Rebekah led us through our evening service today with this message on The Problem of Unanswered Prayer
God loves to answer prayer. He answers to bring Glory to his Name – it would not be in his character not to answer.
It has often been said that God always answers prayer, but his answers can either be “Yes”, “No” or “Later”.
There are numerous examples of God answering prayers in the bible, and in our own experiences today. The Lord regularly gives us what we ask for: forgiveness, healing, peace, our daily bread and many other blessings, both big and small. Let’s remember to thank God for these answers and not to take them for granted.
“Unanswered” prayers fall into two categories. They are either prayers for which God has given the answer “no”, or they are prayers for which we do not yet know God’s answer. However, there are times when God just seems to ignore our prayers. And I’m not talking here about the sorts of prayers like “please Lord, don’t let it rain at the church picnic”. I’m talking about prayers that we’ve prayed with tears, day and night for very long periods of time – prayers which deeply affect those close to us and those around us for many years to come. Prayers that we are sure would bring glory to God’s name if he answered them, and sure that they would not bring glory if he did not answer them! (And yet the answer still seems to be no). This has happened to me, I expect it has happened to others too. Christians can find these times very perplexing. We struggle to reconcile our experiences with the wonderful promises that Jesus made in the New Testament, e.g. Ask and it will be given to you (Luke 11: 9).
What, then, is going on, and how do we respond to these difficulties? Firstly, let’s recognise that these problems are not unique to us, but occurred many times in the bible too. Secondly, let’s learn from the examples of those given in scripture how we should respond when God appears to be deaf to our prayers.
2. BIBLICAL PRECEDENTS
My first example of God not answering prayer is that of King David. You will remember that David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then arranged for her husband to be killed in the battle so he could take Bathsheba as his wife. To punish David, God had told him, through the prophet Nathan, that their son would die.
Reading 1 2 Sam 12:15-18
After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground but he refused and he would not eat any food with them. On the seventh day the child died.”
David’s prayers were real, fervent and genuine. God sometimes does change his mind about punishing people when they repent, like the people of Nineveh in Jonah 3: 7-10. And, if it were true that God does not answer the prayers of people who have sinned, then there wouldn’t be any hope for any of us when we pray!
My second example is that of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
Reading 2 Mark 14:33-42.
Jesus took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping, “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.
Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.
Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Notice that Jesus prayed, “Everything is possible for you.” Peter reminded us a few weeks ago that God is Almighty and can do anything he chooses. His almighty power is only constrained by his character and his purposes.
But in the Garden of Gethsemane, we have Jesus, God the Son, praying with desperate tears and overwhelming sorrow, and not receiving what he asked for. Jesus, himself, knew what it was like to have his prayers unanswered! He really did not want to go through with this, and he asked that the cup would pass. The Father’s will was not absolutely clear to him yet. Was there any other way that people could be saved? And the answer was NO!
There are also many examples of people in the bible having to wait considerable periods of time for God to answer their prayers, or fulfil what God had promised to them. For example, we remember…
• Abraham waiting to father Isaac (Gn 18:10-12)
• The Israelites as oppressed slaves in Egypt, waiting for God to deliver them (Ex 2: 23-25)
• Job waiting for relief from his afflictions
• Old Simeon, waiting for the salvation of Israel and to see the Lord’s Christ before he died (Lk2:25-32)
• Mary and Martha, waiting 3 days for Jesus to come to their sick brother (Jn:11,1-6)
• Disciples, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit (Ac 1:12-14)
• Today we are waiting, with the rest of creation, for the New Heaven and the New Earth, when God’s rule will be complete and all his promises will come to final fulfilment (Rom 8: 18-25)
3. HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND WHEN WE DO NOT SEE OUR PRAYERS ANSWERED?
i. Seek to develop the prophetic gifts – so we understand what God is saying to us.
This will help us in two ways.
Firstly, if we are in close fellowship with God, like the branches abiding in the vine, and if we are seeking His voice, we will be more finely tuned into what His will is in any situation. This helps us to pray according to the will of God. Fewer of our prayers will be at odds with God’s will. This is one of the meanings of praying “in Jesus’ name”.
Secondly, we will begin to discern God’s answers to our prayers more accurately. For example, we will begin to tell the difference between a “later” answer and a “no” answer. It will also help us to recognise a “yes” answer when the answer we receive is not exactly how we expected it to be. This is because God is able to respond to our much deeper needs, which often lie behind our imperfect prayers.
ii. Don’t make the mistake of thinking of prayers as “my prayers”.
Reading 3 Rev 8:3-4
“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”
As Christians, we are all members of the body of Christ together. The prayers of all the saints together rise up to God in heaven. Therefore, if we pray for something and it is not answered immediately, but is answered when someone else prays, then it is still our prayers together with theirs that have been answered.
For example, when I was at school, I regularly prayed for my best friend, Rebecca to become a Christian. I invited her to our church youth events and talked to her about Jesus at every opportunity. Although she came to some of our “outreach” events, she didn’t become a Christian. Years later, after we’d grown up and moved away from each other, I had a letter from her “out of the blue”. She said that she’d become a Christian and she thanked me for witnessing to her at school! Obviously, others must have talked with her and prayed for her in the intervening period, but it was still an answer to my prayers from years ago too!
