One section of the Church universal is convinced, to varying degrees, that God will do whatever we ask Him to do. All we need is the faith to get it done. Moving the mountain, said Jesus, can be done if only we have the faith to do it, and so, by extrapolation, these Christians are convinced that with enough faith we can get whatever we ask for in life.
I have no intention of mocking the words of the Lord Jesus here, I’m just asking if perhaps we’ve misunderstood them. I haven’t heard of any mountains re-locating, have you? It seems to me that if we take this promise too literally, all we need is a few Pauls and a few Johns, and Mount Rushmore, for example, could be shifted closer to a more populated area so people don’t have to travel so far to see it. Mount McKinley would look much better in Idaho, wouldn’t it? Mount Rainier could be slid southwards somewhat so that it’s no longer a threat to Seattle and Portland, were it to erupt. And surely, were Jesus’ promise to be literal, there would be many an aspiring Paul or Peter practising on various such land-masses, in order to prove beyond doubt to the faithless that they can do it.
Aside from the literal form of mountain, we’ve all been given a mountainous lesson in prayer in our recent presidential election. While not all Christians supported Trump, many millions were indeed praying that he would be re-elected, including some famous names in the evangelical world. Unless things change very drastically in the next day or two (and I’m sure that’s possible) our prayers were not answered-at least, not in the way we wanted them to be answered.
Here is where I need to assert very plainly that I totally believe in prayer. I don’t believe in “the power of prayer”: I believe in the power of God. It’s a simple, plain, obvious fact that God will not always do what we want him to do, no matter how hard we pray or how much we determine to trust him to do it. When we’ve been living the Christian life long enough, and when we’re honest enough, and when we become humbled enough, we learn the hard, sometimes painful lesson, that God has His own plans and His own ways-independent of our own. God is God, and we are not. He is above us, not the other way around, and He, being infinite and perfect and sovereign, will do exactly what He wants, when He wants to do it.
Do I trust God? The answer I give to this question is yes, I do trust God… I trust Him to do exactly what He wants to do. I wish, oh how I wish, that I could make demands on Him. I would at once go back in time and fix some terrible errors in my life. In fact, there would be millions of us travelling back and forth in time, fixing and re-living. Can I get an “amen”? But how many time-travellers do you know, even in the most enthusiastic charismatic church?
More poignantly, how many of us who most fervently believe in the promises as we interpret them, don’t get sick, don’t have relationship or work-related problems, don’t get old and don’t die? How many of us get a brand new Ferrari to drive around in?
Let’s be honest, then: God does not always do what we want him to do. Yes, He is perfectly able to do it all! Yes, all things really are possible. We could all live forever in this broken world, were He to will it. We could all travel in time. We could all drive Ferraris, and we could all be moving those mountains around the countryside and throwing them into the sea.
I’ve heard Christians protest that doubting God will do what you ask is in itself a lack of faith. If that’s the case, Jesus Christ himself is guilty of unbelief, because, on the night of his betrayal, he prayed:
My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:39).
Asking for things within the will of God is exactly what He does want us to do:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him (1 John 5:14-15).
So it is not at all “sinful” or “lack of faith” to pray within the will of God: it’s the right way to pray. If we pray for something that is within the will of God, says the disciple whom Jesus loved, then…then we will receive what we ask for. Our mission is to seek the will of God in our lives and in the world, not to seek the fulfilment of our own fallen will.
There are conditions to answered prayer which I’m not touching on here. Sin in a believer’s life, for example will prevent us from receiving answered prayer. But ultimately it’s all down to the will of God, and not our own.