Prayer arises from a sense of need and belief that outside help is available. Even people who do not believe in a divine being find themselves praying in times of distress. God graciously included prayer in his design of humans. The desire to pray can be considered an act of revelation. In Acts 17:27 Paul spoke to the unbelievers about God’s intention and available presence for those who “grasp and search after God, though he is not far from us”. No other spiritual discipline humbles the human heart like prayer does. One must pray in faith though.
A conversation about prayer can venture in many directions but I will try to stay focused. In this post, I will consider what it means for the follower of Jesus to pray in faith. My goal is to explain what it means to pray in faith and clarify misconceptions about this concept. Our conversation has James 1:5-8 as its context with emphasis on verse six.
5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, 8 being double-minded and unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8, CSB)
The writer of the text had just encouraged suffering Christians to maintain joy and perseverance in trials. He immediately transitioned to the thought about wisdom in verse five. The translation I am currently reading through is the Christian Standard Bible and it divides verse five into another paragraph section. Other translations mark the paragraph as beginning at verse two and continuing through verse eight. Regardless where your translation divides the paragraph (punctuation and paragraph divisions are interpretive and helpful but not inspired) there are at least two key concepts in these verses.
- Christians need wisdom for perseverance when faced with trials.
- Christians must pray in faith. They expect God to act no matter how grim the circumstances appear.
I cannot help but consider what James actually meant when he told the believers to pray in faith without doubting. There are some today who assume that praying in faith means that Christians can have whatever they want if they simply ask God for it. A movement exists called the “word of faith” movement. The primary teaching of this movement is that God will provide whatever his children ask for ask long as they have enough faith. I reject this notion yet affirm that God answers the prayers of his children. I do not think the passage in James supports the word of faith movement. Remember he was teaching them they should ask God for wisdom for enduring trials.
Some prayers align with God’s will while others do not. A prayer for wisdom is one that can be considered praying according to God’s will.
I cannot discuss every verse on prayer and faith here but I want to mention a few. Scripture helps us interpret scripture. An unclear passage is often clarified in another.
In Matthew 17:20 Jesus taught that having faith as small as a mustard seed would result in mountains being moved. His disciples were unable to cast out a demon and they asked him why. A textual variant issue exists over whether the verse on prayer and fasting (v.21) was included in the earliest Greek manuscripts. There is agreement that the parallel passage (Mark 9:29) includes the note about prayer and fasting. Praying for demons to be cast out is praying according to God’s will. It’s easy for us to take the part about mountains being moved out of context when we refer to praying in faith.
An earlier passage in Matthew is 7:7-11. There Jesus proclaimed his famous “Sermon on the Mount”. He instructed his followers to ask, seek, and knock. The passage centers on the Father’s willingness to provide for his children rather than the acts of asking, seeking, and finding. Our Father provides for our needs and delights when we ask for them through prayer. John 14:14 also refers to asking and receiving.
In my opinion, 1 John 5:14-15 contributes most significantly to our discussion on praying in faith.
14 This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked of him. (CSB)
When we pray we must pray according to God’s will. We pray according to God’s will when we pray the scriptures or biblical themes. Praying for an airplane or opportunity to win the lottery are not prayers according to His will. (I am not calling out any prosperity preachers with airplanes by name even though it is tempting.)
James encouraged the recipients of his letter to pray in faith without doubt. Prayer laced with doubt reflects the drifting waves of the sea. Throughout his letter faith is a key theme. Later in the book (5:13-18) he refers again to the prayer of faith and of the righteous person. The Christian cannot expect results from his prayers if he does not believe that the Triune God is able to answer them.
George Muller modeled both prayer and faith. He housed, fed, cared for thousands of orphans in 19th century England. I encourage my readers to purchase a copy of his autobiography. There is a separate work by Muller entitled “Answers to Prayer” which I have not read yet. The autobiography was developed from his prayer journal so there is some overlap between the two works. He observed many parishioners living lives that appeared to lack trust in God. One of his parishioners worked fourteen or sixteen hours a day to provide for his family and this deeply burdened Brother Muller. Muller’s motive for organizing and funding an orphanage on faith alone rather than relying on his efforts or fundraising efforts impact the way I think about praying in faith. It also challenges me to grow in my faith.
“I longed therefore, to have something to point the brother to, as a visible proof that our God and Father is the same faithful God that he ever was, -as willing as ever to prove himself the living God, in our day as formerly, to all who put their trust in him.” (italics his, Autobiography, 2017, 88)