The Paradox Of Prayer

Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24) He also told us that “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) If we look at these verses outside of the context of the rest of Scripture, it could seem like God would give us whatever we wanted if we only have faith. But our Sovereign God doesn’t give us everything we ask for. Is it due to lack of faith? This may sometimes be the case, but cannot be universally true. There are too many examples in Scripture of faithful persons who did not receive the desires of their hearts. One example is the Apostle Paul: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [thorn in the flesh], that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you. . .’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). So, the question is: How do we pray with mountain-moving faith when we know that God’s will may differ from our own desires?

In church recently, the sermon was about the messages of the angels in Luke chapters 1 and 2. The pastor emphasized the angel’s response to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” I was contemplating this teenaged girl whose life was changed forever when that angel visited. Lord, what about me? Behind me to my left I could see two different mothers with their babies. I prayed with sudden abandon that God would change my life and that this barrenness would be removed.

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:6-8

I want to pray with faith that God can work miracles in my life and remove barriers. I don’t want to be “double-minded.” But when I feel I’ve prayed in faith, I get presumptuous. I begin to look for the answer to my prayer in every circumstance. When I realize my presumption, it turns to disappointment as I consider that God’s plans are different from my desires. Am I the only one who struggles to pray without doubting, and then move forward, surrendered to God’s will?

Our preeminent example of faithful prayer was Jesus at Gethsemane: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) The man Jesus prayed earnestly and intensely, tormented by what He knew was coming. Still, God’s will was done, and Jesus was obedient to the point of death on a cross. We know Jesus had perfect faith, so how can it be that His request went unsatisfied?

I found the answer in the notes of my ESV Study Bible for James 1:6. The note for that verse gives this definition of faith: “A settled trust and confidence in God, based on his character and promises as revealed in Scripture.” The note then directs the reader to Hebrews 11:1, which defines faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Finding myself in Hebrews 11 brought everything together for me. Those who were “commended through their faith” died “not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Our faith isn’t about any one petition, it’s about knowing what awaits us when our earthly life over. We trust in the God of the Promise, whom we know to be good.

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:9-11

In 2 Samuel 12:15-23, there is an example of praying with a faith that trusts in God’s goodness. David was told by the prophet Nathan that the child born of his adultery with Bathsheba would die. When the infant fell ill, “David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground.” David spent a full week prostrate, fasting and praying to God for his son. After the child died, David got up, bathed, changed his clothes, and went into the house of the LORD to worship. Only after he had worshiped, did David return to his house and eat. His servants questioned his behavior. Why had he fasted and wept while the child was alive, but after the child died, he had arisen and eaten? David responded to his servants, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?” David showed us that faith is knowing our God is a gracious God who desires to give us good gifts. It wasn’t about believing that God would heal his son; David trusted in the character of God. Thus, when the child died, David’s response was the same as it would have been if the child had recovered: he worshiped.

The truth we find in Scripture is that God does give good gifts. In response to our prayers and supplications, He pours out on us His sufficient grace and a peace to guard our hearts and our minds. I can go forward with joy and peace because I serve a God “who satisfies [me] with good.” (Psalm 103:5)

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