Mark 11:23–24—Did Jesus promise to give literally anything we ask in faith?

Problem: On the face of it, this verse seems to be saying that God will grant any request we make of Him as long as we believe. On the other hand, Paul asked God three times to be relieved of his thorn in the flesh, and God refused (2 Cor. 12:8–9)

Solution: There are limitations on what God will give, indicated both by the context and by other texts, as well as by the laws of God’s own nature and the universe.

First of all, God cannot literally give us anything. Some things are actually impossible. For example, God cannot grant a request of a creature to be God. Neither can He answer a request to approve of our sin. God will not give us a stone if we ask for bread, nor will He give us a serpent if we ask for fish (cf. Matt. 7:9–10).

Second, the context of Jesus’ promise in Mark 11 indicates that it was not unconditional, for the very next verse says “If you ... forgive” your brother then God will forgive your trespasses. Thus, there is no reason to believe that Jesus intended us to take His promise to give us “whatever things” we ask without any conditions.

Third, all difficult passages should be interpreted in harmony with other clear statements of Scripture. And it is clear that God does not promise, for example, to heal everyone for whom we pray in faith. Paul wasn’t healed, though he prayed earnestly and faithfully (2 Cor. 12:8–9). Jesus taught that it was not the blind man’s lack of faith that hindered his being healed. Rather, he was born blind “that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3). In spite of the Apostle Paul’s divine ability to heal others (Acts 28:9), later he apparently could not heal either Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25ff) or Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20). It clearly was not unbelief that brought Job’s sickness on him (Job 1:1). What is more, if faith of the recipient were the condition for receiving a miracle, then none of the dead Jesus raised would have come back to life, since the dead cannot believe!

Finally, when the rest of Scripture is taken into consideration there are many conditions placed on God’s promise to answer prayer in addition to faith. We must “abide in Him” and let His Word “abide in us” (John 15:7). We cannot “ask amiss” out of our own selfishness (James 4:3). Furthermore, we must ask “according to His will” (1 John 5:14). Even Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup [His death] pass from Me” (Matt. 26:39). Indeed, on all except God’s unconditional promises, this “if it be your will” must always be stated or implied. For prayer is not a means by which God serves us. Rather, it is a means by which we serve God. Prayer is not a means by which we get our will done in heaven, but a means by which God gets His will done on earth.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.