What do you think of when you hear phrases like: “pray in faith” or “the prayer of faith”? What comes to mind? Do these phrases create questions in your mind? Do they evoke memories of times of prayer or issues you prayed through in the past?
I addressed the topic of the “prayer of faith” in the message I preached on Mark 11:12-25 yesterday. I came to a realization last week as I prepared to preach that text, and specifically to address that topic which is clearly in view in Mark 11:22-25. What I came to recognize was that, to be frank, phrases such as these carry some baggage for me.
They shouldn’t carry baggage. They are phrases and concepts that stem directly from Scripture. James 5 talks about “the prayer of faith,” and places like Mark 11, John 15, Matthew 21, and others talk about “praying in faith” or approaching God with what could be called “believing prayer.”
As I look back over my life, and think about why such phrases would be met with pause or hesitancy on my part, I think about how I was practically taught about the “prayer of faith.” This wasn’t intentional teaching, in a specific sermon on a given text of Scripture or a class on prayer; but it was what you could call “unintentional teaching” that I picked up by observing and listening to how people talked about the relationship between prayer and faith.
Growing up in a Pentecostal context, prayer for the sick, believing prayer, praying in faith, etc. were always a part of the narrative I experienced. I was taught exactly what Mark 11:23-24 says:
Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
I can recall so many circumstances where I prayed in faith, asked God for more faith, or believed with everything in me for a certain outcome to come to pass. I can remember, early on in my walk with God as a teenager, working as hard as I could to believe for something and then waiting on God to deliver the answer. I can remember gathering in prayer groups, circles of friends, or in the context of a community worship gathering, and praying, believing, seeking, asking, knocking, and walking away fully expecting God to deliver the answer for which we sought him.
And God answered.
He answered every time.
But here is the place from which some of the baggage comes. Sometimes—perhaps many times—the answer, the outcome, or the final result was not the one for which I prayed. In many situations I prayed for physical healing, miraculous healing, spontaneous healing, and the outcome was the individual dying. I prayed for outcomes, resolutions; and I believed with everything in me that God could, would, and was willing to do them—but then they didn’t happen like I prayed for them to happen.
In the most destructive of these situations, as I looked for answers, the only answer given was that someone (perhaps even me) didn’t pray with enough faith. Someone let us down. Someone didn’t believe with a purity and clarity that God was requiring to deliver our desired outcome. The same people who perpetuated this type of thinking would roll their eyes in a prayer circle as someone would pray for “God’s will to be done.” They saw this type of prayer as “lacking faith,” for their definition of believing prayer was praying with a posture of demand and entitlement, quoting Scriptures out of context, and commanding that God bring the outcome that they felt like he guaranteed. Texts like Mark 11:23-24 would be thrown back in your face as you dared to “pray for God’s will to be done” around these types of people. They would confidently assert “THIS [insert outcome here] IS GOD’S WILL!!!” Apparently the god they were talking about was not the one from Scripture, whose will cannot be thwarted, who works in all things according to his purposes, by his grace and for his glory; but a god whose will was and is held hostage to the level of faith/belief that his creatures are able to muster in given situations for given outcomes.
Here are two problems I have with this misguided mindset:
1) It is completely unbiblical.
It takes texts like Mark 11:23-24 out of context. The context of Mark 11, as we saw yesterday, is the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus is firing a shot across the bow of empty entitled religion, and is declaring that he has come as the mediator between God and humanity. He is pronouncing judgment because he is preparing to take it himself on the cross. As Jesus breaks down religion in preparation for gospel, he is clearly trying to draw his follower’s focus off of themselves and onto Him. As he teaches on prayer in verses 22-25, the context is set in Mark 11:22 where he says:
“Have faith in God…”
The context where Jesus explained and encouraged “prayer in faith” was “have faith in God.” Faith is never an end in itself. It must have an object. The object, the target of biblical believing prayer, of the biblical prayer of faith, is God himself. We are not called to believe FOR desired outcomes, answers, or resolutions, but we are called to believe IN GOD. He is the target of faith. He is the object of faith.
2) It is idolatrous.
Those who rebuke or look down upon others for “praying that God’s will be done” are setting themselves against Jesus. This is precisely how he taught his followers to pray:
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
This is how he prayed himself, in his darkest hour:
Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
The prayer of faith is a posture. It’s not a magical formula. It’s not a secret recipe to bend God to our will. It’s a posture of humility and submission to God. It’s a posture of surrender to his will, his character, and his goodness.
Here is the basic summary from the message yesterday:
The prayer of faith IS NOT a posture of demand and entitlement that we take, holding God hostage to our desired outcomes.
The prayer of faith IS a posture of humble submission to the will of God, wherein we declare our unwavering commitment to his sovereign character and wisdom.
When we take that posture, placing our faith in God alone, we see the impossible happen. Sometimes “the impossible” is the will and way of a sinful human being conforming to the will and way of the only sovereign God. And perhaps that in and of itself is the greatest miracle we can ever experience.