Does It Make Any Difference?

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 4, 2015

John 15:5 Prayer Questions: Does Prayer Make Any Difference?

Spinning Wheels and Ghost Money
In Nepal they use prayer wheels. Shaped like a rolling pin and inlaid with colorful stones, they have a handle attached to a weighted cylinder which spins around and around by centrifugal force when the user rotates his or her wrist. Inside is an elaborate prayer written on ornate paper. Devout Buddhist believe that each rotation of the wheel sends the prayer up to heaven. Outside their gold-domed temples, Neapli priests turn giant versions of these wheels all day long. (Tech-savvy Buddhists download prayers onto their computer hard drives, which spin around at 5400 revolutions per minute.)

In Japan the devout visit Shinto shrines, where the collector accepts Visa and American Express, which is important since it costs a minimum of fifty dollars to have a priest offer prayers. First the priest bangs a drum to get the gods’ attention, then says the prayer. To the side stand large barrels of sake liquor, set aside for the gods. Before leaving, pilgrims attach their written requests to “prayer trees” which surround the shrine. The white slips of paper rustle in the breeze like cherry blossoms all day long.

In Taiwan, drivers toss “ghost money” out the windows of their vehicles to appease the road ghosts and protect against accidents. Taoist temples sell this money, printed on cheap paper like Monopoly money, and worshipers at the temple burn it by the bundle in large incinerators. Such money may keep an underworld ghost from pestering you, or perhaps please a departed relative who needs cash in heaven. The temples also sell model cars and motorbikes, so that the departed may have transport in heaven, as well as a smorgasbord of food for the gods. (illustrations from Philip Yancey, Prayer, p. 45-46)

Such customs seem strange to us, even amusing. It appears that prayer in some religions is little more than superstition, good luck rituals or “pay offs” to the divine.

And yet, sometimes our own prayers don’t seem all that different. We pray before a meal because we are supposed to. We come to church and bow our heads when prayers are offered, but our minds wander. Or, we find ourselves running late and we whisper a quick prayer to God to give us favor at the traffic lights. Sometimes our prayers don’t feel particularly real, there’s little connection to life, we’re not sure much is happening.

Richard Mouw tells a story about a tourist who observes a devout Jewish man praying at the Western (“Wailing”) Wall in Jerusalem. The Jew rocks back and forth with closed eyes, beating his breast, sometimes raising his hands. When he finishes, the tourist asks, “What do you pray for?”

The Jew responds, “I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world, especially in Jerusalem.”
“Are those prayers effective?” the tourist asks.
“It’s like talking to a wall.” (Yancey, p. 115-116)

Prayer is something we all know is important to the Christian life. Anytime we have a leadership meeting or talk about goals for the church, it’s always a safe answer to say: “We should pray more.” Nobody will ever argue that we already pray enough or that prayer doesn’t matter. If you are a Christian, you know that you should be praying.

And yet, if we are honest, I’m sure that many of us have felt like that man before the wall: like our prayers are going nowhere. Like we could just as well be spinning a prayer wheel or burning pretend money.

And so, we are going to spend some time talking about prayer (and giving opportunities to get involved in prayer.) Our new series is called Prayer Questions, and I’m going to tackle some of the big questions that usually get asked about prayer. We’ll talk about things like how to pray, corporate prayer, unanswered prayer, and more.

And let me say, right off, that I come to this series as a fellow questioner. I know that I’m a “professional Christian” and as such I’m supposed to have a pretty deep prayer life. And growing in prayer is something I’ve been working on the past few years. But by no means do I feel like an expert. I have plenty of questions about prayer. There’s plenty of room for my prayer life to deepen. So I hope we can take this journey in prayer together.

All the Difference
The first question I set for myself to answer is this one: Does Prayer Make Any Difference? In other words: What difference does it make if I pray or not? Does it really matter? Again, we all know the Sunday School answer is that Christians should pray.

But let’s set aside the Sunday School answer for a moment. I know we’re in church, and maybe we shouldn’t be asking questions like this, but it’s just us here. When you think about those monks spinning their prayer wheels and truck drivers burning their ghost money you can’t help but wonder if our prayers really matter. If I skip a pre-meal prayer, if I don’t keep a consistent quiet time, if I never come to a prayer group meeting: does it make a difference? Another way to ask the question, a blunter way, is to say: What’s the point?

