We have been talking about the power of prayer at church.
And it is not unusual for people to hear sermons about the power of prayer and to get excited and to go home and to start to pray and then to come crashing down a few weeks later because nothing seems to be happening and so after a little while they end up saying,
“Forget it. This praying thing doesn’t work. At least not for people like me. I give up.”
I mean, we read these great statements about prayer in the Scripture and we hear these sermons motivating us to pray and we go to God in prayer and God doesn’t do what we ask all the time.
Maybe He doesn’t answer when we want Him to or He doesn’t answer the way we want Him to.
And look I am not just talking about silly prayers.
I am not just talking about God help me win the lottery prayers or God help me get that girlfriend prayers. I am talking about significant prayers. Prayers that seem as far as we can tell to be for what is best and yet, sometimes the fact is, even when we speak to God about these kinds of issues, He seems strangely silent.
And what I want to say is that if you have ever struggled with that, and I just can’t imagine if you have ever spent time praying that you haven’t, you are not the first.
Please hear that.
People in the Bible struggled with that.
David is a big example.
I like reading through the psalms because David is so honest and as you read the psalms which are often David’s prayers, you find him struggling with this. He cries out time and time again,
“How long, O Lord?”
He writes at one point,
“Will you reject me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? I wrestle with my thoughts every day and have sorrow in my heart. How long will my enemy triumph over me?”
In other words, God don’t you care?
Here I am crying out to you, and you are not answering! How long does this have to go on?
He gets even more blunt in another Psalm. He says,
“But I, O Lord have cried out to Thee for help and in the morning y prayer comes before Thee. O Lord, why dost Thou reject my soul? Why dost Thou hide Thy face from me?”
This is David saying, God why won’t you answer my prayer?
David was a righteous man, and yet he says at points, it doesn’t feel like my prayers are effective or are accomplishing much.
And it is not just people in the Bible. I have struggled with it.
I remember, a number of years back, Marda and I were reading a biography about a man named George Mueller.
Now, if you know anything about George Mueller you know that he was a man who lived his life to glorify God by demonstrating to the world that God still answers prayer. As you read his biography you are struck one with how devoted he was to prayer, and two how often God answered his prayers in amazing ways. And God really used his story to motivate us to pray. We began praying faithfully for someone we knew who had wandered away from the faith. And about a year later he died. And as far as we know he never truly came to Christ. And honestly that set us back. We prayed and it didn’t seem to accomplish much.
I was at conference one time where one of the speakers was saying that he had challenged his congregation to begin fasting and praying on a regular basis. And he was meeting with a small group in his home, and some of the folks that were there were saying, Pastor we don’t want to do this. Because, they said, it always seems like when we pray and when we fast bad things happen. So we don’t want to go there. We don’t want to lay ourselves on the line like that.
And you know what, those kinds of attitudes aren’t unusual. Some Christians are afraid to pray because they afraid of what God might do in response to their prayers, and other Christians are slow to pray because they figure, God’s going to do what God wants to do anyway.
So why pray?
What’s the use?
This is a significant struggle. It is great to read that prayer is powerful and we can get all excited about it at church, but sometimes you know, we are living life and it’s hard and we are tempted to wonder if prayer is so powerful why doesn’t it always feel like that?
Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers the way we want?
Before we get to the right answer to this question, I thought we could begin at least by taking off the board a couple of flat out wrong answers to the problem of unanswered prayer. Sometimes it helps you get to the right answer by identifying the wrong answers and so over the next couple of posts I am going to show you three clearly wrong answers.
First, it is not first of all because God can’t answer our prayers.
When you think about why is God not answering my prayers the way I would like, the answer has nothing to do with a lack of ability or power.
We know that because Scripture makes it clear that God is not weak. The opposite. He is king. He rules over the earth. He does whatever He wants to do. There is nothing you could ask God that He would be unable to do because He doesn’t have the power or resources to do it.
I mean, listen to some of what the Bible says about what God is like.
“I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
All things is pretty comprehensive.
Psalm 115:3 explains,
“But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”
Which tells us if God wants something to happen, He will make it happen and there’s no one who can stop Him.
