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Readers seeking to transform their prayer lives will find wonderful direction in Praying Backwards.
In Jesus' Name, Begin
A faithful grandmother was dying of cancer. For many days her family gathered around her hospital bed to encourage her, remember better times, and pray. A friend of mine was a nurse in the hospital. Touched by the tender care of the family, she asked if she could join them in their prayers. Without hesitation they included her.
As the young nurse listened, however, she grew concerned about the content of the prayers. The family called out "in faith" for healing. They told God they had no doubt that he who created the entire universe could re-create health in the body of their loved one. Occasionally a family member would remind God that he had promised in the Bible that if we ask him anything with sufficient faith, we will receive our request. The family called on God to be faithful to his promises by healing the cancer, and they assured my friend, "God will heal."
My friend wondered if it was right to demand that God do what human wisdom determined was best, but the family's prayers were so sincere and bold that it felt wrong to ask questions. Jesus does say in the Bible that if we believe and ask anything in his name, he will answer. Maybe the family was right to pray as they did. My nurse friend wondered how else anyone could pray and still show trust in God's promises.
One day, as my friend finished her nursing rounds, the cancer completed its course. She walked into the hospital room shortly after the suffering woman had died. The family was still in the room, and the young nurse asked if she could pray with them one more time. She was not prepared for the response.
With a steely voice full of new bitterness, the woman's husband replied, "God says to pray and he will answer. We did and he did not. So we're done with that."
Something in us knows that he was wrong, but why wasn't he right to be disappointed in God-or at least disappointed in prayer? If the Bible promises God will answer prayer and he does not, then something must be wrong. Can we trust that God listens and responds to our specific requests, or do we have to spiritualize God's promises into general principles about his eternal providence? Is it right to pray about our daily concerns, or are we imposing on an infinite God when we ask for his intimate care? How does Jesus really want us to pray?
Asking Again-and Again
We should not be surprised that even those with a great deal of spiritual experience need to ask, "Lord, how are we supposed to pray?" After almost three years of walking with Jesus, watching his life, and hearing his words, the apostles came to Jesus and said, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). You would think they would already know.
Day after day Jesus' disciples had heard his teaching, watched his example, and prayed with him. Early in his ministry, Jesus also took time to teach them to pray to his Father (Matt. 6:9-13). So if even experienced apostles had questions about how they should pray, we do not need to be ashamed that we have some questions too.
Jesus is so patient. He does not condemn or rebuke the apostles for their repeated questions or elementary understanding. Seeing how Jesus reacts to his disciples is important for my own prayer life. When I am tempted to blame myself for not knowing more than I do about prayer, the patience of the Savior calms my heart and draws me to him. I know from his treatment of the apostles that he wants me close and will listen to me even when I need to ask again and again, "Lord, how should I pray?" Of course, I do not usually ask this question in times of smooth sailing. But when life's complexities, difficulties, and surprises storm, I ask lots of questions and am thankful for a Savior who does not grow angry because I must grow in understanding.
Preparing for our rough seas, the Holy Spirit recorded Christ's repeated instructions on prayer in the Bible and also inspired the apostles and prophets to teach us how to pray. The Spirit knows that we will need an occasional review, particularly in rough times. Such patience and concern to help us know how to pray encourage us not to run from our questions but to bring them to our God. He wants us to know how to pray for healing, help, or simple comfort. The concerns of our life are not below his radar screen but are ever before his face. His willingness to teach us again and again to pray tells us how important it is that we come to him again and again.
Praying in His Name-First
When the farmer prays for rain to water wilting crops, and the Sunday school teacher prays for sun to protect the church picnic, whose prayer should be answered? How can we know for certain who is right? Will God simply answer the one whose prayers are best and whose faith is greatest? Surely we have to depend on wisdom greater than our own when we pray. But how do we reconcile this instinctive understanding of the limits of our prayers with the Bible's teaching about praying for whatever we want?
Something in us whispers that it is not right to treat our God like a celestial vending machine into which we place faith nickels to get the jackpot we want. Such faith would seem to put more confidence in our wisdom about how the world should work than in an infinitely wise God. Somehow proper prayer must put more trust in God's will than in human wants; otherwise failure to get the things we want will force us to doubt either the power of prayer or the ability of God.
Jesus taught his disciples not to doubt when they prayed and to expect answers. If this does not mean that prayer is simply a means of snapping our fingers to get God to do our bidding, what does it mean? Answers come when we weigh each word-skipping none of Jesus' instruction to pray with belief and with boldness-and as we simultaneously consider the wisdom of praying backwards.
Praying backwards means we put first priority on the words we say last in our prayers. As strange as it may seem, if we would dare to pray backwards, if we would remember to start where we end (in the desires of our heart, if not in the actual words of our mouth), we would discover the foundation of blessing on which all answered prayer is built. Praying entire prayers in Jesus' name profoundly alters our priorities and powerfully sends our requests to God.
