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Does “Everything” Really Mean “Anything”? (Mark 11:22-24)

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As I studied Jesus’s teaching and practice of prayer in preparing to teach on “Passionate Prayer” as part of our “Follow Jesus Together” sermon series at Faith Church, I was reminded of a passage on prayer that I have always found challenging: Mark 11:22-24. This verse says:

Jesus replied to them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, everything you pray and ask for-believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” (CSB)

At first glance, it appears that Jesus states that everything that we ask for in faith will happen. Many teachers and preachers have made that claim on the basis of this verse, that we just need to “name it and claim it” – that if we truly believe, God will grant all our requests; conversely, if God is not granting our requests, it must be because our faith is lacking. What I find challenging about this verse is that there are things I have prayed for – and that I have not doubted that God could do – but have not received. Does this experience mean that I lack faith? I do not believe I am alone in struggling to understand and apply this verse, so I hope that my recent contemplation of this verse will not just be of benefit to me but hopefully to others – including you!

Context – Immediate and Broader
Whenever we come across a challenging passage, it is wise to examine both its immediate context as well as the wider context (other related passages related to the overarching topic). In fact, a great reminder of the importance of reading the Bible in its context is the account of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-11), as there we see Satan quoting the Bible…out of context in his temptation of Jesus.

Some have viewed a number of details in the immediate context as pointing to a different explanation of the saying. In particular, some have drawn attention to the location in which Jesus says these words and the fact that Jesus says “this” mountain – which here would be the Mount of Olives as Jesus is in the vicinity of the temple (which he has just visited). These words, then, could recall the prophecy of Zecharian 14:1-5, which says that at the end of the age (day of the Lord), the Mount of Olives will be split. Therefore, the “mountain-moving” prayer is a prayer for God’s kingdom to come in its fullness, and when we pray that way, the day of the Lord will come quicker. It is not about granting our personal requests but about praying for God’s kingdom to come. 

While plausible – especially since there are other connections to Zechariah 14 in the preceding account of Jesus’s actions in the temple – I’m not sure if this is the best explanation or if it solves the challenging of Jesus seeming to say that whatever we ask for in faith, God will give to us. First, Jesus moves from this specific request to “everything,” expanding the saying beyond this particular mountain. Secondly, there are a number of other times Jesus seems to make this same promise (see John 14:12-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23), and Matthew and Luke record Jesus speaking a similar saying at a different mountain location (Matthew 17:20) or concerning a mulberry tree (Luke 17:6). Thus, even if this particular statement would refer back to the saying in Zechariah, it does not solve the confusion of whether Jesus really is saying that whatever we ask in faith, we will definitely receive. 

However, the immediate and wider context does offer some other clues and insights into what is being said here. First and foremost, we see in Mark 11 that this call for faith in prayer is connected with forgiving others (Mark 11:25) and also comes after Jesus has rebuked people for false and presumptuous worship in the temple that turned a “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves” (Mark 11:15-17). Thus, there are some additional conditions attached to this statement: faith is not just believing but also obeying God, and not presuming upon Him. This might complicate matters more, showing that if God is not answering my request, then I must not be obeying Him! Some other passages in which Jesus says similar things also have a condition that may offer a different disclaimer – “in my name” (John 14:13-14; 16:23) and “if you remain in me” (John 15:7). The idea of “in my name” is not like dropping someone’s name to get what you want, but rather is reflective of the character and person; asking in my name reflects asking in line with God’s will and plans. Therefore, it could mean that God will grant the things we ask for that are in line with His will and plan – even things that seem pretty crazy!

The wider context of Jesus’s life and teaching I think is also important for us to think about this promise. In Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus ask for something (“take this cup from me”) that is not granted. He does not seem to doubt that God can do it (“if you are willing,” not “if you are able”), but God does not grant it. One might say that those words “if you are willing” could reflect a lack of belief in God for this, but I would be hard pressed to say that Jesus lacked faith; in fact, we see in Hebrews 5:7 that God heard him. We also see the Apostle Paul’s prayer request was not granted – but with no rebuke for lack of faith (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) but rather to teach reliance upon God, both to Paul himself but also to the Corinthian believers and to Christians through the ages. Thus, the promise must not be that whatever we ask, we will get, as that is not how it plays itself out.

Another interesting element in Jesus’s teaching is that he tells us to persist in prayer, to keep asking (Luke 18:1-8; also see Luke 11:9-11 where the idea of “ask”could be seen as something to repeat). This implies that simply asking once does not always lead to a request being answered right then; rather, we are called to keep asking. So for a time one may receive a “no” answer to a request, but that does not mean that God will not eventually grant that. 

Concern -What’s the Point Being Made?
The overarching teaching of Scripture shows us that the passage itself does not seem to be a “blank check” for God to do whatever we ask as long as our faith is strong enough (which elsewhere Jesus says is just a little – a mustard seed). So what does it mean? 

First and foremost, I think it is a call to ask God in good faith,  to not doubt that He is able to answer requests that we bring. We see a similar point made in James 1:6 where it speaks against “double-minded” faith. When we don’t have faith, there is a chance God will not grant the request. We see this in Matthew 17:20 when the disciples are rebuked for having “little faith” – which in this context seems to be no faith since Jesus speaks about faith as small as a mustard seed. At the same time, it does seem that God sometimes will answer prayers that might not be stated with complete trust (an example of this is Acts 12 when the church was praying for Peter to be released from prison but then shocked when it happened!). We must remember that we can’t get in the way of what God is doing, but that we are called to be on mission with Him, in which case He moves both through our actions and our prayers.

Second, I think it is a call to make bold requests – to truly believe that God can do amazing things, things beyond our strength. This is the heart of the “mountain-moving” imagery. God is inviting us to have bold faith, to not trust in ourselves but rather to trust in Him and be aware of God’s limitless power. It is a call not to overestimate ourselves (thinking I can do it) nor underestimate God (thinking He can’t do it). Maybe the reason we’ve never seen God do something amazing is because we have never asked Him – and maybe we never ask because we believe in ourselves too much. But when He does something amazing, we should glorify Him and not congratulate ourselves on our mighty prayer!

Third, I think this verse is calling us to see God as one who is not looking to deny our prayers but rather looking to answer our prayers. Faith, though, is not presumptuous or trusting in ourselves; it is submitting to God’s will and trusting that when He doesn’t move the mountain, He has a good reason not to do so. He is not a father giving a snake when we need a fish (Luke 11:13). We see that in the examples of Jesus and Paul – they asked and God had something better for them and us in mind through His “no.”

Thus, we should not see these words of Jesus as a way to manipulate God to get what we want, but rather as a message from Jesus to help us move towards what God wants from us – to draw near to Him and to use us as vessels through which He glorifies Himself in this world by displaying His grace and mercy. As we draw near to God in prayer, we will see Him move in the world but also move in us to make our hearts more aligned with Him and thus praying more and more “in His name.” So let’s pray boldly, trusting that God can do things beyond our imagination and will do things for His glory.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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