A Prayer Jesus Would Not Answer

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The mother of James and John knelt down before Jesus and prayed, “Say that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21).

You might think that Jesus would refuse to answer this prayer because it was perhaps motivated by vanity. But that is not the reason Jesus gives. He says, ‘To sit at my right hand and my left, this is not mine to give but it is for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (verse 23).

This is strange. At first it sounds like the things that Jesus decides to do are not “prepared” by God; and the things “prepared” by God are not in Jesus' power to grant. But surely this is not true. Jesus said, for example, “I lay down my life of my own accord. No one takes it from me. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it again: this charge I received from my Father” (John 10:18).

God the Father had “prepared” for the death and resurrection of his Son long ago (Isaiah 53). Yet it was in the Son’s authority to lay down his life and to take it again. So there is no conflict between what the Son can do and what the Father “prepares” to have done. They are in harmony.

What then did Jesus mean when he said to James and John, “It is not mine to give but the ones for whom it is prepared by my Father”? Perhaps he is saying, "The Father has not revealed to me who will sit by me, and so it is not mine to give." But Jesus does not say the Father has not revealed this to him as in the case of the second coming (Mark 13:32).

I wonder if Jesus may not mean something like this: “I realize that I have shown favor to James and John. They are part of the inner ring of my intimacy. So it is true that there is a tug in my heart to have them especially near me. So I understand why you would pray to me in this way. But what you must understand is that I and the Father have tugs of affection that we often do not gratify in immediate ways. Instead we submit them to the guidance of infinite wisdom. My Father is the Spring of all Wisdom. So what he has prepared is the way it will be. I always submit to that. It will always be best, even if it means that some of the good tugs of my heart must submit to something different. That is what I mean. Your request is not mine to give in the sense that the natural affections I have for James and John are not sufficient in deciding if they sit at my side. There is an infinite wisdom that decides such things. Let us gladly submit to that and look for my Father’s infinitely better way.”

This is how it is often when we pray. If the answer does not come in the time and the way we want, let us not assume that it is because the Lord has no affection for us nor any tugs to do what we want. He may weep with us over our longing. But he will always yield to his Father’s infinitely wise “preparations” for they are always better. The answer "No, that is not mine to give," always means, "My Father has prepared something better. Trust him."

Pray with me: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

Pastor John