I decided that I needed to write Part 3 to talk about some issues that have come out of discussions generated by Parts 1 and 2. What I have already written was not intended to be a complete presentation of all that there is to know about prayer. And Part 3 will not change that. However, as I have noted before, it should be the foundation of our understanding of the subject. There are, though, some misconceptions that still should be dealt with.
Let’s start with some of the verses that are commonly misunderstood. I know some pastors who stay away from these verses because they don’t understand them and can’t explain to their people why they don’t work. Still others boldly use them to make wild promises that God doesn’t intend to keep. They’re what I call the "blank check" verses. Verses that some think God gave us so we could ask Him for anything we want. These are the verses that some use to portray the Father as some kind of glorified Santa Claus, just waiting for someone to ask for something so He can rush to give it to them.
There are two of them in John 15. The first is verse 7, which says:
"If you continue to live vitally connected to me like a branch is connected to a vine, and if you continue to listen to Me and do what I’m telling you to do, then ask whatever you will of Me, and I’ll do it for you."
Of course, those who abuse this verse only tend to quote the part that’s useful to them, "ask whatever you will of Me, and I’ll do it for you." But, it’s the first part of the verse that has to be understood. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before. The promises of God are conditional. All through the Scriptures you find example after example of this. God says, in effect, "if you’ll do this, then I’ll do this."
So, what’s the condition? Pretty simple to figure out if you just read the whole verse and look at the context. Jesus uses an illustration here of a branch that is connected to the vine. The vine (Jesus) is the source of life to the branch. The branch can’t survive apart from the vine. The branch is dependent on the vine for everything it needs. Then, He adds something else. This connected branch has to be listening and obeying what Jesus is saying to him.
Now I ask you, if you’re living a life that’s defined by a complete dependency on the Lord and by a total obedience to Him, what are you going to ask for? In that condition your flesh is taken out of the way. The only thing you can say is "Lord, I only want what You want." Now, if you’re going to start asking the Lord to give you what He wants to give you, things will start happening. That’s something He’s interested in. Remember that He has a pre-determined will and purpose for your life. He wants to transform you into the image of His Son. But, He won’t unless you submit to it.
Let’s look at verse 16. It goes something like this:
"You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you and appointed you to bear fruit and keep on bearing fruit so it will be lasting, then whatever you ask of the Father as a representation of all that I Am, He may give it to you."
Again, the conditional nature of this verse should be obvious. The fruit Jesus is talking about is His own nature and character, reproduced in the life of the one dependent on and obedient to Him. When that fruit is continually produced and remains, we become a representation of all that He is. Now, I’m not taking any chances here. I’m going to make the application for you so you won’t miss it. If we’re taking on the nature and character of Jesus, our attitude is going to be the same as His. And, we’re going to ask for the same things He asked for. Do you see where this is going? Let Jesus spell it out for you.
"I am able to do nothing of My own accord. I only do what the Father tells Me to do. As He speaks to Me, I submit to Him to do what He says. And so My decision is always right, because it’s not really My decision, it’s His. I have no purpose or plan of My own, I came only to do the will of the Father Who sent Me."
Don’t miss the practical application of this truth regarding the idiom "in My name" as it’s found in John 15:16 in the KJV. "In My name" means "as a representation of who I am". When Jesus came to earth, He came "in the name" of the Father (John 5:43; 10:25), and the Scriptures confirm this when they tell us that Jesus was a complete representation of the Father (II Corinthians 4:4; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Jesus came to us as a representation of all that the Father is and as such submitted to the Father’s will completely. When we go to the Father "in Jesus’ name" and we really are a representation of who He is, we too, by virtue of this union, will be submitted completely to His will. Our will is not a consideration.
Of course the problem with this is that the religious, bless me crowd doesn’t know what "in Jesus name" means. They think it’s some magic formula that changes what they want into what God wants. It’s a pitiful concept and it’s wrong. And as long as we have these ridiculous men standing in front of congregations and TV cameras talking about their prosperity anointing, we know that they, and those who are listening to them, don’t know and don’t care what God wants.
However, God will always honor the true recognition and expression of this principle. Paul gives us the promise in II Timothy 2:11-13. This is actually part of an old doctrinal hymn that he quotes here. It’s an example of praise music, used to express and teach truth in the early church.
"This is a true word. If we die with Him, we will also live with Him. If we suffer for Him, we will also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will deny us. If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, because He cannot say, no, to Himself."
That last phrase is the key. He cannot say, no, to Himself. He cannot refuse to give what He has already planned and promised. He cannot turn His back on those who come to Him to receive the fulfillment of His purpose. He will not ignore those who submit to Him to gain the one thing that He has determined to give, the most precious thing imaginable – His own nature and character through the revelation of Jesus!
