Monday, July 2, 2012

Whatever you ask for

Matthew 21:18-22 (NIV)

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

esus replied, “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.”
In the interest of full honesty, I’ve always had something of a problem with this passage. While I try not to doubt anything Jesus says, it’s hard for me to interpret the message — or accept someone else’s take — without feeling like I’m bringing to much of a human element to the party.

When these verses come up in junior high Sunday school, some wise guy (not always me, but probably) raises his hand and asks, “What if you pray for a new red convertible?” The teacher’s response usually is its own question along the lines of “Is that what you think God wants you to pray for?” But the literalist will always answer back: “Whatever you ask for.”

In other situations (perhaps high school youth group) the questions cut deeper. Certainly at least one person in the room can recall a relative who was very sick and everyone prayed and prayed and the person died anyway. Maybe it was less serious, like a person looking for work or a kid who can’t get accepted to their dream college. Does that mean the people who were praying did not believe — every one of them? Jesus said, “It will be done.”

The group leader’s response this time around generally falls into the “sometimes God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers” category, or the “no, slow, go” approach, which are essentially the same thing: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” And the Lord sure as heck does work in mysterious ways. As I’ve written several times, I am loath to attempt to guess how God might be operating — ever. It seems a waste of energy. I am sincere when I say I want to try to discern God’s will for me and to teach my kids to do the same. But I also will not wreck myself over the inexplicable.

I also am not one to pray for God to move mountains. I’m just not. I simply don’t want to bother God with what I consider to be unreasonable requests. And while I believe God is capable of knowing what all of us are thinking at any given time, I guess I don’t need him cursing any fig trees on my behalf. Maybe this sounds weird to everyone else, but it’s the way I’ve been wired for a long time.

I’ve been writing these posts for more than two months now, and I’m sure most of the prayers have been laden with praise and gratitude and sprinkled with confessions. When I ask God for influence, it tends to be requests for more indirect assistance. My best example for this distinction: Student A might pray, “God, please give me an A on this test,” where my inclination was to pray, “God, please grant me the focus and energy as I take this test so I perform my best.” I figured if I deserved to earn the A (a rare occurrence, to be sure) I’d earn it on based on the knowledge I accumulated, provided I could get out of my own way, not because God revealed the answers to me. And I never presumed God cared about my GPA. Why would He?

Looking back at the passage and the problems its given me, both the junior high and high school questions, I am reading the scripture in a way I hadn’t before. Surely these verses are what inspired the “if I have a faith that can move mountains” portion of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage. But perhaps the key phrase here is: “if you have faith and do not doubt (emphasis mine).

I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine all humans have at least a shred of doubt, as all humans are imperfect. We can’t do anything perfectly — not to Christ-like standards. And that includes our faith, doesn’t it? I’m not trying to besmirch anyone, and surely only God can judge who has what degree of faith. We can and should try to do and say everything the way Christ would. But we’re not that good. We’re humans.

So is the conclusion I’ve come to that Jesus can move mountains and curse fig trees but no human could ever do so? I guess that’s been obvious from the beginning — it’s God who is moving the mountain regardless. So perhaps more accurately my conclusion is that no human alone can get God to do the impossible through prayer because no human’s faith is truly doubtless. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with that conclusion, though I do think it allows me to preserve my belief God can do the impossible — if God wants to do so. Of course, even that belief can me used to muddy the waters of conventional wisdom, but that’s a debate for another day.

I’m not going to ask God to give me any red convertibles. And as I teach my kids to pray, I’m going to suggest they, too, find better ways to use their time speaking with God. Our daily bread ought to be more than enough.

A prayer for July 2:

Lord, I think you for the encouragement to begin this writing project and the way it has led me to more closely examine your Word and how I respond to what I read. It has helped me put my focus where it belongs on a more consistent basis. And while I am far from perfect — there are far too many moments my focus is anywhere but where it belongs — I am grateful for the many reminders to consider your will throughout my day. I pray for your continued help in this area as I strive to be more the person you would have me be. Amen.

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