In his recent book Praying the Bible, Don Whitney—a widely recognized scholar of Christian spiritual disciplines—writes: “It must be possible for every Christian…to have a meaningful, satisfying prayer life.”
Would you agree? Or does that claim surprise you? Have you perhaps experienced so much defeat, so many times, in trying to build a healthy prayer life that you have now given up the effort as hopeless? The problem, Whitney goes on to observe, with many Christians is that we too often find ourselves saying “the same old things about the same old things.” Not that it is wrong, of course, to pray for the same thing repeatedly—even year after year. But if we allow ourselves to get into mental and emotional prayer ruts, then prayer itself feels unproductive (even dull), and so we pray less.
What is wrong with our prayers when we begin to feel lackadaisical in them? The problem is certainly not with Jesus Christ (who is always interesting), and perhaps it is not even with us (as Spirit-indwelt believers). It may be that we are praying the wrong way; the problem may be with our method.
What is the solution for such prayer ruts? As one might expect from the title of his book, Whitney goes on to make a case for praying Scripture in order to give our prayers more accuracy, depth, breadth, and fervor. And I would go further and suggest that it actually works both ways: while adding the Bible to one’s prayers will certainly enhance one’s prayer life, it is also true that adding prayer to one’s Bible-reading will make Scripture come alive in personal devotion time. Bathing your prayers in Scripture gives them fullness and strength; bathing your Bible-reading with prayer makes that time powerfully spiritual. This is because both prayer and Bible-reading are connecting us to life-giving nourishment from the Vine.
Jesus Is the Vine
Jesus makes the startling, exclusive claim in John 15:1, “I am the true vine,” and goes on in verse 7 to say, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
It is essential to keep in mind that Jesus could have simply said, “I am the vine”… and then gone on with his analogy. But instead he specifically inserts the modifier “true”: I am the only, the genuine vine. Jesus is the true vine, as opposed to every false promise of life-giving nourishment.
There are a billion different people, efforts, and things that humans plug into, hoping that something or someone will make our life meaningful, fruitful, successful, vibrant. Although we are made uniquely in the image of God and designed to find our life in God alone, we latch onto family, or career, or hobbies, or social acceptance, or even philanthropy. Whatever it is, we are hoping it will give life to our life. Yet every one of these options proves unworthy and unable to fill the needs of a soul made to live forever.
This is why Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” The soul who is abiding in Jesus Christ will not only live forever but will live the abundant and fruitful life in this life.
If My Words Abide In You
Jesus, because he is the full expression of God to us, is the only true “soul food.” Jesus is what every soul needs in order to be nourished, in order to live. So the all-important question becomes, “If Jesus is the true vine, how can I have him, be plugged into him, nourish my soul on him?”
Yet even here there are a thousand wrong answers. People often think that if they just do enough “good stuff” for Jesus, then they will be acceptable to Jesus. However, Jesus specifically says in verse 4 that the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, and in verse 5 Jesus reiterates, “I am the vine…apart from me you can do nothing.” The problem with trying to impress Jesus with your good works is that you cannot do any until you are abiding in Jesus first, to begin with.
Thankfully, however, Jesus tells us himself how it is that we abide in him: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…” It is only as the words of Christ abide in us that we abide in him.
The true Vine and the true Word are inseparable. Martin Luther emphasized that we can never bypass or out-grow reception of, dependence on, and obedience to God’s Word. We will never know whether any feeling or impression that we have is from God unless we first know God’s Word and saturate our heart with God’s revealed will in it. Luther wrote: “We must first hear the Word, and then afterwards the Holy Ghost works in our heart; he works in the hearts of whom he will, and how he will, but never without the Word.”
Jesus says to the Jewish leaders in John 5:38 that they did not have God’s Word abiding in them because they did not believe the one whom God had sent (Jesus). Conversely, then, Jesus is clearly implying that those who have faith in Christ, who are abiding in him, will have the Word of God abiding in them.
We cannot have Christ without his Word; we cannot live for Christ without submitting to Christ’s will as he has revealed in his Word. This, of course,, means we need God’s Word in order even to be able to pray. Otherwise, we will be trying to form God in our own image through prayer, rather than being formed into the image of God through prayer. We cannot be certain that God is speaking to us except as he speaks to us in his Word, the Bible.
Then You Shall Ask
Even good, well-meaning Christians at times make the mistake of thinking of dialogue with God as merely involving subjective, internal feelings and impressions. However Jesus himself, and the rest of the Bible, clearly teaches that we primarily hear from God as the Spirit applies the truth and principles of his Word to our souls. However, when the Word of God is abiding in us then, Jesus says, prayer is the result: “ask whatever you wish.” Prayer is the natural overflow of communing with Christ in his Word.
We cannot have Jesus’ words abiding in us and not have a successful prayer life, and yet we cannot have a successful prayer life without Jesus’ words abiding in us. To commune, to dialogue with God in prayer will mean to listen to him, to submit to his instruction as he has revealed himself in his Word.
Jesus is not here merely describing especially successful prayer: this is describing all real prayer, the prayers of every Christian believer. In context, those who are not receiving Jesus and his Word, who are not abiding in Christ, are taken and cast away and burned.
There are only two groups: those castaway and burned, and those who have Christ abiding in them, through his Word, and yielding fruitful prayers from their lips. And to those who thus pray, Christ promises, “it will be done.” What an encouragement to prayer, and to Bible saturation, this is! Every prayer of every Christian believer is heard and answered. The believer’s will is done because the believer’s will is fed by Christ and his Word. The believer’s will is ultimately that Christ’s will be done.
Jesus—our Lord and Savior—says that we abide in Christ as his Word abides in us and that this abiding then bears prayerful fruit in our lives. So the question we must ask ourselves is, “How much does my life correspond to John 15:7 – ‘if my word abides in you’ – or to Jesus’ promise of a fruitful prayer life?” Surely Jesus had something more in mind than the fleeting attention that millions of Christians in America today are giving to God’s Word and prayer! And surely if we are only giving sidewise glances to Jesus, to his Word, and to prayer – this cannot be described as “abiding in the true Vine”?
Some of us then are in desperate need of some vine-yanking and some vine-grafting in our souls. We need to unplug ourselves from whatever we are giving so much attention and affection to, and in turn, we need to look to Christ—through his Word and prayer—as the one place that true, soul-nourishing relationship is found.