Did Jesus ever pray for something outside of the will of the Father? No, He didn’t. He had no desire to do that. And if we meet the conditions of John 15: 7, 16, we won’t either. Now, if you want a little practical exercise to get your mind right on this issue, apply what Jesus says in these two verses to the passage found in the next chapter, John 16:23-26.
Now, there are a couple of other verses I’d like to look at here. This is I John 5:14,15.
"And this is the confident privilege we have in Him: that if we ask anything in agreement with His plan and purpose for us, He will listen to us. And since we know that He listens to us, we also know with absolute certainty that He will grant those requests we have made of Him."
There’s something so pure and selfless about what John expresses here that stands in such stark contrast to what we see in the traditional church today. John is actually excited at the prospect of God being willing to give us what He wants to give us. But when you listen to the religious shuck and jive going on out there you get the impression that people aren’t interested in what God wants to give them, they’re only interested in what they want.
If you’ve read some of my other papers, you may remember me saying something about God not really being interested in what we want. But, you know what? In the light of what John says here, I have to say, again, God just doesn’t care what we want! It’s not important. It’s not relevant. Unless it lines up with what He wants. And I’ll tell you something else. None of us will ever know what He wants unless we do what we have to do to find out.
All those times Jesus went off alone to pray, He wasn’t telling the Father what He wanted. He wasn’t telling the Father what to do. He was submitting Himself to the Father and waiting for the Father to reveal His will and purpose. Only then did Jesus know what to do and what to ask. Jesus is our example. It’s no secret. Read it for yourself (I’ll make it easy for you, read John 5:19-20, 30; 7:16, 28-29; 8:16, 25-29, 38, and 55).
And this is probably as good a time as any to say something about all those folks in the traditional church who fancy themselves intercessors. These self-appointed, pseudo-spiritual, self-absorbed, busybody, prayer experts love to stand on the platform in front of an audience and in the same breath, yell at the Devil, tell God what to do and how to do it, and preach to those who might be listening. And it’s difficult to tell the difference between the three.
Now before you get too excited, let me say that there is such a thing as genuine intercession. But it’s not genuine unless ordered by God. There are multi-million dollar ministries that do nothing but pray for the lost. Now, on the surface, that sounds OK. It’s something that all the hand wringing, emotional, religious types can get into. I mean, you’re taught in the traditional church that if you really care about the lost, you’ll pray for them. We were all taught by men to do something that the Father apparently never told Jesus to do. He didn’t pray for the lost, He only prayed for believers (John 17:9). He confronted the lost with the truth.
You know I’ve mentioned several times that the Lord won’t allow me to write these things until He’s ready. And He’s usually not ready until He knows that I understand what I’m saying in a practical, experiential way. One of the things the Lord did to prepare me for this paper was to tell me not to pray for those caught up in the deception of the religious establishment. And just in case you missed my subtle point, praying for those in the religious establishment would be the same as praying for the lost (see the paper "Introduction to the Kingdom of Heaven"). Most of you will probably react to that and think it must be wrong. However, several weeks ago the Holy Spirit took me to Jeremiah 5, 6 and 7 and told me that what the Lord said about Israel there is what He’s saying about the church today. He stopped me at 7:16.
"Therefore do not pray for these people or lift up a cry for them or make intercession to Me, for I will not hear you."
If there’s one thing that could be said about the religious crowd today, it’s that sappy sentimentality is in fashion. But, sappy sentiment is not a part of God’s nature. In fact, most religious types have this concept of a laid-back, approving, benevolent God, who likes what he sees when He looks at the religious scene. I’ve got news for you. God is angry. Now, if on some chance, God says that you’re to pray for the lost. Then do it. Of course you must do it. But unless He tells you to, don’t waste your time.
Well, I’ve picked on the intercessors long enough. Maybe we should give the so-called prayer ministers equal time. These people love to strut around showing off their spiritual superiority. I remember years ago when we used to have what we called Body Life services. They should have been called Body Death services. This was a time when all the spiritual opportunists could exert themselves and their agendas over the weak and vulnerable.
So-called prayer ministry is popular in churches today for one obvious reason – it makes everyone feel good. The ones who do it feel good because they get to show off their supposed spirituality. The ones who are ministered to at least feel better, because they’ve been taught that it’s a good thing to submit to it and some even hold out the false hope that it might have helped. But, like most everything else that goes on in the traditional church, it’s based on secondhand religion. It’s what people do to people. God’s not in the mix. He’s not really involved. His name might be mentioned from time to time to give it some validity, but He’s not there.
Jesus illustrates this in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s a paraphrase of Matthew 7:1-5 to show you what I mean.
