Is It Possible to Pray without Doubting?

The Prayer by William-Adolphe BouguereauGreat-grandmother Fannie Lee, on my dad’s side, died in 1968. I was nine. She died long before positive thinking became popular in the late 1990’s and five years after Joel Osteen was born. She was “laid out for viewing” in someone’s parlor.

I was mesmerized by the whole viewing event. I remember staring for a really long time at my great-grandmother lying in her casket. And then, I don’t know why I did this, but I asked God to bring this ninety-three year old woman back to life. I asked, and then I watched and waited.

This is going to be hard for you to believe, but a few moments after that prayer, I was sure I saw Great-grandmother Fannie’s chest slightly rising and falling more than once. If she had gotten up out of that casket, I don’t think anybody would have been less surprised than me.

When she didn’t get up, the thought occurred to me that maybe she was just lying there awake but unable to tell anybody. After all, I never remembered seeing her sitting up, so maybe she was just too weak to let anyone know she was alive. Then after a long time, when I was sure I didn’t see any more movement, I went outside to think about what had happened.

On the following days that led up to the funeral, I watched as much as I could to confirm Great-grandmother Fannie’s aliveness. I also did quite a bit of investigative work to find out what happens in the back rooms of funeral homes. It was impossible, I was told, because blood was removed and replaced with formaldehyde, for anybody to survive that process. But, I had my doubts about that impossibility.

So, still not convinced that my great-grandmother was really dead, at the funeral I checked closely for the slightest movement before they closed the casket for the final time. I sat through my great grandmother’s funeral terrified that she was about to be buried alive and not knowing quite what to do about it.

Faith and Not Doubting

Matthew 21:21-22 (ESV): And Jesus answered them, Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Mark 11:22-24 (ESV): And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

There are other verses about faith and not doubting (Matthew 14:31; Romans 4:20; Romans 14:23; and James 1:6) and faith and moving mountains (Matthew 17:20; 1 Corinthians 13:2) and prayer and receiving (Matthew 7:7; 1 John 3:22; 1 John 5:14). But Matthew 21:21-22 and its parallel, Mark 11:22-24, are good ones for asking for miracles – after all the fig tree had miraculously withered and a mountain that could be moved from land to sea through prayer is pretty awesome.

I didn’t think about these verses, or any verse, when I asked God to resurrect my great- grandmother. I just knew that God could do the impossible, and, as far as I could tell, it looked like he had, at least for a few moments. But, to my great surprise, Great-grandmother Fannie never officially woke up. I think my bewilderment in her failure to fully resurrect was similar to the surprise the nine disciples in Matthew 17:19 felt when the demon remained in the boy after their attempted exorcism.

Is This Right?

But people do use these verses (and some others less contextually convincing) as the basis for “believing” things like health and jobs and stable finances into existence. “Name it and claim it,” they say. So my question is, “Is this right?”

If we have no basis to believe that God will do something, other than our willing it to be so, can we make God make the thing happen just by believing that he will? This questioning thought contains at least two more specific questions: (1.) Can we undoubtedly believe something that God has not already promised? (2.) If we ask for something outside of God’s will, will our will (if it is strong and great and undoubting enough) trump his will?

Hezekiah

I was reading Isaiah the other day. Remember King Hezekiah? Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live” (Is. 38:1 NASB). So Hezekiah prayed. He cried bitterly and reminded God of his (Hezekiah’s) “good” record. Isaiah reported to Hezekiah that God had heard his prayer and seen his tears and would add fifteen years to his life. I’m not sure where the good works Hezekiah did fit into the whole thing, but I doubt they impressed God, and I’m pretty sure they had a part in Hezekiah’s prideful attitude that came to full bloom after his recovery (2 Chronicles 32:24-25).

As an Aside

This passage of course probes people to ask, “Does prayer change God’s mind?” which is really the question, “Does prayer change God’s eternal plan?” This of course is Question 2 above – Can our will trump God’s will? To which I would answer, “No!” But to fully explain that would elicit a whole conversation of God’s knowledge of all the possibilities he could (but does not) bring about and God’s eternal plan brought into space and time and the like and that’s not where I’m going with this blog. I will say though that prayer is effective. God sovereignty chooses to bring about some of his eternal purposes through prayer (Hezekiah’s prayer for example). He also uses other means, including sin (Is. 37:26; Acts 4:27-28; 1 Peter 2:8), to accomplish what he planned long ago.

