What’s in a name? (With apologies to Shakespeare!)

Posted December 14, 2010

John H. Hampsch, cmf

If you are a typical Christian, you pray for many things, but you find that very few of your prayers of petition seem to be answered—at least not in any obvious way. So it’s logical to pose the question: What has become of Jesus’ radical promise to do whatever we ask in his name?

And this question may even be extended to include public prayers, such as the prayers of the Mass, all of which seem to invoke his name; they all end with the phrase, “through Christ our Lord,” or “through Jesus Christ your Son, Our Lord,” or similar words. If we always ask in his name, in both public and private prayers, why aren’t they answered?

Asking in Jesus’ name is just one—but an important one—of the many conditions for “successful” prayer of petition, as I mentioned in my booklet and CD, titled“When God Says No—25 Reasons Why some Prayers are Not Answered.” Let’s limit this disquisition to just that one condition for successful prayer—asking in the name of Jesus—which, by the way, is mentioned in four places in John’s gospel.

What does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Many people treat this phrase as something akin to a magical formula. By saying the right words, in the proper sequence, they think that God is somehow obligated to give them what they’ve asked for. That’s not even good ritual but merely mechanical ritualism. This is certainly not what Jesus had in mind! Instead, to pray for something in Jesus’ name means, first of all, to subsume spiritually and pervasively a Christic attitude and mentality; and secondly, to recognize Jesus’ character and purposes as it relates to God’s glory and to his designs of his loving providence to be activated in his creatures—especially in us human creatures.

In investigating how Jesus may have conditioned his promise of answer to prayer made in his name, we must first make sure that we “divide the word” (interpret) properly, as Paul says (2 Tim. 2:15), because in the Bible, “some things are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). When Jesus’ words are properly interpreted, we see that he himself qualifies his promises about answered prayer, right from the start. Notice his full statement in John 14:13: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.

Immediately we see that Jesus hasn’t really given a blanket promise to do whatever we ask. Rather, he qualifies his promise with words that imply a purpose far more important than our personal needs. That purpose should not be disregarded when seeking our own purpose.

In prayer we should, at least implicitly, call on him to work out his purpose, not simply to gratify our whims. The answer to our prayer is promised so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” So when Jesus promises to do whatever we ask in his name, he’s not promising to do whatever we ask while we disregard any concern for his will or his glory in our prayer intentions. His will is of paramount importance as a condition of petition (see 1 John 5:14), but his will can be at variance with ours in the who, what, why, where and how of his response. He has qualified his promise to do whatever we ask; if it is “in his name;” but that means it must be consonant with all that his name entails—that is, his divine character as it unfolds in his plans, purpose and providence, by which he ultimately seeks our welfare–but as he sees it, not as we see it in our frantic desire for immediate fulfillment..

The full scope of the term “name” (when taken in the broad biblical understanding of “name.”) is far more than the simple utterance of the word by which he is called, that is, “Jesus.” Asking “in his name” should mean that we want him to be glorified as a part of our petition; and it also implies wanting all that he wants for our ultimate welfare. When focusing on our will rather than his, it is difficult—and often impossible—to see and appreciate the overall plan of God for us. That makes our prayer a form of petulance rather than fervent petition; such a prayer is in some way defective, because it is not conditioned by his will, but ours, as the final determining factor.

Being preoccupied only with what we want will vitiate the power of another prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—when we say, “Thy [not my] will be done.” Moreover, saying “hallowed be thy name” would be insincere and almost meaningless if our desires are not within the purview of all that his “name” implies. His name is not being “hallowed” (glorified) if our petitions are primarily self-focused—and thus poorly motivated James speaks pointedly about poor motivation in prayer: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (4:3).One translation says, “…because you ask amiss”—that is, something essential is missing in your prayer that causes you to fail to receive your hoped-for answer.

In your next prayer of petition, try to imitate the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane pleading from his anguished human nature: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup [of suffering] from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And be sure that even if, like Jesus, you see that your own cup of suffering is not taken away, you know that your prayer is not wasted, as Paul reminds us (1 Cor. 15:58). Your apparently “unanswered prayer” will be answered in another way or another time, but ultimately you will see that any answer you receive, whether in time or in eternity, will be better than what you asked for, and it will redound to God’s glory eternally, along with your own glory and sanctification (1 Pet.4:13).