Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Mark 11:19-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Psalm 107:33-43; 2 Samuel 5-6
The words of Jesus and Paul appear to offer very different views on prayer. Jesus seems to say that if you ask for anything, and have enough faith, you will receive it. Some take Jesus to mean that if you pray for something and don’t receive it, you must not have enough faith. Such a view can be devastating for those who pray for healing and find no improvement in their condition. Such was the case for Paul, who prayed three times (which meant repeatedly) for the removal of his thorn in the flesh, usually believed to be some ailment. Yet in spite of his pleading, and we can assume strong faith, Christ tells him he will not be healed. Yet Paul comes away from this incident with increased confidence in God. How can these apparently contradictory teachings on prayer be reconciled?
The context for Jesus’ statement on prayer helps reconcile any apparent differences. He has just denounced the way the Temple, a house of prayer, was turned into a den of iniquity (Mark 11:17). Then Peter is astonished that Jesus’ prayer about the fig tree has come true. Jesus responds by rebuking the apostles’ lack of faith. You think withering a fig tree is a big deal? You could move this mountain if you believed it would happen. Some commentators suggest this criticises a ritualistic approach to prayer as the mountain in their view would have been the temple mount. At that time, many rabbis taught that prayer in the Temple was highly effective. When the Temple was destroyed, some said that the gates of prayer were then closed. Jesus rejects this view, saying that prayer is based on faith, forgiveness and one’s relationship with God.
The ‘name it and claim it’ approach that some see in this passage still needs to be addressed. To believe we have received what we pray for does not necessarily mean we will receive anything we pray for. How can we be confident that we will receive what we pray for? Our prayers must be based on what we know God will provide if we are to have such confidence. Jesus himself demonstrates this a few chapters later in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:35-36). Every part of him wanted to avoid his approaching suffering, humiliation and death. He pleaded with God to find another way. Yet he believed in God’s will for his life. He knew what he wanted, but he had faith that what God wanted was best. This gave him the courage to face whatever would happen.
This is exactly what Paul concluded also. He pleaded with God that his thorn be removed. Yet he had confidence that God would take care of him no matter what happened. The answer to his prayer was different to what he expected. In this case, his physical weakness was more important because it reminded him of Christ’s strength. When we are weak, our strength in Christ is greatest (2 Corinthians 12:10). God promises us that he will be with us and comfort us in our suffering. He does not promise to take away every illness, difficulty or insult. But in spite of this we can pray in confidence that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38-39).