The following is my chapter from my new eBook, Where’s God?
The book includes chapters by 21 Christian leaders and thinkers from diverse theological perspectives and backgrounds, all responding to the agony of unanswered prayer.
What follows is my chapter in the book.
Maybe Faith Isn’t What We Thought It Was
by Frank Viola
So you’re facing a monumental crisis. Either in your own life or in someone else’s.
The situation is dire and you need God to intervene.
Consequently, you pray. You take God at His Word. You even fast. You remind God of His promise that if we ask anything in faith — anything — He will do it (Matthew 7:7-8; 21:22; Mark 11:23-24; John 14:14; 16:23-24).
So you expect the Lord to work because you truly believe that you have faith in what you’ve prayed.
But several days later, Lazarus dies.
Four days later, His body stinks.
But there’s no resurrection.
The Lord hasn’t answered your prayer. Even though you stood on His Word, and to the best of your ability, you believed He would answer.
Now could it be that faith is more than we commonly think?
James says we don’t receive from God because of two reasons:
- We are double-minded and have doubts that He will give us what we ask (James 1:5-8).
- We ask with wrong motives (James 4:3)
John adds a third reason:
- We didn’t ask according to God’s will (1 John 5:14).
If you add these texts to those where Jesus promised He would answer any prayer offered in faith, we have to conclude that we can only have genuine faith in that which is true, well-motivated, and according to God’s will.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen
According to the Bible, faith isn’t mental assent. Nor is it human hope. It’s the evidence of things we cannot see, the reality of what we expect (Hebrews 11:1).
Faith is the absolute assurance that God will act. In this regard, faith transcends the realm of the senses. So it’s more like an internal “knowing” than an outward “hoping.”
That said, according to the biblical use of the word “faith,” we cannot have biblical faith in something that’s false. Nor can we exercise faith in something that’s not according to God’s will.
Also, if we have improper motives concerning what we are asking, faith will be hindered.
Now here’s the rub. We may think we believe, but if what we’re asking for isn’t according to God’s will, isn’t well motivated, or is untrue, it’s not biblical faith.
Think about it. If this isn’t the case, Jesus was lying when He said multiple times that if we ask for something in faith, He will do it.
So this brings us to a critical question:
What is God’s will in the situation? And what are my motives in relation to it?
Those are questions we should spend some time seeking the Lord about before we pray.
I grew up in a movement that taught that it is always God’s will to heal everyone who is sick. That movement also taught that it is God’s will to always deliver His people from all negative situations.
But my experience and observation caused me to question this theology and revise my own thoughts on the subject.
There’s no question that God still heals the sick. I’ve witnessed it myself. In fact, I’ve prayed for people and watched God instantly heal them. Or He healed them later. There have been times when God has even healed me. Sometimes those healings were supernatural. Other times the Lord used natural means.
But other times, God didn’t heal the sick person. And what appeared on the surface to be “faith-filled” prayers went unanswered.
Using biblical grounds, I’d like to challenge the idea that it’s always God’s will to heal people in this life.
- In John 5, Jesus was around many sick people at the pool of Bethesda. But He only healed one person there, leaving the others sick.
- In other texts, we’re told that Jesus healed many. Many means not all.
- Paul of Tarsus, who prayed for people and saw them healed, left Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20).
- In the book of Acts, an angel delivered Peter out of prison supernaturally. But there was no angel to unlock the prison doors for James. James was executed.
Now, there are times when it is God’s will to heal or deliver a person, but He doesn’t do so because there is a lack of faith.
Matthew 17:14-20 is a classic example of this. A demon-possessed boy was brought to Jesus’ disciples. But they couldn’t deliver the boy.
When they asked Jesus why they failed, He replied saying, “Because you have so little faith.” He then indicated that their faith would increase by “prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
Lack of faith can be attributed to many things.
Some examples are unforgiveness (Mark 11:25), harboring sin in one’s heart (Psalm 66:18), failure to love the brethren (1 John 3:21-23), and discord between a husband and wife (1 Peter 3:7).
But as I’ve already pointed out, it doesn’t appear to be the Lord’s will to heal or deliver every person in every situation. Not in this life anyway. (The ultimate healing, of course, is when the Lord takes one of His own to be with Him. And very often, this is the way that God ends the sufferings of His children.)
People can pray with fasting, and muster up all the faith they have, even “standing on God’s Word.” But despite all of that, there is no assurance — there’s no “knowing” — that the sick person will be healed. In other words, faith is not available in such cases.
Jesus left His cousin, John (the Baptist), in prison where he was eventually beheaded. Why didn’t God deliver John during his darkest hour?
In like manner, Paul prayed three times for the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” But God didn’t answer that prayer. Instead, He delivered Paul through the problem (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
The thorn remained (which I don’t believe was a sickness, but another form of torment). But by God’s grace, Paul triumphed over it.
What We Cannot See
I wrote the following on this subject elsewhere,
In our suffering, we want an explanation. But Jesus wants to give us a revelation … of Himself. Every crisis in our lives is an opportunity to broaden, deepen, and heighten our revelation of Christ.
Isaiah says that God’s ways are higher than ours. The Lord works on levels that we cannot fathom. But He works all things for our good.
“Why hasn’t God answered this prayer? Why didn’t He fulfill this promise? Why did He let this happen to me? Why did He let this happen to him or her? Why is God silent when I need to hear Him most?”
These are the questions that plague the mind of the serious believer.
If you’ve not yet met the God who refuses to meet all your expectations, you will. And how you react in that day will reveal whether you are worshipping Jesus Christ or Santa Claus.
