December 16, 2017

What If He Meant It?

If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer (Matthew 21:22 NIV).

As parents of teenagers know, it’s not the purpose of the errand. It’s the opportunity to spend time with a creature who at times seems to be completely mute. Who knows if this might be the time when they actually speak? So when my son asked me to take him shopping for some pants for Homecoming, I readily agreed. (To take care of any suspense, pants were purchased, and he had a good time at the dance with his girlfriend.)

It was when we were on our way home that he spoke the words that still haunt me.

“Some years ago I stopped praying when Jesus didn’t answer my prayer. I read where Jesus said we can have anything we ask for. So I asked for a million dollars. When I didn’t get it, I stopped praying. Now I realize that Jesus didn’t really mean that. He meant when we ask for the right things. We have to follow the rules. We can’t just ask for anything.”

I was pretty quiet the rest of the ride home. Was my son right? Jesus certainly couldn’t have meant what he said, right? We have to follow the rules before our prayers are answered, right?

Or … or what if Jesus really meant what he said. What if Jesus could be taken at his word. What if we really did receive what we ask for in prayer. What if …

I want to spend the next couple of days looking at the topic of faith. This is not going to be an academic study. I just want to see what God expects of us when he tell us to “believe,” to “trust,” to “have faith.” This seems to be very important to God. It always has been.

Abraham had a really good relationship with God. They talked a lot. So when God told Abraham he would have a son in his old age, the fact that God was speaking directly to Abraham is not what he had to accept. It was what God was saying that became the focal point for Abraham. We don’t know his thought process, we don’t know all that went through his mind as he was considering this audacious promise from God. We just know that Abraham believed God, and God counted that as righteousness for Abraham. Abraham didn’t have to follow any rules to make things happen. He just had to believe God. Belief is what God is looking for. When we say Abraham is the “father of our faith,” we aren’t just talking about the one through whom the three major religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—trace their heritage. We are saying he is the one we look to learn how to believe God.

We call Abraham “father” not because he got God’s attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody. Isn’t that what we’ve always read in Scripture, God saying to Abraham, “I set you up as father of many peoples”? Abraham was first named “father” and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do. And so he was made father of a multitude of peoples. God himself said to him, “You’re going to have a big family, Abraham!”

Abraham didn’t focus on his own impotence and say, “It’s hopeless. This hundred-year-old body could never father a child.” Nor did he survey Sarah’s decades of infertility and give up. He didn’t tiptoe around God’s promise asking cautiously skeptical questions. He plunged into the promise and came up strong, ready for God, sure that God would make good on what he had said. That’s why it is said, “Abraham was declared fit before God by trusting God to set him right.” But it’s not just Abraham; it’s also us! The same thing gets said about us when we embrace and believe the One who brought Jesus to life when the conditions were equally hopeless (Romans 4: 17-25, The Message).

Abraham was not asked to just believe something “religious,” like the existence of God. He knew God existed—they talked frequently. No, God asked Abraham to believe something very specific, and something crazy. “You are going to be a dad, Abraham! You’re going to have a boy, and he will be the father of a great nation.” Abraham knew what was obvious—he and his wife were both way past their golden years for producing children. Sarah had not been able to give birth to a child in all her years. Why would she now that she was past menopause? Why didn’t God give this assignment to a nice, young couple who could have children, who would be young enough to raise children?

And just why is belief so important to God?

Yet Abraham did believe, and he was counted righteous, not for following rules, but by simply believing.

Believe. Trust. Believe. Trust. When we do, it seems to make God very pleased. As a matter of fact, this is the only way we can please God. “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6, NASB). It we do not believe him, if we don’t trust him, we can’t please him. We can follow every rule imaginable, but if we don’t believe, he’s not happy with us.

Why is belief so important to God?

I worked for a publisher who was good at, um, good at, well, I’m sure he was good at something. Book publishing was not it, that’s for sure. But one thing he said has always stayed with me.

“Don’t ever bring me a book proposal that tries to prove the existence of God. God will not allow himself to be proven. He only wants us to come to him by faith.”

True, so true. Could God prove himself to us beyond any question? Of course he could. He could reveal himself to us at any time in a way that would prove his existence to the satisfaction of the greatest skeptics. So why doesn’t he do this? Why does he instead ask us to believe him, even believe him in the craziest things?

