Moving Mountains and Cursing Fig Trees

Have you ever wondered why Jesus said some of the things he said?

For example, Mark 11:22-24 suggests that if, in faith, we want to tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea, it can happen. However, why would Iwant to tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea? What would it accomplish other than making me feel more than a little powerful, creating a blot on the landscape, and upsetting conservationists? Did Jesus really mean that we should use faith whimsically, to accomplish whatever takes our fancy?

Sometimes I think Jesus used ideas for their shock value in order to get the attention of his listeners. Remember when he said that if your right hand offends you, you should cut if off? Or if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out? If these passages were to be taken literally, there would be a lot of one-eyed, one-handed Christians walking around. Christ was making a point through exaggeration. The point was that we should deal decisively with our sin before it takes over our life.

Jesus compared prayer to a child asking his father for something and believing that the father would respond. So great is our heavenly Father’s desire to give to us that he knows the things we have need of before we ask him (Matthew 6:8).

So what is Mark 11:22-24 all about? There is a context. There are powerful lessons to do with faith and prayer. The day before, Jesus, by his divine power, had caused a leafy but fruitless fig tree to wither. This was to teach his disciples that it is possible to seem spiritual and yet to not produce the fruit God seeks from us. He had also cleansed the temple of those who exploited the house of prayer for personal profit.

In remembering the fig tree, Jesus tells his followers to "have faith in God." Was he saying to them that they too, if only they really believed, could curse fig trees? I don’t think so. Or was he stressing that the religious life without faith is of no use to God and that it may as well wither up and die?

The context also shows in verses 25 and 26 that prayer made without forgiving those who may have wronged us, just as we want God to forgive us, will not be heard and fulfilled. Therefore this passage explains that we don’t automatically get everything we request in prayer—there are conditions of faith toward God, of bearing the fruit he requires of us, and of mercy shown to others.

It is not wise to let one passage of Scripture dictate the totality of doctrine on a particular subject. Mark 11:22-24 is one of many references to praying in faith. A prayer of faith reaffirms God’s sovereignty, not ours—that his will be done, not our own will (Matthew 6:10).

This touches on one of the problems with the "name it and claim it" prayer styles—the implication that faith gives us the ability to coerce God to give us what we demand. Such thinking implies wrongly that God’s sovereignty is subservient to ours.

Matthew 7:7-11 says that we can ask the Father, and he will give us "good things." Does that mean that God gives us what is good for our long-term development, just as a parent gives a child what the parent thinks is best? If we desire something in prayer that is not for our good, should God honor that request?

James, the brother of Jesus, exhorted Christians to "ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind" (James 1:3). Don’t suppose, he says, that you will receive any answer from prayer if you are double-minded and uncommitted in your own request.

We need to be convinced about the value of prayer. The reference Jesus made to believing we can move mountains affirms this. It is impossible to make an impression on God without faith that God is who he says he is, and also that he rewards those who seek him diligently (Hebrews 11:6).

A major problem that the readers of James’ epistle had was that they let their own selfish desires dominate their prayer life. "You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:3).

What did they want God to give them? Various ideas are suggested—success by the world’s standards (4:4); God to be on their side and to win their battles for them (4:1-2); their self-seeking positions to be realized (3:14). Righteousness, argues James, is about faith. Faith is believing that God will do what he says he will do (2:23). A life of faith involves making peace with others (3:18), not causing dissention by pushing our own cause or point of view. The effective prayer of the righteous person, which avails much, is a prayer for others, for those who are sick, for those in distress, not a prayer that is overcome by selfishness (4:16).

Faithful prayer does not always play out according to our plans. Prayer is about trusting God and leaving situations in his hands. It is about showing love by petitioning God on behalf of others.

Sometimes, when we pray, we present both the problem and our favorite solution to God, instead of leaving him to choose an answer for us. Not that it is wrong to think things through and offer ideas in prayer, but do we limit God’s answers in our mind to only what we think should happen? We need to open our minds to the infinite wonder of God—"to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20).

We all need and value the intervention of God. In his sovereignty God can and does choose to supply what is good for us according to the abundance of his grace. He seeks to give us gifts and blessings. However, those blessings are not provided on demand. We share in suffering as we are part of humanity.

Jesus taught that prayer is more about what we can give than about what we can receive. God is not a lucky charm or a winning lottery ticket. From the viewpoint of Jesus, prayer is a special relationship to be cherished, a relationship that brings us comfort and hope that the great God of the universe has taken a special interest in each of us. May he express through us that same interest toward others.

James R. Henderson

James R. Henderson
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