Embarrassing Prayer Promises? (Part 1)
In his last post, Greg brought up the subject of prayers God will not answer. But I thought Jesus promised — multiple times — that God will give us whatever we ask in prayer. What about that?
In Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer C. S. Lewis discusses those alarmingly open-ended sounding biblical promises that have both deeply emboldened some and profoundly perplexed others (including the child Lewis who prayed desperately for his mother’s healing) whose experience in prayer doesn’t seem to match the promises.
The New Testament contains embarrassing promises that what we pray for with faith we shall receive. Mark 11:24 is the most staggering. Whatever we ask for, believing that we’ll get it, we’ll get…. How is this astonishing promise to be reconciled (a) with the observed facts? And (b) with the prayer in Gethsemane, and (as a result of that prayer) the universally accepted view that we should ask everything with a reservation (“if it be thy will”)? As regards (a) no evasion is possible. Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted…. But (b) though much less often mentioned, is surely an equal difficulty. How is it possible at one and the same time to have a perfect faith…that you will get what you ask and yet also prepare yourself submissively in advance for a possible refusal?… As regards the first difficulty, I’m not asking why our petitions are so often refused. Anyone can see in general that this must be so. In our ignorance we ask what is not good for us or for others, or not even intrinsically possible. Or again, to grant one man’s prayer involves refusing another’s…. The real problem is different; not why refusal is so frequent, but why the opposite result is so lavishly promised. Shall we then… scrap the embarrassing promises as “venerable archaisms” which have to be “outgrown”? Surely, even if there were no other objection, that method is too easy. If we are free to delete all inconvenient data we shall have no theological difficulties; but for the same reason no solutions and no progress…. The troublesome fact, the apparent absurdity which can’t be fitted into any synthesis we have yet made, is precisely the one we must not ignore…. Ten to one, it’s in that cover the fox is lurking. There is always hope if we keep an unsolved problem fairly in view; there’s none if we pretend it’s not there…. It seems to me we must conclude that such promises about prayer with faith refer to a degree or kind of faith which most believers never experience. A far inferior degree is, I hope, acceptable to God. Even the kind that says “Help thou my unbelief” may make way for a miracle…. What do you think about these things? I have offered only guesses.
Lewis summarizes the issue with a candor that is simultaneously disconcerting and helpful. Yet his suggested solutions are, he admits, “only guesses.”
For example, his conclusion that such extraordinary promises require an equally extraordinary degree of faith fails to notice that, in a similar passage (which also relates to “moving mountains”), Jesus expressly de-emphasizes the degree of faith required (Matt 17:20)—faith “as a grain of mustard seed” is all that is required, not “a degree or kind of faith” unattainable by most believers.
The emphasis in both Matthew 17 and Mark 11 is the simple assurance that there is no limitation with God; we may approach him with any request in implicit confidence that it will never be beyond his power. No rare degree or kind of faith is required, only faith in a great God; because it is not the “power of prayer” nor the “power of faith” that “works” — it is God. Jesus is not pronouncing an open-ended promise about getting whatever we want by prayer, but an open-ended assurance that God is effortlessly able to do anything we could possibly ask of him.
What about the four promises in John (Jn 14:13-14; Jn 15:7; Jn 15:16; Jn 16:23-24)? As absolute and unqualified as they may sound, the Johannine promises include built-in qualifications that are often overlooked by the reader who magnifies isolated statements without the inconvenient baggage of context. Again, these are not blanket promises of blank checks in prayer. The promise is not “if you are a Christian you can get anything you want from God.” The one praying is never conceived of as asking and receiving independently of his or her ongoing relationship of abiding in and obedience to Christ.
Leon Morris commented on John 15:7,
We should not overlook the importance of “my words.” The teaching of Christ is important and not lightly to be passed over in the interest of promoting religious feeling. When the believer abides in Christ and Christ’s words abide in him then … his prayers will be prayers that are in accord with God’s will and they will be fully answered.
All four of Jesus’ statements occur within minutes of each other in the context of a single discourse to the disciples. None of the promises can be isolated and viewed independently from the others. In other words, this is a body of teaching, not a string of sayings to be extracted and applied as absolutes on our own terms. In a very few hours from his uttering them, Jesus clearly taught his disciples otherwise. More on that in the next post.
Photo: East Gate of Jerusalem from Gethsemane (2011)