The Problem of Unanswered Prayer part 5

I wonder if there are promises in the Bible you have a hard time believing.

I think for me some of the promises in the Bible I have the hardest time believing are the promises God makes about prayer.

I am embarrassed to say it.

But I sometimes struggle with the promises God makes about it.

Because God says some things about prayer that are so big they sometimes feel hard for me to believe.

Jesus in particular.

Jesus in particular kind of makes me nervous sometimes when he talks about prayer, because it seems like he is always making these extravagant promises. 

I think you may be familiar with some of the things he says.

Like, for example,

Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

And this isn’t an unusual statement for Him.

Matthew 21:22, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Mark 11:24, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”

One of the reasons Jesus says things like this was obviously to give us as his followers confidence.  He intends to encourage us with these promises.

I think of how after the Lord’s Supper, as he’s preparing his disciples for him to die, Jesus says a number of astounding things about prayer.

While he and the disciples are sitting around the table in,

John 14:13, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Then not very long afterward he says,

John 15:7, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

And as Jesus starts to draw his final words of encouragement to his disciples to a conclusion he says,

16: 23,24, “Truly, truly I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.  Until now, you have asked nothing in my name.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

There are at least six different times when Jesus says something like; “Ask and I will give it to you.”

Which should be really encouraging promises for us in this world, that’s the point, wow, we can pray and be heard, this is awesome but sometimes I think we don’t receive as much encouragement as we should from those kinds of promises because while we would never deny that these promises are true,  there have been many times where it feels like we asked for things in Jesus’ name and we didn’t receive what we asked for and so we wonder if we are missing something.

I know in my life there have been times where I knew I should pray and did pray, but without a lot of confidence.

I guess what I am talking about is a kind of niggling doubt.

Where you to say to yourself,

“Yeah I hear what Jesus is saying about prayer…. But, really?”

It’s like we don’t want to be disappointed and so we try to guard ourselves from really banking on Jesus’ promises.

And while that may seem small, really that kind of doubt about prayer, if it is not confronted, dealt with, is a big deal for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it is a big deal because when we doubt what Jesus says, we doubt Jesus.

Ultimately, we can say all kinds of nice things about it but if I am doubting what Jesus says I am doubting Jesus.

And if we doubt the faithfulness of God and of Jesus to these kinds of promises then really, we are not going to be very motivated to pray.  We are not very motivated to do things that we don’t think work.

And honestly, if we let these doubts linger, they can easily turn into something even worse than just niggling doubts at the back of our hearts, they can turn into bitterness and anger at God for not doing what it seems He says He will do.

I think you have probably seen this, where someone went to a certain kind of church and heard certain things about prayer and tried it, and it didn’t seem to work for them, and then they got so upset that when you try to talk to them about God, they are like, I tried that and it didn’t work and they kind of think the whole thing is a show.

Which is why what I want us to do today is just try to deal with some of the objections our hearts and other people make to the promises Jesus gives us about prayer, straight up.  Because I think many of the reasons people get upset about these promises about prayer and feel like they aren’t working is because they haven’t thought carefully enough about these promises about prayer

The problem is not with the promises, the problem is with the fact that we aren’t listening to the promises carefully enough.

When we look at these big things God says about prayer and then we look at our lives and it doesn’t seem like it’s working the way God says it would, it is easy for us to jump to some wrong conclusions and it is especially easy for us to jump to those wrong conclusions if we have not thought hard enough about what the Bible actually says about prayer

And so I thought what I could do is try to identify some of these wrong conclusions, poor objections to the promises God makes about prayer so that you can really receive the confidence and comfort Jesus intends when He tells us the kinds of things He does about the power of prayer.

We will start with the first and get to the others in future posts.

1.    It doesn’t mean God doesn’t keep His promises about prayer just because He doesn’t answer the prayers of someone He never promised to.

That sounds sort of long and funny, but I think we all understand it would be silly to say someone isn’t faithful to His promises simply because He doesn’t do something for someone He never promised to do something for. 

If I say I am going to give one hundred rand to Joe, then it would be strange for another person named Jack to get upset with me because I didn’t give a hundred rand to him. 

And you know this kind of complaint would be especially unfair if the Person making the promises specifically said that the promises He was making didn’t apply to certain kinds of people.

So if I said Joe I am going to give the money to you and not Jack then it would be really rude and obnoxious for Jack to say that I wasn’t faithful to my promises when I made it very clear I wasn’t making the promise to him.

