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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.

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Comment by Phil Miglioratti on September 4, 2011 at 10:04am

Thanks Andrew, for taking the time to explain your insights. I like your summary:

"So prayer is trusting in God's answer, not in our own wisdom.  That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't ask for specific things, but having asked, we need to trust God to answer in the way that is ultimately best."

 

The promise of prayer is the one we pray to, not the mode or method we use in praying ...

Phil

Comment by Paul "Mike" Kadow on September 4, 2011 at 5:06am
Andrew, if I may make an observation, if you can be more succinct in our writing your points will be better taken. To be honest I get lost in a multitude of words. Just my opinion.
Comment by Andrew R. Wheeler on September 3, 2011 at 3:11pm

It appears that I ran out of room in the last response - didn't realize how windy I was getting!!

 

For those patient ones among you who are still reading, I'll try again to finish....

 

My concluding statement in the final paragraph was that prayer for God to grant more of anything, when not prayed in a context of being both faithful and grateful for what he HAS given, seems to me to be problematic at best.

 

I wanted to make a further comment about Gary's closing line because I think there's an important key there to growing in prayer.  Prayer is submitting our request into the hands of an all-loving, all-knowing God.  It means bringing ourselves to him seeking his answers, not bringing our answers to him and merely asking him to execute them.  So, God's "no" can be just as faith-building and glorifying to him as his "yes" can be.

 

For an example, see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.  God had given Paul a "thorn in the flesh" (we don't know exactly what that means) to keep him from becoming conceited in view of visions that God had given him.  (Interesting isn't it, that Paul understood the purpose?)  Paul pleaded with God three times to remove the thorn, but God refused, telling Paul instead to rely on God's all-sufficient grace.  From this Paul learned to delight in his own weaknesses because they showed just how perfect Christ's strength was.  Paul would eventually write to the Philippians that he had learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.  Where did he learn that?  I'm convinced that 2 Corinthians 12 was a key step in that journey.

 

Paul grew from God's "no" and more fully experienced God's grace as a result.  Contrast that with the Israelites when they asked God for a king.  They really weren't "asking" - they had made their decision and were simply giving God an "order" to execute it.  God's dire warnings did not turn them back from their stated purpose.  And they got just what they asked for - they became like all the nations around them, rather than the light to the world that God had intended them to be.

 

So prayer is trusting in God's answer, not in our own wisdom.  That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't ask for specific things, but having asked, we need to trust God to answer in the way that is ultimately best. 

Comment by Andrew R. Wheeler on September 3, 2011 at 3:01pm

Paul, thanks for hte question.  A "prayer promise" is a verse about prayer (typically taken out of context) that "promises" that God will respond one way or another, sometimes given the proper inputs.  The verse I quoted, John 15:7, had a condition ("If you remain in me and my words remain in you") and a promise ("ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.")  Many verses are set up this way in an "if, then" kind of format.  Basing our prayer lives on verses like this leads to a formulaic approach, where we reduce prayer to a formula.  If we provide the proper inputs (confessed sin, right motives, etc.), then God is somehow obligated to respond to our prayers the way that the verse indicates.

 

Some verses, taken out of context, don't even have conditions like this.  Gary mentioned that there are many verses in John 14-16 that have "prayer promises" in them.  One example is John 14:14 - "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." (NIV, 1984 edition)  The verse reads like a blank check and doesn't seem to have any conditions.  I'd argue that the phrase "in my name" actually is a condition and that it doesn't have anything to do with our oft-repeated prayer closing but rather is an indication of acting or praying in Jesus' place - that is, praying the things he would pray in the situation.

 

In fact, if you back up to John 14:13, you see a very similar picture to the John 15 picture we've been discussing.  "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father."  We get a hint here of what praying in Jesus' name really means - they are prayers that, if answered, would bring glory to the Father.  And we see an almost exact parallel with John 15:8, which talks about bearing fruit to God's glory.  Interesting that prayer is linked so closely to God's glory in both of these verses.

 

So the point is that when we lift these verses out of context, they make prayer into something far less than it was meant to be.  Prayer formulas like that simply don't work, because that's not the way prayer works.  I forget who said it, but someone once said that God responds to our hearts and our lives much more than to our words.  I really believe that's true.

 

Let's take one more common example - one I approach with some apprehension because of how popular it has become and because of my respect for the source.  Several years ago, what I refer to as a "prayer fad" swept through the church based on the so-called "prayer of Jabez".  I never read the book by that name, but the basic premise was based on 1 Chronicles 4:10 - "Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory!  Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm, so that I will be free from pain.'  And God granted his request."

 

I have many problems with the way this verse came to be applied, and I'm almost certain that it went much further than Bruce Wilkinson ever intended.  The verse has been used to justify prayer for everything from ministry success to material wealth.  The reasoning goes that if God granted such a request to Jabez, he would of course do the same for anyone.

 

In addition to the hermeneutical problem of taking narrative passages like this and making them prescriptive, I have several problems with the prayer application itself.  First of all, we conveniently ignore verse 9, which starts off by saying that Jabez was more honorable than his brothers.  I don't know exactly what that means, but I've never heard anyone refer to it when "claiming" the prayer of Jabez.  Also, Jesus' parable of the talents teaches that whoever is faithful with a little will be faithful with much, and whoever is not faithful with a little would not be faithful with much.  So to ask for "more" (of whatever) outside the context of being faithful with what God has already given seems to me to be problematic at be

Comment by Paul "Mike" Kadow on August 29, 2011 at 12:00pm
From reading your post, I think understand what you are saying. But, I am still a little fuzzy on exactly what a "prayer promise" is suppose to be, can you help me?
Comment by Susannah Wollman on August 29, 2011 at 10:40am
Holy, mighty Lord of heaven and earth, I ask you to make this teaching take root in my heart, with roots reaching down to rivers of living waters, that secure me in Your love and purpose, and bring forth fruit in its time. I don't yet know what that fruit will be, but I look forward eagerly to it. Thank You that Andrew is a faithful servant and devoted friend of Jesus so that I can be a part of the fruit that he sees from You. In your precious Son's name, Amen
Comment by Gary Sinclair on August 29, 2011 at 9:58am

I so agree with you Andrew. I think several verses in John 14, 15, and 16 offer three key reasons why and when God answers our prayers affirmatively: To bear fruit as you suggest, to bring Himself most glory, and to give us joy.  Not all the things we or others are claiming these days necessarily will do those three things even though we might think they will.

 

Yes, God still does miracles but He also does them in miraculous ways through NOT answering the way we hope or claim. He is still good and awesome no matter how He responds.

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