When does bold faith cross the line to become brazen presumption? It is easy as Christians to lose sight of that line, especially when we or those whom we love are hurting. Humble-hearted Christians will sometimes “claim” that a disease is healed, that a relationship is restored, that a job is secure because they have firm faith that these things will be so. They trust in the God who rewards those who “diligently seek Him” by faith (Hebrews 11:6); they trust that God’s plans for His people are for good, and not for harm (Jeremiah 29:11); therefore, they trust that strong, Christ-centered conviction will win from this generous God the particular good which they desire. While well-intentioned, this understanding of faith and therefore of faith’s object is deeply injurious to people who promote it and to the sometimes desperate hearts who receive it as good news concerning their hardships.
Recall from the book of Daniel the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 3). These Hebrew exiles in Babylon refused to bow down to the towering gold statue set up by King Nebuchadnezzar. Enraged at their insubordination, the king threatened to burn them alive in a furnace so fiery that its heat could kill those who merely came close to it (verse 22). The young men responded (Verse 16): “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” What a bold expression of faith in God’s goodness and power to save, right? Not yet!
What seems on the surface to be bold faith in the best possible way is incomplete without what follows: “ … he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Notice the emphasis on conditionality. These brave young men know that God is able to deliver them, but they are willing for Him not to do so. They are confident in His power, but also content in His providence. It is precisely that contentment which separates substantial, Christ-honoring faith from subtle, self-honoring presumption.
Subtle presumption can easily slip into a brazenness which makes demands of God, as if He is bound by the force of our faith to comply with our circumstantial petitions. In this scheme, when Christians do not receive that for which they ask, their faith must be at fault. So, when the disease is not healed, when the relationship is not restored, and when the job is lost, they feel not only deep disappointment, but a rebuke from their heavenly Father against their apparently unsatisfactory faith. Contentment in God’s providence, however, comes from knowing that goodness and power belong not to our faith, but to its object. Jesus lovingly answered the prayer of the man who cried out: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
As this man’s plea illustrates, contentment in God’s providence is not complacency, much less apathy, with regard to the power and purpose of prayer. James reminds us that the prayer of God’s people counted righteous in Christ is powerful and effective (5:6). James also reminds us of our Lord’s kind words, prompting us to prayer: “…you have not, because you ask not; you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…” (4:2b-3). There, James condemns selfish, sinful ambitions which sometimes lay behind prayer. But even when our motive for asking things of God is right so far as we can know it, we must remember that prayer exists and is effective toward the goal of God’s being glorified. More specifically, the context in which Christian prayer operates and is effective is that of Jesus Christ’s building His church.
When the three Hebrew exiles were tossed into the furnace, a fourth person appeared with them in the flames, one like a “son of the gods” whose presence protected these loyal servants of the living God. Through their quite literally fiery trial (1 Peter 4:12), a pagan king saw that God alone is the world’s true sovereign (Daniel 4:1-3); the monarch even gained a bright glimpse of God’s Son, before whom all the nations will bow (Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 2, 22:27;Matthew 28:18-20).
Contentment in Christ comes when we realize and accept that our lives are designed to point praise to Him. As our desires burn in keeping with that design, our prayer requests become quite conditional: We pray that He will grant to us only that which is good for the advancement of His great name. Getting what is good in this sense may mean much hardship, even suffering beneath the evil intentions of others. Consider Joseph’s words to his brothers, who had once sold him into slavery and told their father that he was dead: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
It is this good which fills the plans God has for His people. The famous words found in Jeremiah 29:11 are part of God’s promise to bring His exiled people from Babylon back to their homeland. However, that return would not come until seventy years had passed. Seventy years! Imagine the elderly Israelites hearing that news. These homesick, weary people were hearing that, barring some miracle, they would die in exile. How is that good news? It is not, if we define “good” in terms of individualized earthly prosperity. But if we look beyond ourselves – note that the “you” in verse 11 is plural! – and see the big sweep of history, we find that God’s plans have placed His people in an indescribably good place, wherever we are! We are the church, marching triumphantly through history as God gathers His people from every tongue and tribe; times of persecution and hardship are particularly productive for the sake of the gospel (Acts 8:3-4) and the redemption of the full number of God’s people (2 Peter 3:9ff). We are exiles on our way home to heaven (1 Peter 1:1), the church militant storming the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18) with every moment conforming us further to the character of the Savior in whom all things will be summed up (Ephesians 1:4,11).
Paul displays this Christ-centered contentment as He proclaims all things “loss” for the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord (Phil 3:8). Paul prayed earnestly and repeatedly for deliverance from a particular hardship (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). The Lord refused, telling the Apostle that His grace was sufficient for Him – sufficient to help him achieve the purpose for which Christ had laid hold of him (3:12; Acts 9:16). God’s grace is sufficient in this way, in every good way, for you as well.
Bold faith is bold not by virtue of the intensity with which we hold it and make requests based upon it. Faith is bold when it approaches God with the sanctified aggression God permits His sons (Matthew 11:12, Hebrews 4:16), to request whatever is necessary for His name to be hallowed, for His kingdom to come (Matthew 6:9ff). Bold faith does not “claim”, i.e. demand, precise details of God’s providence; bold faith trusts that God’s providence is and always will be, good.
This truth is freeing. When life is painful, our tears of sorrow need not be mingled with tears lamenting the failure of our faith. Instead, tears of sorrow may mix with tears of joy as we look to the finished work and sure return our faithful Savior. In Him, all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Claim this truth boldly!