I’m heading into month six of the six-month prayer challenge. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time praying for things other than the areas I committed to five months ago. But in the midst of all that is going on, I’ve found it helpful to pray for my original concerns, in part because it reminds me the story is bigger than the chapter I’m living.
There have been many days when it hasn’t been easy to pray. I’ve been distracted, sad, anxious; emotional states don’t foster being attentive to God. But I’ve found that the discipline of keeping a daily commitment has been good for me. In some ways it’s like showing up to work. I don’t mean that prayer is a job but meeting with God to talk about the work of building His kingdom is something I need to do even when I don’t feel like it or when my world has been shaken.
Along the way, I’ve also continued to reflect on the foundational verses of the prayer challenge, John 15:7-8, and the commands in it: to remain in Jesus, have His words remain in me, and to ask whatever I wish— in faith it will be given to me. But when things are going badly and I get to the ‘and it will be given’ part, I hear a snake-like voice saying, “Did God really say that?”
The answer is yes. This verse is in Matthew, Mark and John. There’s another formulation of it in three gospels, including Luke. So I think it is safe to say this verse is not a fluke. Yet if I take a quick look at my list of unanswered prayers, something doesn’t seem to line up.
Except this is just one tiny portion of scripture, and we know it’s dangerous to go lifting out bits that were meant to be part of a whole. In fact, there are many other tiny portions of scripture that we don’t take out of the whole–which is why there aren’t a lot of people walking around with their eyes gouged out [Matthew 5:29].
And today, reading through Mark 10, I came to a passage that expands the principle of asking and receiving. It starts in verse 32 as Jesus tells his disciples what is going to happen to him: betrayal, death, resurrection. And then James and John come to Jesus and say “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
I read that and thought, ok, they have taken the six-month prayer challenge to heart. They’re doing what Jesus has told them to do. What they want is to sit on either side of Jesus when they get to heaven, places of honor [and I would add, of power]. And Jesus answers their request by telling them they don’t know what they are asking. Can they drink the cup He is going to drink? They assure Him they can. He agrees that they will. Then He tells them that this request is not for Him to grant. Someone else is already getting the choice seats.
The other disciples get miffed when they hear about the request of James and John. Jesus responds by explaining how authority works in the Kingdom. Greatness comes from serving others, just like He came to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.
This brings me back to the beginning of John 15:7: “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you…” In John, the sentence gets completed with “ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you”. But another way to complete the sentence is “take up your cross and follow Me”. [Matthew 16:24] Or “you will obey My commandments” [John 15:10], or “you will love My other followers like I have loved you” [John 15:12]. And the sentence can be inverted, as Jesus does in John 15:16: I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using My name.
Obeying, following, loving, serving, dying, producing fruit, asking. That’s the whole package. There’s a lot more I’m called to do besides asking for whatever I wish, and most of it is difficult, hard, and painful. That shouldn’t surprise me though. Every story in the Bible about the glorious flourishing of God’s people comes out of great suffering, pain, death.
But when we first set off to follow Jesus, what do we really know about taking up our cross? We’re given life and forgiveness and grace and power and free access to the Father and encouraged to ask Him for what we need. We think all our problems have been solved.
And then the battle begins.
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!….
….we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.
II Corinthians 4:8-18 The Message