"It’s not up to you to decide what’s right or wrong for others. Learn to keep your nose out of their business, unless that’s how you want to be treated, because if you do it to others, someone else is going to do it to you. Then all you have is one big mess, everyone interfering in everyone else’s life. You may think you have a real talent for spotting other people’s problems. And you probably think you know just how to help them. But how good are you at seeing your own problems. After all, they’re the ones you really need to be dealing with. You need to be your own first priority. You can’t spend your time helping others with their problems, while you ignore your own. That kind of super-spiritual attitude is worthless! It is only when people learn how to face their own faults with God in confession and repentance that they can clearly understand how to help others by encouraging them to do the same."
That’s simple enough. One thing you can count on, Jesus is consistent. The main focus of prayer is still pretty much a one-on-one thing with God. Get alone with God and let Him deal with you. Be serious enough to know that since you have problems, you’re going to be required to go into the presence of God, submit to Him and change. This whole prayer ministry thing going on is secondhand like I said. No one has to deal directly with God. No one has to change. But what Jesus says is learn how to deal with your own problems directly with God. Then you’ll understand from practical experience how to really help others by encouraging them to do the same thing!
Now there’s one more passage on prayer I’d like to look at because it’s so practical. I’m talking about James 5:13-18. I think we’d better take this one on a verse at a time.
(13) Is anyone suffering evil? He should pray. Is anyone happy? He should give God the praise.
If per chance you remember the passage in I Peter 5:6-11 (for a more complete explanation, see Part 1), then you’ll remember that suffering evil is part of the deal. But, when you suffer, you want it to be because God has appointed you to it, not because you're being stupid and therefore, suffering needlessly. The point is that if you are suffering at the hands of evil, you need to go to God and submit to Him and try to find out why so you can benefit from it. God does test us. But when we fail the test, guess what? We get to take the test again.
On the other hand, if things are going well. Thank God!
(14) Is anyone among you weak in faith? He should call for the spiritual guides in the church. And after anointing him with oil, they should pray on his behalf in the name of the Lord.
Of course, those of you who may be somewhat familiar with this passage are already scrambling to find the text in your Bible, because in the back of your mind you remember the word "sick" being in there somewhere. You’re right. Most versions do translate astheneo that way. But they also properly translate the same verb "weaken" in Romans 4:19. And if you translate it "weaken" here in James 5, it actually fits the context of what James is saying. (It may be interesting though if you look at the verse in Romans and translate that verb as "sick", instead of "weaken". Then you’d see that in the face of God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations, Abraham refused to get "sick" when he considered his own impotence and the barrenness of his wife, Sarah. Yeah, that would be a great translation. Not!)
Now, for all you religious types who want to take Scripture out of context, or bend it to suit your particular agenda, you may want it to say "sick", because you want to believe that God is really concerned about your health. Those who think that, also think that God is concerned about their wealth. The healthy, wealthy crowd wants God for only one reason – for what they think they can get out of it. It’s selfish and it’s futile. I’ve gone there before. No sense going there again (see "Deception in the Church). God’s will and purpose and hence, His priority is to transform us into the image of Christ. And if you’re not submitting to that on a daily basis, your health and financial status are unimportant to Him.
Let’s get back on track. If there’s one in the church who is weakening in his faith, he should call for those who have been identified in the fellowship as the ones who are spiritual examples. I know. Most versions, again, say "elders". Here we go again. But elders are not the guys who hold business meetings once a month to monitor the expenditures of the church. And they’re not the ones who make up the bulk of the "ministry team". And they’re not the ones who must shoulder the responsibility of running all the programs in the church so everyone’s needs are met. Well, not unless they happen to be elders in the traditional religious establishment.
If they’re elders in the real church, then they’re the ones who have established by their example that they understand what God wants to do in their lives and they’re submitted to that. And as a result, everyone who knows them can see that they’re being changed into the image of Christ. An elder is someone who is willing to watch over those less mature and guide them on towards greater maturity. An elder is someone who has the courage and conviction to say to others in the fellowship, "you can trust me, you can follow my example, I’m not afraid of your scrutiny, imitate my life." Paul was an elder. That’s what he said to his converts (I Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; I Thessalonians 1:6). (For a more complete explanation of elders see "Leadership in the Early Church")
The anointing with oil that comes next is only a symbolic gesture used to illustrate the willingness of the one being anointed to recommit himself to the task of following the Lord and yielding to His purpose through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in his life. Remember this passage started in verse 13 with suffering at the hands of evil. The very reason this is all happening is because this guy has weakened in his resolve to suffer whatever may be necessary to be conformed to the image of Christ.
So now we’re finally ready to pray. Is this going to be a long, drawn out, preachy affair? I certainly hope not. They’re just going to say a short, simple prayer that lets this guy know why they’re there, doing what they’re doing. I hope you noticed that James says they’re to pray over him "in the name of the Lord." The idiom means the same thing here that it does anywhere else. And let’s not forget it’s the guy who has weakened that called this meeting in the first place. He’s going to be in agreement with the prayer.
