Prayers Bold Enough to Go Unanswered

After church, our men and women would linger in the parking lot while the kids played in the lawn next to the white-framed building where we gathered for worship. One Sunday after church, I remember very clearly a group of men gathering and talking as they looked at Buffalo Mountain, which was located about half a mile north of our church building. Screen Shot 2019-12-07 at 9.58.07 AM

One of the men shook his head in wonder and said, “Can you believe it? If we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could move that mountain.” We had just heard a sermon referencing Matthew 17:20 in the service which had just dismissed. I remember the sense of wonder and amazement in the man’s voice even to this day.

Years later, in seminary, I was introduced to “more sophisticated” readings of Scripture. And since that parking lot experience, I have heard a variety of theories about what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” However, none of those theories contain the awe and wonder of a handful of men and women in a gravel parking lot trying to enlarge their faith to embrace the vibrant expectancy of Scripture.

Over the years, I’ve made the conscious decision that when I err, I’m going to err on the side of expectancy. I’m going to err on the side of taking Scripture to heart, even when my personal experience has yet to match the expectations or experiences revealed in the Bible. Some will scoff and call me a biblical fundamentalist or literalist. I’ll take those labels, in spite of their inaccuracy, in exchange for living with the expansive hope formed by taking Scripture to heart. I’ll take that every day of the week over sterile objectivity. I’d rather approach God’s word with awe and wonder than to approach it like a freshman biology student approaching a frog with a microscope and scalpel.

When we approach scripture with our hearts wide open, and an active expectancy, we are more likely to experience the reality described in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, states, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” There is a simplicity in believing that when Jesus says we must forgive our enemies, that’s what he means. There is a simplicity in believing that when Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” that the man’s ankles inexplicably strengthened and straightened and he leapt to his feet, “walking, and jumping and praising God!”

Early on in my ministry, I went to the house of a family where the husband had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. The wife asked me to pray, and I prayed the perfectly sterile prayer of a newly minted pastor. I asked God to “be with them” and “bless them” and a number of things that would be true whether or not I had actually prayed. After I finished, the wife said, “but we wanted you to pray that he’d be healed!” I was struck to the heart. I realized that the low expectations of my prayer were grounded in my fear of how I would look if the prayer didn’t happen just as I’d hoped. At that moment, I decided that I would choose to pray with boldness, trusting that God is big enough to handle the disappointment if things don’t turn out exactly as I pray.

Unsurprisingly, for those of us who stubbornly believe the Bible is true, prayers for healing often lead to healing. Prayers for provision and transformation often lead to those very things.  If I had any advice to offer myself as a young pastor when it comes to prayer, it would be this: cast off your fear. Take God at his word. Pray prayers bold enough they could go unanswered!

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