Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make them well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
Matt. 21, John 15, James 5
A conversation this morning led to the topic of prayer. I was told that prayer was a conversation with god, not commands to a servant to give us things. I challenged that notion by suggesting that the Christian scriptures, indeed, portray prayer as requests made with confidence to god. The very word, pray, mean to ask. Prayers might also have some conversational aspect to them, but they primary purpose of prayer is to ask for what we want and need.
I believe that the modern redefinition of prayer is largely to keep us from focusing on the fact that so many prayers go unanswered. It is also to remove any hint of a testable claim. If we are to have an expectation of prayer that it will be answered in the affirmative, then we have only to check the results of prayer to see if the claim is true. If, however, prayer is just a conversation with god, then we cannot cast doubt on the faith system simply because it does not work.
That is why I started this post with three passages from the Christian scriptures concerning prayer. There are many more in the same vein, but these should do for the purposes of this post. I provided a bit more context to the passage in Matthew because I felt it was important to show the scope of the claim about prayer at the end. Jesus had just performed a miraculous curse on a fig tree and made it wither and die instantly. Please don’t ask me why. I have no idea. His disciples were amazed. Jesus assured them that they could not only do that, but have a mountain cast into the sea with sufficient faith in the context of prayer. Not only could they ask for things, but extraordinary things that didn’t make a lot of sense.
One of the excuses I sometimes hear for why a prayer went unanswered is that it was a request for the wrong thing. With this formula, prayer only works for the things god wants, not for the things we want. We are merely to pray god’s will back to him. This makes no sense to me and does not agree with this scripture. We are invited to ask for what we want. God will do what he wants with or without our missive.
The example in the passage is of cursing a tree and causing it to wither and die out of a moment of pique, and casting a mountain into the sea just because you can. Neither of the requests make any sense to me. Why should god allow us to put a hex on something or someone simply because we were upset? Why would god allow us to rearrange the landscape just because it suits us? What other ridiculous tricks can we do through faith and prayer? Can we turn the statue of liberty upside-down when we disagree with a new law? Can we part rush hour traffic, like the Red Sea when we are late to a meeting? Neither of these things is more selfish or silly than the two examples given in the scripture.
The next verse I offer stands alone. It says, in no uncertain terms, that being faithful to Jesus is all it takes to access the power of prayer. Jesus did not limit prayer to only certain types of requests. He said that anything asked for by the one who remains in him will be done. There is not really any wiggle-room in this passage. It is clear and emphatic. The only condition is remaining (residing) in him.
Clearly, we have to come up with some rationalization for why these passages do not really mean what they seem to mean. Since the time these passages were written, the mountains have stayed firmly in place: none casting themselves into nearby seas. Why not? Obviously, god doesn’t mind doing it. Could it be that there has been no one with sufficient faith, or faithfulness to unlock the full potential of prayer? No one? Christians do not even attempt to pray such prayers because we know the absurdity of doing so.
We go out of our way to avoid prayers that would test our faith if unanswered. We have learned the fine are of the vague, nonspecific prayer, even when praying for something specific. We pray vaguely for someone to be comforted in the time of their illness, and, if it be your will, please help her get better, and, if it is cancer, help him to cope with the situation. No one prays that the eyes of the blind person be opened to perfect vision right now. We do not pray that the person on life-support be healed, mind restored, and exiting the hospital that very hour under their own power. Those are prayers that would get my attention. We could measure the results of those prayers. With the prayers we actually pray, there is no way to tell if they have been answered or not.
I mention healing because the passage in James is particularly about healing. We are told that if a person is sick, they should be taken to the elders of the church and have oil placed on them. We are not told to take them to the doctor for medical treatment. Further, we are told that the loving and sincere prayer of the righteous person counts a lot. Finally, we are guaranteed that the person will be healed. As a bonus, if he is guilty of sin, (probably the one that caused the sickness in the first place) he would be forgiven. We believe and accept that the forgiveness part of the promise is literal and immediate. We completely ignore the healing part of the verse because we know it isn’t true. We do not expect that superstitious rituals done by religious leaders will raise the sick from their beds.
Allow me to quote a lengthy bit from Barnes Notes on this passage:
And the prayer of faith – The prayer offered in faith, or in the exercise of confidence in God. It is not said that the particular form of the faith exercised shall be that the sick man will certainly recover; but there is to be unwavering confidence in God, a belief that he will do what is best, and a cheerful committing of the cause into his hands. We express our earnest wish, and leave the case with him. The prayer of faith is to accompany the use of means, for all means would be ineffectual without the blessing of God.
Shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up – This must be understood, as such promises are everywhere, with this restriction, that they will be restored to health if it shall be the will of God; if he shall deem it for the best. It cannot be taken in the absolute and unconditional sense, for then, if these means were used, the sick person would always recover, no matter how often he might be sick, and he need never die. The design is to encourage them to the use of these means with a strong hope that it would be effectual. It may fairly be inferred from this statement:
The notation is actually much longer, but more of the same. It literally rewrites the passage to say something else. The passage goes from saying the sick person will be raised up, to “if he shall deem it for the best”. Barnes goes out of his way to remove any promise or power from the passage. He wants to be sure that there is nothing left of this scripture that can be construed as a testable claim. The way the passage is written, if a sick person is brought to the appropriate, religious authorities, properly anointed with oil, are prayed for by a sufficiently righteous person, HE WILL BE RAISED UP! There is no room for any other interpretation.
No church should have a roll-call of sick people that make the prayer list week after week. Every bulletin printed with those weekly requests for healing stands as an indictment to the church. Their sick are not being raised up. Either there is something wrong with their prayers, or the idea of healing prayer as described in the Christian scriptures is nothing more than superstitious nonsense that we should have grown out of after the dark ages.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot proclaim that prayer is effective, yet we cannot measure its effect in any testable way. It either has an observable effect on material reality, or it doesn’t. The Christian scriptures depict prayer, at least sometimes, as a confident request for an immediate, observable miracle. We have turned it into a conversation with god, the results of which can never be tested or observed. That is not a biblical view of prayer.
Once we get beyond prayer, we might find that there are more affective ways of dealing with real-world problems. I hope to write a follow-up post on that subject soon.