January 19, 2014
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Jesus on Prayer
The Power of Prayer


This is part 3 of Jesus on Prayer. We are looking at Jesus’ teaching about prayer.  Jesus said some astonishing things about prayer, like this one: “If you believe you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  It was that verse that caught my attention several months ago and led to this series of talks.  Jesus made great promises about prayer.  Today, we’re going to read those and talk about them. Here’s:

The Big Idea: Jesus teaches that prayer is powerful; when we pray, God works. 

Here’s how I want to start. I want to read through the verses listed on your outline.  They’ll be up on the screen, or you can follow along in your Bible. I want to read them all, so that you’ll feel the impact of all these sayings together.  It’s piling on one promise after another! Then we’ll break them down, and we’re going to talk about four things: the promises, the conditions, the problem and the conclusion.  Here are the verses.

Matthew 7:7–11 (also Luke 11:9-13)

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts (or the Holy Spirit) to those who ask him!

Matthew 18:19–20

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Matthew 21:21–22

21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Mark 11:22–25

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

John 14:13–14

13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

John 15:7  

7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

John 16:23–24  

23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

Does that make you want to pray? I hope so!  Does it raise any questions?  I hope so!  Let’s break it down.  First:

1. The promises.

Did you hear any words repeated?  How about “anything” or “whatever”. 

  • If two of you agree about anything you ask for, it will be done.
  • If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
  • Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
  • I will do whatever you ask in my name…You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
  • Ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.
  • My Father will give whatever you ask in my name.

Wow!  It sounds like Jesus is giving us a blank check!  Ask for whatever you want—anything!—and you’ll receive it!  Woohoo! A fat bank account and a thin body!  As we’ll see in a moment, there are problems with that perspective, and there are some conditions attached to the promises.  But before we get into all that, we need to just soak up the promises. “Ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.”

Why would Jesus make such extravagant, seemingly over-the-top promises?  

Perhaps Jesus is using hyperbole—an exaggeration used to make a point. It was common in that culture, and you can see it often in Scripture.  For example, in Luke 14, which we read on Tuesday, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  Hate?  Does Jesus really want us to hate others, especially our families, and even ourselves? Of course not. What’s He saying? He’s using hyperbole to say that if we’re going to be His disciples, we have to love Him more than those we love the most (father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, and self).  It’s Jesus first before anyone or anything else. 

Another example: we just read that Jesus said we could say to a mountain, “Go jump in the sea!” and it would.  Definitely hyperbole!  Even Jesus didn’t make mountains jump in the sea!  So what did He mean?  Moving mountains was a metaphor (then and now) for overcoming obstacles or problems. I think Jesus is saying that if we trust God, with His help we can overcome seemingly impossible problems!

By the way, it’s not just the culture of Jesus’ day that used hyperbole to make a point. We do too!

  • “I could eat a million of those!” Really?  What do you mean is that you like those a lot.
  • “This crème brulee is to die for!”  Whoa! You would die for that dessert? What you mean is that crème brulee is delicious.
  • “I could sleep for a year!”  Meaning: I’m really tired.
  • “Joe’s sermon went on forever!”  Meaning: you’re in big trouble if you say that!

You get the point.  You’re the greatest church ever, so of course you get the point!

So when Jesus makes these huge promises—whatever, anything—he is using hyperbole to make a point.  The question then is, “What’s the point?”  Here it is:

Prayer is powerful. I think the point of all these sayings is to encourage us to pray and trust God.  Prayer is powerful.  God works when we pray.  So pray! Things happen when we pray. Things change when we pray: mountains move, and perhaps most important, we change. 

I am reading C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  Lewis asks why, since God knows everything, including what we need—why do we need to ask? In a word, the answer is relationship. God knows, but in asking, we open ourselves to God—in Lewis’ words, we “unveil ourselves”—we make ourselves known.

ILL: My children are all married adults now—wonderful adults—I’m very proud of them.  Occasionally, they are in situations where I’d love to help them, give them advice, some guidance. Sometimes I’ll offer unsolicited advice.  But I’d much rather that they ask me.  “Dad, what do you think about this?”  I prefer to hear what they think about their situation, and how they are handling it, and what specifically they’d like help with.  I’d like them to ask for the sake of the relationship. I’ve learned that unsolicited advice often doesn’t go over well.

In the same way, God could just do stuff—and sometimes He does.  But I think one reason He wants us to ask is for the relationship. 

That’s why I think that the biggest thing that changes when I pray is me. I’m unveiling myself.  God already knows me, but I’m making myself known to Him. I’m putting myself before God and talking with Him, person to Person.  And I think if you do that, you can’t help but change. 

Prayer is powerful!  Not only do we change, but God works in other ways too, large and small.  An example.

ILL: The Spokesman Review carried this story in 1991.

Dave and Bonnie Stenerson (Ducky and Bugs to all you Camp Reed alumni) were the directors of Camp Reed from 1982 through 1991.  In 1983 when kids lost the camp’s aluminum life poles, Camp Reed practically had to shut down.  The poles had sunk 20 feet to the bottom of the lake, nobody could reach them, and they had no money to get new ones.  The camp was down to its last life pole.