And to answer that question, I’d like us to turn to John 15. John 15:5. This is Jesus, talking to His disciples on the night before He died. And here’s what He says:

5I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

Here’s the word that gets my attention in this verse, the word that scares me even: “Nothing.” Jesus says: “apart from me you can do nothing.” I don’t want to have a life that adds up to nothing. I don’t want a big Zero after my name. I want to live a life that matters.

And Jesus says the way to do that—the only way to do that—is to “remain” in Him. Apart from Jesus, our lives amount to nothing.

Now: let’s understand that Jesus is talking about spiritual life. He’s talking about life as it is measured by God. There are plenty of people who are disconnected from Jesus who are doing lots of things. There are non-Christian actors and actress who are making movies and earning millions of dollars. There atheist business-people who are inventing products and changing the way we use technology. There are godless dictators who continue to dictate their countries quite apart from Jesus Christ. There are people outside of Jesus who are doing something.

But in Jesus’ estimation it adds up to nothing. Unless a man remains in Jesus and Jesus in him, nothing of spiritual and meaningful value will come from his life.

That’s pretty black and white. It’s pretty scary. And if remaining has anything to do with prayer, then prayer makes all the difference in the world.

Not Optional
The way Jesus frames it here is in terms of fruit-bearing. He says that if we remain in Him, we will bear much fruit. So I’d like to dig into this verse a little further by asking three questions about fruit-bearing. The questions are: why does fruit bearing matter? What does fruit-bearing look like? And how do we bear fruit?

So, first: Why does fruit-bearing matter? This passage is very concerned about bearing fruit. In context, Jesus mentions fruit-bearing seven different times, in four different verses. Verses 1 and 2:

1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

And again, verse 4:

4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Verse 8:

8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

And, of course, our main verse, verse 5:

5I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

Jesus is using a metaphor. He’s giving this teaching as the disciples make their way from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane. So it isn’t too hard to imagine that they might be passing through a vineyard as He’s talking. And He uses the objects at hand to make a point.

He says He and His followers are like a grape vine. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. He’s the main trunk, we are the fruit bearing limbs. And the whole point of a grapevine, of course, is to bear fruit. The gardener wants abundant grapes so he can make his wine and sell it and so on, just like a corn farmer wants his fields to produce corn.

The point, then, is that bearing fruit is an essential part of genuine spiritual life. Living things reproduce. They grow. Christians should show evidence of the life of Christ in them. When they don’t, that’s cause for concern.

Let me put it this way: bearing-fruit is a non-optional part of the Christian life. It’s non-negotiable. The Christian life is not like signing up for a cell phone plan. You know how, when you go to sign up for a cell phone plan, they give you all these options? You can sign up for the unlimited talking and texting plan, with the option of 3G or 4G internet coverage. Or, you can just take the talking without the texting, but you want unlimited internet. Or, maybe you want to leave out the internet.

Well, the Christian life doesn’t work that way. There are no “non-fruit bearing” options. It’s not like you can go to God and say: “Do you have the eternal salvation and all-things-work-for-the-good plans, without the fruit-bearing?” Oh yes, we have that. $49 a month. “Do you have any don’t-go-to-hell plans with a non-tithing option?” Oh yes, very popular.

That’s not how it works. Fruit-bearing is not optional. If you are a Christian, if you have the life of God in you, that is going to work itself out in the way that you live. It’s going to change the way you speak. It’s going to change what you are living for.

All genuine Christians are going to bear fruit. They’re going to give evidence of Christ at work in them.

Now that doesn’t mean that we are going to be perfect. It doesn’t mean that we’ll all be superstar Christians. But there should be fruit in our lives.

And understand, I’m not talking about earning your salvation. Neither is Jesus. He’s not saying that we have to bear so much fruit before we are eligible to get into heaven. As if the gardener is waiting outside the pearly gates with a scale and He’s going to weigh our grapes before He decides if we are going to get in or not. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Skip ahead to verse 16:

16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last.