The Privilege of Jesus' Name
Why do we finish our prayers with the refrain "In Jesus' name"? Is this just the religious form of saying, "Yours truly," or "Roger, wilco, over and out"? Is Jesus' name just a "sanctified" period? We know better. The most important reason we pray in Jesus' name is because he says we should:
"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). "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name" (15:16).
Though Jesus commands us to pray in his name, the reason we do so is not simply to make sure that we get our prayer formula right. Our prayers are not more powerful because we chant our Savior's name like a magic spell. If we use Jesus' name as some sort of spiritual incantation, then we fall into the error of the sorcerers in the book of Acts who thought that using Jesus' name was just another way of saying "abracadabra" or "shazam" (see Acts 19:13-16). We are not to mimic witches spicing their caldrons with a little eye of newt and tail of squirrel when we add Jesus' name to our prayers.
The Merit of Jesus' Name
Echoing behind Christ's instruction to use his name is the understanding that he makes it possible for us to approach God. When we pray in Jesus' name, we confess that we are not coming to God or asking for his blessing on the basis of our merit. In essence, we are saying, "Lord, there is not enough goodness in my best works to warrant your listening to me or answering my prayer. But, Lord, I am not appealing to you on the basis of my merit. I ask you to listen to me as one who trusts in the blood of Jesus to wash away my sin. By the work of your Holy Spirit, I am united to Jesus, and it is only on the basis of his righteousness that I feel I can approach your holy throne in this prayer."
Praying in Jesus' name is automatically a confession of our unworthiness and a proclamation of his worthiness. By including the name of Jesus in our prayers, we acknowledge:
He paid the debt for our sins in his suffering and death on the cross. "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace" (Eph. 1:7). He provides us union with him so that we are now robed in his righteousness and pronounced by the heavenly Father to be as precious to him as his own Son. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).
Thus prayer in Jesus' name is not an incantation to make us worthy of divine attention; it is a confession that we are unworthy of even approaching God apart from the mercy and merits of our Savior. We pray in the name of Jesus to profess our need of him and to proclaim our trust in the provision of righteousness he made for us.
The Appeal of Jesus' Name
We also use the name of Jesus in our prayers to acknowledge what he is doing now. Not only does Christ give us his holy status so that we can approach our holy God, Jesus also intercedes for us. As our resurrected Lord, he now sits at the right hand of the Father to petition him for our good:
Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Heb. 7:24-25). My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (1 John 2:1).
Jesus so loves us that he uses the privileges of his exalted position and the affection of his heavenly Father to ask the best for those who pray in his name. And because Jesus speaks for us, the Father who loves him treats us with affection out of love for his own child. It is as though a prince makes an appeal before his father, the king, for the good of a pauper. Though the king may have little cause to care for the pauper, because the son he loves makes the request, the king grants the pauper what he seeks.
Not only does Christ's intercession grant us spiritual paupers the ability to have our appeals lovingly heard by the Father, Jesus' continuing work grants us direct access to the Father. By his death, resurrection, and intercession, Christ Jesus enables us to approach our God and petition him as though we were the royal prince that he is. When we approach our God in Jesus' name, we have his own status as a child of the King. Christ continues to plead not only for our desires but also for our souls. He asks God to forgive our present sins and to apply his own righteousness to our account. The result is that, though we are fallen creatures, before God we have the holy status of Jesus himself.
Despite our sins, faults, and weaknesses, we enter the heavenly Father's throne room of grace on the basis of Christ's merit and his willingness to identify with us. Thus we pray "in Jesus' name" in praise of Christ's sacrifice and in recognition that our union with him alone gives us privileged access to the Father (Eph. 2:18-19).
The Power of Jesus' Name
With this access to the Father comes the privilege of praying with the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The role of the Holy Spirit is to make the name of Jesus known and to advance his kingdom (John 15:26-16:14). When we pray in Jesus' name, we are appealing to the Holy Spirit to conform our prayers to Christ's purposes.
The Spirit has no more pressing business than advancing the name of Jesus. So when we pray in Jesus' name, we are summoning the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purposes. Any prayer truly offered in Jesus' name automatically engages the primary interest of the third person of the Trinity, who was (and remains) the power that moves the world-and everything in it.
By engaging this Spirit through the use of Jesus' name, we are also acknowledging the limits of our wisdom. The Spirit of God is infinitely wise and knows what our prayers should be. That is why the apostle Paul says that though we may not understand how to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes to bring our prayers "in accordance with God's will" (Rom. 8:26-27). By praying in Jesus' name, we engage the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The result is that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (v. 28). We will explore these dynamics much more in later chapters, but for now it is important to recognize that praying in Jesus' name is an awesome privilege whereby we declare our honor of and dependence on the work of the three persons of the Trinity.
