Today we look at one more “Loose End”, one more verse that we don’t really think much about, but that you sometimes will see groups who base their whole worldview on — Mark 11:23-24. You will see this verse referenced by the “name it and claim it” crowd, but also by some new-agers who have read the book “The Secret.”
Greg started out by telling us about what a strange child he was. Among other strange beliefs and behaviors, he believed he was a secret superhero called SuperBoy. He even wore a “super-suit” under his clothes, just in case he was needed to save someone during school.
But one problem with his belief was that he could not fly, and if he was really a superhero, he should be able to fly. He tried and tried but he couldn’t. He had to explain this to himself somehow, and so he figured he just didn’t believe it enough. So one night he heard a siren, and decided this was his chance. He put on his super-suit and went outside thinking he would fly out and help whoever needed him. He took a running start, arms out and eyes to the sky to go up, up and away — and landed flat on his face.
Perhaps, unfortunately for us mere mortals, at this point Greg figured out he probably was not actually a superhero. But there is a significant population of Christians and new-agers that would say that his idea of faith — if you believe enough it will become real– was right on.
The book that New Age believers reference a lot, The Secret, teaches that if you want something, it starts with believing that you already have it, and when you do this, the thing you desire will inevitably “manifest”. You might be more familiar with the Christian version of this, called Positive Confession or Word of Faith, but it’s the same thing. *Believe* strongly enough and it will happen.
Both base their thinking on a view of prayer, and on this verse in particular: Mark 11:23-24.
“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
If we take this verse literally, it seems like if Greg had just had enough faith that he could fly, then SuperBoy could have flown! The only reason he fell on his face is because he didn’t believe enough!
This is a dangerous faith, because it tends to blame the victim. If you are not healed, or if you lost your child, or if your spouse left you, it’s because you did not believe strongly enough. This teaching/belief has a disastrous effect on the faith of people who have suffered loss.
It can also prevent people from coming to terms with reality, like the story he told of a guy he knew in college whose eyesight was so bad he was legally blind, but he fell in with a “positive confession” group like this. He took off his glasses and started declaring to everyone that he had 20/20 vision. He obviously didn’t. He walked into things, couldn’t see the board in class, and got into 4 car accidents in 4 months!
In addition to being a dangerous belief, this is also not what we see elsewhere in the Bible.
Even if we start out right in this verse itself, if you read it literally, he says, “Believe you have already received it” but if you really believed that, then you wouldn’t be praying for it in the first place.
There are other conflicting prescriptions for successful prayer elsewhere. In Luke 18 Jesus tells us to pray with persistence. Jesus says to be like this widow, and be persistent with your prayer. Of course we can’t/wouldn’t be persistent if we believed we already had received it.
In Mark 8 there is a blind man. Jesus places mud on his eye then asks him, “Can you see?” And the guy basically responds, “sort of but not really.” So Jesus prays again and the healing is complete. But if Jesus had believed he had already received what he was praying for, he would not have needed to ask the man if he could see, he would have simply declared it to be so.
In Matthew 18:20 we see Jesus telling people that when 2-3 are gathered together in his name, he will be there with them. But why would you need 2-3 if you just needed to believe?
Usually Jesus’ faith was enough to heal, but in Mark 6:4-5, he couldn’t perform miracles because the people in the town all disbelieved, so here it seems to be different yet again by saying that bystanders could potentially interfere with prayer/miracles.
In several other passages we are told to pray according to God’s will. So here it is not just because you want it and has nothing to do with whether you believe it or not, but only if it is God’s will.
And still elsewhere we see prayer portrayed like it is a form of spiritual warfare, like when Jesus cast out “Legion,” against which there is demonic or spiritual pushback. Spiritual forces can affect the outcome of prayer.
So what should we take from all of this? As we have learned throughout this whole series, don’t focus on one passage and make that a formula, don’t base your whole belief in one obscure verse. We need a whole council of scripture to understand any topic. The last thing we should do is focus on one passage and make that into a formula. That is not faith, that is called magic — taking all of the complexities of reality and reducing it down to one formula.
It’s helpful to step back and remember what faith is:
Faith is [the] substantiating (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the conviction (elenchos) of things not seen.
Substantiating means making concrete or solid, something you hope for. The more concretely you conceive of the thing that you are praying for, the more vividly you can see it in your mind’s eye, and the more conviction it creates in your heart. This, in turn, is what motivates us to walk toward that direction.
Imagine the kitchen of your dreams. Imagining this dream kitchen naturally makes you feel less satisfied with your current kitchen. And it creates a desire in you that then motivates you to redo your kitchen. We see this in sports all the time: The gymnast who runs through their whole routine perfectly in their mind before doing it, or the basketball player who visualizes himself making the basket before he throws the free-throw. The vision of what we wish for begins in our mind and that creates a feeling of conviction and confidence that it can happen, and causes us to act in a certain way.
What it is NOT is a guarantee. Reality does not originate or exist solely in our mind. (This may sound obvious but some worldviews believe just that). Seeing it in your mind is just a vision that creates movement toward that outcome. It may not come to pass, but one thing that is certain is that you will not get any of what you hope for if you don’t have this first step of faith first. We need to visualize it and this gets us pushing in that direction.
In James 5:16 we are told that prayer is powerful and effective. Because regardless of outcome, regardless of the amount of direct control we may even have over a situation, every prayer leaves a situation “more kingdomized” than it was before.
Prayer alone does not guarantee that miracles will come to pass. Remember there are an infinite number of forces, wills and variables that influence outcomes, every past and future decision, every flap of a butterfly’s wings, and human/spiritual forces that can interfere. But our job is not to guarantee outcomes. It is only to push in that direction, to advocate for God’s will.
Paul holds up some heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:13-14
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.”
Faith is getting a vision and walking in a certain direction toward that vision. These people were heroes of faith because they kept moving in a direction despite what actual life was like.
So now when we look at Mark 11:23-24 again, one initial thing we might notice is that moving mountains seems like a rather strange example doesn’t it? If this is literal, who would want to move a mountain? It could cause chaos. What if someone else wanted to use their faith to climb it? Plus you’d think someone would have already done it if it was possible.
This is absurd of course because this is not intended as a literal promise. In fact, Jesus did not even originate the saying. Moving mountains into the sea was a common phrase in 1st century, it was intentionally hyperbolic in order to make a point. It is more of a metaphor — a way of saying that something has an “almost as if” quality.
So when we re-read this now, we could interpret it as saying it’s “almost as if” you believe that you have already received it.
Compare this now with the definition of faith from Hebrews 11:1.
If we read this less as a prescription and instead as a metaphor, read it like “almost as if,” then Mark 11 and Hebrews 11 are effectively saying the same thing. Visualize the thing you hope for, and it will be “almost as if” it has already come to pass, and this will create the conviction in you to begin moving in that direction.
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