The Three Most Important Words in Prayer

As a child, I had an unhealthy fear of voicemails.

Since voicemails now are something of an endangered species, this may require some explanation. When I was in school, most phones were still attached to walls and didn’t have caller ID. So, if you called and no one picked up, no one would know that it was you who called — unless you left a voicemail. Seems easy (and safe) enough, right?

One day (I was probably ten), I called to see if a friend across the street wanted to play, but no one picked up. I hung up. A few minutes later, I called again. No answer, I hung up. I did this a few more times over the next hour. My mom noticed my strange behavior and asked what I was doing.

“I was just calling to see if my friend wanted to play, but no one’s home.”

“Well, why don’t you just leave a message?”

I tensed up. “Oh no, no. . . . I’ll just try again in a few minutes.”

“No, Marshall, that’s rude to keep calling like that. You really should leave a voicemail.”

“No, really, Mom, it’s not a big deal. They don’t mind.”

“No,” she said firmly, “you’re going to pick up that phone right now and leave a voicemail.”

I waited to see if she was serious, then slowly lifted the instrument of terror from the wall. There was something about being recorded — with no opportunity to delete, or try again, or call timeout — that made me feel exposed. It certainly didn’t help that my (female) friend could be a bit of a bully and relished just about any opportunity to laugh at my expense.

Again, no one answered. The dreaded beep came. My mom stared at me intently. “Hi, uhhh, Jenna. . . . This is Marshall. Umm . . . just wanted to see if you were home and wanted to play. So . . . give me a call when you get back. . . . Umm . . . in Jesus’s name, Amen.”

My mom’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth. Her cheeks strained to fight back laughter. My young, insecure blood boiled. She made me do that. How could she!

It’s funny, but my (tiny) humiliation plays out a common paradox in prayer: Those three words — in Jesus’s name — were already so deeply ingrained in my mind through countless prayers in our home that they instinctively poured out. At the same time, they had become so familiar that they had begun to lose their weight and meaning (so that I blurted them to the 10-year-old girl across the street). Many of us have forgotten, through lots of meals and bedtimes, services and Bible studies, what we hold in these three staggering words: in Jesus’s name.

Six Facets in the Name

Where do we learn to pray in Jesus’s name, anyway? The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end that way. In fact, when you go looking, you realize that we don’t have any actual prayers in Scripture that end with those words.

We hear people baptize in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38), heal in the name of Jesus (Acts 3:6), teach in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18), exorcise demons in the name of Jesus (Acts 16:18), and perform wonders in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:30). The apostle Paul goes as far to tell us to do everything we do, in word or deed, “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). The clearest teaching on praying in Jesus’s name, though, comes from Jesus himself, on the night he was betrayed.

In John 14–16, we have Jesus’s last words to his disciples before he goes to the cross, and in all three chapters he mentions the power of praying in his name: “Whatever you ask in my name” (John 14:13) . . . “Whatever you ask the Father in my name” (John 15:16) . . . . “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name” (John 16:23). In the repetition, we see how critical this kind of prayer will be for followers of Jesus, and we learn at least six reasons for Christians to pray in his name.

1. Access: God listens to you.

When we pray in Jesus’s name, we rehearse our only reason for believing God will actually hear our prayers. We dare to bow before the Father only because the Son chose to bow upon the cross. Before he encourages his disciples to pray this way, Jesus says to them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). No one comes except in me — but everyone who comes in my name will be received, heard, and loved. His life, cross, and resurrection lift our prayers into heaven.

Jesus goes as far as to say (really listen to what he says here), “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:26–27). In other words, I don’t have to ask him anything for you anymore. No, in me, you can ask the Almighty yourself.

2. Love: God chose you.

God doesn’t only listen to our prayers because Christ died for us, but because, long before his Son was born and took the cross, he had already chosen us as his own. He decided, based on nothing in or about us, to love us and save us in Christ.

“You did not choose me,” Jesus says, “but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (John 15:16)

I chose you, so that your prayers would have power. That means every prayer we pray in his name is an opportunity to remember the undeserved wonder of our election. The God of heaven and earth, the one who made all that is, the one whom you rejected and assaulted in your sin, chose to love you.

