Monday, January 23, 2006

Believe and Receive?

There are some texts in the Bible that make it seem like getting what you ask for in prayer is a pretty simple thing. Just believe and receive: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:24). If I prayed for a new Mercedes, or a 20-lb bar of gold, and believed that I would receive it, would I? St James says I wouldn’t: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3). So, there’s more to it than simply believing and asking! The point is, you can’t isolate one passage of Scripture from the rest, and then try to make it work to your advantage. The “believe and receive, name it and claim it” approach is not valid or authentic, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to the dynamic and loving relationship with God that He desires from us.

Jesus has said many things about prayer, and what He said must be taken as a whole to understand what his teaching really is, and thus to be able to expect the true fruits of prayer. He did say in one place, “Ask and you shall receive,” but He qualified it in another place: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). This is an important condition. Jesus is not a vending machine for miracles. If we are to receive what we ask for in prayer, we must be in a living, personal relationship with Him (abiding in Him), and we must live fully in accord with his teaching (his words abide in us). Only then can we expect to receive what we ask for—yet there is another, even more fundamental condition.

St John gives it to us in his First Epistle: “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (5:14). This is the bottom line of all prayer of petition. It follows from the previous condition: if we abide in Christ and his words abide in us, then we will know what to ask for, we will have the knowledge and awareness to ask for what He wills. Certainly, then, we will receive it, since He wants his will to be done, for our well-being and salvation. It may be a long process, however, this union with Christ and his words, and therefore it may take time, and perhaps some trial and error, before his will becomes clear to us. That is why we have to trust Him enough so that if we don’t receive what we asked for, we can accept that we were asking for something that was not his will, at least not at that time.

Our faith is not in the power of faith or of prayer; our faith is in God. Period. Therefore we don’t try to use biblical passages as foolproof formulas for getting what we want. We submit ourselves to the will of God because we believe in Him and love Him, and because “we know and believe the love God has for us” (1John 4:16). We don’t ask for anything “so that we can spend it on our passions.” We pray that God will “grant our petitions which are unto salvation” (from the Byzantine Liturgy). Surely if a human father will give his children not stones but bread, the heavenly Father will give all that is good from the treasury of the Holy Spirit to those who ask in faith and trust.

So it’s not just “believe and receive.” It’s believe—abide, let his words abide, ask according to his will, trust in his wise providence—and receive, as it pleases God to give. That alone will ensure our spiritual well-being and eternal happiness, and it will keep us in peace and free from frustration in the meantime. We’re in good hands, and we don’t have to attempt to wrest anything out of them by “working” the Bible to our advantage.

OK, so I won’t get the gold or the Mercedes. But those are mere trinkets compared to what God has prepared for those who love Him.