This is nothing more than a public demonstration of this man’s determination to climb back up on the horse he fell off of. It shows the church that he’s ready to rededicate himself to the plan and purpose of God. And he did it in such a way that shows his willingness to establish accountability between himself and those who prayed over him and those who witnessed the whole affair. When you separate all the religious hocus pocus out of this passage, the simple practicality of what James is saying comes shining through.
(15) And the prayer that comes from faith will deliver the one who is discouraged, and the Lord will restore him. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
If you’re going to pray a prayer of faith, then you’d better know what faith is. Two of the most misunderstood words in the Bible are faith and believe. Faith is translated from the noun pistis, and believe is from the verb pisteuo. Both words have the same basic meaning. And there are three elements that must be combined to understand their full meaning. The first is personal revelation. God communicates truth, individually and personally (John 6:45). And if you don’t believe this, I’m sorry for you, because if you don’t allow God to give you personal revelation, you can’t have real faith. All you can have is empty, secondhand religion. The second is submissionto that truth. You accept what God says and surrender to it. And the third isobedience to that truth. You do what God says. If you apply all three of these things to your understanding of faith and believe, then you’ll never be confused by the inadequate and ambiguous use of these words by religion.
So what’s the prayer that comes from faith? It can only be a personal, one-on-one conversation with the Father in which you dedicate yourself to hearing Him, surrendering to Him and obeying Him. And what is the result of this prayer? The one that is discouraged, you know, the one who fell off the horse will be delivered. Now I know what you’re thinking. The word "sick" is in there somewhere. OK, you’re right again. Let’s look at that. In this verse the word translated "sick" is kamno. Now, given the context (that’s what I’ve been trying to establish for you, these past three pages), someone needs to explain to me why this same word is translated "weary" in Hebrews 12:3, the only other place you find it in the NT. Call me crazy. I think the best rendering of it in this context is "discouraged."
When this guy determines to get back in the game, he’s restored. Fellowship is resumed. God’s plan is set in motion again. The "all things" of Romans 8:28(otherwise known as "the good, the bad and the ugly") begin to operate again in his life. And his slate is wiped clean. If he has sins to confess, they’re forgiven. No one in the fellowship is going to hold his failure against him.
(16) So, for this reason, be willing to confess your failures to each other and pray for one another so you can be restored as well. The prayers of those who are determined to submit to God are powerful, producing change in their own lives (quickly transforming them from failure to conformity with the will of God).
Finally, in this verse, there’s no reference to sickness. The translators couldn’t botch this one. It’s too obvious. They’re forced to get into the flow of what James is saying. Too bad they’re three verses late. The word "faults" in the KJV (failures, above) is paraptoma, the failure to do what is right or required.
Now, everyone who has a plaque on their wall that says "Prayer Changes Things", take it down and throw it in the trash. The truth that’s established by everything we’ve looked at in all three of these papers on prayer is that it changes the one who’s praying, if he’s really praying. If he’s only doing his religious thing, no change is required, none is expected. But change is exactly what James is talking about. And when you look at the last sentence in verse 16, throw out the words that aren’t there and translate the ones that are according to the context, change is what you get.
(17) Elijah was a man with a nature just like ours. Yet he prayed that it would not rain and no rain fell for three years and six months.
(18) Then he prayed again and rain fell from heaven and the land produced its crops again.
Elijah got discouraged. He fell off the horse from time to time. But look how God restored him and used him. Did he know how to pray? Read I Kings 17:1 and see for yourself. By his own testimony he was a man who stood in the presence of God to receive His commands. Did you think he came up with the idea of no rain on his own? He prayed what God told him to pray.
The point James is making with Elijah is that even though Elijah experienced failure from time to time he knew how to pray his way back up on that horse! He’s our example. We know from what we see in Elijah that following God can be a difficult proposition. Failure is always a possibility. But God is faithful. And the prayer of faith will deliver the discouraged and restore them back into the plan of God. What is the prayer of faith? I'll say it again. It's a personal, one on one conversation with the Father in which you dedicate yourself to hearing Him, surrendering to Him and obeying Him.
And if religion has messed you up as badly as it messed me up, then you'll have to revisit these things from time to time and reinforce them in your mind. Just try to remember, no where in scripture is prayer presented as an opportunity to tell God what to do, how to do it or when to do it. No where in scripture are we told that prayer is our opportunity to tell God what to give us. No where in scripture is prayer seen to be our opportunity to tell God how we want Him to manipulate the lives of others to our fleshly satisfaction. Prayer is our opportunity to be transparent and submit to the Father and let Him know that we're willing to receive what He has for us.