And if he had not chosen you, you would not believe, much less pray. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44; also 6:65).

3. Power: God can do anything.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left his disciples, but he didn’t really leave them. Before he rose into the clouds, he said, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How could he say that as he was literally leaving them? Because he had told them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17, see also 14:25–26).

By the Spirit, Jesus still lives with us, even within us. Therefore, his name is a constant reminder of his abiding, satisfying, empowering presence.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5)

In his name, anything is possible through prayer. Apart from his name, we can do nothing.

4. Safety: God keeps your faith.

As he comes to the end of his final words, he says to his disciples, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away” (John 16:1). I’ve repeatedly told you (among other things) to pray in my name, so that you will not fall away from me, so that you won’t fall into temptation and make shipwreck of your faith. Fearful days were coming, days that would strain their faith (if possible) to the point of breaking. “In the world you will have tribulation,” he warns them a few verses later. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And in my name, you will too.

So, our prayers in Jesus’s name are not only accomplishing great things out in the world and among those we love, but they’re doing something supernatural inside of us. Through them, God is fortifying our faith in God. He’s exerting his infinite power to guard our love for him (1 Peter 1:5). Prayer is perhaps the single greatest way that God works in us the kind of heart and life that please him and persevere to the end (Philippians 2:12–13).

5. Confidence: God won’t dismiss his Son.

Why won’t the Father ignore prayers in the name of his Son? Jesus tells us, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). The glory of God himself is at stake in our prayers (even our seemingly small or insignificant prayers), and God will not surrender or violate his glory. That means no prayer is insignificant to God. He will answer your prayers in Jesus’s name because he’s fiercely devoted, with all his sovereign might, to the exalting of that name. For God to disregard requests made in the name of Jesus would be to abandon his reason for creating the universe: his glory.

Our prayers, then, aren’t just in the name of Jesus, but for the name of Jesus. And that means, when we pray in this name, we join Jesus in doing what he most loves to do, what he’s utterly and eternally resolved to do, and that is to glorify God.

6. Reward: Your joy will be full.

Jesus gives us at least one more great incentive to pray in his name always and with boldness:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. . . . Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:23–24)

Just a chapter earlier, he says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). So, God answers our prayers in Jesus’s name for the sake of his glory — “that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And God answers our prayers in that name because he wants us to be as happy as possible — “that your joy may be full.” Those are the two great ambitions of a healthy prayer life: the glory of God and our fullest possible joy in him.

And because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, those two ambitions are not really two but one. They’re two sides of the same prayer. John Piper writes,

The unity of these two goals — the glory of God and the joy of his children — is clearly preserved in the act of prayer. Therefore, Christian Hedonists will, above all, be people devoted to earnest prayer. Just as the thirsty deer kneels down to drink at the brook, so the characteristic posture of the Christian Hedonist is on his knees. (Desiring God, 160)

How to End a Prayer

A couple decades after my harrowing voicemail experience, I had another encounter that has shaped how I say these three words. At the time, I was studying in seminary and serving in ministry, regularly leading up front in my local church. During one of the services, I gave the prayer of praise, which strives to give voice to our congregation’s collective gratitude to God for his kindness, his provision, his sovereign and saving love. I had given some serious time preparing to lead our congregation.

After the service, an older man in the faith came up to me and thanked me for the prayer. “I’ve noticed something, though, about your prayers,” he said. I was surprised and a little nervous. Am I doing it wrong? Did I say something heretical? You can still hear the little boy with the corded phone and all those fears. “It’s how you end your prayers,” he said. “You rush through the words — ‘in Jesus’s name.’ They sound like an afterthought. They’re not an afterthought. Slow down on those words. Savor them.”

I’ve never prayed the same since. And so I turn to you, as a good father might with his son. The three most important words in prayer are not words to be rushed or mumbled, but relished and declared. They frame the doorway to fellowship with God — access, love, presence, safety, confidence, joy. Slow down on those words. Savor them.