One day everybody headed out on an overnight.  That night, sitting around the campfire, Dave and Bonnie prayed about the life poles. The next morning, a diver showed up on the public beach at Fan Lake. A counselor hollered over to him. Could he look for the life poles? A couple of hours later, when Dave and Bonnie returned to camp, there were four aluminum life poles dripping on the end of the dock. Nobody’s ever seen a diver at Fan Lake before or since.  (Spokesman Review, Sunday July 21, 1991)

God answers prayer, large and small. He wants us to ask and to trust Him.  That leads to #2—the conditions.

2. The conditions.

Did you notice that some of the promises had conditions?  “If you do…then I will do…”

Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you.  Everyone who asks receives.”  What’s the condition?  Ask! Last week, we read a story Jesus told in Luke 11.  The moral of the story was to ask—ask with shameless audacity.  Ask big!  Ask boldly. And let God sort it all out.

ILL: I love to talk with people and when I hear they’re struggling with something, I ask, “How can I pray for you?”  Sometimes people are honest and tell me what they really want.  But some people hedge their bets.  They seem afraid to say what they really want.  Maybe they’re sick—what they really want is to be well. Instead they ask for strength or peace. There’s nothing wrong with asking for strength or peace…unless what you really want is to be well.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “It’s no use to ask God with earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” (Letters to Malcolm, pg. 35)

Ask!  Be bold, and be honest.  Tell God what you really want and let Him sort it out.   So the first condition to answered prayer is to ask!

Matthew 18:19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  What’s the condition?  Agree! When we pray together in harmony, God will do what we ask.  The Greek word is sumphoneo; we get the word “symphony” from it.  It’s a beautiful picture of people symphonizing in prayer—agreeing together.

Praying honestly with others will tend to weed the smallness and selfishness out of our prayers. We’ll become more God-centered, more others-centered in our praying, and those are prayers God loves to answer.

Matthew 21: 22 “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”   What’s the condition?  If you believe.  Here’s another…

Mark 11:22–24 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. What’s the condition?  Faith.  Have faith in God; believe and don’t doubt. 

All through the gospels, Jesus emphasizes the importance of faith.  Often He says to people whom He healed, “Your faith has made you well.”  At other times, he questions people about their small faith, and once told the disciples that they were unable to heal a boy because of their lack of faith. 

I’ve got to say that this has been terribly abused.  People are told that if they have enough faith, they can have whatever they want.  And if they don’t get what they want, they didn’t have enough faith.  Name it and claim it.  Believe it and it’s yours.  Faith is used as a tool to get what you want from God, or the lack of faith is used to shame people.  I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.  This treats faith as the only factor in the equation—it’s not.  I don’t care how much faith you have, if God doesn’t want to do it, you’re not going to faith Him into it!  And notice that Jesus said to have faith in God, not faith in faith.  We’re trusting God, not our own ability to believe. So it’s been abused.

But on the other hand, some of us shy away from what Jesus said.  Jesus regularly corrected his followers for their small faith.  Do you think He might do the same for you?  Speaking for myself, I do.  I know that my faith needs to keep growing.  And I’ll bet yours does too.

Faith is trusting God. Believing what He says. It’s a relationship.

ILL: Author John Bisagno was reading the paper one day when his small daughter asked if he would build a dollhouse for her.  John absently said yes.  His daughter skipped off.  An hour later, his wife said, “John, you better come see this.” His daughter was lining up all her dolls, and setting out all her doll accessories.

“What is she doing?” John asked.

“You promised to build her a dollhouse.  She believed you and she’s getting everything ready.”

Guess what John did.  He built a dollhouse.

That’s a beautiful picture of faith. We believe what God says and act on it.  We trust Him to do what He said.  It seems that God responds to our faith.

John 14:13–14 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.  What’s the condition?  Ask in Jesus’ name.  What does that mean?  Two things.

First, to do something in someone’s name is to do it with his authorization. 

ILL: When my kids were small, one might find me and say, “Dad, the boys are throwing mudballs at us and won’t stop.” 

“Ok, you go tell them that Dad said to stop.” In the name of Dad, stop! Now it wasn’t just a kid saying stop, it was a kid with Dad’s authority, a kid coming in the name of Dad.

When we pray, we come to God in the name of Jesus—that is, we come with the authorization of Jesus. He has made a way for us to talk with His Father.  I’m not just barging in on my own.  I’m coming because of Jesus.

Second, to do something in someone’s name is to do it with his character, as he would do it.  This means we pray as we think Jesus would pray.  What would He ask for, what would He do in this situation? 

John 15:7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.   What’s the condition?  Remain in Jesus, and His words remain in you. In other words, we pray better when we do it with Jesus, in relationship with Him, with His words guiding us. When we get away from Jesus and pray on our own, we’re not likely to do it well.

So there are huge promises—whatever and anything—and clear conditions that challenge us to grow in our relationship with Jesus. 

And there’s a problem.

