Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to South Korea and visit some of largest churches in the world: Kwanglim Methodist Church with 85,000 members and Yoido Full Gospel Church with 900,000 members. We met with their senior pastors and leaders and learned about their leadership. We were, so to speak, drinking from a fire hydrant all week.
The food was great. The people were amazing. And some of the cultural differences were shocking, and I noticed some contrasting differences between Westerners and Asians.
One observation in particular is that Koreans, in general, are not individualists; they have a culture of collectivism. They are compliant with each other, and their main concern is the greater good. This cultural context influences the ways in which they practice their Christian faith, including how they read the Bible and pray.
Here in America, a question that we typically ask is “What is God’s will for my life?” But this is not a question that is common in Korea. A more common question for Korean Christians would be, “What is God’s will?” Period. The difference between these questions is that the latter focuses on God, on pursuing God’s kingdom, and not on ourselves.
To us, this may not be a big deal since we have been taught about the value of individualism. But for many Koreans, this is not typical. They don’t ask the question, “What is God’s will for my life?” They seek God’s will collectively by studying the Bible and praying. Their main concern is not asking for God’s will but aligning themselves with the teachings of Jesus. In general, the concept of having a tailored plan for oneself is an alien one to them.
In essence, Korean Christians fulfill God’s will for their lives not by waiting for a specific answer from God about a plan for them but by pursuing what they already know God is doing. Their prayer life is more about joining God than asking God.
This experience led me to reflect deeper on my own practice of prayer. A Scripture that spoke to me in very significant ways is in Matthew 20:20-23,
“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.'”
This Scripture of Matthew is the story of a mother who wanted only the best for her sons. She came to Jesus with a bold request. She asked that when Jesus comes into his Kingdom, he would have her sons seated on his right and the other on his left. She was doing what any mother would do. I don’t think we can blame her for coming to Jesus and asking what she thought was the best for them.
If we read the other gospels, it’s clear that this was a shared controversy among the disciples all the way until the night before Jesus was crucified. No matter what we may think about James and John (and their mother), the other disciples wanted those seats as well.
The basic problem is that James and John didn’t ask for work in the coming Kingdom but for a place of honor. Through their request, they were not pursuing the purposes of the kingdom but the benefits of the kingdom.
To this request, Jesus provides an answer. He says, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” And they replied, “Yes, we can.” And Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:22-23).
Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke the mother or her sons. There was no problem with asking. However, Jesus does tell them that they don’t know what they are asking. And, at that moment, Jesus then asks them if they can drink the cup he is about to drink. With commendable bravery, they replied, “We can.”
Here is a critical moment for all of us as we look to learn more about the power of prayer.
The concept of the “cup” in the Bible speaks of intense personal experience. It is the same image Jesus used in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that the cup he was about to drink might be taken from him. Luke 22:42 says of this, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
That “cup” for Jesus particularly meant to him the burden of bearing the sins of the world, of having to face death on a cross. His drinking of the cup was his willingness to accomplish the will of God no matter the cost to him. And he did, because he trusted that the Father’s desire would result in the greatest good for the greatest glory and joy possible for all the saints. And so, even while sweating blood in tortuous expectation of his impending execution, Jesus exclaimed to the Father, “Not as I will, but as you will.”
What then is our cup? When Jesus says, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” he is telling us that just as his cup represented his submission to the will of God and the purposes of God’s kingdom, so it means to us how we too submit to God. In this context, the cup is something taken voluntarily when our goal is not personal gain but accomplishing God’s will. Drinking the cup is the ultimate act of obedience and trust to God.
What does this have to do with prayer? When we pray, are we only asking for a seat, or are we drinking the cup, submitted wholly to God? When we pray, are our main concerns our individual comforts, or are we pursuing the kingdom of God?
Of course, Jesus does invite us to ask for whatever we may think we need. The point is not to stop that, but to go beyond that. Jesus spoke of this when he said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
If we look closely, all this time Jesus has been telling us that prayer is not a means for personal gain (a “seat of honor”) but a source of life. Prayer is the cup that leads us beyond brokenness into new living.
When we tell God, “all these are my wants, but let it be your will and not mine,” we are basically saying, “I want that seat, but that is not the most important thing; above everything else, I want to please you.”
This is the cup Jesus was talking about; this is the meaning of the cup to us. And here,is where the power of God is unleashed in and through us. When we drink this cup we are taken to new heights in our spiritual life.
The secret to a powerful prayer life is drinking the cup: humility and submission to God’s teachings. It is not about not asking what you want or pretending that you really don’t want it by forcing artificial piety; but it is about not losing sight of what matters most even as you struggle with your own priorities. There is nothing wrong with asking and talking with God about our wants and desires. In fact, God welcomes that very much. However (in my Korean experience), prayer is not only about asking “what’s in it for me?” but a pursuit to learn to align our lives with God’s Word and the teachings of Jesus.
How have the Korean churches have been so successful in reaching out to the unchurched and making disciples of them? I came across Matthew 20 and realized that their power to minister comes from their unwavering commitment to please God and accomplish the purposes of God’s kingdom.
What are we to make of all this? We learned from Matthew about not being shy about asking but also about making sure we don’t miss what matters most. Don’t stop praying when you are finished asking for a seat; drink the cup after that. Don’t stop praying when you are finished asking God for what you want or need. Once we ask, then let’s consider also praying like Jesus did, “Not as I will, but as you will.” (Luke 22:42 paraphrased)
Prayer is ultimately a source of new life, not a means for personal gain. Take your prayer life to the next level. Ask everything you want, but then pursue the kingdom of God and offer yourself in complete obedience to what God is accomplishing around you. Say, “here I am, Lord, let me serve you in any way you want me to.”
Let’s not stop asking, but let’s also never stop pursuing the kingdom of God and offer ourselves in complete obedience to what God is doing around us today and every day.
Note from the Editor: the featured image is “Prayer” by painter Kazimir Malevich, 1907.