“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself 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, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11.22-24.
It is early morning and Jesus and his disciples are returning to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives where they have spent the night. From the Mount, to the south, they can already see the sun catching the distant waters of the Dead Sea; and perhaps Jesus first indicates the Mount and then points south as he makes this seemingly outrageous statement. And I’m sure it would seem as outrageous to them as it does to us. For even though “moving mountains” would not be a new expression to the disciples (it was a common rabbinic term for “getting rid of difficulties”) the way that Jesus applies it here is, on the face of it, absurd. All you have to do, he seems to be saying, is to “name it and claim it” and it’s yours? Surely that cannot be true?
No, I don’t believe it is; and I find it sad that there are Christians who do read these verses in that way and make them the basis for a “prosperity gospel” that offers bigger houses, better cars, promotion and wealth to those who are prepared to “believe God” for such things. It seems clear to me from the combined teaching of the New Testament on prayer that all prayer that really is prayer is prayer “in the name of Jesus”. At the last supper, Jesus told his disciples: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14.14); and that means asking with the mind and heart of Jesus and with his love for the Father and for the world. It is nothing to do with a magic formula … “in Jesus’ name. Amen.” Jesus is saying, “If you were me and, being me, you could happily ask for whatever it is you want to ask for, then go ahead … and your prayer will be answered.”
And I must read this morning’s passage with that as a “given”. So it doesn’t cover winning the lottery or dating a film star or anything like that. It covers being able to cope in difficult circumstances; having courage to face danger; being enabled to love the seemingly unlovable; finding the capacity to forgive; saying no to temptation … and so on. And the teaching is that if I ask for such things (and I always can ask for such things in Jesus’ name) then, believing that I have received them, they will be mine.
How do I “believe that I have received them”? By acting as if the prayer has been answered. If I believe that I have received £1,000 in my bank account, I will dare to write a cheque for £1,000 knowing it will not bounce. Acting as if something is true is the ultimate expression of my belief that it is true. And so with prayer. If I ask, in Jesus’ name, for the ability to love X (whom I really do not like) then, to receive that love, I must (says Jesus) act towards X as if I’ve already got it … and, surprise, surprise, I will find that I have!
But what about prayer for healing? Surely if I ask for someone’s healing it will necessarily be “in the name of Jesus” … so if I then act as if the healing has happened (“Get out of that wheelchair!”) it will have happened?
Would that it were that simple! Sometimes, of course, that is the wonderful way it is; but often not. And maybe it is that seemingly-true but possibly-false “in the name of Jesus” premise that is to blame — the premise that if Jesus were me, he would always and every time be praying for the healing that I am praying for … and having his prayer answered. When I seek to apply the “in Jesus’ name” principle, I need to remember Jesus only ever did what he saw the Father doing (John 5.19). I need to remember that this meant that he didn’t heal everyone; that when he entered the local “hospital”, for example, he healed only one of the many invalids he found there (John 5.2-9). And I need to remember too that “if you are willing” aspect of Jesus’ own prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22.42).
Oh, such a big subject — and one that I couldn’t “duck” in the context of this morning’s reading — but one that I can go no deeper into here and now.