Isaiah 14:27 puts it like this,
“For the Lord of hosts has purposed and who can frustrate that? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”
It is almost as if Isaiah is looking around at the entire universe and asking is there anyone who can stop God and the answer of course is no, there isn’t anyone anywhere who can do that.
Daniel 4:35 emphasizes God’s complete control by saying,
“He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’”
While might think of potential problems that would make it, to us, seem like it would be difficult for God to answer our prayer, when we look to the Bible and see what God is like, we discover those things we might call problems are not really problems at all. He is completely sovereign. He not only has the right to rule over all things, He actually does rule over all things.
Take people as an example, especially wicked people. Sometimes it seems like wicked people might be able to stop God from getting done what He wants to get done. You know you are standing at Home Affairs and you are looking at this guy and he doesn’t give a rip about God, can he stop God from doing what God wants, and the answer is no way.
He might make a plan, but God is in control of what actually happens.
Solomon says in Proverbs 16:9,
“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
And again in Proverbs 19:21,
“Many are the plans of a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand.”
And again in Proverbs 21:30,
“There is no wisdom and no understanding, and no counsel against the Lord.”
We might think, yeah I get God’s powerful but these people, these people are so bad and they are in positions of power and they seem so formidable to us. That means, they seem like they have such control.
To get an idea of how powerful and unstoppable God is, I can make this problem worse, let’s just make it as bad as it possibly can be, imagine this, what if you somehow had all the kings of the whole earth in a room and they were all raging against God and trying to overthrow His rule, what would happen then?
Psalm 2 answer that,
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’
He who sits in heavens laughs, the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
What would happen if all the rulers of all the nations combined all their power in an attempt to overthrow God’s rule, would God be scared, not even close, what would happen is God would laugh.
You have to see that there is no comparison between God’s power and that of the most powerful men.
“Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in, who brings princes to nothing; and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely are they sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”
We see the kind of dominating power God has over absolutely everything revealed to us in the person of Jesus.
One of our favorite stories as a family is of Jesus sleeping on the boat in the middle of that raging storm when the disciples were freaking out, and we imagine them shaking Jesus by the shoulders to wake him up and he looks like at them, almost like what are you doing and stands up and says to the storm, shhh, and it stops. Power over the laws of nature, absolute.
When Jesus gets off the boat then, almost immediately as he steps off, there’s crazy man that comes running at him, a man with an unclean spirit and this was a man that lived out among tombs, a man who had been absolutely terrorizing an entire community, who had supernatural kind of strength, they had been trying to bind him, even with chains, and he would wrench the chains apart and break them into pieces, and yet you know when this man sees Jesus, these demons see Jesus, what do they do, they come running to him, and fall before him, and cry out begging, basically, please don’t hurt us. It’s not just nature that can’t stop Jesus from doing what He wants. Demons can’t either.
And you know what, neither can sickness or even death. It is not too long after this that Jesus is walking along with this crowd following him and there’s this woman who had been sick for years and years and she had suffered much under many physicians and she had only gotten worse and she was desperate and so she reaches out and touches Jesus, and just that touch in faith, healed her, immediately.
Which is awesome, but even more amazing, Jesus as he healed her was on his way to visit the daughter of a man named Jairus and by the time Jesus got there, she wasn’t just sick, she was dead but that didn’t scare Jesus, he called death sleeping and went up, even as everyone was laughing at him, and took her hand and said, little girl, I say to you arise, and you know what she did, she arose, she got up
And the point of all those stories is just to say that when you come to God in prayer, you are coming to someone who is in absolute control over everything that scares you.
You may look at a situation in your life that seems impossible, but what seems impossible to you is not impossible to God.
This is why Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, and he’s praising God here after he’s prayed, he says,
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think…”
Which is really such an awesome description of God and really such a practical encouragement for our prayer life. There’s nothing you can ask God that He doesn’t have the power to do. What’s more, there’s nothing you can even think of that God would not have the power to do. What’s more, there’s nothing you can ask or think of that God wouldn’t have far more than enough power to do. It’s like Paul is saying He can do anything you ask Him to do, with power left over. There’s nothing you can think of or ask God that would exhaust His power; which means that however we answer this question, why doesn’t God answer our prayers the way we would like, however we answer this question, one answer we can’t give is that it is because He is not powerful enough.