On Prayer - Part One

“If you shall ask anything of the Father, he will give it you in my name” (John 16:23).

All of us at some time or another, when we have been in anguish of mind or body, or, even more poignantly, when we have been distressed at the pain of another, have sent out into the ether a passionate prayer for relief and help. Then perhaps there has come upon us the paralyzing doubt that it may make no difference; that the universe is run, down to the tiniest detail, in obedience to inscrutable and immutable laws; and that our little prayers are like the fret of rippling summer waves against a cliff of granite.

In the dark night of our despair, like a ray of silver light, has come the promise of Jesus, “if you shall ask anything of the Father, he will give it you in my name.” Yet, even then, we have found the words, however beautiful, seemed untrue for us, for we have asked many things in his name and they have not been granted to us – or is it that we do not know the whole significance of the phrase, “In his name?”

Although it may sound like a weak kind of exegesis, and although one is conscious of the great danger of this kind of argument, I think we are bound to admit, quite honestly, that this saying of Jesus, if accurately reported, is one of those Eastern sayings which, to a Western mind, sounds an exaggeration, but which, to an Eastern mind, is a poetical way of expressing a great truth. The East does not hold the meticulous idea of exactitude which the West demands. The lack of such exactitude in the West is frowned upon and called inaccuracy or something worse, and a speaker who indulged in it would lose a certain authority if – like the late Sadu Singh, for example – he related an experience in two different ways to two different audiences; ways which did not strictly agree in detail. The East has never been so enslaved by literal accuracy. If I describe a means of expression as “exaggerated,” it is looked upon in the West as a flaw. But in the East it would not be so. Exaggerated language is there used as we might use a metaphor or other figure of speech, the more forcibly to express an idea. When Jesus says that, “If we have faith, we shall be able to remove mountains into the sea,” we do not take it literally. When he says that God cares for us so much that “the hairs of our head are all numbered,” we do not take that literally either. In the same way we cannot possibly take it literally when it is promised that anything which we are capable of asking in the name of Jesus will be given to us; because we are capable of making absurd requests, requests the granting of which would finally be hurtful to us.

I think we are to understand Jesus is trying to paint a picture of a God who is far more eager to give than we are to receive, who is not niggardly and reluctant but who longs to pour all manner of blessings into our lives, but that we, through lack of co-operation with him, do not lay ourselves open to receive them.

No doubt emphasis must be put on the phrase, “In my name.” I must not take the space to argue the point, but, again and again, through the New Testament “name” and “power” are synonymous. Men who went through the known world in the name of Jesus, went in the power of Jesus. What we are asking in our prayers we are asking through the power of Jesus Christ, so the passage would come to read, “If you shall ask anything that is in my power to give you, you shall receive it.” A discussion of what power is and what it can and cannot achieve is to be remembered in relevance to the omnipotence of God at this point.

Constantly we are told to pray, “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,” or “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and I have gathered the impression that what is meant, beyond the meaning just indicated, is, if the metaphor may be allowed, that all our own desires are to be passed through the mesh of his desire for us, and that anything that is hostile to his mind must be strained out, and only that allowed to go through which is his will of us, as well as our own desire. Then in very truth the passage has abundant fulfillment, for we are only asking what it is God’s will to give to us.

If you then reply, “Well, what is the need to ask if he wills to give?” I think the answer is there are many things we cannot receive until we prove ourselves ready to receive them. A sufferer from a severe illness may pray his relatives or nurse for food, but if they are wise they will not answer the prayer in that form until his convalescence has reached a point when food can be beneficially received. Again and again, I think, even in our prayers for deliverance from temptation, we are left to flounder because we will not realize the power which comes to us can only come from God and from our conscious co-operation with him. God often does not answer either “Yes” or “No.” He often says “Wait,” and our prayer for deliverance from pain and suffering has to have the answer “Wait,” because God wills to answer through the human family to which we inextricably belong, and the members of that family simply don’t know enough to deliver us.

Here we strike again a point already made; that it is God’s way of dealing with certain cases of suffering to allow the individual to continue in pain until the human family rouses itself and uses its resources to remove the cause of disharmony. If God immediately answered the prayer of the individual for relief, he would, by that very act, discourage the family from undertaking the research which is educative and which helps it to prevent such suffering and to cure it in the future. He would do for the family what the family could do itself if it used its resources. Here, then, for instance, is one of the things which Jesus has no power to do; for he never acts contrary to the will of his Father. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing,” (John 5:19) and he will not answer a prayer of ours if it militates against God’s wise plan for his family. In our best moments we do not ask this. We should despise a school teacher who granted concessions to an individual child in the school who happened to be his own. It is natural we should ask for relief from suffering, and God must long for us to have that relief, but we are called upon sometimes to share his burden and suffering while we wait for the greater good of the family to discover its own resources.

One of the thoughts which have paralyzed prayer and made people feel it cannot be answered is the apparent reign of law. But we must never push our observation of law-abiding energies, and our idolatry of “science,” so far as to make us suppose God has made a certain number of laws of the universe and now he himself is bound by them, almost in the same way in which a man driving an automobile is limited by what the car can do, and cannot, for example, suddenly soar into the air. People sometimes imagine God has made the universe, and has, as it were, set it going with a number of laws on board, rather in the same way a little boy might wind up a clockwork train and set it going, and be unable further to control what happens. I think it is true God never acts in a way which ruptures law, but the influence of laws, one upon the other, can bring about any result which God desires. If certain things do not happen as we should wish them to happen, it is not the iron rule of law which is the factor, but the holy and loving purposes of God.

It is a law that water runs downhill; but the very fall of water downhill can drive a pump to push water uphill. Law would suggest that iron does not float; but a Cunard liner while at no point bringing about a rupture of law, carries hundreds of tons of iron across the sea. Frequently we are depressed at the thought that whatever a man sows that shall he also reap; but the teaching of the parable of the sower seems rather conclusively to show a farmer’s troubles are caused because he does not reap what he sows. The birds of the air devour some of it; some of falls by the wayside and is choked by thorns. We must not think of a God who makes a world so incomplete that, afterward, having established its system of laws, he cannot move to save his children because his own laws defeat him. In a wonder phrase I remember, “The universe is not a steel gauntlet hard and inflexible. It is a silken glove.” And what is more wonderful still, it is a silken glove with the hand of God inside it.