First published 30 May 2011
I’ve nearly finished sharing with you the fruit of the studies I did in the summer of 2010, looking through some Bible passages that talk about prayer and faith. There are two more passages to go through. Next time I thought it would be good to come full circle and talk about James 5:15, which was the verse that starting me thinking in the first place. After that I may try to sum up the lessons learnt (I’m not sure how many more articles that will take, so I am making no promises now!).
For this time, though, God willing, we ought to look at probably the most difficult verse of all the ones I studied. That is Mark 11:24:
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
It’s difficult because it is the only verse that does not appear to have any limitations or conditions, except to believe. So it appears to force the blame for unanswered prayer onto our lack of faith. If we are not receiving what we want then Jesus appears to say that the reason would be because we do not have enough faith. And I think all honest Christians would admit that our lack of faith disappoints us. Are we then to feel guilty that we don’t achieve more, or we suffer too much, because we don’t have enough faith? I don’t think so. There is a challenge, but I will get to that later.
Let’s look at the context. Both Mark and Matthew include the events that led to the statement we are considering. Mark 11:12-25 and Matthew 21:18-22. There are one or two differences between the accounts, but it will only be a distraction if we go into them here.
Jesus has come into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, to the acclaim of a great crowd who laid down cloaks and palm branches in front of him as a kind of royal procession (Matthew 21:1-11). He immediately puts himself in conflict with the Jewish establishment, who hated him. His teaching and his parables, from this point on, relentlessly chide them for being self-seeking and self-righteous rather than recognising the coming of God’s Messiah, their Saviour.
For the benefit of his disciples, travelling with him, he gives a dramatic illustration:
“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard him say it….
“… In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!’
“‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.'” (Mark 11:12-25)
The fig tree was a picture of the Israel of Jesus’ day, which was largely fruitless because of its self-righteousness. Jesus was making the point that Israel as a nation was going to be cast aside because of their unbelief. He cursed the fruitless fig tree so that it withered in the same way that Israel would wither because of their unbelief and their rejection of the Messiah.
If you were to ask me what was the most surprising thing about this passage, however, it would not be Jesus’ statement about faith and prayer. What is most surprising, in my opinion, is that the disciples were surprised! In Matthew’s account we are told that, “they were amazed” (21:20). That’s striking to me, because they had been with Jesus for three years and had seen him walk on water, heal the sick, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a few fish, drive out demons and do many other miracles. Why would they be surprised that he should curse a fig tree and that it withered? Surely they had seen Jesus do things more powerful and dramatic?
Perhaps it was a little bit unexpected. Perhaps they expected that when Jesus said, “May you never bear fruit again!” the fig tree would simply be fruitless and leafy for the rest of its life. Perhaps they did not expect it to dramatically die immediately. Perhaps after so many healing, liberating and creating miracles this destructive miracle startled them. But Jesus makes it clear that he understood their amazement as lack of faith. So his response was to challenge that lack of faith. “Have faith in God!” Jesus says.
Did the disciples not believe that God could move mountains if He wanted to in response to their prayers? Did they not believe that through Jesus Christ they had access to God to ask Him to do amazing things? They should not have been so surprised. But the picture that Mark and Matthew paint of the disciples before Jesus rose from the dead – throughout their gospels – is a picture of slow understanding and timidity. They did not yet clearly see the closeness of the relationship between Jesus and His Father, and the full implications of the access to God’s power that went with that. Still less did they understand that Jesus’ work enabled them to have that same access, through faith in Him, so that they too could ask for amazing things.
Moving mountains may not be something we would ask God for, and if we did it would only be to test Him. But the point is that God is able and willing to do really amazing things for us in response to genuine prayer that has His kingdom and glory at heart.
One of the reasons we feel we don’t see God working in an amazing way is because we don’t ask Him for amazing things. We need to understand that we can ask God for anything, and have faith that He can do anything. Nothing is beyond His power. I think this is a major thing for all of us. We don’t have much faith if we’re honest. If we did, wouldn’t our church prayer meetings be consistently well attended? (I challenge myself in this too!) If we really believed that God is ready, willing and able to answer our really difficult requests, wouldn’t we pray and pray and pray?