Peter Thomas also has two example of this. Many years ago, the House Group he led prayed earnestly for the healing of the son of one their group. The prayer was not answered at the time. Years later, when the boy was a teenager, he prayed for his own healing and received it! Secondly, when Peter was leading a Crusader Camp as “chaplain”, one of the other leaders had a back injury. The leaders prayed publicly for his healing, but nothing happened. However, that night in their tents, the youngsters decided to pray for his healing, and the next morning the back injury was dramatically healed! These young people needed to know that their own prayers were powerful and effective.
iii. Be honest with God and each other.
E.g. Jesus’ healing of the blind man in Mk 8: 22-26. After Jesus had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked him whether he could see anything. “I see people like trees walking” was the reply. If that man had not been honest, but had claimed that he had been healed, then would Jesus have been able to complete the second part of the healing?
I’ve met people who do not admit that God has not answered their prayers. Perhaps they are embarrassed about this, or ashamed of God’s “inability” to act. God is capable of looking after the Honour of his Name, without us pretending or jumping through hoops to claim that He has answered our prayer! I’ve heard people say things like “I’ve been prayed for; therefore I claim the healing even though I do not see the evidence of it yet. I will therefore stop taking medication…” as if they dare not admit that God has not answered the prayer. That response does not glorify God; it is false gods who need men to make excuses for them, not the Sovereign Lord.
iv. Surrender your will to God’s will.
Now this is a biggie! And it’s tough! It is one thing to let God have His way in our lives when what we want is more-or-less what God wants. But God is not Lord of our lives unless we submit to His will when it is precisely against what we want for ourselves! To do this involves a great struggle in prayer. It is not easy. It is like wrestling with God. It will involve tears, maybe fasting, sleepless nights and more. But if we belong to the Lord, he will claim Lordship over every area of our lives. The only way for us to continue to walk with him is to let go of whatever it is that we’re holding on to, and to cling to God himself.
Examples in the bible include Abraham, as he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac; Mary, as she let go of her hopes for her future; Jesus in Gethsemane and Paul as he accepted that God was not going remove his “thorn in the flesh”. We need to realise that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Even though we may not understand what God is doing, or why, we need to trust that His eternal purposes are good and true, and he is working these out in the world. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12).
v. Address your anger, doubt, sorrow, frustration, disappointment in prayer to God.
E.g. Ps 10 “Why O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble… Why?… Why?” Jesus: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Job: “If I have sinned what have I done to you O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offences and forgive my sins?” (Job 7:20-21). Even by praying in these “negative” ways, we are glorifying God’s name by acknowledging that He is in control, even though we cannot understand what He is doing.
When you are so distressed that you can’t pray, you may find it helpful to pray the Psalms. There are many Psalms of lament. They are not only a record of what David prayed, but they have also been given to us to help us in our praying.
vi. Don’t take it as personal rejection by God.
Remember, that God is working out his eternal purposes in the world, and these are so much greater than just providing for our own personal comforts and desires (e.g. Jonah 4:8). God has already done everything necessary to show his love for us – sending Jesus to die for us – sending Holy Spirit to comfort and strengthen us – giving his word to teach us and encourage us. We do not need any more signs that he loves us. Therefore, when God leads us through difficult times and does not answer our prayers, it does not mean he’s abandoned us or forsaken us. It may be to develop our faith, perseverance & maturity (James 1:2-4).
vii. Be prepared to wait.
(And while waiting respond to God with worship and faith.)
The book of Habakkuk has been a tremendous encouragement to me as I’ve been grappling with the problem of unanswered prayer. It is worth a complete study in its own right. Briefly, though, God seemed to be inactive when his people were suffering violence and injustice by a nation invading them. Habakkuk questioned God about this, and God’s reply was that things were going to get even worse! Habakkuk then recalled God’s powerful acts of salvation throughout Israel’s history. He prayed for God to act again in Habakkuk’s present situation. God revealed a vision of the eventual punishment of the nation invading them, but said that it was not going to happen any time soon. Habakkuk’s response was to vow to praise God, despite his present circumstances.
Reading 4 Habakkuk 3:16-19
I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength, he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to go on the heights.
The last verse in Habakkuk’s prayer leads us onto number viii which is…
Viii Receive God’s strength to cope with the situation.
Listen again to what Habakkuk said, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength, he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to go on the heights.”
Like Habakkuk, we will receive God’s strength to cope, in even the worst circumstances, when we spend time praying in the ways that I’ve been describing above. It was while Jesus was praying in Gethsemane that the angels strengthened him so he could face crucifixion. It was after Paul had prayed three times for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” that he received the assurance that God’s grace was sufficient for him.
ix. Pray for one-another
For this final point, I just want to read 2 Cor 1:8-11:
Paul says: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”
While God graciously answers many of our prayers, there are times when our prayers seem to be ignored by God. This is not unique to us, but happened to many faithful believers in the Old and New Testaments. The bible gives us help and guidance about how to deal with this – and the result is that our faith is strengthened by such experiences.
We should respond by seeking to develop prophetic gifts; by being honest about unanswered prayers; by surrendering our will to God’s will; by addressing our anger, doubt, sorrow, frustration, and disappointment in prayer to God. We should be prepared to wait for God’s timing, and while waiting we should ask God to give us the strength to cope with our situation. Lastly we should pray for one another, especially when we know that people are going through testing times. God may allow us to suffer for a time. He may even use suffering as a punishment. But he remains the only Saviour able to deliver us from trouble.