What will be the outcome of the above story? Will God miraculously move the branch from the path for you in response to your faithful pleading? I believe the answer is, probably, no. I am not going to limit God and say that He would never do such a thing -- but it is fairly evident to me that miraculously moving branches at someone's beckoning is not within God's normal routine. That's just not how He operates.
I assume that most people reading this are thinking, "Wow, that's a pretty crazy story. Who would do that, anyway?" The fact is, if you were encountered with the situation in the story above, you would probably grab the branch and start pulling it to the side of the path without hesitation. Not very profound, right? Wrong. I think that we, as the Body of Christ, need to learn more from this story so that we can pray according to God's design and see God's power released to accomplish the impossible on the Earth. Read on, and I'll explain what I mean.
Making the ConnectionI am sure that you have heard of someone who has prayed for a loved one who was sick or dying who didn't see their prayers answered. Maybe you have experienced this yourself. How can any person, let alone a child of an omnipotent God, deal with the reality of these unanswered prayers? One way is to conclude that God simply doesn't exist -- that He's a figment of our imagination (like this website proposes). Another way is to conclude that it was God's will for these horrible circumstances to happen so that He can produce great goods that couldn't have otherwise been accomplished. And one way is to assume that the person praying (or receiving prayer) didn't have enough faith to see God's will to heal come to fruition. I'd like to propose that all of these commonly-accepted interpretations are missing out on some key principles that God has set up for reality -- analogous to the path story above -- and that the reality is actually a lot simpler than we think.
Before I propose a solution of how we might approach unanswered prayer, let me first diagnose some problems with the explanations that we often give:
- Explanation 1: God doesn't exist. Diagnosis: Whether God exists or not, it is not rationally responsible to draw the conclusion that God doesn't exist from certain experiences of unanswered prayer. For example, I don't conclude that my parents don't exist because I write a petition for them to buy me new car and they refuse or fail to respond. Now, it would be different if every request I ever made of my parents went unanswered. Someone might argue that God never answers prayer (perhaps based upon a select few case studies on distant intercessory prayer that have shown ambiguous results at best). However, in light of the thousands of testimonies of miraculous healing (just do a search on youtube), and in light of prayer studies that show undeniable positive results (especially this article on proximal prayer), I think that someone would need to do some in-depth investigation before coming to that conclusion. Thus, it appears that answering the dilemma of unanswered prayer by saying that God doesn't exist is hasty at best.
- Explanation 2: It was God's will not to answer my prayer. Diagnosis: By giving this explanation, we determine what God's will is by observing which of our prayers are answered instead of relying upon what God has revealed to us concerning His will through Scripture (or through our moral intuition). For example, we clearly see in Scripture that it is God's will that no one should perish (see 2 Peter 3:19), and yet people perish -- sometimes even people that we pray would not. This tension between what happens and what God wants can be uncomfortable for some of us, since we know that God is all-powerful. After all, who could resist the will of Almighty God? So we are tempted to conclude that everything that happens -- whether good or evil -- must be God's will. I believe that this conclusion resolves the tension between God's power and the presence of evil in the world by creating a theology that warps the very nature of God against what He has declared about Himself.
- Explanation 3: You (or someone) lacked faith. Diagnosis: Just as we saw in the path story, having perfect faith does not necessarily imply that our prayers will be answered. The key, then, is not "having" faith. The key lies in how we put our faith into action.
I propose that the reason we see unanswered prayer is simple: God has chosen to work through us; we are imperfect in knowledge, experience, and discipline; therefore things don't always work out perfectly for us or for those we pray for. In the following sections, I will elaborate upon this proposal and give support for it with Scripture.
Definition of FaithI want to make sure that we're all on the same page with respect to the definition of "faith." Instead of developing a rigorous definition, let me just point out some examples from Scripture and draw out some conclusions along the way.
- Consider the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her demonized daughter (see Matthew 15:21-28). Since Jesus came to reveal Himself to the Jews, He essentially told the woman, "No, I will not go heal your daughter." But the woman knew that Jesus could do it, and she insisted that He give her even "the crumbs" of His power and mercy. Jesus was deeply moved, and after remarking about her great faith, He healed her daughter on the spot. Faith in this story, then, implies clinging to and taking action toward something that you know (or believe) to be true.
- Consider when Peter, upon seeing Jesus at a distance across the water, asked to walk on the water to Him (see Matthew 14:22-33). With his eyes on Jesus, Peter walked on top of the water. But when Peter shifted his focus to the wind and the waves, fear gripped his heart, and he began to sink. Jesus remarked that he had little faith as he reached out his hand to catch him. Peter began the story with faith, and then his heart gave way to doubt. Instead of clinging to the reality of Jesus's power (which he had been experiencing up to that moment as he walked on water), he allowed fear of the menacing storm (which he knew was subject to Jesus's power, but which was a daunting adversary for himself alone) to loosen his grip on the reality of Jesus's power. This story seems to imply, then, that faith involves an act of the will to focus on the person and promises of God, clinging to His goodness and greatness, in the face of menacing circumstances.
- Consider how the book of Hebrews describes faith: "...faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). Combining this idea with the previous stories, we can safely conclude that faith is not simply a leap in the dark. Both the Canaanite woman and Peter had evidence of Jesus's power through testimony and/or prior experience. They both chose their coarse of action because of their assurance that Jesus in fact had the power to accomplish what they desired. Peter would never have gotten out of the boat if he wasn't confident of Jesus's power. The Canaanite woman would never have asked Jesus to heal her daughter unless she knew that Jesus had healed others. Thus, faith is not simply a leap in the dark; rather, it is assurance and confidence in someone or something that arises from prior knowledge or experience.