And the point is while God says many things in the Bible about how He answers prayer and He makes all these great promises it is important to notice that He also says almost just as many things about times in which He will not answer prayer.

There are not only promises in the Bible, there are warnings.  

And so if you are struggling with unanswered prayer one of the first things you can do is check your heart and your life and see if there are some things that are hindering your prayer life.

One kind of person God doesn’t promise to answer is the person who is:

  • Unbelieving

This we see back in James 1:5.

Where you remember, James encourages us to pray by giving us a promise, ‘ask and it will be given to you’  which sounds a little like the way Jesus talks.

But then he immediately qualifies that promise by saying, in verse 6, ‘But let him ask in faith, with no doubting…’ and the reason this is so important he says in verse 7 is because, ‘that person’ the person who doubts, ‘must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.’

So James is clearly saying that these promises about prayer do not apply to someone who doesn’t believe.

And that is something of course Jesus emphasized as well. 

Matthew 11:22,

“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Which is a very clear qualification or condition to the promises Jesus makes about prayer.  Jesus and James both say the person who does not ask in faith should not even suppose he will receive anything from the Lord.

Now we need to think for a moment about what it means to pray in faith because I think sometimes we hear that as a burden. 

We might think to ourselves, “Oh man, if I could only muster up enough faith then God would have to hear me.”

Or someone might say to us, “Your prayers weren’t answered because you didn’t have enough faith.”

It’s almost when they talk like that that they are thinking of faith as a magic ingredient, that you add to prayer.

The idea isn’t if I can just go out there and find enough faith, then maybe somehow I can get God to answer my prayer.  There’s not like a faith meter up in heaven that God is looking at and he is saying oh wait, wait, o.k. he just hit the right amount of faith and now I can answer his prayer.

It seems as if some think if you just add faith to any request, then God has to do it; but of course biblical faith when the Bible talks about it, is not just believing anything.

If I pick up a rock and I say I believe I can throw this three kilometers, that’s not biblical faith, that’s just wishing and it doesn’t matter how much wishing I do, because it’s not grounded on God’s Word.

Biblical faith is always tied to the Word of God, what God has said.

“The nature of a truly faithful prayer is clearly spelled out in 1 John 5:14: “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” In other words, the promise of answered prayer is not an unqualified blank check. The promise is made only to faithful, obedient, sober-minded, biblically informed Christians whose prayers are in harmony with the will of God. It’s not a guarantee of whatever you want to every gullible or superstitious religious enthusiast who uses Jesus’ name as if it were an abracadabra. Jesus said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Even if you think about the passage in James, when James talks about someone who doubts he is talking about someone who appears religious but doesn’t really trust God’s promises of mercy enough to live a life of obedience to God.

That is why he describes the person without faith in James 1:8 as a double-minded man.

To pray without faith is to pray without being willing to fully submit to God’s will.  It’s asking God for help when you really aren’t sure that you want to do what He says.

Which means we can say if you are here and you are religious and you pray and yet you aren’t willing to trust God enough to obey Him then you can’t expect God to answer your prayers, unless of course it is a prayer of repentance. 

You shouldn’t expect it. 

If you are seeking gifts from God but are unwilling to trust God enough to give yourself wholly to God then you can’t really expect anything from God and it’s not fair to complain about God not keeping His promises about prayer because God doesn’t promise to answer the prayers of unbelievers.

In fact the opposite,

Proverbs 15:29

“The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”

A second kind of person God doesn’t promise to answer (flows out of the first) and it is the person who is:

  • Unlistening

There’s a kind of person who asks God for help when he is in trouble, yet in his heart, where nobody sees is unwilling to listen to God anytime else.

Though God comes to him time and time again through His Word, pleading with Him to listen and obey, he keeps turning his ear from listening to God until he’s in trouble and then he’ll get all religious and call on God, but it is not sincere, it is just to ask God to get him out of trouble so he can do what he wants to do again more easily.

God is not fooled by people like that.

The book of Proverbs is clear.

That kind of person should not expect God to hear His prayer.  If you won’t listen to God you can’t expect God to listen to you.

In Proverbs 1:23 and 24, wisdom comes and cries out,

“If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you.  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.  Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me.”

And that principle is certainly true when it comes to God and prayer. 

