The Perils of Fruitless Prayer: Pt. 2

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“And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” – Matthew 21.22

I am Not a Gardener!

My wife has a green thumb. I have a brown thumb. This means when I plant things they die, when my wife plant things they grow. There was one exception to this when we lived in Northern California. We lived in a small condo that had a patio which included a 3-foot by  8-foot pad of dirt. We had just enough earth to plant a small garden. She wanted tomatoes. Through the years she would plant, water, and fertilize these plants. They would grow tall and beautiful but bore no fruit. It was one of those rare occasions that my wife could not get a plant to produce. I eventually, pulled the plants up and bricked the pad, and replaced the plants with a BBQ pit. No more fruitless tomato plants. Instead of eating fresh tomatoes from our garden, we had BBQ.

A Barren Fig Tree

In Matthew 21.18-22, Jesus was on His way back to Jerusalem from Bethany after spending the night there. While walking, he became hungry and saw a fig tree by the road and found that it had no fruit. Seeing this, Jesus said to the tree that it will no longer bear fruit and then at once the fig tree withered.

Jesus’ disciples were with Him and were amazed and asked Him how did the tree suddenly wither all at once. Jesus said to them that…

“if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.'” (Matthew 21.21-22).

An Object Lesson on Prayer

At first reading, the story seems to show Jesus was vindictive towards the fig tree, but actually, Jesus used the tree as a symbolic act to teach His disciples about the barren faith of Israel.

Object Lesson 1: Religion that is faithless is better off dead. This is the peril of fruitless worship and prayer. The fig tree represented God’s people, the nation of Israel. They were chosen by God, by faith (Genesis 15.6), to be a great nation that would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12.2-3). They were to be God’s light among the gentiles nations (Isaiah 42.6). A priest among the peoples of the earth (Exodus 19.5-6). By the time Jesus came to earth, the religion of Israel was barren and empty. Jesus came looking for fruit among His own people and found nothing. All He could find among them was only criticism among her leaders (Matthew 21.1-17).

The Jewish leaders were more interested in keeping and protecting their faithless, dead religion than to receive the only begotten from heaven who is life and the light of men (John 1.4, 11). So, instead of finding fruit, Jesus found a faithless, barren religion that would be better off as a withered tree than a luscious tree that bore no fruit. Thus, He withdrew His blessing from the nation and soon the religion Israel practiced would wither and die away.

Object Lesson 2: True faith and prayer are a powerful combination. The sign of the withered fig tree amazed Jesus’ disciples. But, what should have really amazed them is His promise of the great things they would see through faith and prayer. Faith and prayer are powerful combinations. When both are in accordance with God’s will they are effective and can accomplish much (James 5.16b). The apostle John states that God does not hear the prayer of sinners (unbelievers), “but, if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears them” (John 9.31). Thus, the object lesson for the disciples here is…

“not to falter in faith, for faith can move mountains; faith can remove all obstacles” as long as it is in accordance to God’s will (John Phillips Commentary).

The mountain that Jesus speaks of represents the temple mount where Israel practiced a dead and faithless religion. Jesus taught His disciples that through faith and prayer, you can uproot this mountain and cast it into the sea. Their faith in Him would remove this obstacle that was blocking many peoples from coming to faith in God through Christ.

Jesus places before His disciples a prayer opportunity that would be in accordance to His will when after He rises from the dead the Holy Spirit would come on them on the day of Pentecost. On that day they would see thousands come to faith in Christ starting in Jerusalem on this mount, to the uttermost part of the world. With the obstacle removed, they would by faith come to know God through Christ and take the gospel into all the world (Acts 2.1-47).

How Does this Relate to our Prayers?

Fruitless prayers are the result of the lack of faith in God. Fruitless prayers are man-centered prayers. They are just as the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were. These kinds of prayers ask for our will to be done, rather than God’s will. The lack of faith is the obstacle that keeps our prayers from being fruitful. These obstacles, like the mountain need to be identified and moved.

How can we identify them? They can be identified in these ways:

  1. The mountain of unbelief. Unbelief means to lack faith. Faith in God, faith in Christ, and faith in His will. The only cure for unbelief is for one to place their faith in Christ alone. This needs to be the center-piece of the disciples’ life. Faith in Christ should be the core foundation of the disciples’ prayers. Faith in Christ is the connecting source to powerful and fruitful prayers.
  2. The mountain of dead religion. One’s spiritual life may actually be as the barren fig tree. It looks healthy. It says all the right words. It seemingly does the right things, but it is fruitless and barren. It is dead. Why?
    • It is void of God’s Word.
    • It is void of the message of the cross.
    • It is void of the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
    • It is void of the works done by faith in Christ according to His will.
  3. The mountain of pride. Pride is another obstacle when it comes to fruitless praying. Pride keeps us from humility and submission to God. This is because of two things:
    • The pride of personal will. I want what I want when I want it. This is self-interest praying.
    • The pride of the flesh. I want to feel good. This is hedonism. This kind of prayer only looks to satisfy one’s flesh.

How Do We Change the Way We Pray?

Humility: We change the way we pray first by humbling ourselves before God (2 Chronicles 7.14). To humble oneself means that one must be willing to die to self. Jesus tells us that…

“if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9.23).

The mark of true humility is when we are able to die to self and follow Christ. His will cannot be your will unless you die. While Jesus was in the garden on the night before He died on the cross became our example of this when praying for the cup of death to pass. But, Jesus knew that his death was the only way to satisfy God’s judgment on sin. Jesus had to die to His will in order to save us from our sins. This is how we change our prayers. Through humility and dying to self.

Faith:  Jesus’ teaching lesson to His disciples was based on a lack of faith among the people of Israel. What kind of faith are we talking about? Where is our faith to be placed? In what or whom should we have faith in?

The Bible tells us that our faith must rest alone in Christ. This is the only link of power that connects us with the One who is power and the glory forever and ever. He is the One who is sovereign overall. He is the One who knows all things. He is the One who is in all places at all times. Our faith must rest in God alone, in Christ alone, by faith alone.

It is faith not only in His will but also in His Word. The righteous man who prays accomplishes much because His delight is in the Word of God and whatever he does he produces fruit because he is connected to the living source of power and life. Just read Psalm 1.

“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1.1-3)


Fruitless praying is the result of the sin of unbelief. But prayers offered in faith produce fruit. It is centered on God’s servant delighting himself in God’s Word and will.

In closing, my prayer for you is still the same as that of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 3.14-19…

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”

This is a fruitful prayer that is praying God’s will for His people. May this be the kind of prayer you offer up to the Lord each day as you walk in His Word, by His might and that you may be found to be a fruit-bearing tree that prospers in and out of season.

Grace and peace! GT

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