Impacting Cities & Communities thru Prayer
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I have a problem with "prayer promises" in the Bible. Don't get me wrong - I believe in the truth of all Scripture. And that's exactly the problem.
Prayer promises take encouraging, bite-size truths about prayer out of the larger contexts in which they are written. As a result, they present partial truths; the verses themselves are true, but they are not all of the truth. And basing my prayer life on these incomplete truths seems to me to miss the point.
Take John 15:7 for example. In the NIV, this verse reads, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." We name this verse and claim it over all sorts of things, from health issues to financial needs to relational struggles. We assume that, because we are saved, we've met the "condition" - that is, remaining in Christ and his words in us. So the promise becomes a formula for "successful" prayer.
But when we look at the context of John 15, we realize that this is not a passage primarily about prayer. The main theme of the passage is fruit-bearing, and the main requirement of the passage is that we "remain" in Christ and in his love. We're not told exactly how to do that, but we are told that apart from Christ, we can do nothing. God is the gardener, and occasionally he will see fit to prune the branches (us) for greater fruitfulness. But unless the branches are constantly nourished by the vine, there will be no fruitfulness at all.
The passage goes on to talk about remaining in Christ's love, which is tied closely to keeping his commands and loving each other. Remaining in Christ's love leads to becoming friends (rather than servants) of Christ. After all, servants don't know their master's business. We, however, have been chosen by Jesus to be about the Father's business and to bear fruit to his glory.
In the middle of all this, we see John 15:7. Taken in context, we see that Jesus is picturing prayer as part of an overall relationship with him - a relationship in which we remain in him, obey his commands, bear fruit to the Father's glory, and show love for one another.
This passage makes the most sense when understood in its original context. Jesus is giving his disciples their final instructions prior to his betrayal and crucifixion. Much of what he says they don't understand at the time, but they do understand later. At the center of everything he wants to convey to them is the importance of remaining in him - staying faithful, still believing - even after he is put to death. There is great hope in these words - hope that the disciples can continue to bear fruit for the kingdom and can continue to have a relationship with Jesus after his death.
Another clue to understanding John 15:7 is (not surprisingly) John 15:8. "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." What is the "this" referred to in this verse? The most natural reading is that "this" is the answered prayer spoken of in John 15:7. God brings glory to himself by answering our prayers for fruitfulness.
As it turns out, John 15:7 is not about asking God for our personal needs at all. There are other places where Jesus encourages prayer for personal needs (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:5ff; Luke 18:1-8; also in the Lord's prayer, Matthew 6:11), but this is not the meaning of John 15:7.
No one verse or passage expresses all that prayer is meant to be. Scripture taken as a whole teaches us about relating to God, and prayer is part of that relationship. To call out "sound bites" about prayer and make formulas out of them is to lose the meaning of prayer altogether and often to wrongly apply the verses themselves.
So let's pray. Let's pray to our faithful, sovereign God with confidence and trust. But let's not pretend that prayer is an isolated activity that has no reference to the rest of our lives. Let's not make it into a formula where we provide the right inputs and God is obliged to grant the output. Instead, let's remain in Christ, bearing fruit for the kingdom, growing in love for him and for each other. In that context, let's pray.