One of the reasons unanswered prayer is a problem is because of all we have in the Bible that leads us to think God will answer our prayers. In the Bible God makes some really big and awesome promises regarding what happens when a Christian comes to Him in prayer. Though He is way above us and He doesn’t need us, He is the kind of God who is more than happy to listen when poor, little people like us come to Him for help in faith.
For example, He says in Hebrews 4:16 that we are to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence to find help in our time of need. And, what’s more, God doesn’t only promise to listen to our prayers, He commits Himself to doing something about what we ask and He does so in a big with statements, like the one in James 5, where he says, the prayers of a righteous man are effective and accomplish much.
This is actually one of the ways God sets Himself apart from false gods – He is the God who hears and answers prayers.
Idols obviously don’t do that, because they are not real. And the devil doesn’t do that, because he doesn’t know everything and besides that he hates people and he wouldn’t want to help anyone anyway.
But God does. He is different. He does know what’s going on with us. He does care, and He has gone to great lengths to make it possible for us to come to Him and to come to Him with confidence. This is actually part of what is happening with what Jesus did. There’s lots of reasons in us why God shouldn’t hear our prayers, but through what Jesus did, God the Father takes away every reason we as believers might have for thinking that He might not hear our prayers.
We might think our guilt would keep Him from hear our prayers, but through His death Jesus made atonement for our sin, meaning we have been forgiven and there’s no guilt that stands in between us and God the Father any longer.
Or we might think our own inability to speak clearly and say what we are wanting from Him in a way that matches up with how great He is might hinder our prayers, but because of Jesus God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us pray and Jesus Himself is standing at the right hand of God and you know what He is doing He is interceding, making requests on behalf of us.
When it comes to prayer, we as believers have absolutely every reason to think that God would hear and answer our prayers.
This is not wishful thinking.
We have things He said. We have promises He made. We have what the Bible tells us about what He is like. We have the work of Christ. And you know, on top of all that, we have proof. We have examples all throughout the Scripture of times when God heard and answered prayer and He did so in a big way.
You want to talk answered prayer, think about Jacob and Esau. You remember how Esau hated his brother Jacob and for a little bit of a good reason because Jacob had deceived him and stolen his birthright and Jacob as a result, was pretty frightened when he was coming back home about meeting Esau, especially when he heard that Esau was coming out against him with four hundred men, and Jacob did not have the resources to stand strong against an army like that, and so he prayed and God heard and changed the heart of this evil man Esau, so that he was actually happy to meet the brother who had taken his inheritance.
Or take the Israelite people themselves who were slaves in Egypt to a Pharaoh who could care less about the true God and who was using the Israelites to do everything the Egyptians didn’t want to do themselves and who had so much power that he could actually force the Israelites to murder their own babies, and how in this hopeless situation, the people of Israel called out to God and He heard their prayers and came down and delivered them in a dramatic, only God can do that fashion.
Then there was Joshua and this is a difficult one to understand exactly how it happened, but I think of how Joshua after battling with the Gibeonites spoke to God and said in the presence of everyone, “Sun stand still” and what happened next kind of boggles our imagination, because the Bible says that God heard his prayer, “And the sun stood still.”
And how about of course Elijah who we read about in James who had a nature like ours and prayed earnestly that it might not rain and it did not rain for three and a half years and then he prayed that it would rain and it did rain and the earth went back to working like normal.
Or Asa, which is a story that I wasn’t as familiar with, but Asa was king of Israel and there was an Ethiopian army that arose to come against him and this was a huge army, something like a million warriors in all and Asa of course was frightened and so he cried out to God, and God heard and the Lord defeated the Ethiopians, absolutely routed them actually, with Asa and the people pursuing them, until as 2 Chronicles 14:13 tells us, “the Ethiopians fell until none remained alive, for they were broken before the Lord and His army.”
And so what I am saying is it is not really surprising to meet a person who is a believer who really expects that when he prays God hears Him and that God wants to and is able to answer his prayers in surprising and astounding and tremendous ways, because the Bible leads us to expect God to work in our lives like that, and here’s the thing, it’s because of all the Bible says about God and prayer and all these proofs we read in the Bible of how God answers prayer that makes it so hard sometimes to understand why when we pray and pray and pray that He doesn’t always answer our prayers like that.