Back to Hezekiah

So, for the spectacular results that followed Hezekiah’s prayer, you would think that Hezekiah might have offered a prayer like this:

I am powerful, and what I believe changes the world! So today I declare:
I am important; I have done good things for God.
Therefore, I cast down evil and disease.
I declare my body to be in perfect health.
With God nothing is impossible!”

But that’s not how Hezekiah prayed, and it is not how he thought. In Isaiah 38:9-20 we can see Hezekiah’s thought process as he himself recorded it.

  • First, because he believed that Isaiah was speaking God’s word to him, Hezekiah went into his prayers fully believing that his life was about to end (Isaiah 38:10-12) – he had no doubt that he would soon die and not live.
  • Second, despite his good works (and they were impressive) in those moments following Isaiah’s pronouncement of Hezekiah’s imminent death, Hezekiah knew God as his oppressive enemy – as a lion breaking all his bones, making an end of him (Isaiah 38:12-13).
  • Next, in response to what he had been told, Hezekiah’s prayers were twittered on and on like the chirping of a swallow and a crane and moaned out like a dove. His eyes looked “wistfully” (Isaiah 38:14) which means he was distressed; he was not assured, confidant or fully expecting anything other than death.
  • But then in a moment, God spoke to Hezekiah and said, “Yes!” to his plea for health and life(Isaiah 38:16-17).
  • Finally, only after this word from God (which was connected to Hezekiah’s knowledge that his sins had been taken care of – cast behind God’s back, Isaiah 38:17), do we see Hezekiah’s confidence rising. Only then could Hezekiah say,

The LORD will surely save me;
So we will play my songs on stringed instruments
All the days of our life at the house of the LORD
.”
(Isaiah 38:20, NASB)

Now, some might say, well Hezekiah’s lack of confidence that God would heal him was because Jesus had not yet died. He had not yet taken the stripes, gotten the wounds, and shed his blood for Hezekiah’s healing. Perhaps if Hezekiah had been on our side of the cross, his prayer would have been modified a bit:

I am powerful, and what I believe changes the world! So today I declare:
I am important; I have done good things for God.
I claim the blood of Jesus over this disease, and I cast down evil and disease.

I declare my body to be in perfect health.
With God nothing is impossible!”

Yet Paul, on this side of the cross, pleaded (verses confidently declared or assertively demanded) with God to remove his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:8). But God answered, “No!” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So, Paul quit praying about it and evidently accepted other weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecution, and calamities as God’s will for him too (2 Corinthians 12:10). Should we say that Paul did not have enough faith or the right kind of faith or that he had doubts or that God was not working all things good for Paul?

So, my answer to the question, “Is this right?” is “No.” It is impossible to pray in faith without doubting unless we first have confirmation, a sure word or a promise from God (unless of course we believe God has released his sovereignty to us and that if we say the right “magic” words all that we say will come to pass). But we can pray, without doubting, for anything, believing it will surely come to pass if God has already said that it will.

God’s Promises

Sometimes the word or promise God gives is for everyone who believes. Salvation, sanctification, and glorification are examples. There are also promises of ultimate healing and full and final restoration of all things for all those who believe. There are promises of more ordinary things like food and clothes for today. There are also specific words for individuals like the ones God spoke to Hezekiah and Paul.

Surely it is only on the basis of God’s word for all or his individual word to us specifically that we can pray for something without doubting. I know that some would say, “Well, Jesus promised that if we pray without doubting about ‘whatever,’ it will happen and so that ‘whatever’ means that everything we pray about is promised.

But, surely it is only when we pray according to God’s will (according to what he decided long ago would come to pass) (1 John 5:14) in obedience (1 John 3:22) with sins forgiven, forgiving others (Mark 11:25) about things that which will glorify the Father (John 14:13) that we can pray with confidence believing, with no doubt, that what we pray will surely come about. Isn’t that how Jesus himself prayed (Hebrews 5:7)? Isn’t that how Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6:6-13)?

