Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Can" or "Will"

            “When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. . . .
            Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’ 
            ‘From childhood,’ he answered.  ‘. . . But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’
            “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus.  ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’
            Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.’”  (Mark 9:20-24)

            “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’”  (Matthew 8:2)

            “If you can” verses “If you are willing.”  These are two very different things.  One comes from a place of doubt, wondering if Jesus is really that powerful and if He can do what we are asking Him to do.  And one comes from a place of hope and trust, knowing that He can do anything we ask but that He might not and we will have to trust that He has His reasons.
            Jesus tells the first man that “Everything is possible for him who believes.”  If we don’t believe that Jesus can do something, we don’t ask.  We don’t persevere in prayer.  We don’t take any steps in faith.  Because we’ve already decided that it’s not really possible for Him.  And our unbelief prevents us from getting His help.
            Mark 6:5-6: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” 
            Jesus could not do miracles in that town because the people didn’t believe He could!

            But if we pray “if You are willing,” then we ask in hope that He can do it but in trust that He knows which answer is best.  It’s “Not my will, but Yours be done.”  We ask, sometimes passionately and persistently, but we allow Him to answer as He decides. 
            This is the balance between unbelief and “name it and claim it” prayer.  It’s knowing that everything is possible if we believe, but that Jesus never said everything is probable or guaranteed. 
            I think we get this wrong a lot.  At least, I do.  And it hurts my faith.  I hear verses like, “Nothing will be impossible for you [if you have faith]” (Matthew 17:20) and “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27) and it sounds like as long as I have enough faith, I will get whatever I pray for.  (Couple this with verses that say things like “you will get whatever you ask for if you believe that you’ll get it” and you can see why it’s easy to fall into the “name it and claim it” view of prayer.)  But then when it doesn’t happen, I question myself, my faith, and my God. 
            But “possible” does not mean “probable.”  It means “it can happen,” not “it will happen.”  And I think we need to remember that it all comes down to “if You are willing.” 
            I have heard people say that adding “if it be Your Will” to our prayers waters down the “faith power” we have in them.  It dilutes God’s promises to do anything we ask for in faith, making it so that it won’t happen. 
            But I think even Jesus illustrated for us the idea that all requests need to end in “if it be Your Will.”  He asked three times, with sweat of blood, that the cross be removed from Him, but in the end He humbly submitted Himself to God, saying “Not my will, but Yours be done.”  He knew He could ask for anything, that nothing is impossible for God, but that ultimately it’s about if God Wills it or not.
            Maybe I am diluted the “faith power” I have in prayer, I don’t know.  But I do not think those verses mean that we will get whatever we believe we will get in prayer.  There is always an “if He wills it,” even if we don’t use those words.  
             “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”  (James 4:13-15)  This is not talking about prayer, per se, but the principle of  “not assuming that we know exactly what God will do or allow” is there.    
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears it.  And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.”  (1 John 5:14-15)
            We can pray all we want about everything, trusting that God can do whatever we ask.  But according to this passage, He gives us what we have asked from Him when He hears our prayers . . . but the prayers that He “hears” are the ones that are in line with His Will. 
            I don’t know if that means He doesn’t really “hear” the prayers that are not in line with His Will, but I do know it means that we can be confident that when it is His Will, He will do it.

            “If You are willing” is petitioning God in faith, but not presuming how He will or should answer.  God is a mysterious God, far above our understanding and plans and manipulation.  He has reasons for allowing things to happen to us and for answering the way He does.  And if we ask and He doesn’t do it, we can trust that it wasn’t His Will and that there are reasons why it wasn’t His Will.  Reasons we might not understand.  But this is where faith really comes in.  Not in expecting Him to do whatever we ask just because we think He will, but in learning to trust that He is a faithful, good, wise Father even when He says “no.”    
            But while He might not do whatever we want Him to do, we need to still ask and believe that He can do it if He chooses to, because unbelief stunts our prayers from the very beginning. 

            I think that being too doubtful or afraid to pray honestly about all of our concerns usually stems not from doubts about His abilities but about His love and care for us.  We wonder if our situation really matters to Him.  If He is really listening to us.  If He really loves us for the messed-up people we are.  And we fear a “no” answer because are afraid that we might just find out that He doesn’t really care, isn’t really listening, and that He can’t be trusted and lets us fall flat on our faces.  And so we are afraid to ask. 
            In these situations – when our “if You can” means “Do You really care?” - the best prayer might just be “Help me overcome my unbelief!”
            “Help me believe that You are a good, loving, involved God who can do the impossible, but who can be trusted if You choose not to.”
            And sometimes, He helps us overcome our unbelief precisely by not giving us what we ask for:  by causing us to take our focus off of what we want and to put it on Him, by causing us to desire Him more than the things He can give, by helping us find our joy in Him and in finding out that His grace is sufficient and that He is enough for us instead of finding our joy in getting what we want.  He helps us overcome our unbelief not by giving us things to make us “happy”, but by giving us more of Himself, by carrying us through the hard times (even though He won’t take them away), and by making something beautiful out of the messes. 
            Sometimes, not answering our prayers the way we want is when we grow most in our understanding of just what a big, mysterious, sovereign, wise, powerful God He is.  And He becomes more to us than just a Vending Machine.  And we learn to trust Him, in the “yes” and in the “no” answers.  And our faith matures!  And we begin to believe in Him for the God that He is, not for the God we want Him to be!

Has mixing up “can” and “will” affected your faith before?  How do you see these verses?