We all want our prayers to work. So what prayers are guaranteed to work? In discovering which prayers are effective, we can start with Jesus’s astonishing promise to all of us in John 15:7. Here’s his pledge to his followers: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Ask whatever you wish! What an astonishing, open-ended promise to boost our prayer lives. But it’s given parameters by what makes for an effective prayer life. Did you catch that? “If my word abides in you.” John Piper preached a sermon on this text back in the early weeks of 1993, in a sermon fitly titled “Ask Whatever You Wish.” It led to this great clip where he explained the key to an effective prayer life. Here’s Pastor John, from about thirty years ago.
Prayer is for granting us the joy of seeing God’s will executed through us as it becomes our will. The only joy in life that lasts is when our desires are drawn from his desires, and those desires are the ones that have the promise made to them: “Ask . . . and it will be done for you.” Here is the way John put it: “Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22).
Prayer Is for Spiritual Desires
Prayer is not for gratifying natural desires. Prayer is given as a gift for the joy and the satisfaction of those people whose heart is so in tune with God that they keep his commandments and do what is pleasing to him. If you have no interest in obeying God, in bringing the whole of your life — your attitude from morning to night — into conformity to his values, and in getting your desires from his desires, prayer is not your business. James put it like this: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). And then he calls them adulteresses in the next verse (James 4:4). Do you know why? He’s picturing the church as the wife, God as the husband, and prayer as asking the husband for money to pay the paramour down the hall with whom she sleeps. That’s a pretty ugly view of prayer, isn’t it?
Prayer is to bring our lives into conformity with the desires of our husband, God, not to ask him for the wherewithal to consort with the world. Prayer is not for the satisfying and gratifying of natural desires — until those natural desires come into the service of the hallowing of God’s name, the seeking of God’s kingdom, and the doing of God’s will.
“The major challenge in prayer is becoming the kind of people who are not dominated by natural desires.”
The words of Jesus abiding in us prepare us for fruit-bearing prayer. The words of Jesus abiding in us prepare us for fruit-bearing. If prayer is not for the gratifying of our natural desires, but for fruit-bearing for God, then the major challenge before us at the beginning of 1993 in prayer is becoming the kind of people who are not dominated by natural desires. That is the major challenge in prayer: becoming the kind of people who are not dominated by natural desires, but who are dominated by spiritual desires.
This is what Paul calls ceasing to be a natural person and becoming a spiritual person, or growing beyond being carnal people to being spiritual people. Of course, we want to eat. Of course, we’d like to succeed. Of course, we want clothes on our back, and a roof over our head, and education for our children. But if those things are not subordinate in our lives to the big issues that make us tick, then we’re not going to pray with success. We’re not. Prayer is going to be so worldly, so earthly, so unspiritual, God will wonder what it has to do with him. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” you will become that kind of person: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
Six Ways Jesus’s Words Prepare Us to Pray
Let me give you some examples of how the word of Jesus abiding within makes you that kind of person, in order that you might pray.
1. The word humbles us.
First John 1:10: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” — meaning, if his word were in us, we’d know ourselves aright. The key to a humble, proper assessment of who we are before God comes one way: by the word of God dwelling within. And without that proper self-assessment, we will not be in tune with God and know how to pray according to his will.
2. The word exalts Jesus.
John 17:8: Jesus says, “They have received [my words] and have come to know in truth that I came from you.” In other words, the word received and abiding is the key to unlock not only a true knowledge of ourselves in humility, but an exalted knowledge of God and his Son, Jesus, coming from him. We cannot pray aright until we know Jesus as he is. We can’t pray aright until we have an exalted view of the meaning of the coming of the Son into the world.
3. The word defeats Satan.
First John 2:14 says, “I write to you, young men, because the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” Unless the word of God is abiding in us, Satan will dominate, he will control, and he will deceive and bring us into odds with God rather than being in tune with God. In order to pray in tune with God, Satan must be defeated, and he was defeated in the young men in Ephesus and the other churches by the abiding of the word of God.
4. The word bears love.
John 14:24: “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” — which means that the words of Jesus define the path of love. We cannot pray fruit-bearing prayers until we know the path on which the fruit is born, and the fruit is always born in the path of love and not outside that path. If you want to know the path of love along which prayers are answered — namely, the path of love — you must have the word of God abiding within you. You can’t know what love is any other way than by the word of God. John says, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:2).
“The key to a humble, proper assessment of who we are before God comes one way: by the word of God dwelling within.”
You may think you’re loving God by not checking into the Bible at all. How many articles, how many books do I read today where the concepts of mercy, compassion, and love are used as criteria with no defense that that’s the way God sees things at all? There’s no defense that this is God’s view of love, God’s view of mercy, God’s view of compassion. You just take the word right out of context, and since it’s a politically correct word, it works. It doesn’t really matter whether it comes from God. If you want to know the path of love, you must have the word of God abiding in you, because many things look loving that are not loving.
5. The word assures.
John 8:47: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” What that means is that if you hear God, receive the words of God and have his word abiding in you, it is evidence that you are of God — that is, chosen of God, born of God, elect. In other words, the whole issue of assurance is riding on this word. When you go to pray, one of the great hindrances to prayer and faith and hope in prayer is, Am I of God? Am I born of God? Am I in the family? How do I know I’m in the family? This text says you know you’re in the family if you hear the word of God, if you receive the word of God, if the word of God comes home and finds a place in you. The word receives affirmation and a yes and an amen.
6. The word sanctifies.
John 15:3: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” And John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” So, we have cleanness and we have sanctification coming to us through the word.
Praying in Tune
There are a lot of other examples of how the word abiding in us fits us to pray, but here are six:
- a humble view of ourselves
- an exalted view of the Savior
- triumph over the devil
- knowledge of the path of love
- assurance of our election
- the power of holiness
Those six and many more come to us by having the word of God abide with us, abide in us, and therefore fit us for being the kind of people who will pray in tune with God and hear the promise: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”