The only way any of us is saved is by God’s choice of us. Our salvation is entirely His doing, by His grace. But the point of that salvation is that we would bear fruit. As Ephesians 2 says, we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works. So fruit-bearing is not the way we earn our salvation, but it is the non-optional result of Christ at work in us.

And this should sober us. It should cause us to evaluate our lives. We should ask: am I showing fruitfulness in my life? Am I showing evidence of Christ in my life?

One of the things this passage is teaching us is that it is possible for people to claim to be Christians, to hang around Jesus, and yet be false disciples. Think of Judas. He spent 3 years walking along side of Jesus, but that didn’t mean He had actually surrendered his life to him. He still ended up—on this very night—selling Jesus out for 30 silver coins.

We need be very honest in assessing our lives. Being in church doesn’t make you a genuine follower of Christ anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car. And so, if you look at your life and all you see is spiritual deadness, if there is no fruit of Christ in your life—and I’m not talking about a season of dryness, I’m talking about a long-term pattern of hardness to the things of God—then you should be alarmed. I’m not talking about a genuine Christian who is battling sin and feels bad about sin and is repenting of it; I’m talking about people who love sin and cherish sin, and then come to church and raise their hand and say: “I’m good!”

Because: “No, you’re not.” If you are joined to Christ, then there will be evidence of it in your life. There will be transformation. You will start loving the things he loves, and hating the things He hates. And if you don’t see that happening in your life then you should cry out to God for salvation. You should ask him for mercy. Ask His Holy Spirit to bring conviction, and do a work in you, to bring you a desire to live in Him and for Him.

This isn’t optional. Fruit-bearing matters.

Being Disciples
So, second question: what does fruit bearing look like? We’ve been hinting at it, but let’s make sure we know. What does Jesus mean by bearing fruit?

For an answer, we can look at verse 8:

8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Bearing fruit means showing yourself to be Christ’s disciple. That means you are someone who follows Jesus. That means you look like Jesus. When you are fruitful, people will look at you and say: you must follow Jesus.

That’s really the point of discipleship. In that culture, a disciple was someone who lived with their teacher. Someone who followed the teacher wherever he went. Ate with him. Worked with him. Traveled with him. The intention was that the disciple would become like the Master. Pick up his habits, his ways of thinking, his ways of talking. A disciple would learn to love what the master loved, to hate what he hated.

And so, spiritual fruit can be defined as being like our master. Looking like Jesus. Not in physical dress or appearance. But in attitude and values and lifestyle.

Fruit is a common image in scripture and it is often used to describe good works—a thought, attitude or action of ours that God values because it reflects Him. Titus 3:14 says:

14Let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful. (NKJ)

Inwardly, we are bearing fruit when our attitudes become more Christ-like. In Galatians 5 Paul talks about the fruit grown when the Holy Spirit is active in your life:

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Outwardly, we are bearing fruit when we carry out the actions the Bible calls us to. When we share our faith, when we feed the hungry or shelter the homeless, when we love our neighbor, when we serve at church, when we lift our hearts in worship and more, we are bearing fruit.

Essentially, fruit bearing is anything that brings glory to God. Go back to John 15:8. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit.”

Fruitfulness, then, is the direct result of having God at work in your life. It’s letting God work through you. It’s being so saturated with God’s Word and so much taken with who He is that our lives become reflections of Him.

And this, Jesus is saying, is the only thing that matters. Back to verse 5 again. Jesus says either we will bear much fruit, or we will be nothing. Either we bear the kind of fruit that brings glory to God and reflects Jesus, or our lives end up with a big fat Zero at the end. The only thing we can do that has any significance in this world is bear fruit for Jesus. Everything else is just building castles on the sand.

So, final question, How do we bear fruit? If we want bear this fruit that matters, if we want our lives to add up to more than nothing, what do we do? Let’s read verse 5 once more, and let’s add in verse 4:

4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

The word that gets repeated again and again in those two verses is the word “remain.” Remain. Older translations use the word “abide.” It means stay put. It means live in. It means to dwell with.

