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Unanswered Prayer

DAY 338

CHALLENGE

“Unanswered prayer disproves Christ’s teaching on prayer. Jesus said, ‘If you have faith as a grain of 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. 17:20b). But experience shows that we can’t do such things by prayer.”

DEFENSE

Jesus’ teaching is more complex than this challenge suggests. It doesn’t involve a promise that we’ll always get what we ask.

First, Jesus makes the statement when the disciples have just failed to exorcise a demon. When they ask why they were unable to drive it out, he says, “Because of your little faith” (Matt. 17:20a). If the apostles, who were accustomed to working miracles, including driving out demons (Matt. 10:1, 5–8), could have inadequate faith, then we may, too. (Also, in this instance the disciples were trying to cast out a particularly powerful type of demon; Mark 9:29).

Second, the statement that having faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains does not mean that faith has some magical power of its own. The point is that it is God who performs miracles, and he is omnipotent. The size of the miracle is therefore not dependent on the size of the person’s faith but on God.

Third, this means that we do not have a promise that simply anything we pray for will happen. It must be the will of God (cf. Luke 22:42; James 4:13–15; 1 John 5:14).

Fourth, the fact that mountains usually do not move in response to prayer indicates it is usually not God’s will for this to happen. That’s why Jesus uses this example—because of how striking it is. He is using hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). The point is that our prayers are dependent on God, not the size of our faith; Jesus is not issuing a promise that simply anything we ask for will be granted.

Fifth, elsewhere Jesus indicates that in some cases we will need to believe without doubting (Matt. 21:21; cf. James 1:6–7).

Sixth, the New Testament indicates that our individual dispositions can affect the outcome of our prayers in other ways, particularly with regard to whether we are living in a way pleasing to God (John 15:7; James. 4:3, 5:16; 1 Pet. 3:12; 1 John 3:22).

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