Does prayer get you anything?
Matthew 21:21-22 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
Matthew 18:19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
1 John 5:14-15 And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.

Verses like these have engendered two opposite reactions. The first is from Skeptics, who say things like, "Honest Christians know that these verses are false. It does no good to claim that many prayers are unanswered because they are not 'according to his will.' Even prayers that are clearly in line with the expressed 'will of God' are rarely successful." On the other hand, some within Christendom use these verses for the purpose of trying to get rich.

One is constrained to ask, of course, where it is any Skeptic has recorded the "expressed will of God". But it is needful to closely examine these verses and dispel arguments and misuses from both sides of the fence.

Matthew 18:19 -- First, as always, context is important, and let's see in what context this verse is offered:

Matthew 18:15-20 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Some critics illicitly isolate Matthew 18:19 from its context to make it look like a general instruction on how to pray for whatever you want in any context. This is erroneous.

This passage follows instructions for pursuing "sheep" (members of the believing community) who go astray. Verses 15-18 are further instructions for community discipline. Verse 19 is an amplification on verse 18, using the "Again, I say unto you" which indicates an expansion of what has been noted previously. Thus, even so far we see that whatever verse 19 means, it is restricted to the context of discipline within the believing community of Christ. It is not a license to request anything.

So then, in this context, what is this prayer for? Verse 18 refers to binding and loosing, a metaphor in this period to judicial authority. The allusion is to the fact that in Jewish thought of the time, "the halakic decisions of the community have the authority of heaven itself." [Keener, 454] The word for "thing" (pragma) is "a term frequently limited to judicial matters." (Blomberg commentary on Matthew, 281; Harrington commentary on Matthew, 269).

The reference to two agreeing mirrors the situation in a Jewish court representing the community in which two out of three witnesses agree. "where the Shekinah abides with the court that judges justly" (Hagner commentary on Matthew, 533) The action described (v. 17) is the disfellowship of an unrepentant sinner from the community of believers, something which in turn is recognized in Heaven. This is the only context for this instruction. It does not even have tangible, earthly results; it is an issue of status.

Whether this was an irreversible procedure -- whether the apostasy was permanent -- is a topic reserved for our discussion on perseverance of the saints (link 1 below). However, Keener notes that "Jewish excommunication even in its long-term form was normally reversible if repentance took place".

Matthew 21:21-22 (also Matthew 7:7-8, John 14:13-14) -- This one might seem be more difficult to defend, as it mayu be charged that there's no context here to fall back on. But in fact, there is. Here are some considerations.

How realistic is it to think that this is a license to overturn topographical features? This is certainly an example of hyperbole, indeed, of the same sort used in Luke 14:26 (link 2 below). The phrase "moving mountains" was "a Jewish metaphor for accomplishing what was difficult or virtually impossible" and "points to the hyperbole of what is being said" (Hagner, 605) Later rabbis would ask for signs validating their views consisting of objects being uprooted.

At this point is would be fruitless to argue that this verse means that if you have faith, whatever you want will be done, maybe not mountain-moving, but surely big stuff of some kind. Some of our preachers may say, "If that thing you wanted didn't get done, you didn't have enough faith."

We may explain this by noting that the person with faith does not ask for that which God would not or does not will; prayer is a two-way street, not a request hotline for all that we want. This is not just a brush-off or a simplistic solution, but is grounded in the realities and thought of the time of the Bible. In Jewish thought, God was sovereign. Nothing happened that God did not permit or cause. "Early Jewish teaching did celebrate God's kindness in answering prayer, but rarely promises such universal answers to prayer to all of God's people as the language suggests." [Keener, 245]

Only a small number of sages were considered pious enough to ask for and receive whatever they wanted -- and that piety was their key indicates that they weren't going around asking for just anything they wanted (like Hanina ben Dosa, and Honi the Circle-Drawer), but only what they supposed to be in the will of God. "Such a call to believing prayer supposes a heart of piety submitted to God's will..."

