Maybe this is more of a boy thing than a girl thing, but have you ever prayed for a bicycle?
I can certainly remember praying for a bicycle . . . and a watch. In fact, these are the only things that I can remember praying for as a small boy. My mother would, of course, remember some deep, profound, other prayers of mine that she was privileged to share—but me? I only remember the bicycle and the watch.
My deep theological question throughout has always been, does God give bicycles to those who ask? To be honest, I still can’t give you a simple, straightforward answer. As a man experienced in the matter of prayer for watches, I can tell you how it does not work. There is no automated dispenser—insert prayer, turn the handle, and—voila!—out pops the watch for which you prayed. It doesn’t work that way.
But have those prayer promise statements in the Bible ever bothered you? Think, for example, of Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you.” Or consider John 14:14: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Or how about John 16:24: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Consider also 1 John 5:15: “And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask.”
For adults, our questions are often darker. If my sick child doesn’t seem to get better, I may be tempted to wonder: If God is sovereign and His plans are fixed, does prayer really make a difference? Will speaking to Him about my crisis really help? If it does, is there a secret recipe? Is there a way in which I can make God respond—like the genie that comes out of Aladdin’s lamp when it is rubbed the right way?
These are hard questions and we won’t try and answer them all now, but regardless, these texts mentioned above stand as they are—and beg an explanation. But taking them out of their context would be like wanting a no-strings-attached kite. The kite will not fly! So what are the strings that are attached to the answered prayer texts?
All these texts have the word “ask” in common. But asking is not the only prerequisite. Consider this: Little Johnny’s dad has an account with Greek’s café on the corner so that Mom can buy bread and milk. One day, Johnny sidles up to Costa’s café with his friend, each on a bicycle in the sweltering heat. He orders two ice cream cones—one for himself and one for Jack—on his dad’s account. Costa would no doubt demand a letter from his father.
Johnny would no doubt consider the ice cream to be a “good” thing for him at that point. But is it really “good”?
I trust that you see the analogy. The Father knows how to give good things. The problem is that we sometimes define good things like Johnny does—which is obviously not the only way to define good. Our good Father knows how to give good things. He will not give us a stone when we ask for bread or a scorpion when we ask for fish. He is able to supply super-abundantly more than we can imagine. But often there is something seriously lacking: our belief in the goodness of the Giver.
A belief in the love of God would radically reduce our prayer shopping list. Are you convinced of the goodness of God? Remember that helpful phrase in the well-known song:
Oh, the mercy of God, expressed in His Son.
His image and likeness revealed to us all.
How do I know that God is merciful? I look at the Son (His image and likeness). How do I know the Son is good? He died for me. He paid my sin debt.
But let us again consider Johnny. If he had arrived at Costa’s café with a letter from his father, many exciting things would have become possible. Whatever Dad prescribed would motivate Costa to supply the goods. Why? Because Johnny’s father signed the request. Johnny came in his father’s name with his father’s prescriptions.
That makes a world of difference.
That is what it means to pray in the name of Jesus. If my prayer is like coming to the Father with a letter signed by Jesus, things change. I don’t have an account with the Father. In fact, I’m bankrupt. But if I come on Jesus’ account (i.e. in His name) the Father gives gladly—but always in line with His own prescriptions.
So, returning to an earlier question: Is there a recipe for success in prayer? I have no doubt that there is. But the ingredients are often expensive. It may include humbling yourself in the sight of the Lord. It may include making sacrifices of prayer, fasting and giving that only God knows about. It may include the effort to find His will in His Word on the matter you are asking for. It may include washing feet.
On the opposite side, if I’m selfish in my desires and motivated by jealousy, I’m asking amiss, and I will not have. If I doubt God, I should not expect to receive anything from Him.
Now, we have not even started to unpack those texts mentioned above in their context, and many wonderful hidden treasures still lie there. Perhaps there will be opportunity in the future to look at those.
In the meantime, what is our conclusion about my bicycle prayers? Well, only that there is a little bit more involved than I thought at the time. If you were anything like me you would wish there was a simple answer. But there is no simple, one-line answer. The answer is a whole journey, and you have good company for that journey.