The Purpose of Jesus' Name
As great as is the privilege of praying "in Jesus' name," we will not know the full blessings of praying this way if we do not know the purpose of prayers that use these words. Throughout the Bible persons use the name of God to indicate that fulfilling his purposes is their highest priority. All that is done in God's name is for his glory. When Abraham, the father of the covenant people, claims land for the nation of God, he calls on the name of the Lord (Gen. 21:33). When the Old Testament people of God go forth to battle, they fight in his name (2 Chron. 14:11). Priests minister "in the name of the Lord" (Deut. 18:7). Prophets speak and act "in the name of the Lord" (v. 22; 1 Kings 18:32). David fought Goliath "in the name of the Lord" (1 Sam. 17:45). When God's people use his name, they indicate that they are seeking to bring honor to him. Whoever claims God's name declares the intention to serve his purposes.
The Old Testament pattern of service in God's name continues in the New Testament. Jesus comes in the name of the Lord (Matt. 23:39). In the name of Jesus, demons are cast out and miracles performed (Acts 16:18). The apostles exhort the church "in the name of the Lord" (1 Cot. 1:10). The church assembles "in the name of our Lord" (5:4). The church prays in the name of the Lord and is prayed for in the same way so that God might be glorified in all that his people do (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:17).
To do anything in the Lord's name means to do it for his purposes. When we pray in Jesus' name, we are petitioning God to bring glory to Jesus and we are asking for his will to be done in everything so that he will be honored above all. Prayers in Jesus' name are enveloped with concern that he be represented, blessed, and glorified. By appealing to Jesus' name, we surrender our prayers to his purposes. This means that, while we should present many kinds of petitions to God, a prayer offered in Jesus' name ultimately requests his desires.
Praying in His Name-Always
Have you listened to the things children ask for when they pray? Children may request a new pony, a red bicycle, a win for their team, or that Mom will not discover the broken vase. Whose purposes are served if these prayers are answered? They seek the ultimate benefit of the child, not the glory of the Savior. They are offered for the child's sake rather than in Jesus' name.
Were we to pray backwards literally, we might be surprised to find how childish many of our prayers are:
In Jesus' name, give me a new car. In Jesus' name, lower my taxes. In Jesus' name, make my stock go up in value. In Jesus' name, help me get out of this marriage. In Jesus' name, make my church get really big.
While there may be God-honoring purposes in some of these prayers, the glory of Jesus' name is not the primary focus of most of them. When we become the primary focus of our prayers and our earthly satisfaction is our greatest concern, then ending our prayer with Jesus' name is superfluous at best and possibly little more than superstition.
When we pray backwards, we are faced with the fact that Jesus' desires should be honored preeminently and ultimately, because he who bought us at the price of his own precious blood should have his purposes honored most highly. Praying backwards helps clarify the priorities of our prayers so that we can distinguish childish from mature petitions:
Children pray, "Lord, give me what I want"; the mature pray, "Lord, conform me to what you want." Children pray for the fulfillment of their desires; the mature pray for the fulfillment of the Savior's purposes. Children pray for the things they can see; the mature pray that God will be seen. Children pray, "My will be done"; the mature pray, "Thy will be done."
The principles of praying backwards do not require us always to say the words "in Jesus' name" prior to our personal petitions. While there is nothing wrong with such a practice, it is not a magic formula or a secret password. Praying backwards is an attitude of the heart. To pray backwards means we back away from making ourselves, our wishes, or our wants the primary concerns of our prayer. We always put the purposes of Jesus first. We echo in heart if not in actual words the attitude of the psalmist who prayed, "Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory" (Ps. 115:1).
His Glory, Our Joy
One day not too long ago, I went to the hospital to visit my friend Eric, who was dying of a brain tumor. Months of fighting the cancer with chemo and prayer had seemed futile. I came to encourage Eric and had no idea how powerful his ministry would be to me. In that yellow-tiled room, lined with monitors and tubes that measured and maintained his life, Eric showed me the treasures of an eternal life that was his greater reality and glory.
I did not know how rough this beloved teacher's day had been until I entered his room. His head was hurting so much that he was dizzy with the pain. He grimaced when he smiled to greet me, and we said little as I put a hand on his shoulder. His wife smiled gratefully and rose to let me have her seat beside the bed. Seeing her vibrant, always exuberant husband in so much pain had been hard on her that day. She went into the hallway to cry and to let go of the brave face that she usually kept in place for him.
Eric spoke earnestly in the few minutes that she was gone. "Bryan," he said, "please help my family not to hurt too much.
Excerpted from Praying Backwards by Bryan Chapell Copyright © 2005 by Bryan Chapell. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 15, 2014
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