As my wife and I have been reading through William Barclay’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark, we have found a lot of interesting things, most of which occur within his comments on various passages of Scripture. But the other day, I noticed something that he did in his own translation of the passage that seemed to me to drastically change what Jesus was saying. It was something that I actually had to do some further study myself on to make sure that what I was seeing was actually there.
Mark 11:23 is the passage in question. In this familiar passage, Jesus tells us that if we have enough faith, we can move mountains. The idea being that whatever difficulties we face in life, no matter how insurmountable, if we have faith, we can move those difficulties. Not only can we move them aside, though, but we can eradicate them from our path completely. Here’s the quote:
Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will happen, it will be done for you. (Mark 11:23 TNIV)
We see this verse all the time, and we have heard it read countless times. It is always the same and always says the exact same thing, no matter how dated the translation. From the 1611 KJV to the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the idea is presented that if we believe that it will happen, God will do it for us.
Despite the tradition surrounding this passage, though, William Barclay renders it slightly differently. His translation goes like this:
This is the truth I tell you – whoever will say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and be cast into the sea,” and who in his heart does not doubt, but believes that what he says is happening, it will be done for him.
(William Barclay. The Daily Bible Study Series: The Gospel of Mark [Revised Edition]. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press. 1975. 275. Emphasis mine.)
This seems to be quite a difference from the traditional rendering, so I took some time to do a fairly literal translation myself, and, despite my rusty Greek translation skills, this is what I came up with:
For truly I say to you that whoever says to this mountain, “Be lifted up and be cast into the sea,” and has no doubt in his heart, but believes that what he is saying is becoming [real], it shall be done for him.
Interestingly enough, Barclay doesn’t spend even a sentence of his commentary discussing this difference between the traditional rendering and the literal. But I happen to think that this is a very significant difference.
In the traditional rendering, we are led to think that if we pray hard enough that something will happen, and have the smallest amount of faith that it will, then we will get whatever we ask for in prayer. This has, I feel, led to some horrid theology surrounding prayer, such as the idea that we have to “pray through” to God until He finally hears us. Now, while there is some truth to this idea, I don’t think this is what Jesus is referring to here. Rather, in this instance, Jesus is speaking of the kind of faith required to move mountains. And Jesus is saying something drastically different from the “pray through” idea.
Here Jesus is calling us to active faith that doesn’t just believe that something will happen, but that acknowledges that something is happening in the here and now. He isn’t calling us to a passive faith that waits for God to move, but an active faith that already sees God at work moving our difficulties from our path.
Which has an unbelievable impact on how we pray. Rather than praying and hoping, we are to be praying and believing. We see God at work and are, rather than asking Him to do something for us, asking Him to let us watch as He is doing it. It isn’t a hope in the future, but a belief in the here and now.
It is the kind of prayer that Moses was participating in when he was up on the mountain. Or the kind of prayer that Elijah was doing when he was in the mountains. It is a prayer that acknowledges that we are already in God’s presence as we are praying.
This is the kind of prayer that allows us to see God’s backside or to hear His voice or to reach out and touch Him. This is the kind of prayer that Jesus is calling us to. Are we praying that way or are we still waiting for God to do it for us even as He is doing it right in front of our bowed heads and closed eyes?