Following Jesus: The Problem with “If” Prayers

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February 11, 2021

Mark 1:40-42 (NIV)

40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

CONSIDER THIS

This one is long. You might want to top off your coffee. 

A man with leprosy, an incurable disabling and terminal illness, on his knees, begging the Son of God for healing. On the one hand, he is both desperate and full of faith.

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees,

On the other hand, he is hiding. Let’s examine his prayer:

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

He is hedging. His words betray his heart in hiding. He hides behind the unthinkable: maybe Jesus is not willing. It is like he needs to protect Jesus from his own deep sense of unworthiness and shame. It’s like he’s thinking, “I know this is impossible; what I’m asking him, and yet I know he can do it. I know he might not do it, and if he doesn’t it wouldn’t be because he couldn’t but because he was not willing to do it and if he was not willing to do it it must somehow be my fault. Shame on me.”

The other side of the shame coin looks quite different but it is the same thing. “I have done nothing to deserve this condition. I deserve to be healed. Jesus owes me healing, and if he doesn’t heal then there’s something wrong with him. Shame on God.” 

This is the secret calculus of shame. We all carry it. It is far deeper than leprosy or cancer or COVID-19 or whatever symptoms we present. The real leprosy is shame. We take it on ourselves and we project it onto others and even God. The sign we are infected is the tiny two letter word preceding the request: “if.”

If you are willing, you can make me clean.

This is not the prayer of humility. It is the desperate plea of shame. Shame keeps us hiding behind an outcome we would rather die a thousand deaths than face. The reality? God is not willing. If God is not willing, there are one of two possible problems. 1. I am not worthy; or 2. God is not able. In either case, it’s the same awful outcome: God becomes dead to us. This is why people are so quick to defend God in the face of someone else’s unthinkable tragedy saying things like, “God has a reason for this.” What they are saying in a much deeper place is, “God has a reason this has not happened to me.” 

I think all of this is why the inspired writer of the text used this particular term to describe Jesus’ reaction: Splagchnizomai. I don’t recommend trying to say it, but in case you want to give it a shot, here’s the phonetic spelling: splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee

It carries two different yet related meanings. The NIV translates it as “indignant.” 

Jesus was indignant. 

I believe Jesus is indignant not so much with leprosy but how leprosy has absolutely decimated and all but destroyed this precious image bearer of the living God. It is the sight of this man who has a disease—by no fault of his own, that not only coats his skin but covers his soul in a cruel, twisted, darkened sense of self worth and value as a human being. This is a son of Adam, desperately begging for deliverance, for healing for sure, but even more for “clean-ness”; that he may be embraced in his family and among his friends; that he might have dignity again. Thats it. It is why Jesus was indignant

Now consider most of the other translations of Mark 1:41. Instead of “Jesus was indignant,” the New American Standard Bible (like most others) translate it as

Moved with compassion[.] 

Either way, what is being conveyed here is something profound is happening at literally a visceral gut level within Jesus. He could not be more stirred within in his response to this man. Let’s break down what he does next because it tells us everything we need to know about the heart of God for people. 

He reached out his hand and touched the man.

Did we mention that lepers were “untouchable?” They had to go about shouting “Unclean” anytime anyone came near them for fear of spreading the dreadful kiss-of-death disease. Jesus touched him. A word would have sufficed to get the job done here. Not for Jesus. 

“I am willing,” he said.

Those are the words of God we most need to hear.

I am willing.

God is always willing. We need never ask “if.” There is no “if.” Stop praying, “If it is your will God, please heal this person.” Always claim God’s willingness. Now watch what he says next:

“Be clean!”

Biblically speaking, healing, and cleansing are two different things. Picture a Venn diagram with two circles that overlap. A person can be cleansed spiritually and not healed physically. As well, a person can be healed physically and not healed spiritually. In this instance, Jesus landed in the overlap between the circles, healing physically and cleansing spiritually. How awesome is God! The leper got the twofer. Note the “and” here. 

Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. 

So, we ask, “If God is always willing, why isn’t everyone healed?” Short answer. We live in an incredibly broken world with enormous interrelated complexities. If a person is not physically healed it does not mean God was not willing to heal them. Nor does it mean God was not able to help them. Nor does it mean their faith was faulty. It means human brokenness is complicated. Sometimes people are physically healed. Sometimes they are not. We don’t know why. The difference is not in God’s willingness or lack of willingness to heal. We need not try to explain it as God’s sovereign plan when a child dies of cancer even though we prayed our guts out. We simply don’t understand it. But we trust God, anyway. 