3. The problem.

The problem is that our prayers often seem to go unanswered.  It doesn’t work.  And I’m talking about prayers that meet the conditions: we’ve asked in faith, in Jesus’ name, and in agreement with others.

ILL: Here’s an example.  Most of you know Paul Miller, who has been our worship pastor and leader for over 20 years. Almost 2 years ago, Paul got sick, and even though we’ve prayed, he’s not well yet.  It’s been an up and down battle; he’ll make progress and then go backwards.  The doctors are perplexed as well.  Paul is currently at home on long-term disability, trying to get well. Honestly, it’s been painful and disheartening for me.  I’ve wrestled with God about this.  Why hasn’t God answered our prayers and made Paul well and brought him back to us?  I don’t know. But I continue to pray.

How many of you have situations like that—you’ve prayed earnestly and with faith, and it hasn’t happened? One man wrote me this week and said that he has a bruised heart.  I get it.  I know that bruise—the disappointment of praying with all your heart for what you believe is the right thing, and it doesn’t happen.

So what’s the deal?

Atheists or agnostics point to unanswered prayer as evidence that God doesn’t exist, that we’re simply talking to ourselves.  That’s one possible explanation, but I don’t buy it. I think there are other, better explanations.

Some Christians point to unanswered prayer as evidence that we prayed incorrectly—we didn’t meet the conditions of faith, or God’s will.  That’s another possible explanation, but I don’t think it applies to every situation. 

Some unbelievers and believers alike think there is a fundamental conflict between our understanding of God and our understanding of prayer. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful and impassable (meaning He acts but is not acted upon; He is “immovable”), how could our prayers make any difference?  How is it possible for our prayers to move God to action? That would mean we are acting upon God and thus above Him.  In this case, we would have to rethink prayer as a cause agent—if God is impassable, immoveable, unchangeable, then prayer changes nothing.

Lewis addresses this in Letters to Malcolm, and concludes that there is mystery in our relationship with God, and that it involves “two-way traffic”.  He uses our sin as an example.  We sin, and God forgives.  “In that sense the Divine action is consequent upon, conditioned by, elicited by, our behavior.” Lewis goes on to ask, “And if He takes our sins into account, why not our petitions?” (LTM, pg. 72) Blaise Pascal wrote, “God has instituted prayer so as to confer upon His creatures the dignity of being causes.” (LTM, pg. 74)  So perhaps our understanding of God being impassable needs to be adjusted?

I said earlier that the idea that these promises are a blank check is a problem too. Taken literally, it seems Jesus is promising that everyone can have whatever they want.  That simply can’t be true. 

First, we often want the wrong thing, and Jesus said that God is a Father who gives good things to His children.  How many of you have ever prayed for something, and later you were glad you didn’t get it? I’ve made some stupid prayers.

ILL: Nicky Gumble says, “I do not believe God will answer the prayer of the student who turned in his test and prayed, “O God, please let Paris be the capital of England!””

I’m glad that God hasn’t answered all my prayers or given me everything I want.  Father knows best.  So some prayers aren’t answered the way we hoped.

Second, these can’t be a blank check because it would simply be impossible to give everyone what they wanted.  What would happen when a farmer prays for rain for his crops and a family in the same area on the same day prays for sunshine for their picnic? 

Third, and most important, these can’t be a blank check because that would turn us into gods and God into our genie.  If God obligated Himself to do whatever we asked, we become the master and He becomes our servant.  It turns the entire relationship on its head. 

So there has to be more to it than God simply saying, “You can have everything you ask for—whatever, anything, anytime.” 

So why aren’t all our prayers answered as we hoped?  Why aren’t these extravagant promises always fulfilled?  I don’t know.  There are many possible answers, some knowable, and some not. There is some mystery involved. And as we’ll see in two weeks, when our prayers aren’t answered, Jesus encourages us to keep on praying and not give up.  Which leads to the final point:

4. The conclusion.

Jesus made extravagant promises, but with clear conditions.  And even when we meet those conditions, we still don’t get everything we ask for.  So what’s our conclusion?

Keep praying.  There is mystery here.  But what’s interesting to me is that Jesus didn’t address the mystery.  Jesus didn’t address the thorny theological issues about prayer moving an immoveable God.  Jesus simply taught people to pray and trust God. 

And that’s where I always end up.  I have learned to ask: ask boldly, with shameless audacity and let God sort it all out.  Do I get everything I ask for?  No, not even close. But some of those prayers are answered.  So I keep asking and let God sort it out.  And when I get disappointed, when I have that bruised heart, I come back to Jesus’ teaching that I have a Father who loves me, and I simply need to trust Him even when I don’t understand.  In fact, that is when faith is truly faith.  If I can understand everything, I don’t need to trust.  It’s when I don’t understand that I most need to trust God and believe He loves me and is working for my good.

I believe that Jesus made these huge promises, not as a blank check, but as a strong encouragement to pray.  Prayer is powerful.  Prayer changes me, and somehow, prayer moves God.  When we pray, God works.  I think Jesus is saying, “Look, there is more to this than you think!  Don’t underestimate the power of your prayers!”

So pray!