Monday, May 22, 2017

The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

Part 8 of Talking to God

Text: Psalm 13




How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1). 


How Long Until You Hear Me?

Sometimes when I’m reading a book or watching TV, one of my children will ask me something, and I don’t even realize they’re talking to me. Finally my wife will say, “[Child’s name], he doesn’t hear a word you’re saying.”

Sometimes it seems like God is like a father who doesn’t really hear his children. We pray and pray and pray, and finally in frustration we ask, “God, how long until you’re going to do something about my prayer?”

It’s normal to be frustrated with prayer. In the Bible, you’ll find people asking God the same question: “How long until you’re going to do something about my prayer?” David asked this question in Psalm 13.


Trying to Solve the Mystery

In the Bible, we find many amazing promises about prayer. For example, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15). When we read this and other biblical promises about prayer, we can become frustrated because our experience with prayer is often very different. We ask, and we don’t receive. 

Let me be clear: I don’t have all of the answers about unanswered prayer. More often, I feel like David in Psalm 13 than the apostle John in 1 John 5:14-15. But the Bible does give us several truths about prayer that can help us when we’re struggling with unanswered prayer. We must remember these truths when we pray.

1. When we pray, we must remember that we are talking to a loving Father. 

The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God as “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Throughout 1 John, John emphasizes that believers are God’s children. In 3:1, he writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” God is a Father who loves his children more than we can imagine. Because we know God loves us, we can have “confidence” (1 John 5:14) when we pray. But remember, sometimes a good father has to say “no.” And God’s “no” is always a good thing.

2. When we pray, we must remember that unrepentant sin can prevent our prayers from being answered. 

Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heard, the Lord would not have listened.” This doesn’t mean that God will only listen to sinless people. God won’t listen to those who cherish (i.e., treasure) sin. The apostle Peter writes that husbands can cause their prayers to be hindered: “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” (1 Peter 3:7).

3. When we pray, we must remember that prayer isn’t all about us. 

Prayer is about getting God’s will done, not ours (“if we ask anything according to his will,” 1 John 5:14). The first three requests of the Lord’s Prayer are requests for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done (Matt. 6:9-10). God will ignore selfish requests: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So we can’t receive anything we ask for in prayer.

4. When we pray, we must remember that sometimes we have to wait for our prayer to be answered. 

Sometimes God says “wait.” It’s hard to wait. It could be said that when God says “wait,” he’s saying “yes” (like when a father says, “Yes, we can go to park tomorrow”) without us realizing it.

5. When we pray, we must remember that prayer really does work. 

Sometimes God says “yes.” It’s possible that when we pray we can “have the requests that we asked of [God]” (v. 15). Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can make God do things he doesn’t want to do. But it does mean that God can choose to do his will by answering “yes” to our prayers.


Knife Edge

When I was in high school, I went with my church’s youth group to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The highlight of the mountain hike was a section at the top of the mountain called Knife Edge. If you fall off either side of Knife Edge, you could die.

In his book A Praying Life, Paul Miller writes that prayer is sort of like Knife Edge. On the left is the Not Asking cliff. James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.” On the right is the Asking Selfishly cliff. Miller says, “My experience is that most people do not put God to the test. They don’t ask him for what they want. I say this cautiously because many Christians have experienced unanswered prayers that are still unprocessed. Nevertheless, most people consistently fall off [the Not Asking cliff]. They don’t ask.”