Mark 11: 23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. (KJV)
C. S. Lewis had a problem with passages like this. He felt that one could not generally observe them coming true. He wrote an essay asking people to let him know if they understood what the Lord was getting at in making such extravagant promises.
St. Jack, as I like to affectionately call him, could speak with great certainty much of the time because he was a giant in the science of formal logic. He knew what he knew and what he did not know. When he did not know a thing, he properly said so, or expressed an uncertain but likely possibility. I admire his measured and sober way with the facts.
In this case, he really could not understand the issue and outright said so.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this, but in the end these things come by a flash of insight sometimes, and not by exegetical labors.
I believe the answer is something like this. The Lord is not encouraging his disciples to force themselves to believe that they will get anything it comes into their heads to ask for. He is not asking them to achieve certainty in every prayer they utter beginning immediately. They are not to simply decide to be certain – that never works.
Rather, Jesus is describing a spiritual state into which a person can enter. Within that state, people receive “yes” answers to prayers with predictable regularity.
What is this state? The Lord describes certainty here. But certainty doesn’t come unless knowledge has arrived first. In other words, we only know something when we have been reliably told that it is true.
I believe the Lord is telling us that in a certain spiritual state, we can know what we should ask for in prayer, because God speaks to us wordlessly in our spirit and lets us know that he will give us that thing if we ask for it. Then, if we do so, we will be given what we ask. Because God is closer to us than any “other” can ever be, this knowledge both comes from within us, and from a place deeper than ourselves.
This condition is a complementary condition. Faith rises in response to God’s call. Certainty follows inspiration, not willfulness.
Learning to pray like Jesus begins with the training prayer, ever profound – Our Father. It proceeds to this, the cultivation of cooperative unity with God.
Attempting to fulfill such scripture promises as this without going through that process of cultivation results in some very bad situations. People try to arrive at certainty through force, or they self-hypnotize or delude themselves to achieve something that feels like belief to them. Then they ask for something that seems good to them – but their judgment is off. Sometimes they even receive what they ask for in such a state, but often the results aren’t good – which is frightening.
In general, learning to be like a child, like a spiritual beggar, comes first before any great feats of faith such as throwing mountains into the sea.
In the meanwhile, we are free to be honest with God about what we need and want, and then like ordinary people we have to be satisfied with whatever answer we receive.
Yet there is a mystery about this. Why does God want us to pray if he is just going to tell us what to pray for? Why not simply give us what he wants to give us?
Here is the really important thing about prayer. Here is the way in which our part simply cannot be done without. God, who does not ask us to be forceful with ourselves, is not forceful with us or our circumstances, either. This is why it is said in the scriptures that Christ the Lord stands at our door, our own little door, and knocks.
It comes to this: much of the point of prayer is, that prayer is our consent for God to enter into our lives, into the world, into the Body Human, and work effectively there without force.
And so, even in our ordinary barely spiritual state, we have the freedom to simply open the door, as a way of prayer, instead of asking for things. Asking for things, perhaps, is not so much an immature preoccupation as a mature ability.