The question of faith is crucial to all of Jesus’s teaching. But it is especially significant in this passage. Its significance is highlighted by the threefold repetition “have faith in God” (mark 11:22), “does not doubt . . . but believes” (11:23), and “whatever you ask . . . , believe that you have received it” (11:24). Clearly, faith is essential to answered prayer, but in precisely what way? And even more basic questions tug at us here: What is faith? How is it defined? How may we recognize it when we see it? Or must we simply wait to see if our prayers are answered and then draw our own conclusions?
Mark 11:22 opens a Pandora’s box of complex questions about faith. First, this verse is noteworthy because the expression translated “have faith in God” is unique in the New Testament. Jesus asks disciples to place their faith in God’s power and to remember that the outcome of prayer is dependent on God’s ability not ours. Precisely what the disciple is to believe about the power of God is that “with him all things are possible” (10:27; 14:36). The disciple is told to believe, first, “that what he says happens” (11:23), and, second, “that you have received” “whatever you asked for” (11:24). Generally, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the language of faith signifies trust or confidence in the power of God demonstrated through Jesus and/or his disciples (matthew 8:10, 13; 9:28–29; mark 2:5; 5:34, 36; 10:52; luke 1:45; 17:19; cf. acts 27:25; romans 4:17–21).6 The encouragement to “believe that” refers to the fact that God has the power to perform the current request.
In other words, Christian prayer presupposes a very specific worldview, one that affirms that if certain prayers are not answered, it is not because the requests are beyond God’s ability. When we pray, we must come to God confidently believing that “with him all things are possible.” He is the Creator who can restart whatever has stopped, terminate whatever has begun, or redirect anything in process. Faith in this context requires that we embrace the conviction, especially in prayer, that God can still work miracles.
Potential answers are not affected by the volume or strength of our faith. This is apparent for two reasons. First of all, translations that render Mark 11:22 as a conditional statement: “if you have faith in God,” are following a less likely translation of the original Greek. Those few translations that translate “if” may be influenced by Luke 17:6. Also, the phrase following in Mark 11:23 begins with “amen” or “truly,” depending on the version of Scripture. Together, these two considerations indicate that Jesus did not say, “If you have such faith, then your prayers will be answered.” Rather, he makes a straightforward exhortation, “Have faith in God! Pray. You will be answered!” The volume or quality of faith is not at issue.
The Condition of Doubt
Similarly, the reference to doubt in Mark 11:23 does not establish a link between possible answers and the quality of one’s faith. Jesus says, “Do not doubt, but believe.” The “but” serves to link the two verbs (“doubt” and “believe”) as alternatives. The command is “not A but B.” In other words, choose. You can have A or B, doubt or faith, but not both simultaneously. In this context, there is no suggestion that faith and doubt make up varying degrees of our belief. To have faith is to refuse to doubt.
The phrase “not doubt” is not intended to describe an especially strong faith, a faith strong enough to see miracles, as opposed to a weak faith that is haunted by doubt and cannot see miracles. Rather, not doubting is the very definition of faith. A faith willing to ask for miracles, however tentatively, is the faith that will one day see miracles. The doubter suspects that God does not have the power to do the impossible. Allowing doubts to shape our behavior is to reject the worldview promoted by Jesus. Consequently, the doubter fails to pray—or at least refuses to ask God for miracles. After all, many people pray daily, but they seem to have no real confidence in God’s ability or at least his willingness to act in ways that go beyond the natural order of things. According to 11:22–24, such prayers are not prayers of faith but of doubt. Prayers that do not anticipate at least the possibility of the miraculous are prayers made in unbelief.
Are There Any Guarantees?
We should not ignore the two promises guaranteeing God’s affirmative response to faithful prayer in Mark 11:23–24. In each verse, the possibility of miraculous answers to any and every prayer is apparently held out to anyone who asks in faith: “Whoever says to this mountain, ‘Rise up and be thrown into the sea’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. . . . Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be done for you” (my translation). Do not these words assure us that, as long as the request is made with genuine faith, anyone (whoever) is free to ask for anything (whatever) and that person is guaranteed a positive response from God? It certainly sounds that way. Caveats intended to moderate such a wholesale promise have already been unmasked as illegitimate readings of the passage. There are no conditional (if/then) clauses, no evaluations of greater or lesser faith (with or without doubt), only a straightforward promise that God will continue to perform the impossible for those who believe and ask.
