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The first believers I knew talked a lot about faith. As far as I could tell from what they said, faith was a variable commodity. Some had more and others less. The difference mattered since the results one might expect from God depended upon the amount of faith one was able to muster. Perhaps that’s why we spent so much of our time declaring our faith. When it came to prayer, it seemed that quantity was associated with volume. The more faith we wanted to prove that we had, the louder we prayed. I am not sure who we were trying to reassure more. Was it for God’s benefit or ours? It did not seem to make a difference either way. I felt no more certain no matter what the volume, while God did not seem to give my loud prayers any more attention than my soft.
In those days, it also seemed to me that the measure of one’s faith was determined by the size of the request. I thought faith was a muscle and praying was like weight training. The more you exercised it, the greater it grew. The larger the request, the greater the faith. I decided that my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold. I decided that if I was going to become a person of faith, I needed to believe God for greater things.
I decided my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold.
About that time, my mother’s health failed. She grew so weak
that my father had to carry her to the car and drive her to the hospital. The
doctors performed exploratory surgery, and she grew worse. I stood at her
bedside and prayed that God would heal her. She died instead. I prayed that God
would raise her from the dead, the way that Christ called Lazarus from the
grave. The casket remained closed. In the months after my mother’s death, my
father’s alcoholism worsened. I prayed that God would deliver him from bondage.
His alcoholism eventually killed him.
But this is a one-sided picture. It leaves out all the prayers
that God did answer, requests both great and trivial. They seem to fade in my
memory. Somehow, it is the refusals that stick. Perhaps I don’t want to think
about the others because they remind me how often I have been anxious about
trivial matters. Each time I have asked for bread, the Father has never given
me a stone. Or maybe it is because listening to the full scope of my requests
is an uncomfortable reminder of how shrill my voice often sounds when I cry out
to God. I may come into God’s presence kneeling like a petitioner, but I speak
to Him as if He were a servant. My requests sound more like demands. I sometimes
wonder why I even have to ask at all. Why doesn’t God just give me what I want?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites His disciples to make requests of their Heavenly Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” Jesus says. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus signals the Father’s welcome by piling on imperatives of invitation: “Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like. Before we can receive we must ask. Before we find we will need to seek. Before we may enter we must knock.
“Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges us. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like.
There is a hint of persistence in all of this. For some things, we must ask and keep on asking. We will seek for some time before we find what we want. We will knock, and the door will not swing open for us at once. Nevertheless, Jesus invites all those who are His to bring their requests. The quiet reminder of our need to persist, which is implied in both the word choice and the verb tense, is meant to relieve our fears. Delay does not always signify refusal and refusal is not necessarily a rejection. Like any parent, the fact that our Heavenly Father does not always give us what we want does not mean that He does not love us.
It is a mistake to measure our faith based on the size of
the request. It is equally a mistake to place our confidence in the measure of
our faith. Some of us have more faith than others. But if prayer is a lever, it
is God who acts as the fulcrum. The power of faith depends upon God not on the
size of our request. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain
(Matthew 17:20). The thing we ask of God, whether it is great or small, is not
the object of our faith. Our faith rests in God.
God is not the object of our faith either. God is not an
object at all. We are in a relationship with Him. When we objectify God, we
turn Him into an idol. Jesus condemned the objectification of God in prayer when
He warned about the babbling of pagans, who “think they will be heard because
of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayer does not work like magic. You cannot
recite a formula and compel God to do what you want. Prayer is a relational act,
and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal. Even a
child can refuse, though there are often consequences. It is only the slave who
cannot refuse, and God will be no one’s slave.
Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal.
Of course, this may offer only cold comfort to those for whom God’s answer is no. Given a choice between a genuine relationship with God and the thing we want, many of us would choose the thing. A relationship seems like small compensation compared to health or love or that job we had hoped to get. We aren’t exactly mercenaries where God is concerned, but we are often little better. We are like the crowd that came looking for Jesus on the other side of the lake after He had fed the multitude. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” Jesus chided. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26-27). When the crowd asked Jesus what kind of work He had in mind, His answer to them was faith. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).
Well, we do believe. Or at least, we want to believe. We
want to believe enough to get what we want. I admire the great men and women of
faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would
turn out. But I do not see myself in them. Instead, my prayers sound more the
man in Mark 9 who brought his demon tormented son to the disciples. “Teacher, I
brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever
it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his
teeth and becomes rigid” the man told Jesus. “I asked your disciples to drive
out the spirit, but they could not.”
I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them.
I can easily imagine a note of reproach in the man’s voice. “What
kind of slipshod operation are you running here, Jesus?” the man seems to say. But
Jesus refuses to accept the blame. “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus says, “how
long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to
me.” To whom is this rebuke directed? Is Jesus speaking to the father? Is He
criticizing the disciples? The answer is that Jesus seems to be talking to
Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of
confidence. They seemed to have plenty of confidence. They were as surprised as
anyone that their attempt to help the boy had failed. Later on, when they were
out of earshot the crowd, they asked Jesus to tell them where they had gone
wrong. “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” they asked. “This kind can come out only
by prayer” Jesus replied. So if the disciples hadn’t attempted to drive the
demon out with prayer, what had they done? At least in this instance, theirs was
a faith without reference to God. Indeed, this wasn’t faith at all. It was
confidence. They had cast out demons before. They could do it again. They thought
they had this.
Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence.
Once in Jesus’ presence, the demon threw the boy into a
convulsion. He rolled around on the ground and foamed at the mouth. Sounding
like a doctor, Jesus questioned the father about the boy’s condition. “How long
has he been like this?” Jesus asked. “From childhood,” the father answered. “It
has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do
anything, take pity on us and help us.”
If I were writing the story, Jesus would give His bumbling
disciples a sidelong glance to remind them of their failure. He would say
something compassionate to the father and command the demon to depart. Instead,
Jesus reproves the father. “‘If you can’?” Jesus says. “‘Everything is possible
for one who believes.’”
I see myself in the father. Only my point of doubt is slightly
different. It is not “if you can” but “if you will.” I know that Jesus can. I’m
just not sure that He will. Especially when it comes to those things that I
have been praying about for a long time and haven’t seen any evidence of His interest
in my case. The father’s prayer is also my own. “I do believe; help me overcome
Here is the measure of faith that God seeks. It is not great faith, equal to the size of the request that we are making. It is not even perfect faith, one that is unmixed with any doubt. It is not self-confidence. If anything, it is the opposite. To me, this man’s request is the purest form of prayer. It is not the blustering assurance of the apostles. Nor is it the scolding complaint of the father in His first approach. This is the cry of the helpless.
God does not scorn our requests, but He will not be
manipulated by them either. We cannot use faith as a lever to force God to do
our bidding. We cannot bully God with our prayers or make Him feel guilty. Indeed,
Jesus has assured us that such measures are not needed. “Do not be like them,” Jesus
says when He compares the prayer of faith to the prayer pagans, “for your
Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).
Here, then, is what faith looks like. Faith is trust. It is the assurance of a child who relies on a parent to provide what is needed. Faith is a trust, which does not always make us feel comfortable, but which is nevertheless convinced that God ultimately knows what is best and that He will do what is right. Faith is our helpless reliance upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.