Is it true that whatever you pray for, you’ll receive it if you have enough faith? Jesus seems to say so. “[W]hatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will,” he tells Peter and the Twelve (Mark 11.24).
These words followed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While hungry, he spotted a fig tree. But after looking over its barren branches in vain, Jesus cursed the tree. The next day, as the disciples walk by, Peter noticed the poor thing, dried up and shriveled.
“Master,” said Peter, “look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered” (v. 21).
“Have faith in God,” responded Jesus, adding:
Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will. (vv. 22-24)
Whatever you ask? Many Christians look at this text as an invitation to pray for practically anything, assuming that with ample faith they are sure to receive it. So, how much do you want that Mercedes?
Don’t get carried away. Jesus’ words should condition how we read this passage and consequently what we pray for. In Mark’s gospel, just one chapter prior, Jesus instructed the rich young ruler to dispose of his earthly wealth to gain eternal life. In the same chapter, Jesus rebuked James and John for seeking worldly power.
Given these two encounters, it makes no sense to pray for earthly wealth or worldly power. Jesus directs us toward wholehearted pursuit of the kingdom and instructs us to seek greater service, not greater position. It insults the intelligence to think Jesus would turn around and say that anything we want — including earthly power and wealth — is accessible by faith. Some things are counter to faith by their very nature.
The Lord’s Prayer offers us the same impression. “Daily bread” points back to Israel’s manna, which was only good for the day. We ask God for what is immediately needful, not for anything we find exciting, empowering, or otherwise life-enhancing. (Some interpreters narrow the request to only spiritual matters, particularly the eucharist.)
Jesus’ teaching on expecting what we ask by faith is clearly conditioned by other things he says. It’s not an open-ended invitation. The fact that we who live in a materialistic age think it means we can ask for materialistic things only shows that our culture speaks to us more loudly than the Scriptures.