Sunday, 25 October 2015

"In Jesus' Name...": What if he doesn't answer the prayer?

In what follows you will see that on several occasions I use the word magick rather than magic.  This is to distinguish between a stage conjuring trick, 'magic', and the tool that some use to impose their will on the world which tends to be referred to as 'magick'. 

Revelation 21:1-7

The New Heaven and the New Earth
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

John 16:22-33
Jesus said, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’
His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

The Problem with the Prayer
I often speak in admiring terms of the layers upon layers buried within the language and symbolism that John uses in his Gospel, but sometimes he also has a talent for raising the issues that cause us to question our faith deeply, reminding us to be careful not to build a theology around one verse in isolation.  Here, in this passage, we see misunderstanding by the disciples, encouragement by Jesus, a reality check about the true state of their belief, and a final, triumphant statement which makes it clear to them and to us that our place before God is dependent upon Christ's grace, not on us and our doubts. But a massive question is raised about the assurance regarding what we ask for in prayer against the dissonance of what we experience in real life; i.e. 'I asked in Jesus' name and did not receive.'

Some of us have had the pain and privilege of accompanying someone through their final hours and helping them on their journey out of this world. Others of us have watched as friends cried out in prayer for help and healing only to see one trauma after another seemingly piled on to them.

There is a rather trite saying that is sometimes trotted out by Christians: 'God never gives you more than you can handle.' This simple saying has been the cause of much agony and heartache for many who have not coped and felt guilty about it. Just within my own profession I could talk of the clergy suicides and mental breakdowns, and I know other professions have similar tales to tell.  The saying is based on a simplistic premise which I want to challenge, that God is in control. I am not saying that he isn't, but I am saying that our understanding of control and God's are radically different, and we may need to modify ours if we are to understand this passage.

Control, for us, is often viewed from a mechanistic angle. When I drive a car it is under my control (hopefully!). The reason for this is that it doesn't do anything unless I tell it to. Self-driving cars worry us.  But the universe works differently.  It is not driven mechanistically by God like we drive a car. It's designed, I believe, by God to have more than just a small degree of autonomy, and that's why this passage about asking in the name of Jesus and receiving is such a problematic one for many with life experience rather than naïve theology. What I hope to do here is to reduce the problems, but in the process of doing so I may well raise new ones.  So please feel free to post your thoughts either on this blog, or preferably on the Facebook page you found it, and I'll try and offer further thoughts.

As an important aside to this, when, in the middle, Jesus says to the disciples, 'Do you believe? Really?', it's because he knows they don't actually understand yet that suffering and death is implicit in what is going to take place. They haven't understood yet that nothing of this will make sense without the resurrection.  I am intent that we do not make the same mistake, and that's why there is a first reading from Revelation, not because it seems like 'Pie in the sky when you die', but because without looking ahead we will be simply unable to make sense of the present. So let's look at this problem statement from Jesus when he says, and then underlines this saying, 'If you ask for anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.'

Does the resurrection make sense of that verse too? Because for me, this concept of asking and receiving is one of the most problematic part of any of the Gospels. More or less the same words come up in the synoptic Gospels as well as here in John's Gospel, so we can be pretty sure that Jesus said it, and probably said it more than once.  As a statement on its own we can say that it doesn't seem to be borne out of experience, but following the tone of this passage all being about how the resurrection is the lens through which Jesus' life and teachings come into focus, so we have to ask whether the resurrection makes sense of 'Ask and you shall receive'.

Because we don't always receive, do we, not if we're honest

Which one of us hasn't had a family tragedy or colossal pain witnessed amongst friends when we have prayed fervently for God to intervene and change the course of our reality? How many of us have prayed, 'in the name of Jesus', and asked the Father to heal someone who was dying too early?
And how many of us have felt so screwed up about it, yet feel unable to talk about it, perhaps  because we're Christians and we're scared of what other believers will say if we confess our anger at God? There is an emotive part of me, following the experiences of my own family and the pain of sitting with other people as they watch loved ones who or sick or dying, that wants to hurl these words back at the face of Christ and say to him, 'You lied. I asked and I did not receive.'

