Magic, Mystery, and Prayer in Jesus’ Name

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ is experienced by many of us as the (often long awaited) indicator that prayer has finally ended. Since it is so much more than that its true power and significance needs to be rescued. The Gospel of John helps us in that rescue.

Crump helpfully observes that with the way we use the language of prayer, or the way we might insist on setting or posture or other matters of ‘propriety’ we turn prayer into something that looks more like a magical incantation. No longer are we speaking honestly with our heavenly father and king. Rather we are stringing together the right phrases in the right way in an effort to move the spirits to do our bidding. There is nothing but hopelessness down that path.

This is what we do when we insist that for a prayer to ‘work’ we must end it with ‘in Jesus’ name’. In reality, the point is not the words we use but the spirit we bring.

All that Jesus did, he did in the name of his Father. That is, he lived and acted and spoke in complete submission to the Father. To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ is to pray like Jesus lived, as completely sold out to and longing for his kingdom. The words we use do not matter.

As well, to pray in his name is to invoke his authority. The fact that we have the right in the first place to be standing in the presence of the Father is owed solely to Jesus’ past and present and ongoing intercession on our behalf. We come marked as his and so can expect that our prayers will be heard as his. These are both huge encouragements toward prayer, but do not require the use of particular words.

To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ also implies that we come with Jesus’ sense of submission to the Father.
A difficulty in the gospel and letters of John is how he repeatedly speaks of praying ‘according to God’s will’. Some conclude that God’s will is fixed and that prayer is not something that shapes the future but is only a part of that will which God has fixed. Our prayer is as ordained as the results. For most of us, Crump included, this does not seem satisfying or biblically right. He hazards some suggestions as to how prayer and the Father’s will reconcile, but they are only satisfying when the mystery is allowed to stand. Scripture does not answer all the complications that life in the presence of an infinite, wise and eternal God will raise. Scripture tells me to pray, to ask for things, and to do so in submission to him and in the authority of his son. I cannot peer into the mystery of what effect such prayers have, but I have to believe that the God who presents them as genuine and effective means us to understand them that way. There is no ‘magic’ in prayer but there is mystery. We speak to a Father who effects our desires as he sees fit, and we trust him to do so. Using the phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ helps us to remember that.

There was a day not too long ago when I was in great distress and in a fairly public place. I found refuge on a low wall separated from the sidewalk by some bushes and trees. But I was still clearly visible, and clearly crying. A woman with a Bible saw me and kindly asked about my welfare. We spoke briefly and she asked if she could pray for me. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Hers was not a shy prayer; it was not a quiet prayer; it was not a timid prayer. She sensed every dimension of my need and lifted each up to God in turn, separating each with the urgent and vigorously spoken refrain, “In JESUS name!”

She was appealing to the Father on my behalf in the authority of the Son. I will never forget the power of that refrain, or the comfort it brought.

Click to go to the next post in this series.