In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).
I’m sure most reading this recognize that this is not some universal blanket promise. So we have to ask, “On what level is this true?” Or, “Is it true on any level?”
The preceding context assumes that the one who asks is trusting and abiding in Christ, and is participating in the works that Christ did and continues to do through his disciples (John 14:10-12). That being the context, the assumption might be that the one who is abiding in Christ and doing Christ’s works knows exactly what to ask. That, however, seems to me to be an awfully grandiose assumption.
Even if we knew exactly what to ask, how could the answer be guaranteed? God does not act coercively in our world and in our personal lives, and God obviously grants to human beings (and indeed all creatures and all earthly processes) a tremendous freedom. Human beings engage in both great good and horrible atrocities without the intervention of God. In light of such freedom and lack of coercive power, no request could be guaranteed.
Obviously, this is a very problematic text if one takes this promise literally. Maybe the deeper truth, which the following passage bears out, is that while prayer does not guarantee answers, it helps us to ask the right questions, and prayer has an important role to play in the way we live and how we engage the world.
Jesus informs the disciples that he will give them “another Advocate . . . the Spirit of Truth” who will abide “in” them; the Spirit will enable the disciples to “see” and “know” at a deeper level (14:15-20)
It’s significant that the asking is to be done “in the name” of Jesus. That, of course, is no magic formula. To ask in the name of Jesus is to ask for the things Jesus would ask for, and to ask for the things Jesus would ask for, we have to be able to “see” and “know” as Jesus did.
What should we then be asking for? Surely for the things that will help us engage in the work of Christ. What will advance the cause of God (the kingdom of God) Jesus lived and died for? How can we carry on Jesus’ commitment to the poor and disadvantaged? How can we love the way Jesus loved? How can we catch and infect others with the faith and hope Jesus had in God and in humankind?
Sometimes our assumptions and biases prevent us from seeing what is true, from knowing what to ask for, and how to engage the world as representatives of Jesus.
Ellen Dollar, an Episcopal priest and writer for Patheos, wrote recently about the time she and her husband Daniel, just after they were married, traveled to Boone, North Carolina so he could introduce her to his old college stomping grounds at Appalachian State University.
On Sunday they attended the Sunday morning service at the Baptist church Daniel attended during college. The pastor closed the service with a prayer, that according to the pastor’s introduction, was written many centuries ago by a young man named Julian who was preparing for ordination.
When Ellen looked at the bulletin where the prayer was printed out, she immediately recognized it as a prayer from the mystic, Julian of Norwich, who was most definitely not a man.
Did the pastor not know Julian was a woman? Was this an inadvertent mistake by a learned pastor with a seminary education? If so, why did he assume Julian was a man?
Ellen wrote: “Maybe this reveals just how entrenched male bias continues to be in the Christian faith, such that a great Christian mystic who saw visions and spoke of God as both mother and father would be repackaged into the more familiar guise of a male pastor.”
Our biases and assumptions can prevent us from “seeing” and “knowing” what is true and real.
Maybe the deeper purpose of prayer is to help us connect with the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who not only reveals to us what is true, good, and redemptive, but empowers us to engage in the kind of work that promotes these things.
I like what Amy Butler, the soon-to-be new pastor at Riverside church in New York, wrote recently: “We already know the truth; it’s stamped on our DNA. We know that love heals us; that treating each other with kindness and compassion is the only way to live; that showing mercy makes us softer; that wide and expansive welcome instead of grasping, limited exclusion is always the way to go; that gospel living can change everything. We know all of that.”
Do we already know all of that? We do, when we are connected with the Divine Spirit and when we are being led by the Spirit to engage our world in healing and redemptive ways. Prayer helps us to consciously connect with the Divine Spirit who resides in our true self.
Prayer is not one thing; it’s many things. It’s all the things that we do in inner conversation with ourselves or in outer conversation with others, it’s all we do in worship and ministry, in solitude and service, in study and reflection, as well as in working for peace and social justice—it’s all these things and more that enable us to connect with the Divine Source of love and truth within each of us. It’s all that empowers us to engage our world in and with the truth and grace of Christ.