Like, we have been praying as a church that God would help us find a place to meet in the morning that is a little closer to Sunnyside that we could use more freely and we have been praying that for like three years now and the only thing we can see happening with our eyes is that we are still meeting in this chapel here at the Lutheran seminary in the afternoons with our rent going up.
And there are people we have been praying for, that they would be able to find a new job, and the purpose of finding a new job is not just to make more money but so that they could have a job where they had off on Sundays and could come to church and be part of the church on a more regular basis, and for some of those people, we have been praying this for a very long time, like years and you know what, some of them are still working on Sundays and still not able in any real way to be a vital part of the church.
I know someone who used to be very close to me, and he’s turned his back on the faith, and he’s hard towards God and there’s a friend of mine, who has been praying for him for I can’t believe it, but probably getting on twenty years now and from my perspective, when I look at what’s happening, he only seems to be getting harder and harder to reach.
We expect God to answer prayer, not because of what we want, but because of what He has said, and yet there are times where we pray and pray and pray, and from our perspective, it doesn’t seem to work, and that is a problem and I will tell you why it is a problem, it is a problem because if we do not have a good, solid biblical answer to why it’s happening, then it could tempt us to stop praying, to get angry with God, maybe even for some to lose faith.
Which is why we began just kind of searching through our Bible to see if God gives us any help with this, and He does, and if you remember we began with trying to identify some of the absolute wrong answers to this question and we said there were at least three things we as Christian’s can’t say when God doesn’t answer the way we like, it’s first not because He is not strong enough, it’s second, not because He is not interested enough and it’s third, not because He is not generous enough.
But of course knowing the wrong answers is not quite enough, it is a start but not enough, and so today we want to try to go further and start thinking through a more positive kind of answer to the problem of unanswered prayer, and I thought I could start to help you understand a little of why God doesn’t always answer your prayers the way you want by saying that you are not always going to fully understand why God doesn’t always answer your prayers the way you want.
This is going to take us a little while to answer probably, but today, what I want us to focus on when it comes to unanswered prayer, are certain truths about God, and that’s because you can’t really go deeper or further into what the Bible teaches about unanswered prayer without understanding some very basic things about God and the very first thing you need to understand about God is the fact that He is God and you are not.
Our first step towards dealing the problem of unanswered prayer begins with a proper perspective on who is actually God. So that’s point number one, when you think about unanswered prayer and you are struggling, remember God is God and you are not.
If you want an illustration of this, think about Job.
And what we see in Job is we are not always going to understand everything about the way God works because He is God. He is different than us. In a lot of ways.
We are limited. We can only see part of what is happening. He sees it all. He is perfect in wisdom. We are not. He understands absolutely everything. We have a hard time understanding the simplest thing. And I am not trying to be overly simplistic here and I am not going to stop here, I don’t think should answer everyone who is struggling with unanswered prayer by just saying hey God is God and you are not, but I do think it is important to make this point.
It should not be surprising to us that we can’t fully understand everything God does because we are not God. As parents you know your children have lots of things they want and they really want you to get what they want. And when you say no, they sometimes are upset. Sometimes they get really upset. And you try to explain it to them and there are times when they just can’t understand because they are children and they don’t know as much as you do. You know because you are their parent that what you are doing is for their best, but they can’t understand that and so they get upset about it.
I think about this almost every time I have to take one of my children to the doctor for a shot. I can see the fear in their eyes and I understand it because I hated shots as well, and sometimes you know this, children will get so upset about the shot that they will cry out to you to take them away from the doctor and they can’t understand why you don’t. Now if you answer their cries, they would be happy, they would think wow, my dad really loves me, but in reality, by not answering their cries, by forcing your child to receive the shot, you are loving them more, not less. And the same of course is true with God and our unanswered prayers. Of course, sometimes we are going to have a hard time understanding how God not answering our prayer is God loving us, but we have to realize at the beginning as we think about this, that it shouldn’t surprise us that we don’t fully understand everything about what God’s doing because He’s God and we as believers don’t trust God because we can always explain what He is doing, that’s not the basis of our trust, it makes to me, no we trust God even when we can’t understand what He’s doing because we know who He is.