There was a time, a few years ago but after my sister had died, when another member of the family was taken seriously ill. I remember clearly shouting in anguished prayer to God, 'Don't you dare do this to us again! Don't you dare!' Outrageous, isn't it. Me, a mere mortal, trying to tell God what to do.

But Jesus said, 'Ask and you will receive', and sometimes, it seems, we ask and we don't receive. So how do we make sense of that? Because if we don't make sense of it, it has the possibility of sitting inside us and festering away, and I know that this is an issue that some of those who read this are facing right now.

The first thing we need to do is to relinquish any idea of God the Father as being like some kind of Cosmic Genie wherein instead of rubbing a lamp we say magick words, 'In the name of Jesus', and 'whoomph' there's what we asked for right in front of us. Sounds crazy I know but there's a branch of theology called the Prosperity Gospel which really does believe this.

In order to address this problem fully we have to split it into three questions:
1. What does it actually mean to ask in the name of Jesus?
2. What happens when we take a wider look at the way God has dealt with all of creation and use that lens to read this verse?
3. Jesus is speaking in the context of the resurrection, so how does the resurrection bear upon the words he is saying?

Dealing with them in order, then, the first question is about what it actually means to ask for something in the name of Jesus. Our main priority is to stop treating them as magick words which, if recited properly, will permit you to impose your will on reality. That, genuinely, is what magick is; the imposition of will. If we think that by saying, 'We ask this in the name of Jesus' on the end of a prayer that it will happen, then we are treating prayer as magick and we will be sorely disappointed.
So if it is not about magickally imposing our will on reality through using the correct form of commanding words to strong-arm God, what does it mean? 

 It is all to do with acting on the authority of someone else. If someone who is above you in a hierarchical structure gives you authority to do something, then that's what you do; what they have told you to do. When you do that, then you are acting in their name. It is about acting in accordance with the will of the higher authority. I have a mental image of guards outside a castle saying to an intruder, 'Stop, in the name of the King!'. So essentially it comes down to this: If you do something in someone else's name then what you are doing must be in accord with their will.

'In the name of Jesus', then, is not a magickal phrase, it is about being in a relationship in which those under authority consult Christ as to whether what is being asked for is in his will. If it is, then when they ask for it, then they will receive it.

But can you see, then, that there is a problem. How could, for example, cancer possibly be in the will of God? When I pray for someone to be healed in the name of Jesus, shouldn't they be healed? Isn't that always going to be in the will of Christ? After all the Gospels are full of the healings Jesus did, at least one of which was a resurrection. That leads us to the second point we need to consider regarding what happens when we look at the wider picture of creation.

Once we start to do that, and to be honest, once we start to get over ourselves and our anthropocentric self-importance, then we see that the plan for all creation is one that is based around freedom and freewill, and not just for us but for all things. The universe, in order to evolve and grow towards supporting intelligent life, has always needed space to be what it was created to be.

This is where the seven-day creationist view becomes profoundly unstuck. It is not just that the fossil record doesn't agree with Genesis 1, which is a poetic hymn anyway, not a scientific textbook. It is also that the whole understanding of the nature of God is undermined by seven-day creationism because it portrays a thoroughly interventionist God and the reality is very different.

I am not saying that God doesn't intervene; God does. But God intervenes in often subtle ways, sometimes simply in the timing of a natural event. I believe in miracles and I have witnessed them, but not necessarily on demand, and I believe that is because of the freewill of the universe, as given by God. So what do I mean by that?

The universe has been created with freedom to grow and become what it is. Initially it was just hydrogen and helium that condensed out of the primordial inferno. None of the other elements could be created until hydrogen and helium did their work of fusing together in the hearts of the first stars. And elements heavier than iron couldn't be created without the pressures involved in giant supernova explosions. We are all stardust.  Right from the start there was space to build and grow through change and experiment. When it comes to life itself, we only progressed from the first self-reproducing molecules by their mutation. Most mutations are dead ends, whilst some produce an evolutionary advantage and are passed on to the next generation. But some mutations are harmful.

