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The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

In Psalm 22 David says, “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer…” Why do we pray to God and he does not answer? Or at least he doesn’t seem to answer. That is the problem of unanswered prayer.

We pray and pray for something. Sometimes for weeks or months, or even years. It might be for healing from cancer,

…for someone we love to come to know the Lord,

…for a better financial situation,

…or for a change in some situation that surely seems in line with God.

But what we pray for doesn’t happen. Or we pray and nothing happens and God seems silent.

“My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer…”

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”[1]

He said, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”[2]

Why do our prayers seem unanswered? Short answer: I don’t know. (Let’s stand for the benediction.)

I don’t know that there is a nice clean, neat, tidy answer. As always we have to do some seeking. Read Scripture. And ask the Holy Spirit to help us.

It could be that our prayers are unanswered because our motives are wrong.

Maybe our words are wrong.

Maybe we don’t have enough faith. Or perhaps our life is out of touch with God, or we really don’t even know him.

These are explanations that people have given and they all have some merit but I don’t think they are necessarily always true. They can also be burdens we place on ourselves when prayers aren’t answered. We ended up weighed down by our own failure and incompetence when that might not be the case at all.

Maybe we need more faith, but in Hebrews 11 we get a list of those who we are told lived by tremendous faith, and it says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised…” They had great faith but still didn’t get what they hoped for. It goes on to say, “…since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” God had something better.[3]

Maybe it takes more faith to pray and not to receive than to get what we pray for.

Maybe our life isn’t in a whole relationship with God. Job had his life right with God but still he suffered huge loss without explanation from God. He cried out to God and took God on, but it didn’t matter.

Jesus prayed in Gethsemane for God to spare him the cross. I don’t question his motives, words, faith, or his relationship with the Father. Yet, God did not answer his prayer as he hoped.

Paul, as faithful a servant of Christ as there ever was, pleaded with the Lord three times for this “thorn” he speaks of to be removed. He saw it as messing with his ability to serve Christ. And it hurt, whether he was speaking physically, emotionally, or mentally. Paul not only prayed but he thought he knew what the right answer was, which was that God should remove it. But Paul’s answer wasn’t what he expected. God didn’t change whatever that was. The lesson he learned went much deeper. The Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus didn’t tell him to be content, or to learn to live with it, or that suffering makes you stronger, or to rely on his inner resources. The Lord didn’t provide an explanation. No, Paul was told that he was to be dependent on the grace of Jesus.

Grace is more than just forgiveness for the undeserving. Grace is the strength God gives. Grace is God working for us despite our sin, suffering, and imperfection. Grace is God carrying us through whatever we might go through.

God doesn’t always give understanding. He gives grace. And grace helps us live with what we don’t see or understand. Sometimes we have to trust God is at work though we don’t see how.

Think of a political prisoner. She sits in a cell wondering if she will ever get out. Her captors say that everyone has forgotten about her. She struggles with that reality, still hoping that something will be done for her release. But everything is silent and she hears nothing. The days, weeks, maybe years go by.

But outside that cell people are working frantically for her release. Negotiations are taking place. Meetings are being held. A lot is actually happening.

At some point in our lives we pray for something but we aren’t sure God is still there for us. It seems like all is lost yet he is working in ways we can’t see. And as hard as it is, we have to rest in that grace even with our tears, heartache, and disappointment.

If our prayers seem to be unanswered there are some things that we can look at in our praying. A wise pastor provided a list of things to make sure our prayers are on target:

1. What do I really want? Am I being specific, or am I just rambling about nothing in particular?

2. Can God grant this request? Or is it against God’s nature to do so?

3. Have I done my part? Or am I praying for better finances when I am not watching my spending?

4. How is my relationship with God? Are we on speaking terms?

5. Who will get the credit if my request is granted? Do I have God’s interests in mind?

6. Do I really want my prayer answered? What would happen if I actually did get that condo?[4]

Sometimes all these things can line up and still prayer is unanswered.

But maybe there is no such thing as “unanswered” prayer. Maybe all prayers are answered.

Our prayer could appear unanswered because God is asking something of us. Maybe God is asking us to be part of the solution.

Is there need of reconciliation with someone?

Is there need of more love, a shifting of our priorities, further communication, or for us to become involved in some way?

Do we need to change or take a step?

Could I be part of the answer I am praying for?

God might answer “no.” Or the answer might be “not yet.” Or it might be “not in that way.” Maybe God is asking us to wait. Maybe the waiting is needed for us, or in us, or for others. There is a lot of mention of waiting in the Bible. There is a lot of mention of people who waited and waited in prayer.

Israel suffered under slavery in Egypt for centuries before the Lord finally called Moses and did something. Why? And why did God wait so long to send his Son? But he did at the right time.

I don’t always know what is best for me. I don’t always see the big picture. The Bible shows us that God’s work can often take a lot of time.

Sometimes we pray as if prayer is a short story. It’s quick and easy. Just a few pages. Simple plot. But God wants us to pray as if our prayer were an epic that unfolds over a long period of time. Whether we like it or not, God is not in a hurry. He has his own timing.[5]

Do we always know what is best for us? Do we see the big picture?

Bob Mitchell was the interim pastor before me at Mount Olympus Church in Salt Lake City. Bob was previously the president of Young Life and the vice president of World Vision. Back in 1955 he was good friends with a man named Jim Elliot, who had moved to Peru with his wife and baby daughter, to do missionary outreach to the Auca Indians. This was in a very remote area and the Indians were hostile to outsiders.