But am I ducking the issue of the strong words, “whatever… it will be done… it will be yours”? Perhaps. But once I understood that Jesus was trying to respond with something suitably scathing for the disciples lack of faith, I could see a deliberate overstatement.
It would be an absurd interpretation to take the word “whatever” without any limitation, but because Jesus’ point was about the disciples lack of faith he makes his statement without limitations. For instance, we can’t ask to be greater than God! We can ask to be preserved from death, but since death has to come to everyone we cannot expect prayer to stave it off forever! We can’t ask something sinful to not be sinful just because we enjoy that particular sin. We can’t ask for the destruction of people we don’t like. We must, therefore, understand the limitations in this passage naturally from elsewhere in the Bible, and we have spent many weeks uncovering those.
And yet that does not lessen the challenge to our faith. Whilst God does not promise to give us anything and everything that we ask for, the fact is that we very often miss out because we do not believe. We may say that we believe, but actions speak louder than words. We talk about the power of God, the sovereignty of God, the love of God for His people, and yet our absence in church prayer meetings, our laxity in setting aside time for private prayer, our small mindedness in prayer, demonstrate that we lack real faith. Without faith we either don’t ask God for what we need, or we are too reserved in our prayers. And if we don’t ask, how can God answer?
I’ll be tentative here, but there may also be a sense in which Jesus is not overstating. He says, “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24) There is a specific assurance of receiving what we ask when we have no doubt about what we ask for, when we are so sure that we will receive it that it’s almost like already having it. But apart from when we pray for things that are specifically promised in Scripture, the only way to have that certainty is if God gives it to us supernaturally. This is unusual. The apostles certainly experienced it, as they did great miracles with great confidence. But after the apostles it is more usual to have to pray, as we have learnt in earlier studies, “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” I simply leave open the possibility. Whether this is the case of not, we are challenged to have more faith, and pray more boldly.
But what is the remedy for our lack of faith? I’ve said in Part 5 of this series that we are not to have faith in our own faith, or try to muster positive thoughts, wilfully suppressing mental doubts. We can fall into the trap of trying to manipulate God by our own power of positive thinking. Having more faith is not a matter of taking a big gulp, squeezing your eyes shut and dismissing anything negative that was in your mind.
You build your faith by filling your mind with the Word of God, learning about His love for His people, learning about the mighty works He has done in history, keeping God’s promises in the forefront of your mind. And you build your faith by asking the Holy Spirit to increase it in you.
If I look back on my own life and the way the Lord has responded to my prayers, I am now almost ashamed that I was prompted to start this study a year ago. I have recounted on this blog how the Lord has blessed me and my family in the last few years, in the face of various hardships. And that has all been in response to prayer. There have been amazing “coincidences” that simply do not happen without prayer. I think of the way that my health has improved, even though slowly; and the way that certain sick friends have been graciously preserved even after the worst prognosis – all after prayer.
I think that most of us shy away from praying for what we consider to be big things because we are afraid that God will say no, and we will be discouraged. We like to only pray for things that we will definitely receive. But Jesus’ challenge to us in Mark 11 is to be bold in prayer, even if God eventually says no. If a mountain needs to be moved – perhaps a metaphor for an illness, or a blockage to our ministry or service – God is able to move it and loves His children enough to do it, if it fits with His plans for His glory and their greater good. We should not allow the extent of our faith and faithfulness in prayer to be based on answered prayer from our past experience. Our faith in God and faithfulness in prayer should be based on the promises of God and the character of God revealed in His Word, the Bible. If our faith is in God, and our love is for His glory, then we will continue to pray even after He has turned down various requests.
However, I am sure that God gives us most things that we ask for, if we ask with believing hearts that truly treasure Jesus Christ and seek His kingdom. Jesus’ words in Mark 11/Matthew 21 should be a challenge to us – myself very much included – be encouraged, believe… and pray… pray for big things, small things, amazing things… but above all, pray and don’t ever give up praying!