Updated: Feb 14, 2022
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “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.” — Mark 11:22–24
The above passage is often misinterpreted because we don’t take into account the literary devices used by the authors of the Bible. Some people use the above verses as a carte blanche when making requests to God. But is this passage telling us that if we have enough faith, God will do everything and anything for us? Common logic tells us no, as does personal experience. So what is really going on here?
The Bible uses a literary device called Hebraic Hyperbole. Sometimes the writers exaggerate for effect. We do the same thing in English. We say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” What we mean is it is raining heavily. Let me give you some examples from the Bible of this device that are a little easier to see.
“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” — Matthew 23:24
No one is straining gnats and swallowing camels! At least, I hope not.
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” — Matthew 5:29
Jesus is not instituting self-mutilating to cure lust. Though, sadly, I did see a picture of some men who took this verse literally. This is what happens when we are not careful in our study of the Scriptures.
“So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”” — John 12:19
No, the whole world was not following Jesus. He certainly had a large following but it wasn’t the whole world.
Here’s one from the Old Testament when the nation of Israel questioned the goodness of God in providing for and protecting them. This is the literal translation from the NASB version.
“Where can we go up? Our brethren have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are bigger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified to heaven.” — Deuteronomy 1:28
As we examine this translation, it looks as thought they have figured out how to build walls up to Heaven. The point is, these cities have tall walls. Notice how the NIV translation allows for the Hebraic Hyperbole of this verse.
“Where can we go? Our brothers have made our hearts melt in fear. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky.” — Deuteronomy 1:28
Hopefully, you are beginning to understand that the Bible uses a number of literary devices that were never meant to be taken literally. So when we look at the verse above from Mark 11, we can see the Jesus is using this literary device to make a point.
The withered fig tree was symbolic of the lack of faith that was taking place in the temple courts. People were doing all the right things, but their hearts were far from God.
Jesus calls his followers to exercise true faith, to engage their hearts and minds fully. Jesus wasn’t presenting a formulaic pattern for prayer, he was using a Hebraic Hyperbole to illustrate the importance of exercising our faith when we pray.
He was also telling us that we don’t need to go to a special place, the Temple, to make our requests to God. You can go to God anytime, anywhere, and make your request.
We can’t make the Mark passage say that God will always answer our prayers the way we want, when we want. He will always answer our prayer in the best way possible for us. We are to exercise faith in our prayers and sometimes God will say yes, sometimes he will say no, and sometimes he says wait.
Continue to pray without ceasing, with faith.