Over the last decade, as I’ve spoken with and pastored many evangelicals/pentecostals/post-evangelicals, I’ve come across this notion, time and again, of the absolute necessity of praying “in Jesus’ name.” If you, like me, did not grow up evangelical/pentecostal, allow me to explain by recapping the first conversation of this kind I remember, with my friend Z, who grew up in Mexico as a devout pentecostal:
Z: “You’ve got to pray in Jesus’ name or it doesn’t count.”
me: “What do you mean, it doesn’t count?”
Z: “Like, it only WORKS if you pray it in Jesus’ name.”
me: “So, if I’m praying, and I really mean it, and I’m praying TO Jesus, but at the end I forget to say ‘in Jesus’ name,’ it doesn’t count?”
me: “Like, Jesus just ignores me, just won’t even hear what I have to say, because I didn’t specifically say that it was in his name, even though we could assume he KNOWS I was praying in his name?”
Z: “Right. Because it’s like a formula. And it won’t work unless you say those words.”
me: “So it’s superstitious. It could be, in other words, that you have to turn around three times at the end for your prayer to get heard, and it would be the same kind of thing.”
Z: “Well, yeah, I guess so.”
me: “So, even though this person praying actually believes that Jesus is God, and believes that Jesus is the Messiah/Savior of the world, and obviously finds Jesus capable and worthy of being prayed to, if she doesn’t say those three words…”
Z: “Doesn’t count.”
me: “What if you pray in God’s name? Or in the power of the Spirit?”
Z: “That’s good, but you still have to pray it in Jesus’ name or it’s not enough.”
me: “So the Trinity doesn’t matter? The fact that you call upon one, it’s kind of a package deal? Like the fact that they’re three-in-one?”
Z: “Doesn’t matter. Gotta say Jesus.”
me: “Okay, there has to be a reason for this. Like, where did this come from? What is the justification for this idea?”
Z: “In John, when Jesus says that if you ask the Father anything in his name, he will do it. And what is the Father’s name? Jesus. Jesus is the revealed name of God.”
me: “OK but that’s not what that means.”
Z: “It also comes from ‘no one comes to the Father except through me.’ You have to use Jesus, or it doesn’t get there.”
So… you would be totally shocked by how often I run into this. I remember one time, and this is probably the saddest, most depressing example I have, I was pastoring someone who was going through some really difficult stuff, and she was so upset, and she said, with tear-filled eyes, “I guess I didn’t pray enough in Jesus’ name.” Like this whole situation could have been averted, had she been more specific at the last three words of her prayers. Like Jesus just up and deserted her to be miserable and to be without any help because she didn’t pray right. I just…I can’t even….
So, a few things:
1. Jesus is not some Type A, dogmatic jerk. Seriously, what kind of creepy power trip do you have to be on to demand something like this? “Forget all I said about grace, guys. You do this prayer thing wrong, and I’m outta here.” Jesus is not an a-hole, guys, no matter how many Christians make him out to be one. If you ever call out, pray, cry, whimper, internally whisper, inaudibly sigh, Jesus has got you. Being that his name is Emmanuel, God With Us, I’m pretty sure we can safely say he goes with us, wherever, whenever, however. Neither height nor depth nor principalities and powers NOR FORGETTING TO PRAY IN JESUS’ NAME will separate us from the love of God.
2. Jesus does not work by formula. There’s an aspect of this that is superstitious, like we can work a system to get what we want. Jesus isn’t much for being bullied into doing anything, if you haven’t noticed. And he’s also not so weak as to need special permission from us to do something. He is not a genie stuck in a magic lantern that needs special words. He goes where he wants to go, and Emmanuel chooses to be God With Us, not God-Until-We-Call-Him-Correctly.
So- is there anything to this notion of praying in Jesus’ name? YES. Absolutely, yes. And, for the love of all things holy, let’s recover it and put aside this other business once and for all.
There are a few different aspects of what this means. To pray in someone’s name is to stand in his authority, to act by proxy. It’s a form of power. It’s the same type of phrase used when messengers of a king would read a letter aloud to its recipients. They would read the letter in the name of the king. We have been given this same kind of authority by Jesus. So, if we are praying, and we are calling the universe toward something more whole than what it’s showing, we are doing so in the authority of its Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We are setting the world in relation to the God who loves that world. This is what the passage in John means. Asking God for something in Jesus’ name means being aligned with what God wants to happen. When we pray on behalf of the broken world, we are doing it in Jesus’ name, not because we spoke three words, but because we are seeking to be the kind of people who seek the world’s wholeness. Praying in Jesus’ name means being about what Jesus is about, not saying a formula. It means that we are, in a very real way, joining the work of God to bring the world to shalom. We are entering into that work as followers of Jesus. Being “in Jesus’ name” is a posture, not just a prayer. It is a way we travel through our days.
A name is the very essence of a person, the very heart and soul and mind and strength that makes a person who s/he is. We usually pick names based on fads or family tradition, but in Scripture, names are chosen with great care. Names literally embody a person. Jesus’ name means “God saves.” That is the essence of Jesus. We have so many names for Jesus, we lose count, because that’s how big his reality is: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Word of God, Image of the Invisible God, Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, Savior, Light of the World, Redeemer, Rabbi, friend, brother. All of these titles are present when we say the name Jesus. He encompasses all of it.
So, of course, there is something appropriately worshipful and glorifying to use the name of Jesus, because in his name, like, INSIDE it, is this entire WORLD of reality that is good and beautiful and grace and truth and light and redemption and new life. The name is a way to call forth the whole reality, but the way we do something in Jesus’ name is by abiding in him. We abide in his name. Sure, sometimes we speak it, sometimes we pray in it, but at all times, we abide in it. We have made our home with him. Wherever we go, we are abiding. This reality moves with us and among us and before us and within us. So the idea that we could pray anything at all and be “outside” of his name? Nah. We might be outside of his will, but his Name envelops us.
So if we’re going to talk about the name of Jesus, let’s not play small. Let’s not be petty. The name of Jesus is not something to be dogmatic about. It doesn’t demand literalism or legalism. It calls for our devotion. It is to be spoken of not literally but poetically, calling to our mind the vast reality that God saves us, and has chosen to save us through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So by all means, pray in Jesus’ name. Use the words if you want to do so, because you enjoy the melodic sound of it, and because it reminds you of all that is being made holy, and of all the love that surrounds you. Know that whether you say the words or not, you’re praying (and living) in Jesus’ name. Trust that Jesus hears you, and that Jesus is with you. Know that wherever you go, the Savior abides. Whatever you do, don’t pray it because you think that’s how it “works” or because you won’t get heard otherwise. That’s like giving up the glory of the night sky for a reality the size of a thumbtack.