READ : Mark 11:25
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
Mark 11:24-26 rsv
Sometimes the promises Jesus makes about prayer seem sweeping and unconditional. Listen to this: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). Then, lest anyone should miss the force of that, Jesus goes over the same ground once more: “For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (v. 10).
Again, just before His death Jesus left this pledge with His disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23-24). It was one of Jesus’ great assurances to His followers that their Father in heaven would unfailingly give good things to those who ask Him.
The Lord’s apostles pick up that theme and even expand upon it. The apostle Paul writing to the Ephesians describes God as “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (3:20). James chimes in that the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects, and that the reason we do not enjoy the blessings of God more abundantly in our lives is simply that we do not ask. As we consider these words, they seem to assure us of limitless power in prayer. They seem to echo again and again, “Ask whatever you desire, and your request will be granted.”
Another cluster of biblical passages, however, seems to teach otherwise. These propose certain conditions for effective prayer. The apostle John writes, for example: “This is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). There the field is narrowed down; not just anything we ask, but anything that is according to God’s will.
Sometimes the sins of God’s people can negate the effect of their prayers. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2). The psalmist is alert to that same possibility. He says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18). And the apostle Peter reminds husbands and wives that if they do not live considerately with one another their prayers will be hindered.
Sometimes unworthy motives in prayer may be the problem. James writes, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3). Jesus seems to gather up all the conditions for answered prayer into one when He says this to His disciples, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).
ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS: FAITH
In the passage we’re thinking about today, Mark 11:24-25, Jesus singles out two factors that are, if not conditions, at least essential elements of genuine, effectual prayer: faith and a forgiving spirit toward others. Let’s look first at the faith part. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will.”
Peter had been amazed at what happened to a fig tree. Jesus had said of it the day before, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” It seemed to be an action parable. The fig tree symbolized a people whom God had planted, watered, nurtured and pruned but which after all of that had borne no fruit. Now Peter was awestruck when he saw that the tree had actually withered. But Jesus in response didn’t talk about responsibility and judgment, but about faith. If Peter was astonished at what became of the fig tree, he would yet see things far more remarkable. Jesus said, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast 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” (vv. 22,23).
Mountains seem to us about as secure and immovable as anything we know about. But Jesus says the word of faith can move them. However massive and insurmountable the obstacles before us seem to be, we can say to them, “Be taken up. Be removed and cast into the sea.” And we won’t simply be speaking into the air. Jesus says that those mountains will depart. The obstacles will move.
Faith, however, seems to be the crucial factor. When we command the mountains to be cast into the sea, we are not to doubt in our hearts but rather to believe that what we say will come to pass. And then, Jesus says, it will be done for us. In a similar way, whenever we ask God for something in prayer, we are to believe that we have received it and then, Jesus says, it will be ours.
The heart of what Jesus is teaching here is summed up in the words with which the section in Mark begins: “Have faith in God.” Or literally, “Hold on to the faithfulness of God.” In other words, keep that always as your primary conviction, your constant awareness – that God is and that He is a faithful God. Prayer, therefore, is never to be looked on as magic, apart from the working of the sovereign, faithful God. Nor is it to be something we engage in mindlessly. The ground tone is always to be the confidence that I never call upon God in vain, that His love is real and His faithfulness sure and that He will always respond to our asking in His own time and way.
If we pray without that basic confidence, James reminds us, we are double-minded people, unstable in all our ways. We will not receive anything from the Lord. It grieves God when we appeal to Him in prayer without the slightest assurance that He will hear and answer. Our words may sound believing then but our hearts give the lie to them. Let’s always remember that we pray to the God who gives to everyone generously and without reproaching. Let’s call on Him with the full confidence that we are loved, we are heard, we are answered.
ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS: A FORGIVING SPIRIT
The second element in Jesus’ description of effective prayer is our special focus today: the readiness to forgive others. Listen: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Jesus told an unforgettable story about this. Listen. This is from Matthew, chapter 18:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents [that’s just a fortune]; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [that’s a rather trifling sum]; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him [same words], `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also [Jesus concludes] my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (vv. 23-35).
Apparently, there’s a very close relationship between our receiving forgiveness from God and our extending it to others. Jesus taught us about that in the Lord’s Prayer, didn’t He? We’re invited to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
What do we make of this? Is our forgiving others a kind of good work, a meritorious action which deserves and gains for us God’s forgiveness? That cannot be the case. Throughout the Bible, forgiveness is associated with God’s great mercy. He provides it for us freely through the sacrifice of His Son. “Jesus paid it all,” we sing. “All to Him we owe.”
At the same time, our readiness to forgive others seems to be the sign that we have truly known the forgiveness of God. The wicked servant seemed to have no awareness of how great a debt he had been forgiven, of what great kindness he had received, because in a similar situation he showed no inclination to extend mercy to his fellow servant.
We can see then that forgiving others is closely related to faith. Remember that other occasion when Jesus was teaching His followers about forgiveness? He said, “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him and if he sins against you seven times in the day and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). The apostles responded to that hard word about forgiving others with this prayer: “Increase our faith!” Faith, apparently, is what frees us to forgive. Holding on to God’s faithfulness means letting go of resentments. Knowing I am pardoned through God’s great mercy releases me to pardon others.
Our forgiving others doesn’t earn our acceptance, our forgiveness with God, but it opens the way for our receiving and enjoying His forgiveness. Think of how it is with confessing our sins. Confession is the sign that I’m aware of having sinned against God, and I tell Him that, and also the sign that I’m aware of His pardoning grace in Christ, and I trust Him for that. Forgiving others involves the same double awareness: I too have sins that need forgiving and God has graciously forgiven me in Jesus Christ.
Do we see it, friends? Trust in God’s faithfulness and a gracious openness to others are vital aspects of that genuine relationship with God from which prayer proceeds. Prayer, faith, confession, forgiveness, all grow out of the gospel received into our hearts, and the new relationship with God which follows that. If we do not pray, we must have no sense of that incomparably wonderful relationship into which we’ve been brought. If we pray without faith, we must have no sense of the character of the One who stands behind the promises, the faithful One who always keeps His word. If there’s no confession in our lives, then there must be no awareness of guilt, no turning of heart toward the Lord for grace and reconciliation. And if there’s no willingness on our part to forgive, then there must be no realization of how immense is our debt and how great His pardoning grace toward us. We haven’t yet felt the soul’s despair or its breathless gratitude.
Striking, isn’t it, how important to God it seems to be that we should be willing to forgive. The same loving heart that longs to forgive us, longs to see us also learning His gracious ways in the way we relate to others. Apparently one of the surest signs that we have internalized the gospel of God’s grace is that we treat other people graciously. So hold on, friends, to the reality of God’s faithful love in Christ and let go of every grudge, every resentment. That’s the way, Jesus says, to pray. Yes, that’s the way to live. That’s one of the secrets of genuine joy. May it be yours!
Prayer: Father, we praise You that in Jesus Christ, out of Your wonderful mercy You have freely and fully forgiven us. May that gospel of grace so sink down into our hearts that we may find a willingness, a readiness, to forgive those who wrong us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.