Purging Barren Prayer

Prayer for the Christian is one of those subjects about which discussion is akin to holding water with your hand. We are told in Scripture that we should pray, and without ceasing, and not to be seen by men, and with faith in God. We are not told, however, how often we should pray, how long we should sit there, what posture to assume, or what elements should be included in each prayer.

Teaching prayer, then, must be done while steering between the Scylla of legalism (requiring things that aren’t required) and the Charybdis of license (acting as if believers don’t need to pray).

In Mark 11:22-25 Jesus takes an occasion to tell his disciples something about prayer after he has cursed the fig tree, which is symbolic of the eventual withering of the Temple in Jewish life. Peter has expressed marvel that the fig tree is withered, and Jesus tells them that their faith should be in God, and that they should expect to receive anything they ask of God.

If we aren’t careful, this passage might lead us to a name-it-and-claim-it or believe-it-and-receive-it view of blessing, as if God were a cosmic bellhop waiting to fulfill our desire for a new Cadillac or high-paying job. That we know is not true. God didn’t rush to take the cup away from Christ, and he didn’t remove the thorn as Paul requested. He doesn’t promise to freshen your coffee and fetch your slippers.

Boldness. Prayer to a great God who sent a perfect Messiah to establish a radical kingdom should be bold. And by bold I don’t mean going one step further to ask for leather seats in our new Cadillac, but requesting of God that the kingdom come with even greater results. The immediate context of Jesus’ teaching is the withered fig tree and the promise of an obsolete Temple: pray accordingly.

Expectation. Prayer is informed by, permeated with, and reliant upon faith in God. When we pray boldly for great things to occur in the advancement of the kingdom, we should expect that God is able and willing to accomplish his glory.

Forgiveness. Even bold prayer to a great God with expectation that he will honor requests that advance his glory should be characterized by humility. And what better tool to increase our humility than to forgive those who have wronged us? We can’t well pray for the advancement of the kingdom — which brings reconciliation with God through Christ — while harboring our own warfare with our enemies.

Prayer, as we see in the rest of the New Testament, is more than these things, but it is certainly not less. How rich our prayer — and how glorified our God — when we follow Christ in his example of prayer.

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