Believing when we pray

In the penultimate scene of Abraham’s life, he sends a faithful servant to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s people. As the patriarch instructs his servant, warning him not to take a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites and assuring him that God will provide a suitable spouse, Abraham adds a very interesting qualification.

The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying, “To your descendants I will give this land,” He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there. (Genesis 24:7-8)

Abraham expresses confidence that God will send his angel ahead of his servant to ensure success, but, nonetheless, he adds instructions for what the servant is to do if his mission fails. Is this a lack of faith on Abraham’s part? Is he doubting whether God will really keep his promises?

The story brings to mind another, hundreds of years later. When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon commanded all his officials to worship his golden statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego boldly refused. Their calm assurance of God’s faithfulness is a famous example of amazing faith, yet midway through their testimony, they, too, add a “just in case.”

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18)

“But if not.” “But if the woman is not willing to follow you.” It sounds like neither Abraham nor Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were totally certain what God would do. But then did they have faith? Isn’t faith being certain that God will do what we ask? After all, Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you” (Mark 11:24).

Perhaps you have prayed for something you really wanted and, knowing this promise or another like it, have tried hard to will yourself into “really, truly believing” that God would give it to you. The experience was probably disappointing at best. At its worst, such thinking treats God as a genie who can be unleashed if we just have the willpower to thoroughly convince ourselves that he will do what we ask. And, sadly, such thinking usually leads eventually to disillusionment with the power of prayer, and perhaps with Christianity itself, when it becomes obvious that this “promise” doesn’t work.

But perhaps we are missing what Jesus actually meant. To understand Jesus’ promise in Mark 11, we have to think about the meaning of “belief” in the Bible. The word translated “belief” in Mark 11 is used primarily in the New Testament to refer to belief in either Jesus or God the Father. For example, in John 14:1, Jesus encourages his followers, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.”

Belief in the New Testament is a very weighty thing; in fact, it is the necessary and sufficient condition for salvation. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas how to be saved, they answered simply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). What did they mean by that? In Greek, the word translated “belief,” pisteuó, carries with it a sense of conviction, of being persuaded. It is about accepting a truth as true, based upon good and sufficient reason. It is not about trying to trick your will into accepting something your mind rejects. Yet isn’t that often what we do when we try to have “faith” that our prayers will be answered?

The problem is that we are starting at the wrong end of things. We start with what we want, then we try to will ourselves into believing God will give it to us. But he never promises to do that. In fact, the Garden of Gethsemane reminds us that God did not always give even his own Son what he wanted (Luke 22:39-44). The Apostle Paul was another who could testify that troubles are not always removed when we ask (II Corinthians 12:7-10). Can we believe–in the biblical sense of belief as a grounded conviction–that God will do whatever we ask him? No. Because the Bible gives us no grounds for such a belief.

But, as I said, that would be starting at the wrong end of things anyway. Rather than trying to conjure up belief by sheer willpower, we should ask ourselves what we can justifiably believe God will do in answer to prayer. I don’t need to force myself to believe that the sky is blue or my wife loves me or I have a sister, because I have very good reasons to be persuaded of these things. Belief comes naturally when it is justified.

Let’s briefly look back at that story about Abraham. Notice what he was sure about. He was sure that God would give the Promised Land to his descendants, because the Lord had promised to do so. He wasn’t sure God would provide a willing wife for Isaac in Mesopotamia, because… God never promised to do so. God’s promise (to give the land to Abraham’s descendants) and his command (to be separate from the wicked Canaanites), meant that Abraham could be pretty confident that his servant’s journey would be effective, which is why his instructions in Genesis 24 sound, well, pretty confident. But he could not be certain how God would carry out his purposes; just like, years earlier, Abraham had been sure that God would bring Isaac back from the land of Moriah (Genesis 22), but he had not been sure how. Hebrews tells us that he thought God would raise Isaac from the dead (11:17-19), and it turned out that he was wrong about that part. But he was right when he believed that God would honor his promise of numberless descendants through Isaac.

And what about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? They knew God’s command not to worship idols. That part was definite. They honestly did not know whether the Lord would choose to honor their obedience by saving them from the furnace, or whether he would allow them to die as martyrs–as he has allowed countless others to die. Therefore, their answer actually carefully marks out the parts they were sure about (“we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up”) from the part they did not have reason to be sure about (“our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not…”). They were going to obey either way, but they were not sure what God would do about it. That’s faith.

Which brings us back to our prayers. If we are praying for something God did not promise, either directly or indirectly, then we cannot truly believe that he will assuredly provide it. There is still plenty of room for such prayers to our loving Father, like Jesus’ at Gethsemane or Paul’s over the thorn in his flesh. God grants many such petitions. But let’s not treat our Creator like a genie, trying to fake conviction in hopes of somehow compelling him to do what he has not promised.

On the other hand, the promise that God will grant prayers prayed with biblically-grounded conviction should spur us onward to study God’s word to learn what he has promised. What resources are at the believer’s disposal through prayer? Constraints of space permit only a partial list, but we have promises of:

  • The ability to resist every temptation (I Corinthians 10:13)
  • Strength in weakness (II Corinthians 12:9-10)
  • The “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18)
  • Ongoing transformation into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18)
  • Wisdom (James 1:5)
  • God’s continuing work to bring us through to the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6, I Corinthians 1:8)

Every one of these is an absolute promise of God for us, his children. When we ask for them, we can be assured he will deliver, because he has pledged to do so; we can pray, believing.

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