Jim asked Bob, and many, many others, to pray for them. People and churches prayed for the gospel to come to these people and for God to do a fruitful work.

Within months, Jim Elliot and four others were killed by members of the very tribe they were trying to share the love of Christ with. Bob’s prayer was not answered, at least as he could see.

Years went by. And Bob was at a conference in Europe for evangelists. He ran into an old friend in an elevator who introduced him to an evangelist from South America. As the conversation went on Bob Mitchell learned that this evangelist was one of the Auca Indians who had murdered his friend and the other missionaries.

The rest of the story is that the wives of the murdered missionaries stayed. At great risk they continued to minister. The tribe was so taken that the families would remain and show care after killing these men that they softened and a pathway of ministry opened. Jim Elliot’s wife, Elisabeth wrote about this in a book called “Through Gates of Splendor” which became a best seller.

Bob Mitchell’s prayer had been answered. Really it was for the message of Jesus to come to this tribe. But it was not answered in a way he had expected or wanted. The tribe of Auca Indians had become Christians in part because of the death of those men.[6]

Remember the heart of our faith is the cross. The heart of our faith is also the resurrection. But first there was the cross. We have to see everything in our lives through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and that can take a lot of faith sometimes. But that cross is redemption because God is the God of resurrection.

Years ago a pastor named John Wimber had a tremendous healing ministry. I read and listened to him quite a bit, wanting to get in touch with healing people through prayer. What a wonderful thing. He was not showy or flashy. He was very grounded, biblical, and God blessed him with a gift of healing prayer. Thousands of people experienced incredible healings from cancer, arthritis, and even limb deformities. But Wimber always said that resurrection is the ultimate healing. Even if someone is not healed in this life and dies, and ultimately that will be all of us, to be with the Lord, whole, complete, at peace and in the light of his love is the best that could happen for us.

Wimber himself, a man who healed many through prayer, died of cancer.

There was a man named Dr. Hoste who was a missionary in China. He thought the best thing that he could do was to pray for the mission, for its success and its spread. He would pray for hours each day. He would pray for every missionary and their family by name. But when Chairman Mao came to power Mao threw out all seven thousand missionaries in China. All those missionaries Hoste had prayed for were gone. There was great despair that the little church in China would dissolve without outside help.

Yet, if you know anything about the church in China you know that under a Communist regime that is hostile to Christianity, the greatest revival in terms of number happened. No one knows for sure but estimates of the number of Christians in China are in the millions. Did you know the church has been on fire there for a long time? Dr. Hoste could have never foreseen that this was how God was going to move as he prayed.[7]

Life is challenging for Christians in China. Many cannot be too open about their faith. It is not uncommon for a disciple of Jesus Christ in China to be jailed. There are thousands who are locked up even now. It’s interesting, they don’t always pray for freedom. They pray for the courage to be a bold witness whether in prison or outside. They don’t pray for protection but for stronger faith and courage. And the church is growing.

In the earliest days of Christianity, when it was illegal to be a Christian, and Christians would be arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and often put to death, they would pray that God would be glorified in their death and that people would see their witness and come to faith. We have writings and prayers of these people, who are sometimes called the Christian martyrs, that testify to this.

Talk about praying with faith. “God, whatever happens may you be glorified.”

Back to Psalm 22. David wants to know why God does not answer him. But in that psalm he prays to the same God with whom he wonders about. He prays, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” (v. 11) God, you are all I’ve got. The God who appears to be silent is the God he knows he needs.

And then, David goes from despairing about why God doesn’t answer his prayer to praise. Later in the Psalm he says, “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him!” Though he has no reason to think that God will rescue him, he still affirms that God is around and that his suffering is not because God is scorning him. And if our prayers seem unanswered it is not because God wants to teach us a lesson.

I know there are people in this room who are praying fervently for something or someone that is at the center of your heart. Sometimes we have prayed for that in our Prayers of the People. Some of you have shared things with me privately. But all of us probably have something.

Or, you may remember prayers you prayed that seemed to go down the tubes. Yet you still are walking with God. Your faith is remains, with all its questions, frustrations, and weakness. Who knows what God has in store down the road, even if you never see it. God might be writing a story beyond belief.

No one can explain the ways of God and why sometimes things change and people are delivered and others not. Even in the Bible, sometimes people are free and sometimes they are not. And there is no explanation why.

That is why waiting, trusting, living by faith, and grace is the life of a believer. God knows its hard. Only by God’s grace can we have the trust to live with what we don’t see or understand. As we pray remember that his grace is sufficient for us, for his power is made perfect in our weakness.

Prayer: I am going to close with a prayer by a Scottish pastor from the 20th century named John Baillie.

Lord, as I wait for you to respond to my prayers,

Let me use disappointment as material for patience.

Let me use success as material for thankfulness.

Let me use trouble as material for perseverance.

Let me use danger as material for courage.

Let me use reproach as material for long suffering.

Let me use praise as material for humility.

Let me use pleasures as material for temperance.

Let me use pain as material for endurance.

Let me live by your grace. Amen.

[1] Matthew 7:7-8 [2] John 14:14 [3] Hebrews 11:39-40 [4] Found in “Prayer” by Philip Yancey, p.226 in the footnotes [5] Jerry Sittser, “When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer,” pp.179-180 [6] From Sittser [7] From Yancey, pp.241-42

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