer is Matthew 21:22, which says:
“ And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”
We often see this verse as a literal promise, that if we ask God for anything, and if we have enough faith or believe hard enough, we’ll receive what we ask. I’ve been to quite a few churches and whenever it comes to the issue of unanswered prayer, weak faith is always seen as the culprit. I can certainly see the critic’s point here. Why jump around the issue and make the one praying feel bad? The problem is, both the pastor who condemns weak faith, and the atheist who condemns an unmoving God, hold to a view of prayer way out of line with what Jesus really said.
What did Jesus mean here if it wasn’t a literal promise? A clear example of a similar promise is found in Mark 6:23. Here, Herod says to one of his servants:
“And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.”
Was this meant to be taken literally? If so, then it is to be expected the immediate response of the woman would be one of shock and enthusiasm. This isn’t found in the text because, of course, Herod didn’t promise his servant half of his kingdom. Rather, a hyperbolic promise like this was said when one was greatly appreciative towards someone. We use the same language when we tell a visitor to “Make yourself at home.”
Jesus’s promise, that He would answer anything we ask of Him, is to be seen the same way. Why? Under a client-patronage relationship established throughout the ancient social world, a client could only request of the patron whatever he pleased when he’d shown himself worthy of such a request. Even then, no one ever asked for whatever they wanted, as it would be seen as shameful. Honor in the ancient social world was a limited resource, so if you asked a patron for whatever you desired Him to do or give, you were placing yourself in the position of one who held a great deal of honor. It was a shameful act because you didn’t hand yourself honor, it was given to you by others because of your work. In today’s age, this would be equal to replying to the phrase “Make yourself at home” by putting on a movie and kicking up our feet. If we haven’t done anything for the owner to deserve such treatment, he has every right to kick us out. Likewise, God has every right to ignore us if we impose on His authority.
Jesus’s audience here, the pious and honorable, were given a promise of gratitude by Jesus because they only asked of God that which He willed. They took a more humble approach rather than a bold one and submitted themselves to the authority of God.
So what were the guidelines for prayer? What were we meant to pray for? The disciples asked this very question and Jesus’s answer is the Lord’s Prayer. For example, Matthew 6:11 says,
“Give us this Day our daily bread.”
This isn’t a Lambo or a jet plane, but an honorable and humble request to simply have our needs met, and the rest of the prayer works the same way.
We now must address the meat of the post. What is the objective of prayer if it is deemed appropriate that we pray for that which corresponds with God’s will? Jesus acts as a broker between the client and the patron. The client, which is you and me, make requests to the patron, who receives them via the broker.
So how does this relate to the preacher’s reply of a lack of faith? It comes down to an incorrect definition of Biblical faith. Faith in the Christian context is an act of loyalty, so faith required that one asks for only what God desired of us. This is where persistence can also come in as it was an act of faith and a sign of honoring God’s authority, even if prayers aren’t answered the way we hope they’d be.
In the end, this verse is not an open invitation to ask for anything we please, rather it is a reward for being a humble servant.
In part three we’ll take a look at specific passages regarding prayer and place them in proper context.