Proverbs 28:9 is very direct, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.”

You can’t get very upset with God for not answering the prayer of someone who is merely pretending to pray.  And there’s a whole lot of praying that is nothing more than that.  It’s praying on the outside and not in the heart, it’s directing your words to God while looking to the world for solutions, its just going through the motions, and those kinds of prayers don’t impress God, instead they are an abomination to God. 

A third kind of person God doesn’t promise to answer (and again this is similar) is the person who is:

  • Unrighteous

God doesn’t promise to answer the prayers of the unbelieving, the unlistening or the unrighteous.

If you remember, when we talked about the power of prayer, we looked at James 5:16 says which says, “The prayer of a righteous person is effective and accomplishes much.”

The qualification there being righteous.

Now the problem is we sometimes think that because we come to church, we are living righteous lives, but there’s more to righteousness than that.

In fact, if you remember in James 4, James talks about two kinds of worldly people. 

There are some people who are worldly and they don’t ever pray. 

That’s the kind of worldly person we are used to.

James 4:2b, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”

But there’s another kind of worldly person, and it is someone who does pray.

James 4:3, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

The point being that just because someone is praying with their lips doesn’t mean they are all that different in their heart than the person who is not praying at all; the person who is praying can be just as opposed to God as the person who isn’t praying; and James is saying if your basic approach to God is one where you are only concerned about what you want, and you are not listening to what He wants, then you are setting yourself up as His enemy and you shouldn’t be surprised He doesn’t hear your prayers.

You might look kind of religious on the outside because your praying, but on the inside, your really just about yourself and you are  using God to get what He wants.

Prayer isn’t a trick to help you be more sinful.  If you won’t listen to God then you can’t really expect God to listen to you.

A fourth kind of person God doesn’t promise to answer may be a little more surprising, and that is the person who is:

  • Uncaring

If you are not generous with others, you can’t expect God to be generous to you.

Proverbs 21:13 puts it like this, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”

This is actually something of a small theme in the Old Testament.  Those whose hearts are so hard that they won’t listen to others in need will not be listened to by God when they are in need. In Proverbs that hardness is evidenced by a lack of generosity.  In other places, it’s evidenced by taking advantage of others for your own good.

Like In Isaiah 1:15, God comes to the nation of Israel and he tells them, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your deeds before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Even though God says that He won’t listen to their prayers until they turn from this self-centered way of living, the people have a hard time processing that and in Isaiah 58, they actually come to God and they ask, “Why have we fasted and you see it not?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”  They are asking, in other words, why aren’t you paying attention to us? And God answers them, “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.  Fasting like yours this day, will not make your voice to be heard on high.”

That is pretty direct of God, I think.  He says it doesn’t matter how loudly you cry, if you fast and pray when your heart is hard towards others, then you can’t expect me to hear you.  God won’t show mercy to those who don’t show mercy themselves.

A fifth kind of person God says he won’t hear is someone who is, 

  • Unfaithful

Now with all of these, unbelieving, unlistening, unrighteous, uncaring, and now unfaithful I think it is important to note that we are not meriting God’s answers to our prayers through obedience.  Answers to prayers cost way too much for us to ever be able to purchase them through our obedience.  It’s only Jesus who could merit answers to prayers for us through His work on the cross. 

But at the same time it is pretty clear in the Scriptures there is a connection between the way you are living and God’s response to your praying. 

For example in Malachi 2:13 and 14, where God’s people come to him and ask again why it seems like He is not hearing their prayers and He gives them two reasons, the first is that they are disobeying His law and were marrying women who he said they should not marry and, the second, verse 13, “This second thing you do, ‘You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.  But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”

The New Testament makes a connection between a husband’s relationship with his wife and his relationship with God as well in 1 Peter 3:7.

Peter says, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”

Now there’s some discussion as to exactly how a person’s prayers are hindered by not showing honor to his wife, but the point here is that they are.  You cannot disconnect your relationship with other people and your relationship with God.

I think there are a few more “uns” we could walk through in terms of people God doesn’t promise to answer, but I am hoping you see at the very least that it is no good objection to these promises Jesus makes about prayer to say that He’s not faithful to His promises when He doesn’t keep His promise to someone He specifically says the promise doesn’t include in the first place.

And when you are struggling with unanswered prayer, before you get upset with God, you should use that as an opportunity to take the Word of God and evaluate your life. 

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