Yet, it’s a simple fact of life that many people have desperately sought supernatural intervention in their lives only to be sorely disappointed. How are we to understand Mark’s seemingly blanket assurance that prayers for miracles will always receive positive answers? Several factors must be taken into consideration.
First, perhaps the simplistic nature of the saying is a rhetorical device intended to heighten the seriousness of cultivating faith in divine possibilities, particularly in the face of our tendency to disbelieve. The concrete images of mountains and fig trees have sometimes been made into metaphors for the broader reality that God is still at home in his world, living, moving, and even rearranging the furniture regularly. The withered fig tree illustrates the promise of moving a specific mountain—an image that suggests how deeply believers should expect the miraculous. Likewise, the apparent guarantee of every mountain being moved by any and every prayer is an encouragement to look for miracles, no matter how many rocky peaks we must climb. Cynicism is the enemy of faith, the root rot of prayer.
Second, the emphatic assurances of Mark 11:23–24 are made with the future tense of the verb “to be.” It is not unusual for the future (“it will be”) to be used as an imperative (“it must be”). In fact, this is the usual way of reading these verses. But they can also be read for what they are, the future tense. One possible way to understand this promise is that Mark intends to remind his readers that the final fulfillment of all God’s miraculous promises awaits the fulfillment of his kingdom. After all, the context for this promise of miraculous intervention is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, the beginning of the “end of the age” with Jesus, and his coming death.
Jesus’s death demonstrates that sometimes the mountain first crushes before it is removed. It will be gone, but not just yet. Miracles do not always happen precisely as we had hoped. Often the promises of faith appear only as vague images on the horizon of a distant tomorrow. Our requests have been heard and answered, but the arrival of pertinent answers is subject to the time frame of God’s “already/ but not yet” kingdom—Jesus has come, but he is yet to come; Jesus brought the end, but we await the end; Jesus brought salvation, but we wait to be fully saved. Pray for miracles, believing that your petitions have been heard and that God has already responded, but some answers arrive sooner than others—some in our lifetimes, others at the end of the age.
Some will balk at these suggestions, insisting that the verbs retain their imperatival sense and that this is a promise of answers given now. This view, however, leaves us with the frustrating questions of apparently unanswered prayers and of miracles that never arrive: How can the assurances of Mark 11:23–24 fit the believer’s real-life experience? Can any of us honestly say that we have literally received every miracle we have ever requested? Did our desperation make any difference?
Final answers to such questions require that we first look at the connections between faith, prayer, and the divine will, especially as they unfold throughout the ministry of Jesus. His life offers the greatest example of human existence directed by faith in God’s ability to perform the impossible.
No, I did not try to explain these interpretive issues to my friend Gary as he shared the thinning optimism of his prayers for healing with my evening Bible study class. Perhaps I should have, but I doubt it. He was continuing to pray; he still believed in God’s power to perform miracles, and I had no way of knowing what God’s future plans might entail. I would have been more inclined to do so had I detected some whiff of spiritual exhaustion or a cancerous cynicism about prayer in general. For those are the principal dangers of the typical misunderstanding that Gary brought to this passage. Prayer is not magic, and there is no blanket promise, no faith formula, to guarantee God’s granting any and every petition if only the one praying will believe. I pray that that much is clear.
According to Mark 11:12–26, prayer is the expression of faith, and faith is the only means of relationship with God. The way a person talks with God and what one is willing to ask of him reflect on the reality or the illusion of that person’s faith commitment.
The unbelieving temple leaders of Jesus’s day were replaced by (and find fulfillment in) the tenacious community of believing disciples. We—members of the Christian church—will never surrender true faith in Jesus Christ. We will never give up believing that the Father of our Lord has made us members of the family of God. No amount of opposition from any source, religious or secular, will be able to hinder the ever-expanding circle of salvation engulfing this world through the invincible kingdom of God. The principal expression of such faith are the continued prayers that our heavenly Father work in those ways that only he can work. Prayers offered with the knowledge that each new moment may easily provide the long-awaited miracle. We may not be able to predict particular outcomes, but we do live as those who know that our heavenly Father “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (ephesians 3:20).
7 Rudolph Bultmann, “∏ ιστεύω” Vol. 6 in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Edited by G. Kittle and G. Frriedrch. Translated by G. W. Bromily, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968), 206.