Think of it this way. If everyone were healed we would know the end of the age had finally come and the new Heavens and the new Earth had dawned. Why? Because if everyone were healed there would be no more sickness and no more death and no more dying. That day will come but then it will be all over. We do not live in the New Heaven and the New Earth. With the coming of Jesus and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the age to come has now dawned. It will not come finally until he comes again. We now live at the end of the age, in the last days, in the age of the out-poured mercy of God, in the epic era of the Holy Spirit.

We always pray for healing, for cleansing, for deliverance,—no ifs, ands, or buts. We lay hold of the willingness of Jesus Christ—without apology— and we trust the outcomes to him. The most beautiful thing is that Jesus has actually turned death—the greatest tragedy—into the greatest healing by the gift of a new birth into a life so durable it cannot be finally killed. And he did it by dying himself and swallowing death up with the resurrection. 

THE PRAYER

Almighty God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—my Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for always being willing. Thank you for the way you are indignant at the way sin and death have destroyed so much and thank you for the way your compassion is a never ending river that runs from the depths of your being. Thank you for crushing our shame by the power of your cross. Thank you for your unmerited favor. And thank you for the glimpses of healing you give us of the coming age where there will be no more sickness and no more death. Thank you for this incredible scene with the leper where we can behold your glory and goodness In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

THE QUESTION

This extended sharing is the way I understand the so-called problem of evil and how I reconcile so much brokenness with God’s unlimited power and goodness. How do you understand it? 

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt
Sower-in-Chief
seedbed.com

P.S.

Three invitations here: 1. Reserve your complimentary ticket for A Night with New Room: Ash Wednesday. 2. Check out the 2021 Awakening Calendar. 3. Grab a songbook for Soundtrack

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Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed's Sower-in-Chief.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this insight. I’ve tended to believe the no’s we sometimes receive are an indication that God has a higher purpose that we don’t yet perceive.

  2. It is not that we we don’t ultimately die in this life; we can’t avoid it. So why do we struggle so much with it? Like you said, immortality is only after the second coming of Christ

    At 10 months of age, my oldest daughter somehow managed to survive meningitis even as multiple doctors managed to bungle the diagnosis for a long and agonizing 48 hours. The last ER doctor to examine her said with confidence, “There is no way she has meningitis because she is not dead”; he was not so confident when he came back to tell us she most assuredly did. She not only survived but the only effect that it had on her is she is deaf in one ear; her other ear is exceptionally acute so it has not been much of a problem. And there is no explanation as to why one ear went deaf and the other did not.

    Where was God in all that? I have no clue unless it was in my unrelenting sense that all the doctors were wrong so I kept pushing. The only clear lesson I learned that weekend was to hope that your child does not get seriously ill on a Friday when your trusted family doctor is headed out of town for some much needed R&R. To his credit, he was appalled at what he walked into when he returned that Sunday evening. Years later he shared that he only retained two distinct memories form his practice and that weekend was one of them.

  3. . ESV-GNB-BBE- pity
    ISV-KJV-LITV-YLT-Compassion
    ERV-Angry
    “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
    As I read through Genesis, I have become aware of God’s matchless sovereignty. For His plans and his ways are unwavering! God allows baroness, so that Abraham would know that God’s promises are activated by him alone. God saw through Isaac the cross of Christ.
    When God allows, he sees from a much grander perspective!
    God’s plans are so much higher than we can ever imagine or think. His works are always for the salvation of man. War, sickness and even death are all parts of his plan for us. Not his perfect plan, for through Adam, heaven was surrendered. However, God’s plan for salvation is always at work, and he wills that non should perish. He does not move from his plans because of our unbelief. He did not waver at Ishmael’s birth. I think these things are written, and life happens, so that we may ever seek him. Yes, some may fall away. BUT what about the Hellen Keller’s, the Joni Erickson’s, and the Amy Carmichael’s of this world, the list is enormous. Yes, God can heal, but the God of Abraham has a larger view then our finite mind can fathom. The all-knowing God allows sickness, not to our shame but for his glory. For those who go beyond their sickness and prove God’s faithfulness. These are the voices that speak louder and clearer, for a witness to all generations.
    PS this is not our home. We are but a vapor in time. Absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Today you will be with me. Father not my will but thine be done. I have struggled with this my whole Christian life, but this works for me. So, if this comforts you, Amen. If not, I pray that God will find a way to comfort you in your time of distress.

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