The prayers of God’s people are but God’s promises breathed out of living hearts, and those promises are the decrees, only put into another form and fashion. C.H. Spurgeon

The Mountain

What about the mountain? Different people have different ideas about which mountain Jesus was talking about and if it was symbolic or not. There is a prophecy in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51: 25,42) about a symbolic mountain (Babylon) being covered by a symbolic sea, and we see the same symbolism again in Revelation 8:8. And Zechariah 14:4 speaks of the Mount of Olives being split in two and moving in opposite directions followed by streams from Jerusalem flowing in opposite directions toward different seas. At any rate it must be right that, if God had given a word either in prophecy or promise (public or private) that “this mountain,” whatever it was, would be thrown into the sea, then of course the disciples could and should pray for that and any other things previously declared by God. They should pray for those things without doubting – believing that their prayers would come to pass because God had already said they would.

Pray and Do Not Doubt

Should we come before the throne of God confidently? Yes (Hebrews 4:16). Because our sins have been forgiven, we can come boldly, but we cannot come proudly because we must come by grace through Christ (Hebrews 10:19-21). Should we pray about anything? Yes! Cast your cares, all of them, on Jesus because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Who should we pray for? Pray for all kinds of people (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

Can we be assured that God hears our prayers? Well … Have you confessed your sins (James 5:16)? Do you have a grudge against your brother (Mark 11:25)? Are you treating your wife in a respectful and understanding way (1 Peter 3:7)? Are you abiding in Christ and in his words (John 15:7)? Have you humbled yourself (2 Chronicles 7:14)?

Pray. Pray about everything. Ask for healing. My grandson was recently healed from cancer, and I have no doubt that God, working through the prayers of the saints, brought that about. Ask for the dead to be raised. Some reportedly are and one day all will be. If you need a personal answer from God, pray until he gives it. Claim God’s promises for believers as yours and pray those with confidence as if they are already yours because they are. Know that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

What God has said or promised may come to pass immediately in this temporal world for you and me and others like they did for Hezekiah. Or, maybe they will come to pass for some future generation like they did for the Old Testaments saints who were commended for their faith. The promises they received and held in faith were received, not by them in the temporal sense, but by us (Hebrews 11:39-40) which I’m pretty sure means we got Jesus. Or maybe you will only see God’s word come to pass in the world to come. I have no doubt that my prayer for Great-grandmother Fannie Lee was not in vain. She will rise from the dead for God has promised that all will. But, don’t put faith in your own word and in your own faith. Instead, have faith in God!

Related Blogs

Endnotes

Image is a photograph of a The Prayer, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Benson Commentary [Public Domain] on Mark 11:22-23, Joseph Benson, [1846-1854] notes: “We are all here exhorted to have a steadfast faith in the power, love, and faithfulness of God; and to be fully persuaded that he will make good all his declarations, and fulfill all his promises, in their proper meaning, to all true believers in due season; and this, notwithstanding any difficulties or apparent improbabilities which may be in the way. And it is on this foundation that we must approach God in prayer, fully expecting, if we ask such things as we are authorized by his word to ask, and are earnest, importunate, and persevering in asking them, that we shall certainly receive what we ask, as our Lord declares in the next words; even if the granting of our petitions imply God’s doing what is really extraordinary, …”

Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary  [Public Domain] on Matthew 21:18-22 explains that “Doubting of the power and promise of God is the great thing that spoils the efficacy and success of faith. “If you have faith, and dispute not” (so some read it), “dispute not with yourselves, dispute not with the promise of God; if you stagger not at the promise” (Rom. 4:20); for, as far as we do so, our faith is deficient; as certain as the promise is, so confident our faith should be.”

The mulberry tree pulled up by its roots and thrown in the sea by faith alone, Luke 17:6 is a similar text to the ones discussed in this blog, but the faith the disciples asked for was in the context of forgiveness and the root of the mulberry tree seems to be an implied metaphor for the root of bitterness that grows when you are repeatedly sinned against. Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary [Public Domain] on this verse explains that, “Faith in God’s pardoning mercy, will enable us to get over the greatest difficulties in the way of forgiving our brethren. As with God nothing is impossible, so all things are possible to him that can believe.”

In his online article, “The Mystery of Creaturely Otherness,” Professor and theologian, John Frame, notes that God’s knowledge of all that could be (his hypothetical knowledge sometimes called middle knowledge) is not “Middle Knowledge” in the exact sense that Jesuit theologian, Luis de Molina, discussed.

By coming to God by grace through Christ in prayer, I mean that it is only because God approved of Christ’s obedience and payment for our sins and graciously gave us the standing that Christ earned on our behalf and moved us from not understanding to understanding, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, and inseparably joined us to Christ through faith, that we can even approach God in prayer.

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