Despite our dramatically different spiritual beliefs, my European cousin and I have grown quite close. One day we were talking about prayer, and I made the assumption that he doesn’t pray. He said, “Oh, I do pray.” He prays to the Cosmos itself. But he doesn’t believe he can speak to a god that possesses personality. He prays “to express gratitude to the universe. To be one with everything.”

Others take an approach that feels traditionally Christian. “I pray because I need something,” they’ll say. Or they thank God for things. Perhaps they pray on behalf of other people—who, quite naturally, need things. We all need things.

But the line between needing something and wanting something is easily blurred. One You-tuber exclaims, “There’s a hidden Bible prayer technique,” that, if you practice it, “You’re going to get what you want every time!” Speaking strictly for myself, God help the world if I get everything I want every time I ask for it.

We gain some insight into prayer by observing the life of Jesus. First of all, Jesus prayed directly to his Father in heaven, and he taught his disciples to do the same when he gave them the Lord’s Prayer (see Luke 11:1–4).

We learn more as we visit the Upper Room during the Last Supper. Jesus knows he will be crucified the next day, yet he focuses on his disciples and what they need from him. At one point Jesus tells them, “Ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!” (John 14:14).

That sounds like the disciples get whatever they want. However, Jesus puts a qualifier on it just a bit later: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!” (15:7)

What does that mean, exactly?

A distressing amount of my prayer time seems to be about making my life pain-free, or at least a bit more comfortable. That doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is getting at here. Just a little bit later he told his disciples, “Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (15:20).

Can’t they just pray to escape that persecution? Apparently not. Jesus even told his disciples they would be killed for their faith in him. He also said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (16:33). For the disciples, these are future trials and sorrows. Wouldn’t a simple, heartfelt prayer in Jesus’s name get them out of those trials? Jesus never advises his disciples to pray such a prayer. He does say this: “But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (16:33).

After they left the Upper Room where the Last Supper had taken place, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives. There he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42).

That last sentence is crucial. Jesus didn’t want to endure the ordeal he knew was coming. But he resolutely said, “I want your will to be done, not mine.”

And that is the key to prayer.

Author and speaker Joe Pettigrew put it this way: “Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will on God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his. It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, embrace it and align ourselves with it.”

Did Jesus get what he wanted when he prayed? Yes. Because ultimately, he wanted his Father’s will. As he told his disciples, “I will do what the Father requires of me, so that the world will know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).

This connection between love and answered prayer is also critical. “You didn’t choose me,” Jesus told the disciples. “I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:16–17).

Getting what we want is tied directly to aligning ourselves with what God wants. Jesus instructed us to obey his commands and to love each other as he has loved us. When we love him, and when we love each other, our priorities are transformed. We begin to pray for things that please God the Father.

Jesus loved us to the point of dying on a cross for us. The least we can do is to love each other as a substantive way of expressing our love for him.

To expect God to “give us what we want every time” makes God out to be little more than a cosmic Santa Claus, granting us our wishes. Truly praying in Jesus’s name, with love for God and others in view, has a way of changing those wishes.

In the end, Jesus did get what he wanted. We can too. But we might need to take a hard look at our motivations. Are we desiring what God wants?

Why pray? To be one with the will of the Creator of the Cosmos.

—Tim Gustafson

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