Embarrassing Prayer Promises? (Part 2)
C. S. Lewis raises the perplexing issue of what he calls “embarrassing prayer promises“—biblical statements that seem to offer an unqualified blank check to Christians when they pray.
But when we read passages like John 14:13-14, we intuitively understand (don’t we?) that even such an apparently open-ended promise has limits built in by the surrounding context. If something we desire is clearly contrary to God’s will, does this promise override it just because we ask and Jesus promised? What about things that are contrary to God’s purposes though we may have no way of knowing that?
Even an apostle may beg the Lord multiple times—three, to be precise, just like Jesus (see below)—to remove a Satanic hindrance for a more unfettered ministry (something we usually assume must be God’s will), yet not receive whatever he asks the Father in Jesus’ name (1 Cor 12:7-9), In other words, other passages also clearly curb the mistaken assumption that these promises represent an unconditional blank check in prayer, even if our walk with God is as faithful and obedient as the Apostle Paul’s.
No one abiding in and obeying Christ’s words (one of the contextual conditions in John 14-16) would ask for anything clearly contrary to God’s will. Nor would such a person insist on anything that might possibly be contrary to the will of God, to whose wisdom an abiding and obedient believer always defers.
The intuition that there are limits to even unlimited-sounding prayer promises is confirmed by the consummate Exemplar in prayer. If anyone could be assured that whatever he asked the Father was certain to be granted, surely Jesus could. Yet, when he expressed a profound and passionate desire—three times, incidentally (Matt 26:39-44)—that his Father would remove the cup set before him he added a concession, a nevertheless: “not my will, but thine be done.” The debate over exactly what the “cup” refers to, or even whether his prayer was answered, may be a topic for another post, but it’s immaterial to the point at hand: he consciously submitted his desire in prayer to the will of the Father. Would you pray like Jesus? Go thou and do likewise. And when we do, then whatever we ask really will be granted.
This intuition of limitations is further confirmed by John’s later reflections on those promises—promises that he alone recorded in his Gospel. John’s first letter is the inspired commentary on them, an explanatory context from which the promises cannot be isolated if they are to be interpreted and applied as John (and Jesus) intended.
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight (1 John 3:21-22).
We need to unpack and explore that a little so we don’t misconstrue John’s statement by isolating it from his context. Do we ever come to God in perfect and complete obedience? Hasn’t God sometimes answered your prayers (for protection, provision, etc.) even when you were in disobedience? So there cannot be a precise, formulaic or legalistic correlation between our obedience and God’s willingness to answer any of our prayers.
John strings together several ideas in 3:21-23: confidence > receiving what we ask > keeping His commandments > believing on Christ and loving one another. Hiebert observes the condition here is two-fold: “the first calls for obedience to his commands“ while “the second implies a spontaneous activity motivated by love, freely undertaken because Christian love recognizes them as ‘those things that are pleasing in his sight.’”
Important Clarification: We have access to God because of Christ’s righteousness alone; we have answers from God because we keep his commandments and do what is pleasing in his sight. “Obedience is the indispensable condition, not the meritorious cause of answered prayer” (John Stott).
Earlier in the chapter John makes a point of practicing [i.e., habitual] obedience, not perfect obedience. We need to maintain both sides of scriptural truth—even obedience does not merit either our access in prayer nor answers to our prayer. ( I’m drawing an admittedly fine distinction between meriting and causing answers to prayer.) It’s all of grace. But the kind of habitual obedience John talks about elsewhere in the letter gives us additional confidence in God’s pleasure and gives God additional cause to answer our requests. Children have access and acceptance with their father not because they are always obedient but because they are children. Even so, a father is more inclined to grant special requests to children who demonstrate a habitually obedient and submissive spirit and have no holdout areas of disobedience.
John’s “bar” of obedience seems to be the habitual obedience of believing Christ and submitting to his commandments that he repeatedly emphasizes as marks of the genuine believer. His teaching on prayer is intrinsically intertwined with this teaching, not an isolated point to create hyper-introspective anxiety about whether one is being “obedient enough” to get one’s prayers answered, or a legalistic mentality that roots my confidence in a sense of earning or deserving answers to my prayers.
Part 3: One or two more Johannine passages on prayer, and a final summary.