[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]
When do we eventually entertain the idea that Jesus has lied to us? Few would confess to having this thought, but many face it.
We read in the Bible that Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” (Mark 11:23) And so we pray, with earnestness and fervor and persistence and faith. And the “mountain” remains.
When we ask, “Why?” some will tell us that we don’t have enough faith. Others will tell us that we’ve not prayed long enough. Still others will urge us to gather a team to pray. But at some point when our guard is down the thought will flit across our minds, “What if it is in fact not true?”
We may not exactly accuse Jesus of lying, but we will judge the text to not be true, which effects the same thing. And left unchecked, the thought will find a place to roost, and grow, and soon we will stop praying. Or worse.
But the problem is this: what other conclusions can we draw? Jesus says one thing and our experience reveals another. The fault is either in us not praying right or in the promise being faulty. What is it?
Gently, Crump points us in a third direction – that we have misunderstood the nature of the promise. He takes us back to the texts in which the apparent links between faith and prayer and the work of God are drawn and helps us see them in fresh ways, hopefully in the way that Jesus meant them to be understood.
Crump walks us through the texts to see if it is in fact possible for Christians to cause mountains to ‘do backflips’ into the Mediterranean as easily as Jesus caused the fig tree to wither. Crump helps us to see that Jesus’ point was not that a physical mountain would move, but that the personal God would act. The common believer has access through prayer to the full power of God. There are no limits.
“Anyone who places arbitrary, naturalistic limits on what a disciple can reasonably expect of God in this world should stop to consider whether that person’s God is the same deity that Jesus turned to when he said to the fig tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again’ (Mark 11:14).” (page 33)
The point is that we ought to expect that our prayers do connect us to all the power of God, no matter how weak our faith. But that does not seem to be helpful. Why do the mountains not move when I tell them to? The answer is, “God.” Regardless of what we ask, it is his decision to act in all the wisdom that is his.
No where in the Bible does ‘greater faith’ receive greater answers and ‘lesser faith’ lesser. Scripture invites every believer, no matter how weak his faith, to believe in the absolute power of God. There is no guarantee “expressed or implied”. There is a future sense in the promises of the Bible and, as hard as it is to accept, sometimes the answers to our prayers await the coming of the kingdom in its fulness.
The challenge here is to avoid the cynicism that says God cannot or will not ever bring the impact of that kingdom to bear upon the present. We are encouraged to ask things of God, believing that he, as God, can do what we ask. But God is not bound by what we ask. Greater faith or (as we will see) greater persistence does not obligate God.
“The Gospel writers carefully insist that faith itself is not the cause of miracles. God is.” (page 45)
That is the point we need to hear. Faith does not change things, and prayer does not change things, but God does. Prayer is taking what little faith we have and what little we know of prayer and asking the God who can move mountains to act. Even when we cannot receive what we ask, as Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane demonstrates, we are to pray. But we pray believing that he can if he chooses do all that we might desire. He who is truthful in all else that he says is truthful here as well.