Finally, let us note that limitations are clearly set by the context, in two ways. First: The Lord's Prayer instructs us to pray for daily needs (Matt. 6:11) -- it does not say, "Give us this day a Rolls Royce." Earthly children ask for bread or fish (7:9-10) which are "basic staples in the Palestinian diet" that were provided to children on a regular basis. We can ask for "good things" (7:11), a term which sometimes referred to prosperity generally, but also "referred to agricultural produce that the righteous would share with with others (Test. Iss. 3:7-8)."

Second, we need to come to these texts on their own semantic terms. When reading a passage like John 14 that we read (in modern English) as promising the moon, we need to factor in both ancient "dramatic orientation" (re: hyperbole, as above) as well as honor issues. Take this passage from Mark 6:

And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.

Now with a promise like this, if it were actually literal, one would have to assume that the girl's immediate answer would be along the lines of, "Okay, I'll take the north half, please." After all, with that kind of power, she could get her mother John the Baptist's head anyway. The answer is as I noted in an article on the above:

[Objection:] How could Herod pledge half his kingdom? That's obviously ridiculous, and it wasn't really his kingdom to give away -- it was Rome's....the "extravagant offer of an Oriental potentate excited by wine" [Hoehner, 150] would not likely be meant to be taken seriously anyway; certainly the girl didn't take it seriously...In fact, both statements are likely reflective of a proverbial pledge: "to offer a half of one's possessions was a favorite expression." (1 Kings 13:8, Luke 19:8) It simply meant that the person was exceedingly grateful and wished to bestow a generous reward.

By the same token, it is a decontextualization to take passages like these on prayer as literal promises that are to be taken advantage of. Promises like Herod's were made with the full understanding that they were dramatic hyperbole, not an ironclad, literal guarantee. That we may not want this to be true does not make it untrue, of course, and the desire for the comfort that a literal reading may provide is not a reason to preserve that reading. If the girl had gone on and asked for half the kingdom, it would have been considered shameful to have done so.

Consider as well this greeting I have noted elsewhere as typical for a Middle Easterner: "You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you may burn it if you wish. My children are also at your disposal; I would sacrifice them all for your pleasure."

How literal do we think that is meant to be? The answer: As literal as the "prayer promises" are. But you would hardly say, if the man didn't actually want you to burn his house down, that he was being unwelcoming; so there is no leave to say that unless God fulfills these "prayer promises" literally, He must be unloving.

This leads to 1 John 5:14-15, which was written to Gentile readers, and thus it is appropriate that John added the qualifying phrase, "according to his will" -- such a qualifier would have been unnecessary for Jesus' Jewish audience. It would go without saying that that mountain (even a literal one) would go nowhere without God's approval implied. Indeed, the rabbinic use of the same verbiage which we have noted confirms this. Matthew does indicate this limitation when he notes that the context is what is asked for in prayer -- thus limiting requests to what is within the will of God.

Now let's look at other verses sometimes cited to "prove" the inefficacy of prayer:

Luke 22:31-3 "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."

Since Peter's faith did "fail", the critics say, prayer must be worthless. Our arguments above suggest that the oibjection is misguided: If it was not in God's will to prop up Peter's faith, so be it; and one can hardly argue that things didn't turn out for the better. Peter's experience of failure undoubtedly was an experience that honed him into the powerhouse that he became.

Even so, this prayer did not fail -- the word "fail" (ekleipo), used only three times, twice in Luke and in Hebrews once, refers to a quite permanent condition (Luke 16:9 And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.; Hebrews 1:12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.) Peter's courage left him, but he never actually stopped believing in Jesus -- indeed, the passage assumes he will have a failure of some kind, and then turn around ("converted" -- the word is used to mean turning around).

So we are left with this: These passages are not mantras to get anything we want, and should not be used as such.

-JPH

Links

  1. here
  2. here

Sources

  • Keener, commentary on Matthew, 454ff.