All of your fruitfulness is tied to Jesus. In part, that means trusting Him for salvation. If you are looking anywhere else but to Jesus for your hope and security, then these verses don’t work for you. You have to trust in Him. But this is about more than a one-time walk down an aisle. This is about a long-term connection.

The vine metaphor helps here. If Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, then that means we need to stay connected to Him.

What happens if you cut a branch off a tree? It dies. I’ve got some big trees in my yard. And every now and again in the summer I’ll look up into those trees and I’ll see a cluster of dead leaves. It’s in the middle of June, so I know it isn’t the beginning of the fall yet. But I’ll see a bunch of brown and orange leaves in the midst all the green leafiness. And I’ll know I’ve got a broken branch up there. Probably in the middle of a thunderstorm or something, one of the branches broke off and got stuck in all the other branches. But all its leaves die, because it didn’t remain connected to the tree.

And Jesus says that if we want to be fruitful (and fruit-bearing is not optional for the Christ-follower) then we need to remain connected to Him. Abide. Dwell. Don’t move on from Jesus.

You see, in our modern world, we might be tempted to change this metaphor. Maybe we’d say something like: Jesus is the power cord, you are the cell phone. We get this idea that Jesus is something we can plug into for a time—maybe for an hour on Sunday morning—fill up our batteries, and then we can disconnect and go be all sorts of fruitful. We plug-in, we fill up, and then we’re good for 24 hours, or 48, or a week.

But that’s not the metaphor Jesus is using. It’s not what He’s saying. He’s saying that we need to remain in Him. That we need to be plugged in all the time.

What Jesus is talking about here is not a program, not a check-list of behaviors or 20 minutes given to devotions every morning—but a relationship. Jesus is talking about living life with a total awareness of our desperate need for Him all the time.

And here’s why prayer matters. Here’s why it makes a difference whether you pray or not. Because how are you going to stay connected to Jesus unless you pray? How are you going to remain in Him if you are neglecting the God-given means of maintaining a relationship with Him?

I’m not talking about something as mundane as bowing your head for 15 seconds before a meal or saying a prayer at the beginning of a church meeting. I’m certainly not talking about spinning a prayer wheel or asking monks to say prayers for you. But I am talking about living your life with a constant and regular communication between you and God. I’m talking about abiding in Him. Remaining in Him. And realizing that apart from Him you can do nothing.

Ultimately, the purpose of prayer is to know God better. Prayer is not about making God do things for you. Prayer is not a magical formula for making life easier. Timothy Keller wrote a book on prayer last year that I’ll be using throughout this series. He writes: “Prayer is not merely a way to get things from God, but a way to get more of God himself.” Philip Yancey, whose book on prayer will also be a major source, writes: “I need God more than anything I might get from God.”

Keller goes on to quote the Apostle Paul, from Ephesians 1:17, when he says:

17I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.

Keller points out that in all of Paul’s prayers for his friends he never prays for a change in their circumstances. He never prays for their healing or their protection. He never prays for the economy or for a better emperor. Not that it would be wrong to pray for those things. But in the prayers Paul records in his letters the one thing he repeatedly prays for is that we would know God better. That’s what we need to remain in Him. That’s why prayer matters.

Prayer makes a difference because prayer is the key to connecting to Jesus. And Jesus says remaining in Him is the difference between having fruitful lives, or accomplishing nothing.

Be Desperate
So the first bit of application I have for you in this prayer series, the thing that I hope will jumpstart your prayer life, is this: Be desperate. Be desperate for Jesus.

The key to growing in prayer is to truly believe what Jesus is saying here. If you really want to deepen your abiding in Christ, then you need to resolve that apart from Christ you can do nothing. You have to agree with Him that bearing fruitfulness in your Christian life is crucial and then you need to be desperate for that connection with him.

We need to realize that we have no life, no power, no resources apart from Jesus. Jesus is our justification. Jesus is our righteousness. Jesus is our grace. Jesus is our sanctification. Jesus is the resurrection power that allows us to turn away from sin. There is no part of the Christian life in which we can get anything useful done apart from Jesus Christ.

So get desperate for Him. Remain in Him. Long for that connection with Him. And I believe your prayer life will grow as a result.