I once had the privilege of caring for a small, aging German lump of sugar named Mae Gabriel. Mae was in her late eighties. She still knew much of her German Bible and spent the day humming the hymns of her youth, though she could barely hear.
Mae lived alone in a two-room house on the farm of her son-in-law. Her prized possessions were a velvet leaf plant that had practically taken over her kitchen, dusty photos of her family on a bedroom bureau, and a skunk that wandered out of the woods at dusk to eat scraps she put out on a cracked dinner plate. In many ways you could consider Mae pitiable—even pathetic. But Mae Gabriel was a saint. She taught me as much about prayer as anyone I have ever known.
During one of my visits, Mae told me of the death of her husband. Frank had died 20 years earlier, but when she spoke of him, her eyes still brimmed with tears. She told me about the day the doctors said Frank had only a short time left. On that day Mae said she prayed over and over that God would heal Frank. “I didn’t want to be alone,” she said with a smile.
Then she told me how she prayed.
“First, I prayed that God’s will would be done,” she said with a determined nod of her head.
“Then I prayed again and again that the Lord would heal my husband. But I also prayed that if He needed to take Frank, my God would give me the strength to bear it.” Then in the midst of Mae’s tears, a beautiful smile lit up her whole face as though her heart were shining through. She simply said, “And He did. God gave me the strength to bear it.”
Seeking God’s will first
Mae prayed backwards. She prayed first for the priorities of her God—that His will would be done. Then she prayed her desires. She boldly and persistently petitioned for her husband. Again and again this little woman knocked against the door of heaven without hesitation or shame. She listed her specific wants, but she also voiced the deeper desire for God to do His will. She did not doubt or fear the hand of the heavenly Father, who had given His own Son to be her eternal Savior.
Yet that’s not always the way we pray. Often we focus on asking God to ease our worries and satisfy our wants before adding “in Jesus’ name” as an obligatory spiritual seasoning to make our petitions palatable to God. Some of us may even have been taught to use the name of Jesus to “claim the desires of our heart.” Such teaching encourages us to end prayer “in the name of Jesus” to get whatever we want. But Jesus is not like a genie in a bottle whom we can command by invoking His name. When we pray, we should be doing more than looking heavenward, believing with all our might that our wish will come true, and instead of repeating, “Star light, star bright, bring the wish I wish tonight,” saying, “In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Two problems immediately arise when we treat prayer like a surefire wishing star. First, we limit God by the wisdom of our wishes. If God were really obligated to do what we think should happen, then God would be tethered to the leash of our understanding. Our wishes would fence God’s omniscience within the limits of our brain and restrict His plans to the extent of our insight. But if our wisdom defines the limits of God’s, then our world will inevitably unravel. The job we may want for extra income may take us from the family that God knows needs us more. The immediate cure for our sickness may deny doctors an insight that would save millions or may deprive us of the patience that God will use to bring Jesus into the hearts of our children. We must trust God more than our wishes or concede that our world will be controlled by billions of competing wishes that we have neither the power nor the wisdom to control.
The second problem with making prayer a wishing well is forcing the conclusion that prayers, like wishing wells, are fantasies. Though it may seem very holy to say, “I believe that God will be true to His promises and provide what I want,” such expressions ultimately deny everyone’s faith. Everyone suffers. We live in a fallen world. Biblical prayer does not solve all our earthly problems, and God never promised that it would. Jesus did not even promise His disciples a perpetual bed of roses. Instead, He said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
Prayer does not relieve all suffering, but it assures us that no difficulty comes without a purpose. When we pray “in Jesus’ name,” we have God’s assurance that He will answer our prayer in a way that brings glory to Jesus and furthers His kingdom. When the Lord said of the apostle Paul, “He must suffer for my name,” the Savior was not intending to ignore the apostle’s prayers but was promising to use them beyond Paul’s imagining (Acts 9:16). The difficulties Paul would have been crazy to want, God used to glorify the name of Jesus throughout the world—precisely Paul’s deepest prayer whenever he petitioned “in Jesus’ name.”
The godliest and most prayerful people know from experience the meaning of disappointment, grief, failure, rejection, betrayal, incapacity, and illness. In this fallen world you cannot avoid suffering; you can have peace in the midst of it. You cannot avoid trials; you can have confidence of their purpose. You cannot bind God by your prayers; you can guarantee His blessing. You cannot direct the will of God; you can pray according to His will and rest in the assurance of His love. You can pray knowing that God will marshal the powers of heaven to accomplish on earth all He knows is best for your eternity. Praying in Jesus’ name is the key.
Beginning with the end
Through Jesus we pray without the limitations of our wisdom or faith. We seek the favor of the heavenly Father represented by the Son He loves. We approach the throne of grace without the burden of our sin and with the righteousness of our Savior. We ask for His blessing based on God’s wisdom, not ours. We trust in His faithfulness, not in the adequacy of our faith. We petition God with the confidence that earth and eternity will bend to His will on our behalf. All of these assurances are ours as we pray in Jesus’ name.
So why wait to the end of a prayer to tag on Jesus’ name? Helpful traditions encourage us to add Jesus’ name before our “amen” so that we do not forget Him. But when our routines have desensitized us to His priorities, then it’s time to begin where we end. Praying backwards will inevitably turn our prayer priorities upside down. By saying “in Jesus’ name” first, we will more readily discern when our prayers go astray from His purposes, hijacked by our self-interest. Of course, actually saying the words “in Jesus’ name” at the beginning of our prayers is not really the point. The point is to put first in our hearts what those words are supposed to mean: “I offer this prayer for Jesus’ sake.” When Jesus’ priorities come first, our prayers will change. They will be less self-oriented, more Christ-directed, more blessed, and ultimately most satisfying to our hearts.
God will honor prayer truly offered in Jesus’ name. Such prayer differs from wishes made when we blow out birthday candles. We light those candles to celebrate our years and to fantasize about times made better by wishes fulfilled. By praying in Jesus’ name, we petition God to make our life shine for Christ’s glory and eternity’s purposes. Praying backwards simply ensures that He comes first in our thoughts so that we are prompted to make Him first in our priorities. Such Christ-centered prayer is no great sacrifice; for when He is first in our priorities, our needs are first in His heart. The love that flames for us in heaven burns strong and consumes every hindrance to His fulfillment of our eternal blessing. When we pray all for Jesus, He makes our life a candle that lights this present darkness and burns for His glory forever.
Adapted from Praying Backwards by Bryan Chapell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group © 2005 by Bryan Chapell. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.