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God, our heavenly ATM machine

March 2, 2010 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

Each month in 2010, I am challenging our church to memorize one verse of Scripture together, and to spend time that month meditating on that month’s theme. In January, we focused on our new life in Christ, memorizing 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” In February, the theme was spiritual warfare, with the key verse James 4:7, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” In March, we will be focusing on the power of prayer, and the verse I am challenging you to memorize is John 15:7 – “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” This powerful promise is located in a passage where Jesus talks about himself as the vine and us as the branches, and exhorts us that we can do nothing unless we are connected to him. I highly encourage you that when you memorize this or any verse, that you do your best to understand the context in which it is found so that you do not take it to mean something which it does not.

As simple as prayer can be – at its heart, it is a conversation with God – it can also be hard to make sense of the different passages about making requests of God. Certainly prayer is not just about making requests – we also spend time thanking God, listening to Him, praising Him, etc. – but often when we come to God there are legitimate concerns on our heart that we want to bring before His throne of grace. But even a quick survey of some of the relevant passages on making requests of God reveals how confusing it can be to know just how we should pray and what we should expect:

• John 15:7 – “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”

Taken at face value, this verse almost makes God sound like a heavenly ATM machine. As long as we stay connected to Him and His words are in us, this will be the pin number that unlocks the vaults of heaven. But we know that it can’t be that simple, that God would just give us whatever we wish, even if we are asking for things that are bad for us.

• Matthew 7:7-11 - “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Like the John passage, these words of Jesus begin with another promise that “our wish is his command.” He then continues by clarifying his previous statement, assuring us that God knows how to give good gifts and will not give us things that are bad for us. But while this helps us trust God’s goodness, there is nothing in here about “if you ask for a snake, God won’t give it to you,” which would have helped us understand that sometimes God does not give us what we have asked for because we have asked for something that would harm us.

• Mark 11:22-24 - “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Once again, Jesus seems to be speaking very clearly – if you believe that you will receive what you have asked for, it will be yours. Really? Is that all there is to it? As long as I have enough faith, I can do and get anything? James 1:5-6 seems to echo this sentiment in a passage about asking for wisdom, where James writes “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt… [the man who doubts] should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.” Clearly Jesus is encouraging us to pray with great faith, and to be bold in what we ask of Him. But most Christians remain troubled by these passages, for they seem again to depict God as a heavenly ATM machine, ready to spit out whatever we ask for if we only have the right pin number, which in this case seems to be a strong faith.

• Matthew 6:7-8 – “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

On the flip side, however, would be a passage such as this one, where Jesus tells us that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Which begs the question, of course, “why pray if God already knows what we need?” But then, of course, there is this passage:

• James 4:2-3 – You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

According to James, there are some things God knows we need, and that He wants to give to us, but we will not receive them because we never asked. If nothing else, that should be a powerful reminder to bring our requests to God. However, he continues by saying that there are some things we ask for that we will not receive, because we have asked for selfish reasons. Ah – so God is not just a heavenly ATM machine after all! Receiving what we have asked for is not just about working up enough faith, but it also has to do with our motives.

• Luke 22:42 – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

This passage is of course from Jesus’ prayers to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, before he is arrested and taken to the cross. There are some who would say that praying “not my will but yours be done” is a sign of doubting in prayer, and something that we should never pray. Jesus, however, shows us that it is perfectly appropriate to present our heartfelt requests to God boldly, but in the end to recognize that we do not know what is best for ourselves, and that in the end we will gratefully accept whatever the Father decides, trusting that He gives us good gifts.

So, how do you make sense of making requests of God in prayer? Do you tend to be on the “word of faith” side, believing that if you ask for something boldly and with enough faith, that God will give you what you have asked for? Or do you tend towards the prayerless side, believing that God knows what you need and will give it to you regardless of whether or not you ask for it? If you have comments or insights to share, please leave them below. I will continue dealing with this question in next week’s post.

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