That’s the thing, we know who He is.
And I think a book of the Bible that provides a good illustration of this is the book of Job.
Which is definitely worth taking the time to study in depth along the way.
But for now, maybe just remember the story.
You have Job.
Who was a righteous man. In fact, we read in verse 1 of chapter 1, “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.” And because of that actually, because of his righteousness, Satan goes to God and asks if he can test him, and God allows him to do so. And so Job’s life gets more difficult, not because he was sinning but because he was righteous and what happens next in the story, is that Job loses almost everything. It gets so bad that his wife tells him to curse God and die, and his friends come over and they start to question Job’s integrity. They think Job must have sinned to get this punishment. And Job in the middle of this begins to cry out to God, but here’s the thing, God doesn’t seem to answer his prayers, and Job begins to struggle with that.
He says in Job 6:8, “Oh that my request might come to pass, and that God would grant my longing.” In other words, God here I and I am crying out to you and you don’t seem to be listening. I just want you to answer my prayer and you don’t seem to be listening and Job even begins to get angry and he says,
And then again in Job 19:7-11, “Look, I cry ‘Violence’ but I get no answer; I shout for help but there is no justice. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass. And he has put darkness on my paths. He has stripped my honor from me and removed the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side and I am gone, and he has uprooted my hope like a tree.” Here I am, Job is saying, and here is a righteous man and he’s crying out to God and not only does God not answer him, to Job, it seems like God has actually turned against him.
And how does God respond to that? I mean, how does God answer Job’s problem of unanswered prayer? We find His answer in Job 38 through 42 and you know, what’s interesting is that He never really fully explains why exactly He didn’t answer his prayers the way Job wanted.
Instead you know what he does?
He reminds Job of who He is and what He’s like.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel, by words without knowledge. Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you and you will instruct Me!”
It is like God is coming to Job and saying to him, ‘O.k., let me understand this. You are concerned about the way I am treating you. And you are upset that I am not answering your prayers the way you would like. Well, let us think about this. I wonder, have you ever created a universe? Can you speak and worlds come into existence? Why don’t you explain to me the way absolutely everything works. Oh, you can’t do that? Then you should be careful when you argue with me?
I am God.
And you need to remember you are not.’
Which I understand is pretty straight up, but there are times when we need to be put in our place. This isn’t the only answer to unanswered prayer, God doesn’t always say, look I am God and you are not, end of discussion, but and here’s the key, it’s like with children, sometimes as a parent you need to explain your reasons, but there are other times with children where it would not be helpful at all to explain all of our reasons for doing what we are doing because they are too young to understand.
I have seen this in the grocery store and you probably have as well, where the child really wants a candy bar or something and the dad or mom says no and the child begins to argue and they go back and forth, yes, no, yes, no and the parent gets down and tries to have a conference with the child explaining all their reasons and when that doesn’t work they start making threats, I am going to leave you at the grocery store if you don’t stop crying and you want to go over there and say, look, you are the parent and you are the child and that’s really it, that’s the end of the story. And it’s important children understand that because there are times when you are not going to have the time to explain everything, like when they are running out into the road and they are about to be hit by a car, you are not going to have time to sit down and have a conference with them about why you are yelling no, don’t do that and the same is true in our relationship with God.
It’s not always harsh for God to say I am God and you are not. It is helpful, because look if you or I try to be God, we are going to tire ourselves out. I can’t be God. I don’t know all that. I can’t understand all that. And so I need to focus on being who I am, a creature and I need to focus on the fact that though I can’t understand everything He does, because He is God and I am not.
So when you are on your knees and you are struggling with unanswered prayer, a good place to begin is by reminding yourself of who God is and who you are. It is like you are there groaning and you are saying God what is happening, have you forgotten me, and then in the next breath, you can’t stop there, you need to say to yourself, to God, even though this hurts, God I know you are in charge, God I know you are good, and God I know you are totally worthy of my trust.
It is like you have to reason with yourself when there don’t seem to be reasons, and you reason with yourself by remembering who God is and that though you may not completely understand what He’s doing, you do know who He is, and sometimes that’s all you have got and that is enough.