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The Most Dangerous Verse in the Bible

There is a verse in the gospels which, if it were entirely up to me, I would simply take out of the Bible, because of all the harm that it has caused. I know that is a shocking statement to be made by someone who has spent his whole life trying to understand and apply the teachings of the Bible (in particular, the teachings of Jesus Christ) to his own life. And it is somewhat disappointing that this verse (in its present format) is also one that is purported to have been said by Christ himself.

I would be so relieved if I could find evidence that the verse was added later by someone else, or that there has been a serious mistake in its translation; but so far I have not been able to find that. The verse is Mark 11:24, although it is (unfortunately for me) not an isolated text. The gist of it is further supported by similar passages elsewhere, e.g. in John 14:13, John 15:7, and John 16:23.

Here it is, from Mark 11:24: "What things soever you desire when you pray, believe that you receive them and you shall have them."

In other words, Jesus has made a promise that we can ask for anything we want, and he will give it to us, as long as we believe that he will give it to us. All those people who say that they have lost faith in God because he allows so much suffering in the world would be able to point to this verse and (presumably) say that they had prayed for the suffering to stop, because it was what they wanted (and wanted quite unselfishly as well, I would presume) and yet God did not keep his promise, made through Jesus.

I have heard many lesser stories of people who, even as children, asked God for some favour and believed with all their heart that he was going to answer their prayer, and yet it did not work; he did not give them their request. Some of the arguments against these people have been less than satisfying, e.g. the one that says, "Well, God DID answer your prayer, but he didn't say that his answer would always be 'yes'." I beg your pardon! Look at the verse above once more. He did not say, "It may or may not be done unto you." He said that "you will have it". In other words, the answer would be "yes".

So, on the basis of Mark 11:24, these people have felt quite justified in saying that God cannot be trusted, that he made a promise that he failed to keep. And many have turned away from him as a result.

Now let's look at another tragic result of faith in that verse. It is the abomination of the prosperity gospel, with all of its greed and selfishness. Outside of God's will, we humans just naturally want a lot of stuff that is not good for us. As someone has said, "Most of the prayers in the world are asking God to make two plus two equal something other than four." We don't want to be sick; we don't want to die; we don't want to be unpopular; we don't want to be poor; we don't want to have to work hard. So we ask God to break the rules to suit us.

People have been told (by the prosperity gurus) that they can just "name it and claim it", that is, tell God what they want, and then expect to receive it: New cars, better paying jobs, miraculous healings, marital bliss... anything they like. And Mark 11;24 is pretty near the top of the list in terms of proof texts for such a teaching.

Sure, there are other teachings of Jesus which absolutely contradict the name it and claim it teaching. He taught us to "forsake all", "deny ourselves", "lay down our lives", "take up our cross", "choose the narrow way", "give to others", etc. But if we are to believe Mark 11:24, then it appears that he also taught us that we can have anything that we want. Whether we are asking for world peace or for a mountain made out of ice cream and chocolates, he says we can have what we want.

James wrote that we "ask and receive not" because we ask "amiss, that [we] may consume it upon [our] lusts." But there is no mention of that in the promise from Jesus that I have quoted above.

Some people reading this may be waiting for me to come up with a surprise turn, where I show that the verse really is a good one. Sadly, I have not yet found such a surprise turn, although I'll make a couple of observations which may soften the negative effect of this verse.

The most significant observation I have made with other similar verses to this one has been that they contain conditional clauses: "If you abide in me and my words abide in you..." "If you ask anything in my name..." "If you ask anything according to God's will..." All of these can be understood as restricting either what we can ask for or who is entitled to do the asking.

But I cannot find such a condition in this verse, and, worse still, there is that line focusing all of our faith on the actual "thing" that we are asking for, rather than a focus of our faith on God, i.e. "believe that you will receive it".

One could assume that the disciples, through their three-year contact with Jesus, had progressed to the point where they were spiritual enough to not abuse such a promise (and, to be fair, there is no record of them having even acted on the promise, much less having abused it). But in many ways, we today are more spiritual than them. They followed Jesus, not because they believed he was the Son of God, but just because they thought he was a very wise teacher (and probably because he did some convincing miracles), and even when they did conclude that he might be the promised Messiah, they had visions of a visible earthly kingdom. So what might they have asked for if they were free to ask for anything they wanted?

For those of us claiming to be followers of Christ today, it usually STARTS with an understanding about him being the Son of God and about him preaching an invisible kingdom with rewards mostly coming after we die. So we are less likely to be asking for Jesus to win the next election. Yet everyone I know still experiences disappointments at times when they ask for something.

A couple of years ago, I decided that maybe I had reached a point where I COULD pray such a prayer for something that I wanted, without it being outside of God's will. I had, after all, been trying to let Jesus' teachings abide in me for many years, and I DO truly want his will to be done. I felt that what I was going to ask for was an unselfish request, and that I was open to God telling me not to make such a request on the basis of something that I did not know.

When I did not sense any restriction from God against me praying such a prayer, I prayed it, and I waited expectantly for it to come to pass. (Note: I included a deadline in with the request, so that neither I nor anyone else could give the argument that he was just taking his time about meeting the request.) I'll still be thrilled if he answers it five years from now, but that was not my preference, and he did say that I could ask for what *I* wanted. Anyway, the deadline came and went and my request was not answered. It still has not been answered today.

So, am I rebelling against God and throwing in my faith because of it? No, certainly not. There are too many other things in the teachings of Jesus that HAVE worked. But I have to be honest about my suspicions about the verse in question. If the promise (that you can have anything you want) applies totally to anyone on earth today, I have not yet met such a person. And it almost seems like such a person would not need such a promise anyway, for they would HAVE no personal wish or desire that would be outside of exactly what God wants. They would simply be praying, "Thy will be done," whether praying for world peace or for the big rock candy mountain.

So I have returned to pretty much not asking for specifics, or at least asking for them with a clear understanding that I only want them if they are consistent with God's will. It works for me, and I don't feel angry with God because of it. But I also realise that I have no satisfactory answer for the "believe that you will receive it" clause, and I still see, as I have pointed out in this article, that it generally creates an image of God which is destined to make people unhappy and disgruntled. I have relegated such promises to the bottom of my priorities in terms of taking the teachings of Jesus literally. I have done it with the understanding that I may never get around to understanding this passage in my lifetime. If nothing else, such a verse is helpful in terms of reminding me that I still have a long way to go in understanding all that Christ taught.

So, in conclusion, I would caution people to stay as far away from those promises (about asking for and getting anything you want) as you can, while we work on fulfilling the "commands" (our part). May we all come to trust God to work out exactly what HIS part is (the "promises") and how he wants to apply them in our lives. If he doesn't seem to be doing them the way we understood him to have promised, let us be patient enough to wait until we see him face to face to get some clearer answers.

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