Gideon was asked to believe God in a ridiculous way. He was the leader of the Israeli troops as they went up against the Midianites. Gideon was not exactly a great man of faith. He doubted, he complained, he tried to talk God into using someone else. But not only did God stick with Gideon, but he raised the stakes. Facing what some think was an enemy force in excess of a quarter of a million men, God had Gideon cull his forces down to 300 men. 300 men armed with … trumpets and torches. God set up Gideon with an absolutely outrageous situation and then says, “Trust me, Gideon.”

Who is this God we are called to follow? Who is this God we are called to believe?

Is faith still important to God? Are we still supposed to believe him, even when he calls us to do something crazy? And, as my son pointed out, do we not take seriously what Jesus says—If you believe, anything you ask for in prayer is yours—because we need to add footnotes and explanations to it?

I was asking these questions at the beginning of this year. I had gone out on my own to start a new publishing company. No regular paycheck, no group insurance, no 401(k) contributions. I asked my discipleship partners a simple but very important question: Can we really believe what Jesus says? Can we take him at his word? My friends looked at me like I had just asked if we could use Krispy Kreams for communion.

“Well, yes, of course we can. Why do you ask?”

I shared with them the words Jesus taught his disciples concerning material things—what is recorded for us in Matthew chapter six. “So if I seek the kingdom of God,” I asked, “can I really count on him to take care of everything else for me?”

They both said Yes, we can count on Jesus to be true to what he said.

So I did. I chose to trust Jesus and not worry about money. I chose to seek his kingdom daily and let him take care of the rest. Did I miss anything? Were there some other rules I was supposed to follow? All I know is that now, ten months on, I have not missed any meals. I pay my mortgage each month. I had gas for my car (which is a good thing, as I put more than 25,000 miles on my car this year). Don’t come knocking at my door to ask if I want to buy Girl Scout cookies, but I have been able to take care of the necessities (like pants for my son to wear to Homecoming). I believed God. He has not let me down.

Right now, the Lord has something in front of me to believe that seems to be impossible. Impossible and implausible. Yet it is clear—to me, at least—that it is the call of the Lord. It is crazy on the level of what God asked Abraham and Gideon to believe. For some reason, that pretty much assures for me that this is from the Lord. He seems to like us having to believe the impossible. Not only am I not looking to see if there are any rules I need to adhere to before I believe, this call seems to go against some rules. Lovely. This faith thing is not so easy. Nor is it meant to be.

God values our faith so much that he wants it to be pure, so he puts it in the fire to purify it like gold. When gold is purified, dross—or unwanted elements—are drawn out. But guess what else is brought out? Silver. Gold contains silver. How about that. Would you like a bar of silver? Of course you would. Silver is good. But gold is not pure gold when silver is in it. So when gold is purified, even good things have to go. It’s the same when God purifies our faith. Sometimes things we think are good and necessary in our lives must go. That’s how highly God thinks of our faith.

I wish I could tell my son that no, you don’t have to follow rules to believe Jesus. That Jesus can be taken at his word. That million dollars he prayed for some years ago? Perhaps it is in a bank account waiting for him right now. I don’t know. But we can take Jesus at his word. Not only can we, we must. We must believe if we are to please God. This is what I want my son to know. Right now, he is resistant to this. He is locked into trying to find his own way. So I trust God to be there as he’s looking. I trust God.

Tomorrow we will look a little closer at some crazy faith. Be aware: You may get wet.

Update: You will read below in the first comment a family in need of our prayers–and our faith. You can read the story of their two year old daughter’s illness here. Can we be crazy enough to  believe God can and will totally heal this girl? Did Jesus really mean what he said?

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for doing this series; it is very timely for myself and my family. Our 2 year old daughter recently contracted west nile encephalitis which has reduced her to the level of an infant. We do not know if there is permanent brain damage or if she will ever be the same again. She is blessed to have survived. My wife and I are devastated and are struggling with all the questions about faith, hope, prayer, and healing that you can possibly imagine. I am very much looking forward to the comments since we definitely need some perspective at this point.

    • Andy, I am praying with you and your wife for your daughter’s total healing. I don’t know that my words will mean a thing in the coming days. All I can do is say trusting in Jesus is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and it is the greatest thing. To be drawn close to the heart of God is awesome. May you and your family be held in his arms of peace now and in the days ahead.

      iMonks, join in prayer for Andy and his family.

    • Praying for your daughter’s healing and recovery, and for comfort for your family.

