Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. -Mark 11:24
Would you consider the apostle Paul a man of faith? One who believed that God is who He says He is and does what He says He will do? So much so that he began the movement of Christianity, traveled far and wide to plant and teach in churches? Yes, you would call him a man of faith; one who believed.
He prayed for the thorn in his side to go away.
It never did.
Jesus’ use of “whatever” in Mark 11 (and Matthew 7 and John 14) sounds absolute and all-inclusive. But it can’t be if Paul was a man of faith and didn’t get what he prayed for. It also is important to consider who Jesus was speaking to at the time. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t us. That doesn’t mean we don’t take take away a lesson from this verse, but it is a reminder that when we come across a verse that seems to not match up with other part of Scripture, we much look closer. And we start with context. Consider the context, who and what, was going on when Jesus spoke those words before you assume the words simply mean what they say and that they apply directly to us today. The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us. That matters.
But back to Paul and his thorn. This verse also seems to imply not just that God will give us whatever we want, but that if we have enough faith it will happen. The role of faith in our prayers will always be a mystery, but I do know that thinking too much of our own power leads not only to pride but to unnecessary guilt when our prayers are not answered. God wants us to be people of faith, and He wants us to pray that way. He is also sovereign. It would be great if there was a neat and tidy way to explain how they work together, but Scripture doesn’t point us that way (which means God didn’t intend for us to know it) nor does our limited ability to understand unfathomable things lend itself for us to be sure of what it all means. This is messy, frustrating, and not able to be fit into a nice little box.
Welcome to Christianity.
Someone else prayed for something to go away. Jesus himself prayed for the cup of suffering to pass. He still endured torture and death for my sake and yours. Do you doubt that Jesus had faith?
It’s not about how much faith you have, but about the One who gives us that faith in the first place.
This all begs the question: Since we do not know the will of God, how can we ever pray with undoubting faith?
Call me crazy, but I don’t think we can. We can not doubt that God can do it, but we put ourselves in the place of being God’s mouthpiece when we are willing to say that God for sure will do it. It’s the rare occasion that I am absolutely sure of being God’s mouthpiece with regards to something I cannot specifically test against Scripture, like the will of God healing someone I love. It can and does happen, and yes it’s rare. Even more fearsome than being given the responsibility of this, is that because of our sin, we ought to be quite mindful of assuming we know God’s will. Because when we do we put ourselves in a place we shouldn’t be.
“My heart is drawn to self exalting” is lyric from one of my favorite modern hymns. Perhaps this is why were were taught to pray the way we were taught to pray: with the holiness of God the Father in the forefront of our heart, so we can humble ourselves when we are prone to claim to know His will when we ought not to claim we do. We were taught to pray in a very specific way about God’s will, likely because the Father knew the propensity of our heart.
How did Jesus teach us to pray with regards to the Father’s will?
“Your kingdom come, Your will be done.”
And how did Jesus model it in the garden? “Not my will, but yours be done.”
In praying “not my will…” we are admitting that we don’t have certainty that our specific request will be granted. But we can have certainty in the One who has the power to grant the request.
That’s the believe we are called to. That’s the faith we are given. I will ask for prayer of the One who has the power to grant the request, and God will hear my prayer not because of who I am but because of who He is.