“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 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 – Read the chapter)
Have you ever watched a really slick Prosperity Gospel preacher deliver his ace sermon? He will take you on a journey. You’ll be laughing one minute, crying the next, and ready to fork over your whole wallet to do your part to sustain the vital ministry the Lord has called him to do so that you can receive the blessings He wants to pour out into your bank account by the end of it. You will feel empowered to name what you want the Lord to give you, and to claim it boldly in prayer. It is a powerful experience, an encouraging experience, a truly religious experience, and a big, fat load of heresy. Verses like this one, though, would seem to disagree. Let’s talk about it.
If you’ll remember, the context of what Jesus says here is just bizarre. As the group was heading into Jerusalem that morning, Jesus saw a fig tree with lots of beautiful foliage, but no fruit. And He was hungry. When He discovered the fruitless tree, He cursed it. Now, as He was heading back out of the city that same afternoon, when the disciples saw the tree, they immediately noticed that it had withered from the roots up and was dead. They were shocked. I mean, they had seen Jesus still storms and walk on water and raise the dead, but they were still shocked. Seeing something truly miraculous happen – even a destructive miracle as this was – doesn’t get old. (Or at least, I would think it wouldn’t get old…it didn’t for the disciples in three years.)
And if you’re reading along in the story, you expect Jesus to explain Himself by explaining the parable of His actions with the tree. I offered you one explanation last week, but really, that was just guessing. Instead, when Jesus explains Himself, He says…this. Huh?
Let’s start with just what He says here. From a straight reading of the text, Jesus seems to be suggesting that if we pray for something and believe fervently we will receive it, we will receive it. There are not any restrictions on what He says here in the text. And His opening example is a person telling a mountain to move from the land into the sea. I once heard a story about a church that wanted to expand its campus, but were landlocked by a mountain. They claimed this verse and began praying the Lord would move the mountain. A few weeks later, a construction company came and asked if they could use the dirt and rock of the mountain for some project they needed to do. They would pay the church for all the material they moved. They wound up taking the whole mountain and funding the building expansion. Boom. Proof.
Of course, the other side of this would also seem to be true. If you pray something and do not receive it, the obvious reason is that you haven’t truly believed. Your faith isn’t big enough or strong enough. You need to trust the Lord more fully and He will give you what you want.
The glaringly obvious conclusion here seems to be that the Prosperity Gospel folks are right. Name it and claim it. That’s basically what Jesus is saying here, isn’t it? “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'” It’s frankly hard to understand that in any way other than a name it and claim it sort of exchange.
There’s just one problem. This whole thing leaves out what would seem to be a pretty crucial element: God’s sovereignty over His creation. That’s the subtle heresy of the Prosperity Gospel: It assumes God is basically like a vending machine, doling out what we want on demand. The trouble here is that there is not a single shred of evidence across the rest of the Scriptures that this is how God works. God doesn’t operate on our timetable. He doesn’t move at our beck and call. He doesn’t live for us. We live for Him. In Him, as Paul said, we live and move and have our being. If we ask for something that violates His will – or even crosses the line of being sinful in its intent – He’s not going to finally break down and give it to us just because we ask really sincerely. He’s not like a parent who finally gets worn down by a strong-willed child and just gives in rather than getting badgered any longer. He knows better than we do, not the other way around.
But what about what Jesus so clearly says here?
Jesus’ words here are powerful, to be sure. And He’s right too. If we ask God for something, but don’t really believe He’s going to do it for us, we really shouldn’t expect any kind of a positive answer. If I come to you and say, “I’d like you to do this for me, but I don’t really think you’re going to do it,” you are going to be offended and my offensive request is going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if you were possibly going to do it for me, you’re not now because of the offensiveness of my request and the ill-intentioned heart behind it. The same goes with God. If we ask Him for something, but don’t really trust His character or countenance His power, He’s not going to do it just to somehow prove Himself to us. He doesn’t need to prove Himself to us. He doesn’t depend on our approval.
So then, the Prosperity Gospel folks are right? No. No, because you can’t read any part of the Scriptures independently of the rest of it. The Bible is a unified whole. It gradually reveals the character of God from start to finish. If one part seems to be out of sync with the rest, go back and read the one part through the lens of the rest and it will probably start to make more sense. The rest should serve as the interpretive lens for the one part. In this case, the perspective of the rest is that God is sovereign and He will not give us something that is not consistent with His will. No amount of wishing – or believing – on our part will make it so. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you and is not supported by the whole of the Scriptures. It’s easy to find stray verses, take them out of context, and make them say what you want. We don’t get that option, however, if we are going to receive God’s word as He intended for it to be received. Prayer is powerful and God answers prayers. He answers prayers that are backed up by faith in Him. But He’s not a vending machine. Let’s not treat Him like it.