A year ago this week, I received a gargantuan answer to prayer. I and many others close to me were quite giddy about it.
The fascinating thing is – it came very shortly after a week spent forgiving people.
In Mark 11, after seeing a prayer of Christ’s answered (surprise), the disciples receive a glimmer into the mystery of prayer.
“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes 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. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:21-25)
This is one of those stories that we don’t quite know what to do with. One look at the world around us confirms that not all prayers are answered. That and our fear of disappointment has made us cautious of prayer. We know we’re commanded to do it; most of us pray over our meals at the very least. But to really dive into deep prayer – to really hit our knees and spend a season there, emotionally invested and powerfully engaged – is like jumping into a new workout program. The thought makes us groan. Will it really be worth it?
Jesus, on the other hand, seems to see prayer more like a pursuit whose ways must be learned, like sailing or creating pottery. The Bible drops hints about prayer being affected by our holiness, by our maturity, and by the kingdom of darkness. Yet even the most basic of these hints – praying with persistence – is not practiced by many Christians, despite the fact that you can’t get through an honest reading of the Gospels without seeing it everywhere.
So it comes as no surprise that the harder “keys” to prayer are neglected also. One of them is forgiveness.
In Mark 11, Jesus repeats something he’s already told us – that God’s forgiveness of us hinges upon our forgiveness of others. This lesson stands alone just fine. We’re called to forgive simply out of a desire to attain the likeness of the God in whose image we’re made (e.g. Matthew 18). What is the point of answer to prayer if we are not Godlike? If we are not forgiven?
But it’s worth mentioning that forgiveness is attached to prayer here. That’s the context of this passage.
Scripture teaches in several places that prayers can be hindered or ineffective for various reasons. Could it be that failure to forgive others is such a blockage? Perhaps God prizes our own holiness and journey of maturity enough to withhold even good, fair, kingdom-advancing requests until we embrace that holiness. For what is the kingdom itself if not holiness?
If this is true, then we have some forgiveness to do. (Though I will say again – do not forgive with mercenary motives, just to “get stuff”. That won’t work, mostly because your forgiveness won’t be from the heart. Forgive them because it’s right.)
But here’s where we run into a problem: we’ve honestly forgotten most of what we need to forgive.
Some of the battlegrounds of unforgiveness in our lives are obvious; we’re just struggling to actually pull the trigger. But there are a great many other battlegrounds that have receded into the mists of the pasts. The path trodden behind us is long; sometimes it’s hard to remember all the places we’ve been waylaid. These resentments are running in the background like a computer program, for the most part unseen – except when life disturbs us.
I’ve found an easy strategy to sussing out the places where forgiveness is needed: when things go wrong, follow the resentment.
Resentment is a product of unforgiveness. Every once in a while, life will ambush us with something hard, and hardship – even random hardship – has a way of revealing where our sore spots are. We might just be vaguely discontent with our lives one day and suddenly find ourselves grumbling, out of nowhere, at a person we believe played a role in putting us there. If you stop and pay attention to your inner reactions in those moments, you might catch your mind in the act of broadcasting resentment. Stop and ask yourself where it’s targeted.
When you’re frustrated with your present employment, do you find yourself blaming the boss who fired you from your last job?
When your family struggles, do you find yourself naturally directing your anger at someone specific?
When you randomly hear a poor teaching, do you easily dredge up “righteous” indignation at a failed former pastor who taught something similar?
Have you ever imagined any person receiving comeuppance for something they did to you?
I could confess to all of these.
Here’s a wild idea: do you need to forgive God?
I’m not saying God did anything wrong. He can’t. Forgiveness has nothing to do with whether you were wronged. A wronging can be in your own mind. You could be angry for years at some hiring manager who turned you down for a job you really needed, even though they were just making the best choice in their eyes. You could be sullen for years at someone who skidded on the treacherous ice, slammed into your car, and deprived you of a crucial paycheck (or worse). You could be furious at millions of people who hold a different political opinion than you. Ouch. I think we all can relate there.
So it’s not crazy to think that you might need to forgive a perfect God today. He doesn’t need it; you do.
I probably don’t need to tell you why. You know your own story. Just ask yourself, “what has sucked in my life?” Are you angry with God over pain he allowed into your life (for whatever reason)? Release your resentment towards him. You don’t even really need to seek out the “why” or delve into deep theological discussions of sovereignty and purpose. This is about your intimate walk with God. Just release the resentment.
And last week, after a concerted effort to renounce all this bitterness and release this stuff to God, a much-needed answer to prayer came.
I can’t promise what God will do in your prayer life when you forgive. I’ve had to be very careful with this verse myself, avoiding a mechanical approach to prayer and the illusion of control. We’re not here for the goodies. We’re here for God.
But even if there is no sudden “activation” of prayer like a faucet being turned, forgiveness frees us from burdens we never knew we had. It inches us closer to the likeness of our Savior, Jesus, who forgives all who repent.
Try it out this week. If you have a prayer you’re travailing with, and nothing is happening, try forgiveness (along with asking God whether your prayer is actually within his will). Follow the resentment; forgive what you find. It may take a while – purposeful layers of prayer. You might need to pray Matthew 18 over yourself, remembering that God forgave you of far more than you ever suffered. You might need God’s strength to do it. But it can be done.
You’ll not regret it.