Whole Heart Prayer
by Joshua M. McNall
Some of the New Testament’s most memorable statements against doubt come in the context of prayer. And a few of these passages might appear to lend credence to the prosperity gospel’s claim that Scripture guarantees wish fulfillment in exchange for mental certainty.
After the cursing of a fig tree, Christ implores his followers to “have faith in God” (Mk 11:22):
Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and does not doubt [mē diakrithē] in their heart but believes [pisteuē] that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mk 11:23‑24; cf. Mt 21:21‑22; Lk 17:6)
In addressing this question, my goal is not to craft a comprehensive theology of prayer or miracles. Rather, it is to explore why the Scriptures speak negatively of this kind of doubt. For starters, Christ’s call to faith (Mk 11:22) is best seen as a demand for trusting allegiance to God rather than as a call for mere belief in God’s existence. The “doubt” word that follows is pisteuē, which means “to be in conflict with oneself,” with one judgment pulling this way while the next pulls in opposition. We have here the first instance of negative doubt referring to a divided heart (kardia; Mk 11:23). Yet why is Jesus concerned with conflicting judgments as we pray?
One answer is that Christ desires disciples to trust not only God’s greatness (what he can do) but also his goodness (what he wants to do). After all, “if you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11). From this perspective, the divided heart is not merely an impediment to answered prayer but a roadblock to our delight and trust in God.
If our fervent prayers go unanswered, should we then chalk them up to vestiges of doubt? I think not. Earlier in Mark, Christ answers the prayer of a father who is open about his mixture of belief and unbelief (Mk 9:24). And still later in the prayer in Gethsemane, Christ learns that it is not possible for the cup to pass from him while simultaneously accomplishing the Father’s plan (Mt 26:39). Hence, he willingly sets aside his initial prayer request—not because of a divided, doubt-filled heart but because of a singular commitment to the Father’s will. Prayer’s task is not to conjure mental certainty in exchange for wish fulfillment but to submit one’s whole heart (kardia) to God’s salvific agenda. Jesus demonstrates this perfect submission and perfect allegiance.
Taken from Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism by Joshua M. McNall. Copyright © 2021 by Joshua M. McNall. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.