A student recently asked me about Matthew 17:20. Jesus’ disciples asked Him why they were unable to cast out a particular demon, and He responded by saying, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Matthew 17:20 a promise that God will always answer our prayers affirmatively if we have enough faith? 

Some believe it is. They argue that if you’re sick and not getting better, the problem must be your lack of faith. If you have an unmet need, God has to provide for it if you pray with enough faith. After all, if you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed, you can move mountains, right?

But that belief seems to run counter to our daily experiences. I’ve certainly known people who have prayed in faith and been healed, but I’ve also known people who have prayed with equal or greater faith and yet remained sick (or even died). So what’s the deal? It’s important to consider the context of Matthew 17:20 and the counsel of the entire Bible on this subject.

First, in Matthew 17:20 Jesus is talking to His disciples about a particular situation. They were unable to cast out a demon, and Jesus tells them it’s because they lacked faith. Nothing is impossible for the one who has faith, and in fact just a tiny bit of faith is sufficient to move a mountain. But all of that assumes that casting out the demon was God’s will in the first place. And we know that in this case it was. Why? Because Jesus proceeded to do what the disciples could not. We can’t assume, though, that our every prayer is in line with God’s will, a will that is often mysterious and unknown. The principle to take from this passage is that God is fully capable of doing anything He wants, and He uses our prayers as a means to do His work. The point is not that He’s obligated to do anything we want if we just believe Him enough.

Second, there are biblical examples of faithful people whose prayers weren’t answered as they wished. For example, the apostle Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, but God told him no (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). David prayed that his child would live, but God chose to allow him to die (2 Samuel 12:15-20). Paul and David were faithful, believing men, yet God didn’t do what they wanted. It’s presumptuous to assume that their prayers weren’t answered because they lacked faith. After all, if these guys were unfaithful, I don’t stand a chance of being heard!

Third, there are many reasons why our prayers aren’t answered. Sometimes it’s because we lack faith, as in Matthew 17:20. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been unkind to others (e.g. our spouses, cf. 1 Peter 3:7). Sometimes it’s because we’re sinful and haven’t confessed our sin (Isaiah 1:15-17). Sometimes, though, it’s because God has a plan for our character that won’t be accomplished by answering our prayers the way we want (again, see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Sometimes we simply don’t know why God doesn’t answer.  Why did God preserve Peter’s life but allow James to be killed (Acts 12:1-11)? Do you think it’s because nobody prayed for James like the church prayed for Peter? No, sometimes God’s specific plan is a bit mysterious — and we simply can’t manipulate it or control it.

Finally, prayer is still the most powerful resource we have as we seek to serve Him. Despite the fact that God doesn’t always answer affirmatively, He still listens and responds (James 5:15-18). The Scripture is filled with God’s amazing answers to prayer. My own life is full of examples of how God has answered prayer. Prayer is very powerful. Never believe that it’s a waste of time and energy. It’s not.

We should never assume, though, that prayer is a means to getting whatever we want whenever we want it. Prayer draws us closer to God. It empowers us to do His work. It connects us to God’s power in a way that no other activity can do. Nonetheless, God controls the outcomes of our prayers. It’s our job to trust Him, to obey His Word, and to try to pray in keeping with His will.

What questions or thoughts do you have on the subject of prayer? Do you struggle with the concept of unanswered prayers? Why or why not? 

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