Ask Nate: On Faith, Prayer, Mountains, and Seas

This week on "Ask Nate", Jake asks:

Hey Nate,

This is one of my Biblical questions.

Mark 11:20-25  
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"  "Have faith in God," Jesus answered.  "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

If our faith will let us move a mountain, why can't we do that?  Why can't I pray to God to fold my laundry?  Is it using God as a tool?  

Or are there doubts that I am just unaware of?  If I was to repeatedly say "God will allow someone to find a cure for cancer" does that mean that eventually I will believe it so whole-heartedly that eventually I will have no doubts of it?

I was just curious as to why we can't move mountains.  Do we have doubts that we'll never overcome or are we testing Him? Take your time in getting back to me.

My first response is "Why didn't you ask about the fig tree?" I have never figured out to my satisfaction why Jesus had to curse a poor innocent fig tree to get his point across!  Some things I will just have to wait for heaven to find the exact answer to.

But, as for faith and mountains, I think the answer is actually a bit easier.

First, there are problems with the English translation of this passage (and all of the other passages in the New Testament) which say things like "ask and it will be done for you". In Greek, pronouns and verb endings can end in second person plural. Texan has a word for this, and it is "y'all". But in English, it just gets translated as "you", which to individualistic Americans sounds like Jesus is saying "you individual people must have faith, and ask, and it will be done for you".  But in Greek it doesn't come out that way.  It comes out as a community endeavor.  It would make more sense if we translated it into Texan instead of English, so I will do that now:

Mark 11:22-24
And Jesus answered them saying: Y'all need to have the faith of God! Truly I'm tellin' y'all that whoever should say to this mountain "Get up and get out into the sea!"- and if they ain't doubtin' in their heart, but really have faith that what they said is happenin'- it will happen for them! 'Cause of this I say to y'all: whatever y'all pray for and ask for, y'all need to believe that y'all have it, and it will happen for y'all.

This believing, asking, and receiving are all communal, not individual. It is not enough to believe alone. We must believe together and pray together and ask together. This communal aspect is what keeps us from getting selfish and "believing in God" for our laundry to get magically done. That is one of the reasons why Jesus promises to act in community: "Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there with them". This does not exclude individual faith, but strengthens and directs it.  In the passage above, all of the verbs are second person PLURAL except for the person speaking to the mountain. When we are acting out of the depths of the shared faith of the community, then our individual faith (and actions based on faith) are incredibly powerful. But, when we are just having faith in selfish wish-fulfillment, we will be powerless.

To use you cancer-curing analogy: If you seek the discernment and prayer of your faith community, and then you get a lot of people who say "You know what Jake, I was praying and seeking God, and I really believe he IS going to use you to cure cancer!" And then they pray over you, and the whole community really believes this is the will of God, I would have every reason to believe that you actually would find a cure to cancer... or at least be given the gift of healing so that cancer victims who you prayed for got healed (which God does do quite often!).

Here's the trick: the Spirit of God working through community tends to broaden our vision, and when the entire community agrees and believes the same thing, that strengthens our faith immensely. Likewise, when we are going off on our own tangent and it is not God's will, God will use the community to tell us to back off. That is why prayer and learning as a group is SO VERY IMPORTANT in learning to follow God's will.

Second, the word "mountain" here probably does not mean a literal mountain. I mean, it could. God made the universe with a Word, he could move a literal mountain if he wanted. Yet, the word "mountain" was (and is) a common word to talk about human struggles and problems. Like the phrase "don't make a mountain out of a molehill". Think about the words that we use to speak of struggles that have no "literal" connection to human struggles: "I've dug myself into a ditch", "I've hit a snag", "I'm in a rut", "My life is a mess", or "My life has taken a nosedive".

People translating this 2000 years from now might think I was speaking of literal ditches, snags, ruts, messes, and nosedives... but existing in our culture it is clear that I am simply speaking of personal problems using 21st century metaphors. In the same way, a "mountain" symbolizes a personal problem that is hard to climb over that takes a lot of effort. This saying of Jesus was probably speaking of God's ability to remove and solve our personal problems and struggles, rather than changing our geography.

Third, sometimes God does not remove the mountain because he has something for us to learn by climbing over it. Even Jesus, the Son of God, who has more faith than all of us combined, was not able to "move" the mountain of Golgotha. He died on it. He only "moved" it three days later by moving the stone at His resurrection. We must ALWAYS remember the cross and the empty tomb when we are pondering how God answers prayer and leads us.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.