- Finally, consider what James says about faith: "...faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17, NIV). As we have already observed, the faith of the Canaanite woman and Peter affected their actions. If we really have confidence in someone or something, our lives will reflect it. I can say all day long that I have confidence in the bank, but if I never deposit my money into my checking account for fear that the money might disappear, then I am not living according to my profession of confidence (or faith) in the bank. We can say, then, that faith implies a way of life, not simply a set of beliefs confined to the filing cabinets of our minds.
So, combining all of the points above, we come up with a definition something like this: faith is a confidence (or assurance) in someone or something, affecting our coarse of action despite the threat of adverse circumstances.
"Petitioning" versus "Releasing"We should now consider ways that Jesus demonstrated for us to exercise our faith. Perhaps there are more, but I will focus on just two ways: (1) prayer or petition to God, and (2) releasing power through word, action, or intention. I hope to show you and convince you of the difference between these two ways of exercising our faith. I also hope to convince you that we should be exercising our faith in both of these ways in order to release God's power in the way that Jesus demonstrated.
Consider first prayers and petitions. Paul tells us to "always keep on praying for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:18). We can understand this type of prayer to be intercessory in nature. By faith, we ask God to move in miraculous ways, or we request angelic assistance, or we ask God for wisdom concerning the various trials that the saints are facing. We may also declare God's promises back to God as a way of demonstrating our faith, just as Moses declared God's character back to Him when He was considering destroying the nation of Israel (see Numbers 14). These are all ways of speaking to God through prayer or petition.
Jesus also instructs us in how we should pray. He starts off with declaring attributes of God (praise), then prophetically declares God's Will back to God (may Your Kingdom come and Your Will be done on earth as it is in heaven!), followed by requests for God's provision (spoken in faithful expectation that He will do so!), and closing with a declaration of God's power to carry out all these things.
Prayers and petitions are our thoughts, concerns, requests, praises, and thanks directed to God. Our prayers should always be presented in faith--in the knowledge that God is good and has the ability to carry out His Will--for without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Also, James says that if we don't have faith, we shouldn't expect God to answer our prayers because we're like a wave tossed to and fro (see James 1:6-7).
Now consider the act of releasing power through our spoken word, our actions, or our faith-filled intentions. These acts are different from prayers and petitions in that they are not directed to God; rather, they are directed at the problem to be overcome. Jesus illustrates this when He instructs His disciples that anyone speaking out of faith can command a mountain to throw itself into the sea, it will be done (see Mark 11:23). Notice that in this case, faith can be thought of as a weapon in the Spirit, or as a strong force, that can be directed at a situation in order to change it. Although it is ultimately God that accomplishes the change, it is our act of speaking into a situation in faith that releases God to do so!
Jesus instructed His followers to demonstrate the Kingdom of God by releasing God's power. With the authority that Jesus delegated to them, Jesus's disciples (including more than just the twelve) cast out evil spirits and healed the sick. When we consider the examples in Scripture, we see that this "Kingdom ministry" was accomplished by releasing God's power through spoken words and through actions of faith. We can distinguish this sort of activity from prayer in the following way: when we pray, we are acting as a priest before the Lord (ministering both unto Him and on behalf of other people); when we release God's power into situations, we are acting as God's representative on a mission to spread His Kingdom.
So how do these two ways of exercising our faith complement each other? I propose that it comes down to this: when we pray, we ask God to do something on our behalf; when we direct our faith (through spoken words, actions, or intentions) toward situations, we bring God's Word in those situations and steer them toward God's Will. Remember the story about the branch in the middle of the path? In that situation, it is intuitive for us that God wants us to initiate the change by moving the branch (ultimately by His power, of course). There are many situations in which God desires for us to initiate changes by clinging to His promises and speaking or acting in faith. For example, Jesus said to "heal the sick," not "pray for God to heal the sick" (see Matthew 10:8). By reading God's Word with attentiveness to the models and teachings presented on prayer (and by consulting God's Spirit), we will begin to see the function that prayer plays and how prayer relates to the activity of releasing God's power by faith.
In order to be fully equipped as a soldier in God's army, I believe that believers need to understand and utilize both of these methods of exercising their faith. Both prayers and the releasing of God's power must be practiced in faith, or we will not see the full display of God's good desires for us.
Wrapping It Up
In conclusion, I would like to assert to you that when we face trials as believers, our victory in those trials does not only depend upon the measure of our faith, but also upon the focus of our faith. God has equipped us with armor and weapons for spiritual warfare, and we need to realize that being on the comm with our Commander is only one aspect of battle. Winning the battle involves communication as well as actively engaging in warfare. If we focus on one activity without the other, we are significantly more vulnerable to attack and will suffer defeat when God has called us to be victorious in Christ. Once we become aware of where our focus needs to be, we can begin to engage in battles where we will emerge victorious! But as with any soldier, it takes practice for us to communicate effectively with the Commander while fully and skillfully utilizing the armor and weaponry we've been provided. It is not our role to point out blame when a battle ends in defeat. Rather, it is our role to encourage one another to press on, to press in, and to master the exercising of our faith so that we will see God's Kingdom invading the earth like never before.