It is very easy to get discouraged about prayer.
You know how it goes. You hear a message about the power of prayer. You go home and you start to pray, and nothing seems to happen. After a little while, you say forget it, prayer doesn’t work - at least not for me.
I mean, we read these great statements on prayer and we hear these sermons motivating us to pray, so we go to prayer and God doesn’t do what we ask.
He doesn’t answer when we want Him to. He doesn’t answer the way we want Him to.
Understand, I’m not just talking about silly prayers. I’m not talking about God help me win the lottery prayers. I’m talking about significant prayers. Prayers that seem, as far as we can tell, to be for what is best. Prayers that we think, God should want to answer.
If you’ve struggled with unanswered prayer, (or maybe, better 'answered differently than I like prayer') you are not the first.
I like reading through the Psalms because David’s so honest. 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?” God don’t you care? I’m 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 my prayer comes before Thee. O Lord, why dost Thou reject my soul? Why dost Thou hide Thy face from me?” In other word, God why won’t you answer my prayer? David was a righteous man, and yet he says at points, it doesn’t seem like my prayers are effective or can accomplish much.
I remember, a couple 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 Marda’s little brother Eric who had wandered away from the faith. A year later Eric died. As far as we know he never truly came to Christ. Honestly, that set us back. We prayed and it didn’t seem to accomplish much.
I was at conference recently and one of the speakers was saying that he recently challenged his congregation to begin fasting and praying on a regular basis. Afterwards he was meeting with a small group in his home, and some of the folks there were saying to him, "Pastor we don’t want to do this." When he asked why, they responded, "Because it always seems like when we pray and when we fast bad things happen."
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.
This is a significant struggle. Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers the way we want?
Honestly, answering a question like that wouldn’t be so hard if we didn’t know certain things about God. Scripture makes clear that God is not weak. He is king. He rules over the earth. He does as He pleases. Job 42:2 explains, “I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.” Psalm 115:3 says, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Isaiah 14:27 explains, “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? As for His stretched out hand, who can turn it back?” Daniel 4:35 tells us, “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 hast Thou done?’” He has control over the hearts of men. Solomon says in Proverbs 16:9, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Then in 19:21, “Many are the plans of a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand.” And again in 21:30, “There is no wisdom and no understanding, and no counsel against the Lord.” He is God and there is no other. Jerry Bridges sums it up when he writes, “Nothing is so small or trivial as to escape the attention of God’s sovereign control; nothing is so great as to be beyond His power to control it. No detail of your life is too insignificant for your Heavenly Father’s attention; no circumstance is so big that He can not control it.”
There’s hope in that.
If God wasn’t in control then prayer would be meaningless, because when you pray you are asking God to do something about your situation. If He was not powerful, He couldn’t do anything about it, so why pray to Him about it. Prayer is powerful and it can accomplish much because God is powerful and can accomplish much.
But if God is in control, and if God really does have the power to do something about our situations, than we’re faced with another problem. Why doesn’t He always answer our prayers the way we want Him to? Why do we have to cry out with David, “How long O Lord? Will you hide your face from me forever?”
It’s not because He doesn’t hear us. I’m not talking about unbelievers here. We know why their prayers go unanswered. Jesus tells us real pointedly, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of unrepentant sinners.” But, we know that’s not true for us as believers. God promises those who are believers that He does hear our prayers. The Psalmist describes God as the prayer hearing God. And the writer of Proverbs tells us that God delights in the prayers of the upright. God hears us. It’s not because He doesn’t care about us. Peter describes believers in 1 Peter 2:9 and 10 as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…for once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God, you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” And Paul says in Ephesians 2 that we are saved because of the great loved with which God the Father loved us. And the writer of Hebrews promises us that because of Christ we can “draw near with confidence the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in the time of need.” Jesus Himself encourages us to pray in Matthew 7 by saying, “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf will give him a stone. Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake will he? If you then being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask him.”
But and here’s the rub, if it’s not because He doesn’t hear us, and it’s not because He doesn’t care about us, why doesn’t God always our prayers the way we want Him to? Why do so many of our prayers seem to go unanswered?
What do you think? More tomorrow...