Prayer is difficult for everyone—no exceptions. When I pray, most of the time I don’t sense that I have gained access. It doesn’t feel as if anyone is listening. Obvious answers to my prayers are few and far between. Even when prayer does seem to make things happen, the cynical thought stands always at the door: Perhaps it would have happened anyway?

What if you could pray with 100 percent certainty—if you could know God will answer all of your prayers, all of the time? In Mark 11:22–25, Jesus says that such confidence in prayer is actually refreshingly simple. It only requires two ingredients: faith and forgiveness.

The Ingredient of Faith

And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown 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. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22–24)

At first glance, this might look like “name it and claim it,” “gab it and grab it” theology—that if you believe with absolute certainty, God cannot deny your prayer request. This is not the case. I once heard a story of how three farmers in a time of great drought prayed for rain. Day after day went by, and day after day they prayed. But no rain. A stranger walking by their field one afternoon observed their ritual supplications and inquired what they were doing. When they told him, he said, “I am not sure you expect God to answer. . . . You didn’t bring any umbrellas!” He certainly had a point. How often do we pray without really expecting an answer? But perhaps the stranger’s theology is off. He seems to assume that if they had brought umbrellas into the field, God would have been too embarrassed not to give in to their request. The real question when it comes to their prayer, however, is, How do we know God intends to send rain? And, of course, there is no way of knowing that. Our only recourse at such times is to cry out, “Lord, if it be Your will, send rain upon our thirsty fields.”

I think we all know that. But the real question facing us today is, How do we square such sanctified uncertainty with Jesus’ words in our text? Doesn’t Jesus promise that if you believe that you have received it, it will be yours?

What are we to make of these words?

The key is to remember that faith finds its certainty in the Word of God. Remember the context of Jesus’ teaching. The day before, He verbally cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:12–14). On this day, the disciples are shocked to see that Christ’s word has been fulfilled. In the context of that fulfilled word, Jesus says, “Have faith in God!” In other words, they ought not to have been surprised that what God said, He did. So what Jesus is saying is that if you have a promise from God, no matter how great that promise seems to be, even if the promise speaks of a mountain being lifted up and hurled down, ask God to fulfill His promise, and you can believe with 100 percent confidence that it will be done for you.

The key is to remember that faith finds its certainty in the Word of God.

If you want to pray with such confidence, take yourselves to the Word of God. Ask God to help you obey His commands, plead with God to keep His promises, and you will never bow your knees in vain. The only question with which to wrestle is not will God keep His word but when. Calvin makes the same point in his commentary on the Gospels:

If it be objected, that those prayers are never heard, that mountains should be thrown into the sea, the answer is easy. Christ does not give a loose rein to the wishes of men, that they should desire any thing at their pleasure, when he places prayer after the rule of faith; for in this way the Spirit must of necessity hold all our affections by the bridle of the word of God, and bring them into obedience. Christ demands a firm and undoubting confidence of obtaining an answer; and whence does the human mind obtain that confidence but from the word of God? We now see then that Christ promises nothing to his disciples, unless they keep themselves within the limits of the good pleasure of God.

The Ingredient of Forgiveness

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. (Mark 11:25)

Our prayers must not lack faith, and they must not lack a forgiving spirit. 

Once again, at first glance, it might seem as if our forgiveness earns both the answer of our prayer and the forgiveness of our sins. But, of course, it does not. The rest of the New Testament makes it clear: we don’t earn forgiveness by showing forgiveness. Rather, we evidence that we have been forgiven our sins when we offer forgiveness for the sins of others (Matt 18:21–25). We are to forgive others with the same liberality with which God has forgiven us (Eph. 5:1). And when such a forgiving spirit is lacking, it calls into question our whole standing before God. When there is no forgiving spirit, it may be an indication that we haven’t actually trusted in Christ. For when God wipes a sinner’s slate clean, that soul is scarred with a merciful disposition toward others for the rest of their earthly lives. And what a beautiful scar that is!

Do you see the connection then? If we pray with a hard, merciless heart, could we ever expect a favorable response from the Father? Such an unforgiving posture in prayer would betray a heart profoundly estranged from God. Such a heart can be confident of only one thing: God will not hear; their prayers are an abomination to Him.

With this in mind, therefore, when you bow to pray, check your soul. Do you have promise on your lips, and do you have mercy in your heart? If you do, take comfort; none of your words shall ever fall to the ground in vain. But you might say, “What if God hasn’t given me a particular promise for this particular need?” Then you can pray with confidence that your heavenly Father knows best: “Lord, You have promised not to withhold any good thing from me. Lord, search this request, my heart, and my life, and if it be good and in accordance with Your will, open Your hand and satisfy the desire of Your servant.”


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on February 10, 2021.

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