Balancing What We Expect from Prayer
One of the big battles in the Christian life is about trying to get the right balance on things. If we are not careful, we can easily get something out of proportion and end up with an extreme view.
One way in which we should try to find a good balance is between expecting too little and too much from praying for things. Very often Christians can be found going too far one way or the other in this area. And this can cause big problems.
The importance of claiming things in faith
In Mark 11:24 Jesus teaches:
‘Whatever things you pray and ask for, believe that you have received them, and they will be yours.’
Here Jesus commands His followers to claim things in faith when praying. He is encouraging us to hold nothing back but to go boldly to God and say, ‘Lord, I ask You to do x, y and z, and I believe that You are going to do them.’
Similarly, in John 14:12-14 Jesus tells us:
‘Truly, truly, I tell you, he who believes in Me, the deeds that I do, he will do also, and he will do even greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in My name, I will do it, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me for anything in My name, I will do it.’
In this passage the Lord tells us to expect that we will do the deeds that He did, which surely includes His miracles. In faith we should therefore be expecting things that are far beyond what is possible in the natural realm.
We see a classic example of a bold, expectant prayer of this kind in Acts 4:24-30:
‘And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said:
Oh Lord, You are the one who made heaven, earth, the sea and all that is in them . . . And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and enable your slaves to speak Your word with all boldness, while you stretch out Your hand to heal, and while signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.’
Then the next verse tells us:
‘And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.’ (Acts 4:31)
What a fantastic prayer! And what an effective one! Christians today should constantly be praying prayers like this one.
It is wrong not even to try
Sadly, there are many Christians who make little effort to boldly claim things in faith in this way.
For example, it always grieves me when a Christian is diagnosed with an illness and they seem to entertain no idea that God might heal them of it. All their thinking revolves around what doctors are able to do for them. If there is treatment available through medical professionals, then they hope to recover their health. However, if there is no treatment available, they just assume that they will remain ill.
This attitude is really wrong, sinfully wrong, because it is so full of unbelief. The Bible contains many examples of God supernaturally healing people. And many Christians will testify that He does so today too. We need to be people who do what Jesus tells us to do in the passages I cited above. We must claim things in faith as we pray earnestly to God, for healing and in many other areas too.
We should expect some failures
Just as there are many Christians who fail to make the effort to claim things in faith as they should, there are also some who go to the other extreme. These believers seem to think that attempts to have faith for things in prayer should always be successful. They expect victory at every turn.
When we look in the Bible, however, this is simply not what we find. It is of course true that Scripture contains numerous examples of God’s people successfully praying for things. But there are failures too. The New Testament makes it clear that even devout Christians in the early church sometimes failed to achieve valuable goals, apparently without any clear fault on their part.
Of course, Christians can sometimes fail to achieve something because they are refusing to repent of a sin. But this is not what I am talking about here. I am thinking of failures to receive what is claimed in faith, even though there seems to be no sin involved. And there are examples of this in Scripture.
For instance, note the remarkable words of the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18, where he tells the church in Thessalonica:
‘But as for us, brothers, after we had been made orphans by being separated from you for a short time (physically but not in heart), in our great desire to see you face to face we made every effort to do so. For we wanted to come to you (certainly I, Paul, did more than once), but Satan prevented us.’
Paul was a very devout and strong Christian leader. But on at least 2 occasions when he wanted to go to Thessalonica to minister to the church there, Satan stopped him!
Paul doubtless prayed fervently that he would be able to visit the Thessalonians. And his words strongly imply that it was God’s will for him to go. But his prayers were not answered. And there is no suggestion in the passage that this was because of any wrongdoing on Paul’s part.
We can think too of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and following imprisonment in Caesarea, referred to in Acts 22:22-26:32. If the most natural interpretation of the Greek of Acts 24:27 is the correct one, then this verse tells us that his imprisonment lasted for 2 years.
But this is far from what Paul had planned. As Romans 15:22-32 makes clear, he had hoped to go to Jerusalem for a short visit, and then to travel to Rome on his way to Spain.
Paul had even specifically asked the Roman church to pray that he would be protected from non-Christian Jews in Judea (Romans 15:30-31). But this prayer seems to have been only partially answered. He was protected from being killed but not from being imprisoned.
Of course, God will have worked good through Paul even while he was in prison. But it does seem likely that he was imprisoned for longer than God wanted. And we should probably describe his imprisonment in Caesarea as an example of where he tried to pray for something in faith but was unsuccessful. And again, there is no good reason to think that he was particularly to blame for the failure.
The problem of unrealistically high expectations
It is very important that we don’t ignore or explain away biblical passages where we read of devout Christian people experiencing setbacks or failures. I think many Christian leaders downplay these passages because they want to foster an attitude of faith in their flocks. They think that if they start pointing out passages like the ones I have just referred to, they will be discouraging God’s people from claiming things in faith.
To a large extent this is understandable. But those who think in this way are missing one crucial point. They are failing to appreciate the huge discouragement that Christians can experience when they have unrealistically high expectations that are not fulfilled.
Something along the following lines sometimes happens:
Young Christians are taught to expect that the normal, obedient Christian life should involve constant victories when claiming things in faith. They are not aware that this is unrealistic and contradicts the Bible. Although they try hard, they have some failures. They then become convinced that they are hopeless Christians. And they become very discouraged and disillusioned as a result.
I think that if Christians are taught that it is normal to experience some failures when trying to claim things in faith, paradoxically this will actually mean that they gain more victories in the long run. They will be far less discouraged when they fail, and much more enthusiastic for the next fight.
A final word
When we study the Bible, it is so important for us not to concentrate on some parts at the expense of others. Individual passages on a topic often give only part of the whole picture. And we therefore need to let the whole voice of Scripture speak.
The Bible clearly teaches us to expect great and supernatural things from God as we claim them in faith. And it just as clearly leads us to expect that we will not always be successful when we try this. Ignoring or minimising one or the other of these things is either going to lead to stale and dead unbelief or to discouragement and disillusionment. We must all fight hard to get the right balance on this, especially church leaders as they guide their flocks.
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