Life would be so much simpler were it not for the Bible. There are, of course, the obvious difficulties that Scripture gives us—all that about loving God and loving your neighbor, which is easy to say and impossible to do—but even within the broad brushstrokes of a Christian life, I can’t help but reflect that it would have been much easier if God had just given us the Nicene Creed and a brief primer on Christian life and let us work everything else out from there.
For example, take prayer. If I were setting out to found Christianity (and I’m very glad that I’m not), I would explain that prayer is a good thing, because it brings us closer to the One who made us; that we should certainly ask for miracles, because God is indisputably powerful enough to do anything we ask; but that we probably shouldn’t expect too much, because God knows better than we do what we need, and it’s His prerogative to decide what to give us—after all, suffering builds character, and God is more interested in forming our characters than in making our lives easy. And this explanation fits in pretty well with my life. I know I ought to pray; some prayers, even some wild prayers, have been answered; but for the most part, I go on living my life, not understanding why God would withhold good things from me, but trusting that He has some higher purpose.
So far, so good. But then I look at the Bible, and I read Jesus saying, “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” (Mark 11:23) and “Everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:10). This seems to be manifestly untrue. I’ve asked for plenty of things that I haven’t received. And yet…reading these passages, I can’t help believing, sometimes, that all my level-headed resignation merely an execrable lack of faith in God’s power, a refusal to believe that miracles can happen even in this day and age. But then again, is this true of every unanswered prayer? Has there not been one person of purer faith than me who has prayed for healing, and yet has died?
I have talked with many people much wiser than myself about these questions, and while I can’t say that I have come to a great revelation that has solved all of my questions forever, I am gradually gaining insight. One vital point that has come up several times is that getting an answer to prayer does not mean getting an immediate answer to prayer. God says “not yet” as often as He says “yes” or “no”. This is terribly unsatisfying, of course—who doesn’t want instant gratification?—but it became easier to bear when I looked back at the passages of Scripture that talked about answered prayer and realized that they tell us the necessity of persistence. In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the widow who pesters and pesters an unjust judge until he gives in and gives her justice, in order to show His disciples “that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). There is no promise of immediacy, but there is the promise of justice.
I realized that I had been thinking of faith as a sort of magic cloud that hovers around you, allowing you to do marvelous things with a flick of the wrist, or a sort of emotional self-confidence that you either have at the moment of prayer or don’t. But what good is a faith that is only emotional? We can’t control our emotions. Our feelings of well-being and confidence are inextricably entwined with our physical bodies—what we’ve eaten, how much sleep we’ve had, all the little things that send the serotonin molecules buzzing around our brains. We can’t choose how we feel. What we can choose, however, is what we do with our emotions. We can choose to trust that God will give us an answer to prayer—perhaps not what we want, but what we need—despite all evidence to the contrary. It is this persistent trust, rather than a momentary emotion, that is the faith that can move mountains.