I’ve been thinking a lot about the Pharisees and the traditions that they allowed to take over their belief system–to the point that their religious practice served their greed and their lust for power. Can the same thing happen today? In evangelical churches? Why not? It happened in Christianity before there ever was a Protestant/Catholic divide.
So what are some of the evangelical myths that could potentially start professing Christians on the road away from God and toward religious traditions that serve our greed and lust for power?
This first one author Morgan Busse addressed in her blog post today: “if I have enough faith, God will do it.” I’d even suggest we’ve taken this idea a step farther: if I have enough faith, God will HAVE to do it.
Certainly this idea of faith has its seeds in Scripture. In fact Jesus Himself said this to his disciples when they could not cast out a demon from a boy brought to them for that purpose:
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matt. 17:19-20)
Later Jesus said much the same to His disciples:
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree [curse it so that it withered], but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matt. 21:21-22)
Certainly, from those passages, the issue seems to be the faith the disciples had. It was all up to them. If they believed, they could have sent the demon away or cursed the fig tree, but they didn’t have enough faith–not even the size of the smallest seed, or else they could move mountains.
The problem is, this passage is not the only one that addresses faith or asking things of God. So here’s an important principle: one way that myths become established is when believers take passages of Scripture in isolation and believe them “literally.” While I believe the Bible to be true–each word and in total–I do not believe each word alone communicates the intent of the whole.
My favorite example is the passage in Psalm 14: “There is no God.” Yes, that’s what verse one says . . . in part. The intro is, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” What a difference putting the line in context makes.
So too the teaching of Scripture about faith and prayer. What we need to do is look at the various passages on these subjects together–things like God promising to give good gifts to His children (necessitating an understanding of what He means by “good”); saying if we “abide in Him,” and His words abide in us, we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done (necessitating an understanding of this “abiding”); and promising if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (necessitating an understanding of “His will”).
In other words, these passages can’t be taken in isolation from their context or from one another. Prayer is NOT a vending machine–put in the appropriate amount of faith and out comes the answer; too little faith and the prayer machine gets stuck with nothing shooting into the retrieval slot.
In fact, one of the greatest passages about asking God for something comes from the man whose son had the demon the disciples couldn’t cast out:
But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, ” ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes. “Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mar 9:22b-24)
His great confession was that even belief comes from God–it’s not something he could generate on his own.
James adds a couple different pieces to the faith puzzle. First he said it was great for someone to say he believes in God, but the reality is, the demons also believe. So there’s obviously more to “belief” than a mental ascent.
Secondly, he addresses the issue of asking God for what we need: “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (see James 4:2b-3).
Certainly this look at faith and prayer is not exhaustive, but by reviewing the various promises, commands, and instruction in Scripture, I draw these conclusions: there is no prayer formula; God wishes to give His people good gifts, but we mistake what we think is good for what He thinks is good; believing God for the things we know to be His will should be our default prayer position.
Here’s my own personal conclusion: I don’t ask God for enough stuff or for big enough stuff–the things consistent with His will. I get wrapped up in “small ball,” the stuff that would make my life easier or more pleasant. And the myth is born.