Can Prayer Really Move a Mountain?

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Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” – Mark 11:23-25

If you have breath, you’ve probably said a prayer that hasn’t been answered. How do we reconcile unanswered prayers with Jesus’ words in Mark?

Unanswered prayer is an issue that challenges believers and non-believers alike and often challenges our perceptions of God’s goodness. C.S. Lewis famously observed, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed — is the monument to a petition that was not granted.”[1] More recently, Philip Yancey confesses to “…obsessing more about unanswered prayers than rejoicing over answered ones.”[2] And it’s not unusual to hear about medical studies showing no real correlation between prayer and physical healing.[3]

Therefore, Jesus’ statements in Mark 11:23-25 provide a difficult problem: do these verses promise that God will answer every prayer, every time?

Two polar views on prayer

In Christianity today, there are two polar views on prayer: prosperity and poverty.

On one hand you have those who preach a false gospel of prosperity, which views God as a cosmic genie who answers our every desire and whim. Want a new Porsche? Pray. Have a debilitating illness? Pray. Need a bigger house? Pray. If you have enough faith, God will grant your wishes. Underlying this belief system is a misunderstanding about faith. It’s assumed that if you don’t have your prayers answered, it’s due to a lack of faith. Jesus promises he’ll answer your prayers if you believe, the teaching goes. So, unanswered prayers must mean a lack of belief.

Unfortunately, this is simplistic, not true, and often damaging, as many people devastated by the effects of sin in this world are deceived into thinking they must work harder in order to earn God’s favor. Only then will he answer your prayers. Even worse, this teaching most often revolves around what is known as health and wealth. God’s will, it’s taught, is to make you rich and healthy. The sign of faith, thus, becomes one’s bank account and material possessions and one’s ability to avoid contracting viruses. This effectively makes anyone poor or sick not victims of sin, but rather victims of a God who doesn’t deem their faith to be substantive enough to warrant answered prayers.

Essentially, the prosperity gospel places the power of answered prayer in our hands and places limits on God’s ability to answer prayer by making him rely on our faith, which is not only unfortunate but also absolutely wrong. God is sovereign over his creation, not the other way around (Isaiah 22:44, 45:5-7; Psalm 115:3, 135:6; Daniel 4:35, Matthew 5:45, Deuteronomy 32:39).

On the other hand you have those who preach a poverty gospel, which views God as cosmic curmudgeon who doesn’t desire to give good gifts to his children. Instead of encouraging people to pray for good things, the poverty gospel teaches an aestheticism that calls for denial of material goods. Want a nice car (or even one that runs)? Sin. Give to the poor instead. Have a debilitating illness? Thank God for salvation, that is enough. Want a bigger house (or even a house at all)? Stop asking. Be glad you have a roof over your head.

Unfortunately, this is also simplistic, wrong, and often damaging, as many people experiencing the effects of sin in the world are deceived into thinking that God is happy to save us but not to enrich our lives in any way outside of spiritual sustenance.

The effects of the poverty gospel result in a people who mark their faith on how little they can get by on rather than the fullness of God’s mercy and love for his children and wrongly views those enjoying God’s blessing as lacking in faith because they don’t sell everything they have and force their children to wear hand-me downs and their spouse to use second-hand tea bags. God is our perfect Father who desires to give us good gifts and to take care of both our earthly and spiritual needs (Luke 11:13, Genesis 12:2, Exodus 23:25, Deuteronomy 7:13, Psalm 67:6).

Tota Sola Scriptura

The distortions on prayer found in both prosperity and poverty theology stem from not taking into account all that the Scriptures have to say on prayer. Those that advocate prosperity theology only take into account those verses that talk of God’s blessing. Conversely, those that advocate poverty theology only take into account those verses that speak negatively about riches and that call for sacrifice.

The answer, as is almost always the case, is a both/and, taking into account all that Scripture has to fully say, and ultimately hinges on a fully biblical view and understanding of God’s sovereignty and his will. A few key verses help us navigate the middle ground of the Scripture’s teachings on prayer.

In 1 John, the apostle teaches, “This is the confidence which have in [God], that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him (5:14-15). Elsewhere, Jesus teaches us to pray according to God’s will, asking that it be done (Matthew 6:10), and he exemplifies this in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

As Wayne Grudem reminds us, when we pray, we can first determine God’s will by reading his Word. Thus, we know that we cannot ask God to grant a prayer that is contra to his Word. For instance, if we ask for a new spouse because we’re tired our current one, we know that no matter how hard we pray, God won’t answer, as it’s asking for God to help us sin.

On other matters, we simply can’t know what God’s will is because the Scriptures don’t speak to our request.

However, there are many situations in life where we do not know what God’s will is. We may not be sure, because no promise or command of Scripture applies, whether it is God’s will that we get the job we have applied for, or win an athletic contest in which we are participating (a common prayer among children, especially), or be chosen to hold office in the church, and so on. In all these cases, we should bring to bear as much of Scripture as we understand, perhaps to give us some general principles within which our prayer can be made. But beyond this, we often must admit that we simply do not know what God’s will is. In such cases, we should ask him for deeper understanding and then pray for what seems best to us, giving reasons to the Lord why, in our present understanding of the situation, what we are praying for seems to be best. But it is always right to add, either explicitly or at least in the attitude of the heart, “Nevertheless, if I am wrong in asking this, and if this is not pleasing to you, then do as seems best in your sight,” or, more simply, “If it is your will.”[4]

This means that we can pray for the whole range of needs and wants in life without feeling guilty because we’re free to ask our Father and also free to rely on the comforting truth that he will accomplish his will. This moves prayer from what we do or don’t have to what we can always be assured of, God’s sovereignty and that he will always do what is good for us and his plans in this world (Philippians 2:12-13).

