Years ago I met a man who’s mother had died of cancer.
She had attended a word-faith sort of church that put a great emphasis on praying in faith and seeking physical healing.
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Sadly, her healing did not come and she passed away.
At her funeral, the pastor honoured the woman, but also rebuked the attendees, stating in no uncertain terms that if that people of God had just had more faith, had just believed more, then this woman would still be alive today.
Her son, the man I met, was understandably crushed and furious about this. Was this really his fault? He had prayed a lot! He felt he had faith! Had he not believed hard enough? Was his mother’s death really on him and his family for not having enough faith?
He walked away from Jesus and from church for many years, and was just beginning to come back and explore and engage again when I met him. He was still badly wounded and rattled by the experience, and had lots of questions.
A key one was this:
Does a person’s lack of faith limit Jesus’ ability to work in their lives?
It is an important question!
If true, then if Jesus doesn’t answer prayers, one of the key reasons would have to be that we can bring it on ourselves, and that it is indeed our fault for not believing enough.
If untrue, than it is an unholy and ungodly guilt trip of a burden being laid upon people, and so the answer to this is crucial.
But where does the idea even come from? Why do some believe that our lack of faith affects Jesus’ ability to answer prayers?
While there are a few places that hint at it, a key text would be this passage from Matthew:
54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” (Mt 13.54-58)
So a simple reading would certainly lead us to the conclusion that our faith (or lack of it) can indeed affect Jesus’ work in our lives.
Mark’s version of the story includes the line, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” (Mk 6.5)
So Jesus did not, and apparently could not, do many miracles in that place, and the lack of faith of the people was apparently the reason.
So is it fair to say that when God doesn’t answer our prayers, our lack of faith is the cause?
It’s possible – but as with all things, context is key.
What is the “lack of faith” of the people in this story?
It’s crucial to note that these are not believers, coming to God, perhaps struggling with doubt in the midst of a trial.
If our struggles with doubt eliminated us from God’s work, He would be a weak God indeed.
In this biblical story, it is not that these people struggle with their faith in Jesus.
It’s that they really don’t believe in Jesus at all.
It’s not a faith struggling against doubt; it’s a rejection of faith entirely. They can’t get their heads around the fact that someone they grew up with could actually be the Messiah.
In another story, the father of a demon-possessed man came to Jesus for help, and the father acknowledged his lack of faith and struggle to believe, famously saying “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24).
Isn’t that just one of the most relatable phrases ever?
“I do have faith – but Lord, help me in my doubt!”
And even though this man struggled, Jesus did not refuse his request – the man’s son was delivered and set free. Jesus was not limited at all by this man’s belief and unbelief living side-by-side.
So to suggest that our struggles or moments of doubt or lack of full faith cause Jesus to turn His back on us in our need is biblically misinformed.
The people in Jesus’ hometown were rejecting Him as Messiah – they didn’t believe in who He was – so of course they wouldn’t come to Him seeking miracles. That would be why so few happened.
When sincere people who struggled with faith met Jesus throughout the Gospels, He met them with compassion.
To suggest that one’s prayers weren’t answered because they didn’t believe hard enough is dangerous.
It puts an unholy burden on people’s shoulders, and piles on the guilt and shame when things don’t go the way we prayed for.
Why do our prayers not always get answered?
There are no doubt many possible reasons, and perhaps that is a column for another time.
But let us never burden people with the unbiblical and unChristlike pressure that their ability or inability to believe hard enough is the reason that God did or didn’t answer prayers.
It is simply not faithful to the Gospel text, nor the good God who inspired it.
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