So life progresses and develops in intricacy by this process of mutation, of trying out new random things which may or may not convey an advantage. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and sometimes it's harmful. So, for example, cancer can be the result of a mutation, and so, instead of a cell dying at the end of its life, it begins to reproduce uncontrollably.  That is harmful to the individual and so we pray for their healing, but, and make sure you hear exactly what I am saying, mutation as a function of life must be in the will of God if we believe God created the universe. Without it there would be just dead planets.

That is not remotely the same as saying your cancer, or the cancer of a friend or loved one, is the will of God. But the mechanism of evolution, of which cancer is a biproduct, is mutation, and mutation is built into the fabric of the universe. So to ask God simply to cure cancer is to ask God to have created the universe in a way that was different from the one he chose.  (Why he chose to make it in this way is another matter entirely that I can deal with, but not in the same blog post!)

The same kind of thing goes for ageing and death. I hate that it hurts to run now because of arthritis in two of my toes, but it it my body reminding me that some day, also in the will of God, I have to get out of the way for the next generation. That is how evolution and development works.

But what if this universe is just the first stage? 

 What if this is the place where we are given the freedom to make a choice about what comes next? What if none of it makes sense without resurrection? I know this isn't going to be a complete answer, but it takes us into the third point.

This is where the resurrection comes in. In this passage Jesus is talking about asking in his name in the context of the resurrection. In his resurrected form he is referred to by St. Paul as the firstborn over creation; that he is the new Adam, the one who marks the first inkling for us of what the next stage in life, the next creation, will be like.  And what do we see there? In Christ post resurrection we see one who is clearly the same person but whose humanity has been remade to be immortal. In his own words Jesus declares elsewhere that things will be different for us in the new creation, that we will be there far more like the angels are now.

I prayed that my sister would be healed of the tumour that was taking her life in exactly the same way that many of you have prayed for loved ones who were slowly succumbing to a terminal illness. Yet she died in this life. Despite that, and this is not a cop-out - I've had to do some serious wrestling, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that my prayer is in the process of being answered; that in the context of resurrection, of her resurrection, so she is made whole and far more complete than ever she was here.  Here I may pray, 'Heal her in Jesus' name' and he responds, 'I am, and I have and I will, but in my timing in a new creation where it is my will for there to be no more physical and biological mutations for all things will be remade complete and whole.' That's why we had the reading from Revelation as our first reading. That's why there will be no more mourning, crying or pain.

This, then, is an answer to the problem of why, when we pray in the name of Jesus, we might not receive what we're asking for. It's not to be used as a magickal phrase. And we should not ask for something which we do not know to be within his will. And his will is quite likely to be different from what we imagine it to be.

Does that mean we shouldn't pray for healing? 

Of course not! Sometimes, and in the mystery of his own will, God will heal some people. But it is complicated. Wholeness of mind and spirit are of greater importance than wholeness of body, but at the same time we cannot divorce our physical capabilities from our non-corporeal being. We are one being, not three divisible parts. The healing, though, may sometimes come in the growth wrought in us through the spiritual help that comes in coping with the difficulties we are confronted with.

But in the final analysis we must not be like the disciples who said, 'We understand now', unless we take into account the resurrection. At that point they hadn't and that's why Jesus questioned their understanding.  The prayer, 'In the name of Jesus', cannot make sense unless we have a more complete understanding of the nature of the will of God. That means we can only pray it when we know we are asking for something in accordance with his will.

It also means that sometimes his answer will be yes, but not in this life. Ultimately, the only thing which makes sense of this life from a Christian perspective is the assurance of the resurrection. Without it all we have is a good preacher-man whose words haven't always been backed up by our experience. So let us learn to see life from the perspective of this just being the first stage of existence. There is more to come.

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