Prayer and Faith
When in need, the Bible encourages us to pray. Not any kind of prayer is acceptable. ‘Vain repetitions’ are no use (Mt. 6:7). ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me’ (Ps. 66:18). Amazingly, the Lord Jesus said, ‘What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them’ (Mk. 11:24). Does that mean that God’s almighty power is placed at our disposal? ‘What things soever’ is a very broad term.
In this context Jesus cursed a fig tree. He came to the tree hungry, looking for fruit, but found none. It wasn’t the time for figs. Jesus said to it, ‘No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever’ (v 14).The next morning Peter drew attention to the tree which was now withered from its very roots up. It seems strange for the Saviour to curse a tree but He was teaching His disciples two lessons. It was a kind of acted out parable. First, He comes to us looking for fruit. If we fail to yield it to Him we also will be cursed and no excuses will be accepted. Do you bear fruit for God? The second lesson He taught was the importance of faith along with prayer: ‘Have faith in God. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith’ (vv 22-23). Amazing things will happen if you pray believing. Even mountains which seem to last for generations will be removed into the sea. But have you ever heard of a mountain cast into the sea? Over the centuries there have been some great heroes of the faith and some mighty prayer warriors but when was the last mountain thrown into the sea? What can be meant by ‘What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them’?
What it can’t mean
Many years ago I met a devout Christian girl who was profoundly deaf. She had been praying and told me she believed she was going to get her hearing back. Did not Jesus say, ‘What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them’? I tried tactfully to suggest that perhaps it was not God’s will. Maybe she should pray ‘If it is thy will’. ‘No’, she said, ‘that would be unbelief’. But I pointed to Christ who in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed, ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done’ (Lk. 22:42). He was submissive to the Father’s will. ‘Ah’ she said, ‘but that was Christ dying for our salvation’. I then directed her to Paul (2 Cor. 12) who prayed earnestly that the thorn in the flesh be removed but God would not do so. ‘Yes’, she replied, ‘but God gave to Paul amazing visions. If God gave me such visions I would be content with my deafness’. Despite her belief that she would have her hearing restored she remained as far as I know stone deaf.
Not all prayers are answered as we wish. If you pray for something sinful, for example, help in stealing or murdering, the Lord surely will not answer. If you pray from sinful motives, for example, out of covetousness to be wealthy or out of pride to be successful, you should not expect the Lord to grant your request. Many have unsuccessfully prayed that they might win the lottery, but then lottery is a form of gambling which is a form of stealing, taking from others what you have not earned lawfully, and the motive behind the lottery is greed.
However, James advises those who are sick to send for the elders of the church who are to anoint the individual with oil and to pray over the person and the invalid shall be healed. He states: ‘The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him’ (Jas. 5:15). So here there is a warrant to pray for the healing of the sick and a promise of healing. Many have been marvellously healed in the past and still today one hears of remarkable cases of healing in answer to prayer even in cases where the doctors have given up hope for the individual concerned. But will the one prayed for always be healed? If this verse is taken on its own, forgetting the rest of Scripture, then that is the implication. But then we know that Paul had to leave Trophimus sick at Miletum (2 Tim. 4:20). Surely Paul had prayed for him but the Lord did not heal. Paul advised Timothy, who had a weak stomach, to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake and his often infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23). He was picking up illnesses from the bad water. But why did Paul not heal his weak stomach? Paul himself had the thorn in the flesh which we have already noticed. It may have been a physical illness or a disability. He felt it kept him back in the Lord’s work. But though he prayed earnestly for its removal it was not taken away because it was sent for his benefit to keep him humble and remind him of his own weakness so that he would trust in the Lord and not be exalted above measure.
Illnesses are sent for a purpose. We are not meant to live forever in this world. The ‘health and wealth gospel’ which teaches that once you become a Christian all your problems will disappear is not Scriptural. Indeed Christ promised ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation’ (Jn. 16:33). There will be many difficulties but then He added, ‘be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’. Essentially we come to the question, Can prayer change the plan and purposes of God? Surely never; that would be impossible. God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. Paul asserts regarding election that we are ‘predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’ (Eph. 1:11). He plans all and He is sovereign over all and nothing happens but according to the counsel of His own will. If that is the case, and what will happen will happen, then what is the point of praying? Firstly, God commands us to pray and therefore we must. Secondly, we have the example of Christ Himself and of the godly of the past to direct us to pray. But thirdly and especially, our prayers also are planned by God and God carries out His purposes through our prayers.
Cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons take verses of Scripture, particularly the more obscure ones, and interpret them apart from their context and apart from the rest of Scripture. They take verses alone, in an absolute sense. For example the Mormons take the words, ‘Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?’ (1 Cor. 15:29) and argue that living people should be baptized for those who died without Mormon baptism. They forget what Scripture says about the fact that as we die so shall we spend eternity and think that they can give their forebears a second chance of mercy. Difficult verses should be interpreted with the help of simpler and clearer ones. Every verse is to be taken within the context of the whole of Scripture. So when Jesus says, ‘What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them’ this verse must be taken along with verses such as, ‘And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us’ (1 Jn. 5:14). So He hears and answers us only if it is His will, if it is for our good and for His glory. Our Lord Jesus Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed, saying, ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done’ (Lk. 22:42). He was fully submissive to His Father’s will. So this verse cannot mean that we can set ourselves over God and tell Him what to do.
What then does this verse mean?
What kind of prayer is required? What is it to pray believing that you shall receive whatsoever you desire? What should we expect when we pray in this way? The disciples performed many miracles, though not as many as Jesus. Their prayers were sometimes answered in dramatic ways – the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple healed, Elymas blinded and Dorcas raised from the dead. History tells us that these gifts of healing died out with the apostles. Great and godly heroes of the faith have lived in days gone by but they were not gifted so as to perform miracles. Many of the miracles in charismatic churches today are cases which cannot be verified and involve what cannot be seen or demonstrated. Withered hands are not restored nor those born blind given their sight. Sometimes, however, God still answers prayer in miraculous ways. There are those whom the doctors have given up as hopeless cases who have been restored and gone on to live for many years. Prayer for the sick is not in vain and is encouraged by Scripture (James 5:14-15).
We can make the following points with regard to prayer:
- We must not pray for help in sin. We should only pray for such things as are consistent with the revealed will of God. Nor should we pray out of sinful motives, eg covetousness, anger or pride.
- We should pray with confidence for such things as are revealed to be in the plan of God. God has promised that His kingdom will come and that the Jews will be converted as a nation, so we can pray for these things knowing and believing that they will happen. Similarly we can pray for the perseverance of the saints knowing that this too is the will of God.
- We are to pray believing – believing in God’s existence, in His almighty power, in His love and mercy and willingness to help.
- Faith is the gift of God: ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:8). This is true at the point of conversion but it is also true when a person prays for something. God sometimes gives a special burden to pray and the faith required. Sometimes even the unsaved see miraculous answers to prayer but it does not prove that the person is saved: ‘Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity’ (Mt. 7:22-23).
- Always seek God’s glory in praying: ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’ (Lk. 22:42).
- As someone said ‘God always answers prayer. He says “Yes”, “No”, or “Wait”’.
- We must pray with a forgiving heart because otherwise the Lord who forgives our sins is offended: ‘And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses’ (Mk 11:25-26).
- We are to pray believing that God will give what we ask for, and we shall have it, providing that it is for His glory and our good.