[This is something I wrote a couple years ago, on asking and receiving. I said a while back I'd give a fairly detailed treatment of the subject, so here it is.]
I think it’s time to write something on prayer, though not on contemplative prayer, as you might expect from a monk (and as I have done in the past). Here I will write about asking for stuff, which is known as prayer of petition—perhaps the type of prayer that people are most familiar with. Indeed, the word “prayer” itself means to ask. I pray you, then, should we not try to understand more fully what Jesus means when He says, “Ask and you shall receive”?
At first glance, it would seem that the Gospels give us a simple recipe for getting whatever we want from God. “Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus said, “for everyone who asks receives” (Mt 7:7-8). See how easy? Since these are the words of the eternal Word of God, we ought to expect that they are wholly and absolutely true and unequivocal—oughtn’t we? Well, of course, but even though they are true, we have to realize that the Word has spoken other words on the same topic that are equally true. Anyone who does any public speaking (or writing) usually has a healthy fear of being quoted out of context. I would venture to say that the Lord Jesus has been quoted out of context more than anyone else in the history of the world.
Sacred Scripture is not a collection of unrelated sayings and stories. Despite the fact that the Bible was written by many human authors (though only one divine one) over a long period of time, in different styles and for different purposes to different audiences, there is an inner unity and coherence guaranteed by its one divine author, the Holy Spirit. This is especially true of the New Testament. Therefore, if we are rightly to understand what Jesus meant by one of his sayings on prayer, we had better look at his other sayings on prayer so as to get the full picture. So much harm and confusion have resulted from selective readings of Scripture, isolating certain texts from others that would clarify them, and thus going off on some rather strange tangents, even though words of the Lord are being quoted. Almost all heresies have their basis in Scripture, but it is an incomplete, one-sided or misguided reading of Scripture that produces the errors.
So let’s look at a few other things Jesus has said about the prayer of petition. We know already, “Ask and you shall receive.” Another apparently straightforward one is: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13). There is, however, a certain qualification here: “in my name.” Sometimes I ask for things in Jesus’ name and I don’t get them. What’s wrong with me? (I’m assuming nothing’s wrong with Jesus.) Well, to ask for something in Jesus’ name isn’t merely to pronounce those words in your petition: “O God, give me a million dollars and a new car—no, two new cars—and a house on Malibu Beach. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.” I think we’re safe to say that the divine name-dropping here is going to be quite useless for obtaining what we ask for. At this point we run into another New Testament condition (or rather, a reproach) for petitions: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). If you ask wrongly, for something that will only be for self-indulgence or opulent living, you will not receive it, Jesus’ name or no Jesus’ name.
It must be, then, that “in Jesus’ name” has a deeper meaning. Practically all of the following conditions are elements of what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. Remember that in biblical thought a name is nearly identical to the one it names. God had said that his name would dwell in the Temple, meaning that He Himself would dwell there. To profane the divine name is to directly insult God Himself, and the same goes for glorifying God by praising his holy name. So if we are to pray in Jesus’ name, we really have to pray in Jesus, that is, we have to be in personal and intimate communion with Him. It is not a matter of learning a foolproof formula for getting God to turn over the goods. It is rather a matter of learning to love Him enough so as to be on the same page, so to speak, to be in the kind of inner harmony through which we hanker not for the useless trinkets that the unbelievers seek for their self-indulgence or satisfaction. We seek instead the Kingdom of God, that is, whatever enhances our relationship with Him and prepares us for entry into Heaven.
If it is all about loving the Lord, how do we do that? It’s not always easy (or even desirable, necessarily) to conjure up affectionate feelings or to raise pious eyes aloft in rapturous emotion. Jesus doesn’t talk at all about the role of emotion in love. What does He say? “If you love me, keep my commandments… He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me… He who does not love me does not keep my words” (Jn 14:15, 21, 24). So love is about doing, not about feeling. That should make it easy enough for anyone to love—or at least to know what love requires.
If keeping Jesus’ words has to do with loving Him, and loving Him has to do with being in Jesus, or in his name, then keeping his words must have something to do with receiving what we ask for in prayer. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (Jn 15:7). Now the picture is getting clearer, even if it is not yet complete. Personal communion with Jesus (abiding in Him), and obedience to his commandments (his words abiding in us), will put us in a position to receive what we ask for. The reason for this is related to the next condition.
“If we ask anything according to [God's] will, he hears us” (1Jn 5:14). Even though we’re not finished yet, we’ve come to the bottom line. If we want God to hear our prayer, we have to ask according to his will. Now don’t chafe at this, as if his will must inevitably mean rain on your parade. After all, if you pray the Lord’s Prayer sincerely, you ask every day that God’s will be done. If Jesus told us to pray that way—He who loves us and wants to see us happy forever—then God’s will must be something really good. I hinted at this condition above when I said we have to be on the same page with God. The whole point of getting things through prayers of petition is not about getting things through prayers of petition. It is about getting into union with God, obeying his word, abiding in Christ, so that we have the mind of Christ, as St Paul said (1Cor 2:16). Having attained to that level of spiritual life, we’re not interested in things that are not God’s will for us, so we don’t ask for them. Being on the right “wavelength,” we ask only for what God wills and so we easily get it.
You might wish to object: but if God only answers prayers made according to his will, why pray for anything specific at all? Why not just make one prayer– “Thy will be done” –and be finished with it? Well, I never said I had all the answers, but one reason may be that sometimes it is God’s will that we ask, so that his will can be done! In effect He would then be saying: “I will that you ask, and only then shall my will be done.” God the Father doesn’t want us to be fatalists, but loving and obedient children, who ask and receive—not only asking that his (unspecified) will be done, but using specific petitions as the means for his will getting done. Again, for this we have to be “in tune” with Him. (I hope I haven’t lost you here. I’ll come back to the issue of God’s will before the end of part two.)
To be continued…