    • Salsapinkkat says:

      I’ll be praying too that you have strength to look after each other & for healing for your daughter…

    • Andy, May the Lord heal your daughter completely.Your family is in my prayers.

    • Andy, May the Lord heal your daughter completely. Your family is in my prayers.

  2. Andy,

    Also praying for your daughter’s healing.

    To the popint of Jesus’ hard saying in that text, I think he was telling us that we don’t have much faith.

    I haven’t seen anyone tell a bush or tree to uproot itself and jump in the ocean lately. I doubt there is one on this planet with enough faith to make that happen.

    That said, the Lord does answer our prayers. Sometimes with the result that we desire.

    • Amen

    • I’ve been thinking about this all day. I think you’re correct, Jesus is telling us that in human terms, we consider ourselves to be faithful, but in God’s eyes, we don’t have the smallest amount of faith. He is telling his closest disciples, who have pretty much left their lives behind to follow him, that they don’t really have any faith. If we are saved by faith, how can we ever have enough faith to be saved?

  3. I want to hear more about crazy faith. When I think about God using Gideon and Abraham, it is so preposterous I have to laugh out loud. Then I consider Paul’s comparison of human wisdom to God’s foolishness in 1 Corinthians. We have our learned notions of what works, but God raises the dead…

  4. Buford Hollis says:

    I have heard the explanation that prayer is effective to the degree that we submit our personal will to the divine will. This is not the work of a day, and to the extent that we manage it, would tend to rule out praying for any fool thing that comes into our heads, but only what is beneficial all around. (Your son might ask himself why he wants that million dollars.)

    Surely God does demand belief out of his insecurity. Why, then…? Perhaps it is for our sake, in order to focus our minds and souls, and make us co-creators rather than servants. This would help explain that strange parable about the widow banging on the judge’s door.

  5. I’m taking a seminary class called “Divine Healing.” I’m glad I go to a school that is thoroughly evangelical, gospel centered, yet willing to be on the edge with things like this. I’ve been on a long journey of internal cynic/skeptic/pharisee killing within me. The Lord has me more open to his working than ever before. That came through a lot of frustration…..a lot of “I’m sick of myself, I’m sick of concepts and theories, I’m sick of living in my head all the time, I’m sick of alwaysdoing everything in my own power. If God isn’t actively, experientially involved, I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t care what I turn into or what people think of me, just please show up for once.”

    The Lord is responding…. or at least beginning to open my eyes. I’m beginning to taste and see.

    And I’m utterly leaning on my own lack of faith. “Lord, if you don’t do ______ (whatever it is that needs to be done, big or small), it will not get done. I don’t believe I have enough faith. I don’t trust myself one bit. So YOU have to do it. If you don’t do it, it won’t be done. So please do it, to show us all that you love and that you can.”

    That’s how I’ll be praying for healing and for other things that I never, ever would have dared to ask for.

    Screw “balance.” I’m sick of it. Filter everything through the love of Christ in asking, and leave it to him.

  6. Is this about true faith, and how it is all rooted in eternity but we seem to get our gaze stuck on the here and now?

    So, Mattherw 21:
    (NLT) “You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

    ..and what is meant by faith:

    Hebrews 11:11 (NIV) “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

    and again

    Hebrews 11:39: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

    So, faith is believing even against the current evidence. Paraphrasing Matthew 21:

    “You can pray for anything and (if you are sure of what you hope for and certain regarding things, even through you don’t see them) you will receive it.”

    So you have to believe in a bigger picture and a bigger God than the current circumstance: You can also add the caveat:

    James 4:3 “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures”.

    In other words if things did not go the way you planned, remember the eternal perspective and be confident that God is working on a bigger picture, and if that makes no sense you probably had wrong motivations and were self orientated in your request.

  7. My niece is 3 years old. She often has requests for comfort or help or things. Her imagination, however, is very limited. She can not imagine the greatness of something she has never seen, nor can she picture the inherent danger of her choices. So if she cries out for help, and there is both a bee on her arm and a truck bearing down at her, she is much more likely to be distressed by the bee. She doesn’t pay attention to traffic, but bees give her boo boos! The adults in her life love her and respond to her cries for help, but she is often unimpressed by our response. As we scoop her up and run out of the way, she gets stung. She cries long, miserable tears. She feels we have failed her.

    Luke 11:11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

  8. There’s a quote I like that I was reminded of when reading this post – ihink I saw it on a church bulletin, in fact. “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure of where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of mankind.”
    – Frederick Buechner