Of the three main means of God’s grace in the Christian life — his word, prayer, and fellowship — prayer is likely the least exercised. Why do we struggle so much to pray?
That question has many answers, and we’ve probably heard most of them. We’re distractible, we’re lazy, we’re busy, we’ve had poor models, we lack a clear plan for how and when to pray, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people and things to pray for, our Adversary opposes our praying, and the list goes on.
But I think a significant reason for many of us is that we find prayer mysterious. We don’t understand how it works — or more accurately, we don’t understand how it doesn’t work. For example, we read promises in Scripture like this one:
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)
Then we pray and we don’t see answers to our prayers. We’re left asking, what’s the problem? And we conclude that either our faith is so pitifully small that God essentially ignores them, or that there must be so many inscrutable, complicating factors inhibiting his answers that we end up as prayer agnostics. Either way, the net effect is we’re discouraged from praying much, unless we feel very desperate. Mark 11:24 must be for Christians with heroic faith.
But this is not the way God wants us to respond to unanswered prayer. He wants us to seriously press into the question, “What’s the problem?” Because in the audacious promise above — “whatever [we] ask in prayer” — is an invitation to an intimate relationship with him.
Further Up and Further In
“Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” I know this is a difficult promise for us. I know it exposes the littleness of our faith. I know it raises thorny, even grievous questions regarding prayers that have seemed to go unanswered. I know, I know. We’re tempted to respond sardonically, “Yeah, whatever . . . ”
And Jesus knows it’s hard for us too. He knows this promise presses us beyond our limits. He means it to. That’s why he made it. He is drawing us beyond what we’ve yet seen and experienced, and he’s calling out a trust in us that we don’t think we have — and are scared to really exercise. Jesus’s purpose is not to shame us for our little faith. He’s inviting us to come further up and further in.
What did Jesus mean by “whatever”? He made this promise to the disciples when they marveled that the fig tree Jesus cursed had shriveled up. One of the men who heard Jesus’s promise firsthand helps us understand what “whatever” means:
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14–15)
“Whatever” is “anything according to [God’s] will.” But this is no divine bait-and-switch. This is not a radically sounding promise that isn’t actually radical. The fig tree really withered. Jesus really means for us to move mountains (Mark 11:23). But we are meant to move the mountains God wants moved.
All the Idiosyncrasies of a Relationship
This is what we must keep in mind: prayer is a relational interaction, not merely a service transaction. Faith is not divine currency that we pay God in order to receive whatever we ask in prayer. Faith is a relational response of trust in what God promises us. Faith says to God, “I trust what you say so much that I will live by what you say.” And those who are audacious enough to really live by what God says will see mountains move that God wants moved. That’s why Jesus said,
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)
“Abide in me, and . . . ask whatever you wish.” This sounds so simple, just like “love one another” (John 13:34) sounds so simple. But abiding, like loving, is not simple at all, because it is profoundly relational.
Think about this. Which of our other close relationships are simple? How hard do we have to work, especially because of our own selfish sin, to understand and communicate clearly with those we love? Isn’t relational communication among the most difficult things we deal with daily? And these are relationships we encounter face to face. Should we expect knowing and relating to God will be less difficult?
Prayer has all the idiosyncrasies of a relationship because it is the way we relate to God.
In every other human relationship we have, effective communication is something we must learn. It’s not unusual to feel very perplexed at first. It can feel mysterious and frustrating. We find out that good communication requires more intentionality and pursuit and careful listening and humility and persistence and perseverance and real love than we originally expected or probably wanted to give. But if we really press into it, we tend to discover far more about that person than we knew before and experience new levels of intimacy and friendship with them. If we don’t, we won’t.
The same is true of God.
Whatever You Wish
This is why Jesus tells us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He knows that we are tempted to lose heart by what seems like unanswered prayer. We do have small faith. Jesus knows this and he wants to grow our faith. God tells us there are complicating factors that delay answers to prayer, but he doesn’t mean for those factors and delays to make us prayer agnostics and give up. He wants us to press into his promise because there is no mountain he cannot move.
Those who abide in Christ, and have Christ’s words abiding in them, may ask whatever they wish, and it will be done for them. What does such a life look like? It looks like the Old Testament saints listed in Hebrews 11 who really pressed in to know God. It looks like the faithful men and women of the New Testament. And it looks like the lives of audacious saints throughout church history who have taken God most seriously at his word — the David Brainerds, the Adoniram Judsons, the George Muellers, the Hudson Taylors, the Charles Spurgeons, the Robert Chapmans, and a host of other men and women.
If “whatever you ask in prayer” has not happened yet, do not assume it can’t or won’t. Don’t give up. This promise is an invitation to come further up and further in to knowing God. And those who have taken God up on this invitation testify that the audacious promises of God are for those audacious enough to believe them.