The most cited biblical verse about faith is Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.“
Very rarely does anyone cite the final verse of chapter 11, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
In hope, we often ask God for specific things – to get through a rough patch, for healing of a loved one, or to comfort others in mourning. These are all regular supplications we hear in prayer groups and what we regularly pray ourselves. Yet when we look at the Lord’s Prayer, we read Jesus’ words “thy will be done.” This, from a man facing the excruciating death and humiliation of the cross.
We are to ask for confidence that God loves us even during our worst suffering, not that God grant our wishes over his plan.
This seems in contrast to the often quoted verse in Matthew 21:22, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” This verse, we do well to remember, is preceded by the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree. The tree bore no fruit, only leaves, as Jesus found when he was hungry looking for a roadside snack. Finding no fruit he curses the tree and it withers away. When pressed by his disciples about how the tree withered so quickly, Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
A simple read of this passage would have us believe that we can warp reality and bend existence and time our way. That we can throw a mountain into the sea. As hard as this is to believe, the faithful must believe this is true (let me explain). What we must reject however is that God is proactively circumventing his authority for our whim. Trees already and by design wither. Mountains not only throw themselves into the sea, they emerge from it. This is what happens over time. The seas are to the mountains what deciduousness is to fig trees. Jesus is telling us that asking for things to happen that are according to God’s design will indeed happen – but perhaps not with the timeliness we expect or want.
When we ask “in Jesus’ name” we are asking for the logos (the word of God made flesh) to fulfill its purpose in our lives and for us to not resist it. Before Christ prays “thy will be done,” he prays “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” a direct reference to when the devil tempted Christ in the desert to throw himself off a cliff so that God might save him (Matthew 4:1-11).
We are tempted to tempt God in prayer. “Please do this for me!” This is simply not how it works. Prayer is an act of submission to God’s will. It is an acknowledgment of God’s will in our lives and in this world, and an effort on our part to align with it. Prayer is not asking God for a hand but realizing that it is all in God’s hands. The tree will wither, the mountain will return to the sea, and the evidence of things hoped, we will discover, is the acceptance of the substance and make up of our lives. How we accept that, however, is up to us. Resistance to God’s plan for our lives is the root of all suffering.