It will show whether or not you love God more than His promises (or your interpretation of those promises). Job said, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?”
Would you still serve the Lord if it sent you to hell?
Recall the three Hebrew children. They lived lives loyal to their God. And the pagan king gave them an ultimatum:
“Worship the golden image or else you’re going to die in my fiery furnace.”
Their answer is telling: “We’re not going to serve your gods or worship the image. The Lord is able to deliver us from your furnace and He will deliver us. But even if He doesn’t, we still will not bow the knee to your gods.”
What attitude. What posture. What faith.
“God will deliver us. But even if He doesn’t, we will still follow Him.”
Those words contain thunder and lightning for every child of God.
If I can use an illustration, we mortals are living on pages 300 to 400 of a 2,000-page book. Only God can see the whole book—the entire story. And He has given us the ability to see only pages 300 to 400.
We have no capacity to understand what’s on pages 1 to 299 or pages 401 to 2,000. We can only speculate and assume what’s in them. Hence we create all sorts of intricate theological systems to explain mysteries we don’t understand.
The Lord doesn’t show us all His plot twists. So life comes down to trusting in the Lord rather than trying to figure out His ways through our finite, limited understanding. Yet with one another, we can better discover and understand what’s in pages 300 to 400 and thereby learn to live more effectively within them.
Mary of Bethany didn’t understand why Jesus didn’t come to heal Lazarus. But she trusted Him nonetheless.
Let us learn how to trust a God we don’t fully understand.
(The above was taken from my most important book, God’s Favorite Place on Earth.)
The big point is that God is infinite, and we mortals are not.
This was universally understood until the mid-18th century, when God’s existence was rendered impossible because of the existence of evil. (The earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 is usually the point of reference for historians for this new kind of thinking.)
Secularism developed around that time and humans exalted themselves as having both the wisdom and answers to solve all of their problems. The Enlightenment rendered God to be a myth that reflected primitive thinking.
But if God is beyond our comprehension, as my 2,000 page book analogy illustrates, then tragedy, evil, and suffering are inexplicable to us. But they aren’t to God.
We are like pawns who are able to move ourselves, but the chessboard is so big that we can’t see the edges.
So we have a choice to either trust in the Lord’s wisdom or trust in our limited, pathetic understanding.
Christians have contended from the beginning that human reason is limited (see 1 Corinthians 1-2), and I believe it certainly is.
The Kingdom is Already-But-Not-Yet Factor
When Jesus was on earth, He was the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. He ushered in the Kingdom while He was here in the flesh. Consequently, throughout His ministry, healings, deliverance, miracles, etc. were common and frequent.
This is because Jesus was showing forth the signs of the Kingdom wherein death, sickness, torment, and pain will be eradicated fully on the earth when the Kingdom comes in its fullness.
But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. ~ Matthew 12:28
Today, we live in a spiritual tension where the Kingdom of God is already, but not yet. This means that the Kingdom of God is here, but not in its fullness. It’s here “in part” (see 1 Corinthians 13).
For this reason, Jesus told His disciples to pray to the Father, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Since Jesus ascended, He sent forth His Spirit to continue His work through His body. But until Jesus returns to the earth again and “the restoration of all things” takes place (Acts 3), the Kingdom of God is here in part.
Historically, there are seasons when God invades earth with the power of His Kingdom. During such times, masses of people are saved, healed, and delivered. But then that season passes and such things don’t happen as frequently.
The book of Acts is a highly compressed narrative and there were such seasons of refreshment in that account as well.
The bottom line to all of this is that Romans 8:28 is still in the Bible!
And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
The “purpose” Paul is referring to in Romans 8 is God’s Eternal Purpose, which the grand narrative of the entire Bible.
So don’t lose heart.
Suffering is part of the life in the Kingdom. Paul told the new converts in Galatia when he left them on their own, “we must endure many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Make no mistake. We will eventually encounter a God who doesn’t meet our expectations and who seemingly doesn’t fulfill His own promises.
And when that happens, we have two choices: Depart or Dig In. In other words, we either leave the Lord or we go on with Him even more.
You see, in every painful experience we go through in this life, the Holy Spirit is seeking to show us a new lesson about Jesus Christ. In fact, the Spirit is seeking to write the history and experience of Christ in our own lives. And much of that experience was suffering.
Our experiences, then, are to lead us on to know the Lord better.
So in every negative experience, our prayer should be: “What can I learn about Christ through this?”
The Spirit is seeking to write the life of Jesus Christ within you and within me. He desires to shape the image of Jesus into your character, and that simply cannot happen without suffering.
In addition, the Lord has a ministry of life for all of His children. But we cannot minister life to others unless we ourselves have experienced pain, suffering, tragedy, and adversity (see 2 Corinthians Chapters 1 and 4).
As T. Austin-Sparks once said,
A preacher or a teacher who has never suffered will never minister Life. Well, this may not seem a very pleasant outlook, but it is true. The best doctors and nurses are those who know something about suffering themselves. Some are just professional, treating you as a case – you are just case number blank. But, ah! there are others who treat you as a person, a human being, who care for you. If you ask why, you may find that they have a background of suffering themselves. They know just a little of what you are going through.
All told, I believe the cross of Jesus Christ gives us a peek into how God looks at human suffering. When Jesus died, everyone who followed Him — along with His enemies — regarded it as a defeat.
But in the ineffable counsels of the Godhead, it was a victory. If God can turn great good out of the slaying and suffering of the innocent Son of God, then He can do the same in our suffering.
Sometimes we come to understand the “greater good” in this life. Other times it is hidden from us.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. ~ John 16:33
So take heart.
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