Scripture

Making sure to use the magic words in prayer

I don’t recall a lot of things my dad taught me, but one I do remember is that in order to get someone to do what I want or to give me something, I first need to butter her up. I say her because the prospective giver was usually my mother.

“Mom, you look so pretty today, and you wash those dishes so thoroughly. Do you think I could have a cookie?”

I probably wouldn’t have used a word like thoroughly. But the other words were supposed to be magic. Flattery, really, a ruse she saw right through and one that seldom worked.

There are some magic words in prayer you might be aware of. Ones you probably even use but don’t really understand. You’ve heard other people use them, people whom you perceive to be more spiritually mature than yourself. The super-spiritual even expand on this oft-used closing phrase. They’ll add multiple descriptive prepositional phrases and a few adjectives and adverbs for effect, maybe even a participle.

Here the words without the flowery additions:

” … in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I tack this on to my prayers without giving much thought. Perhaps you do as well. Where did this phrase come from? Why do we say it?

In John 14, Jesus is encouraging his disciples, just after Judas left to seal his betrayal and after Jesus predicted Peter’s denial. Jesus assures them that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that no one can reach the Father except through him. (I considered splitting this chapter into two posts, because of that phrase there. Perhaps another post.)

Then Jesus goes on to say something that may have sounded outrageous to the disciples:

John 14:12 (ESV)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

Greater works? They would do greater works than they saw Jesus do? Greater than healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, walking on water? And let’s not forget: raising the dead. How would they do this?

John 14:13-14 (ESV)
13 “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

They would simply need to ask. That’s all.

“Open Sesame”

But what does this mean, this “in my name”? What does asking in Jesus’ name entail? Is it simply closing our prayers with the phrase as a sort of hokus pokus magic word that turns the key to all we’d ever want? Does it assure that whatever we ask we will receive? James would argue that, no, we don’t receive everything we ask for, often because our motives are impure (see James 4:3).

The ESV Study Bible, a brief commentary I’ve come to really appreciate, offers two aspects of praying in Jesus’ name. It means,

praying in a way consistent with his character and his will (a person’s name in the ancient world represented what the person was like); it also means coming to God in the authority of Jesus. Probably both senses are intended here. Adding “in Jesus’ name” at the end of every prayer is neither required nor wrong. Effective prayer must ask for and desire what Jesus delights in. –ESV Study Bible

I’ll reverse these and say that, first, when I go to God in prayer I need to be mindful that I do so in the authority of Jesus, whose sacrifice for us made it possible that we could run confidently into God’s courts and seek his mercy and grace (see Hebrews 4:16). Jesus is indeed the Way. We have access to Father through him and him alone.

Secondly, and this is likely more pertinent to our understanding of in Jesus’ name: we need to pray in a manner consistent with God’s will. It would stand to reason that I should familiarize myself with God’s will. What would he want for me and those I’m praying for? How could I know this except through my seeking to know him? And I get to know him more by reading the Bible, which tells me all about who God is. The more I understand scriptural principles and commands, the better I can judge whether what I’m asking is in accordance with God’s will.

Thirdly, how will God be glorified if he were to give what I’m asking? I wrote in “When 2+2 = something other than 4” how Jesus’ answered his disciples who’d asked why a man had been born blind, whether it was his or his parents’ sin. Jesus said it all had to do with the Father’s glory. Jesus is most concerned with glorifying the Father, not in giving us everything we want. We should share Jesus’ concern. Perhaps a reminder would be to close our prayers this way:

” … and we pray this in Jesus’ name that you, Father, might be glorified. Amen.”

Let’s pray with understanding, not heaping up empty phrases (see Matthew 6:7). Our prayers are not to be religious exercises but conversations with the Creator of the universe who loves and welcomes our requests. Let’s seek his will and his glory and watch him do greater things through us.

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