The Context of Mark 11:23-25

As Jesus taught on prayer in Mark 11:23-25, the Dead Sea was visible from the Mount of Olives. It’s easy to see where the imagery of verse 23 comes from.[5]Many of Mark’s references to “the sea” are referencing the Sea of Galilee but also occasionally reference is made to the destructive power of “the sea.”[6]  In 11:23, “Mark portrays Jesus as utilizing the generally destructive power of the sea for his own purposes.”[7]

The reference to moving mountains has parallels in the teaching of early Rabbis,[8] and as the ESV Study Bible says, “Moving a mountain was a metaphor in Jewish literature for doing what was seemingly impossible (Isa. 40:4; 49:11; 54:10; cf. Matt. 21:21–22). Those who believe in God can have confidence that he will accomplish even the impossible, according to his sovereign will.”

However, Jesus’ specific claim that faith could move mountains was without parallel. The restructuring of the natural world was meant to reveal the presence of God’s future kingdom, a thought that was emphasized by the Old Testament[9] as well as other Jewish texts.[10] Therefore, Jesus’ statement in verse 23 was meant to indicate that the day of salvation had already dawned.

Still, Jesus’ words indicate that prayer is effective. In the Old Testament, for example, God caused the sun to stand still in response to Joshua’s prayer (Joshua 10:12-14). Does God desire to answer prayer? Would a father give his child a stone instead of bread (Matthew 7:9-10)? Prayer is indeed effective so long as it is rooted in God’s will—this is why Jesus tells His disciples that “if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14, emphasis added).

The Burden of Unanswered Prayer

Even in scripture we see the emotional burden of unanswered prayer. The psalmist laments that “I cry out by day, but you do not answer” (Psalm 22:2). Paul’s prayers that God remove the “thorn in the flesh” go unanswered (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Even Jesus’ own prayer to have the cup of God’s wrath removed was not answered (Luke 22:42). We are no better than our savior and can expect that not everything we ask will be granted by God, but just as Jesus rested in God’s will, so can we.

There may be several reasons why God chooses not to answer prayer:

First, there is simple logic: God cannot go against His own character. God cannot build a square circle. Nor can He answer a prayer to approve of sin.

Second, God’s perspective differs from our own. Some suffering is used to reveal God’s glory (cf. John 9:3). We cannot always know God’s purposes; even the very worst tragedies might later be used for God’s glory.[11]

Third, some desires are selfish (James 4:3). God’s greatest desire might not be for our job promotion or the new car. “For prayer is not a means by which God serves us. Rather, it is a means by which we serve God. Prayer is not a means by which we get our will done in heaven, but a means by which God gets His will done on earth.”[12]

Finally, Mark 11:25 seems to assume a condition to prayers of forgiveness: an unforgiving heart may result in a lack of God’s forgiveness.

Conclusion

To answer our initial question, Jesus’ statements cannot be taken to mean that God will grant every prayer for every person at every time. Prayer, therefore, has less to do with obtaining things and more to do with an ongoing life with God.

A helpful matrix I like to use when it comes to prayer is yes, no, and later. When we pray, God answers sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes later—just as a father does with his own children. Sometimes the later is later in this life. Sometimes the later is in the life after this life. But God does hear and answer every prayer. We must be content with his answer and trust in his sovereignty. For example, one friend of mine was praying for years and finally was healed from an illness that plagued him. Another died and was then healed forever in the presence of Jesus after praying the same kind of prayer for many years.

At the end of the day, the real purpose of prayer is not to obtain things from God, but to relate to God. Philp Yancey writes:

Prayer has become for me much more than a shopping list of requests to present to God. It has become a realignment of everything. …In prayer, I shift my point of view away from my own selfishness. I climb above timberline and look down at the speck that is myself. I gaze at the stars and recall what role I, or any of us, play in a universe beyond comprehension. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.[13]

Still, we should seek God in prayer for all things. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help [us] in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). To not seek God for our needs and desires is not a mark of maturity, but the absence of it.

Jesus’ message in Mark 11 is that a relationship with God is greater than a religious system. It’s purchased by His blood. We may therefore enjoy the benefits of God’s kingdom, including access to God’s throne. When we see prayer in this light, even unanswered prayers become a part of our relationship with God.

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[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  (United States: Mariner Books, 1964), p. 58.

[2] Philp Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make a Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 16.

[3] Benedict Carey, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer.”  New York Times, March 31, 2006.  Appearing online athttp://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all.  Accessed November 7, 2011.  The article sites six studies that do not seem to show correlation between patients’ healing and prayer.  This simply reflects the cultural expectation that prayer yields near-immediate results.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 383.

[5] William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark.  (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 410.

[6] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark,(New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 58-9.

[7] Ibid., p. 78.

[8] Rabbinical texts include the following statements:

  1. Sol. 23:1 A demon says to Solomon: “I am able to move mountains;” b. Sanh. 24a.: “You would think he was uprooting mountains and grinding them against each other,” b. Bat. 3b: “I will uproot mountains;”
[commenting on Lev 6:13] Lev. Rab. 8:8: “[Samson] took two mountains and knocked them against one another”

Cited in Craig Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20.  (Grand Rapids: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2001), p. 189.

[9] Cf. Isaiah 40:3-5; 45:2; 49:11; cf. 54:10; Zechariah 14:4-5.

[10] Pss Sol. 11:4; Bar. 5:7.

[11] An excellent perspective on this is the well-known post on the Desiring God website entitled: “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.”  Written February 16, 2006.  Appearing online at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/dont-waste-your-cancer.  Last accessed November 7, 2011.

[12] Norm Geisler and Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), p. 374.

[13] Yancey, Prayer…, p.  29.