I recently watched a very enlightening talk by Dr John Bergsma on what we can learn from the prayers of the Old Testament patriarchs. I learned a lot from it, but in the process, he helped me understand a part of the New Testament I always struggled to explain in the past. It was John 16:23, where Jesus tells the apostles ?Amen Amen I say to you, whatever you ask from the Father, He will give it to you in My name?. I?ve heard this verse many times in my life since I?ve been going to Mass since I was a teenager, and I always took it at face value. That just shows how I never took my faith seriously and never tried to go deeper and understand what God is saying to us in the Bible until recently. Since I?ve started learning about my faith, I?ve heard various explanations of what Jesus meant here, most of which are a version of ?He didn?t meant that literally, because obviously some of our prayers aren?t good in the eyes of God, and it would be bad for us if He said yes to all of them?. I?ve always known that to be true, but nobody ever explained to me why Jesus said exactly what He said, and what He really meant here.
This talk filled in that gap in my knowledge by giving me the context I needed, and as usual, it came from the Old Testament. What I?ve learned from studying the Bible over the past year or so is what St Augustine learned so long ago when he said ?The New Testament is concealed in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament?. In other words, if you want to understand the deeper meaning behind a verse in the New Testament, chances are you?ll find that meaning by researching what it was referencing from the Old Testament. That?s exactly what was happening in John 16:23.
Dr Bergsma explains that the ancient Hebrew phrase used to describe prayer was ?calling on the name of God?, which means to immerse yourself in God?s presence, as if He?s right there with you and is surrounding you as you talk to Him (pray). That?s why the word ?prayer? is found only once in the entire book of Genesis, but the phrase ?called on the name of God? is found multiple times. The name of God was equal to God?s essence for the Israelites, and was also a description of God, which is why when God told Moses He would proclaim His name to him, He described His essence, which we see in Exodus 34:5?6:
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ?The LORD, the LORD God,compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth?.
This is the background we need to understand John 16:23. In addition, it helps to know the meaning of names and titles in the New Testament, in this case, the meaning of Jesus?s name. St Augustine points out that Jesus means ?God saves? in Hebrew. In other words, the name of Jesus is salvation, so to ask anything in Jesus?s name means to ask for it in a way that?s ordered to our salvation. When Jesus told His apostles to ask the Father for anything in His name, He knew they were Jews who were familiar with the Hebrew tradition of what it meant to call on the name of the Lord as it was used in the Old Testament. So they immediately had a different understanding of these words than we do, unless we?re aware of that tradition. Jesus was saying that the Father will give us anything we ask, as long as we ask for it in His presence, and we?re only in His presence when we?re in a state of grace. That?s why Jesus said in John 14:23 ?If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him?. John continues with this theme in 1 John 3: 20?24:
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,we have confidence in Godand receive from him whatever we ask,because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.And his commandment is this:we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,and love one another just as he commanded us.Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,and the way we know that he remains in usis from the Spirit he gave us.
Jesus expands on this using the analogy of the vine and the branches in John 15:1?8:
?Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its ownunless it remains on the vine,so neither can you unless you remain in me.I am the vine, you are the branches.Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,because without me you can do nothing.Anyone who does not remain in mewill be thrown out like a branch and wither;people will gather them and throw them into a fireand they will be burned.If you remain in me and my words remain in you,ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.By this is my Father glorified,that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.?
Jesus is explaining to us that we can do nothing on our own, therefore we can only do good things when we?re connected to Him, as a branch is lifeless unless it remains connected to the vine. One of those good things we can do through the power of the Holy Spirit is pray. So we see that the results of our prayers are entirely dependent on whether they?re coming from God, or from us, and that?s dependent on whether or not we allow Him to remain in us by leading a life of virtue and holiness.
I think all of these verses can be summed up by the words of St Therese of Lisieux, who said ?God gives me whatever I want, because I want whatever He gives.?
When we?re in a state of grace, we no longer have selfish desires, but only desire to do God?s will, and so we only ask for things that are part of His will. That?s what Jesus was referring to in John 16:23. But what is God?s will? We don?t have to know all of the details of it, nor can we, but we know that it?s for us to be saved and to be in Heaven with Him. So when we?re asking for something in His name, in reality we?re asking for our salvation, even if we?re not explicitly saying that. We?re asking for things that will lead to our salvation and that will glorify God. Ultimately, we?re asking for His will to be done, which is why why Jesus taught His apostles how to pray in the Our Father, He included ?Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven?.
In other words, we should desire to do God?s will perfectly because that?s how it?s done in Heaven, and our prayers should reflect that desire. When they do, they?re always granted, just not in the time and in the way we expect them to be because we can?t understand God?s ways. When God says ?no? to one of our prayers it?s because that prayer was for something that wouldn?t have led to our salvation, and since God is perfect, He wills only the greatest good for us, which is our salvation. If we ask for something that isn?t good for us, God not only won?t give it to us, He can?t give it to us because He?s not capable of doing anything other than the greatest possible good for each one of us. If anyone ever asks me if God answers all of my prayers, I?ll tell them He does, and I?m grateful He doesn?t always say ?yes?, because He knows so much better than me what?s best for me.
I think it?s helpful and important to remember that all good prayers come from God anyway, as Blessed Julian of Norwich explained in Revelations of Divine Love. God inspires us to pray, but it?s up to us to act on that grace and pray. When we do, He also gives us the words to pray to do His will, because He uses our prayers to carry out His will, and He wouldn?t leave His will up to chance. He uses us to bring about the redemption and salvation of our fellow man and to glorify Himself, and that?s something that should always give us peace and joy.