In 1John 3:21 – 23 John wrote: ‘Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.’

It would be easy to think that John has written an open cheque when he says that we ‘receive from him anything we ask’. But in 5:14 he puts a limit on this ‘anything’ by stating ‘if we ask anything according to his will he hears us ...’

John also puts a boundary around this ‘anything we ask’ when, in verse 22, he states that the reason we will receive from God ‘anything we ask’ is ‘because we obey his commands and do what pleases him,’ and then explains that there are two commands that we, as believers in Christ, obey:

To believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and
To love one another.

If we are obeying these two commands that define believers, then our prayers will all be in line with these two commands – we will be praying only for those things which uphold and honour the name of God’s Son, and we will be praying only for those things that are consistent with love for one another.

John thus modifies the ‘anything’ with three boundaries:

Petitions that God grants are in keeping with God’s will (5:14).
Petitions that God grants are in keeping with God’s honour, God’s name (3:23).
Petitions that God grants are in keeping with his kingdom principle of love (3:23).

Jesus also, could be misunderstood to teach that the promise of answered prayer is like an open cheque.

On the one hand he said:

‘Ask and it will be given to you’ – Matthew 7:7; and ‘If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer’ – Matthew 21:22; and ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you’ – John 15:7.

But he also modified these statements with clear boundaries:

In the Lord’s prayer, in the first three petitions we commit ourselves to the honour of God’s name, to God’s will and to God’s kingdom. Having affirmed these priorities, we cannot then pray for anything contrary to these priorities – Matthew 6:9, 10.

The rich ruler in Luke 18:18 – 23 sought eternal life, but he did not get it. He did not submit to the authority of Jesus Christ (he did not believe in his name), and he did not prioritise the kingdom principle of love for others. He prioritized himself, both in his request for personal eternal life, in his refusal to obey Christ, and in his inability to give away his wealth. He broke the two commands listed by John in 3:23, and forfeited what he had requested.

Jesus taught that prayer that is answered is prayer in his name: ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it’ – John 14:13, 14. ‘Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name’ – John 15:16. This ‘in my name’ puts a massive limitation on the things that are appropriate to ask for. There are many, many human requests that are outlawed by this proviso ‘in my name’ because they are contrary to his name. That is, they are contrary to his nature, contrary to his example, and contrary to his purpose. We cannot ask ‘in his name’ for things that he himself rejects.

Jesus, despite his personal desire to avoid the impending suffering, submitted himself to the will of God, prioritizing both the will of God and his redeeming love for us – Matthew 26:36 – 46.

Let us remember that prayer is not coming to God with an arrogant ‘wish list’ that assumes we have a right to make these demands. Rather, in biblical prayer, like the prayer of Jesus, our petitions are made with an attitude of humble submission to God’s honour, God’s kingdom and God’s will, because, deep down in our hearts, below our perceived wants and needs, that is what we really desire.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2022