Unanswered prayer—it’s the elephant in the room for every church. It is a source of doubt for many believers. It is why some don’t come to Christ. It’s why some stop believing in Christ. It is why some stop praying big prayers. But let’s be clear about some things.
First, all prayers are answered The answer may be, “yes”, the answer may be “not yet”, the answer may be “no”, but God answers every prayer. We have no problem with the “yes”. I went to a conference and bumped into a friend who could not have children. God put a burden on my heart to pray for them. -Within the year a child was born. Some prayers are answered, “yes, but not yet”. God is not in a rush. I prayed 18 years for my sister Liz before she became a Christian. Some of you have been praying much longer. Don’t give up. The big problem is when God gives us the answer “no”.
Second, hearing “no” is hard to hear because God is our heavenly dad and we are his children. He loves us. We have direct access to him. Our Father has given us big open-ended promises. Jesus said in John 14:14, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” That is not a formulae, it’s a relationship. These unqualified promises make you want to trust God with everything—the big and small, the possible and impossible, for the believer and the unbeliever, with sadness, sickness, or salvation. As Ephesians 3:20-21 says:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (NIV)
These are big promises. Now to him who is able to do what we ask … no, more than we ask … no, more than all we ask … no, immeasurably more than all we ask … no, immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. Now we are talking. Fantastic. This is our God who unapologetically says I operate beyond your puny expectations. That is why when I get a “no” to my prayers, it is a problem, because God raised my expectation.
Third are the reasons why God doesn’t say “no”. The reason is not that God can’t do it, because nothing is impossible with God. It is not that God doesn’t care: God bends his ear to us and invites us to cast all our cares on him. It’s not that you don’t have enough faith in prayer, for Jesus did not say that faith the size of an elephant moves mountains, but faith the size of a mustard seed moves mountains. Mustard seeds are very tiny. When we read that Jesus could not do many miracle in Nazareth because of lack of faith, it’s not that people came with their sick to Jesus and he said, “I can’t heal you because you don’t believe hard enough in me”. This is ridiculous. They were not healed because they did not come to Jesus. In Matthew 8:16, Jesus healed all the sick. Jesus could heal for those with great faith like the Centurion—“Only say the word and my servant shall be healed.” Jesus could heal those with little faith, like the man who said, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus could heal those with no faith, such as the dead at their own funerals.
I think of the 15 year old dying at Westmead Hospital. His family would not prepare the teenager for death, because that would be to lack faith that healing could happen. He still died, but without the comfort of assurance.
Fourth, we should expect that God will say, “no” as well as “yes”. Here are three case studies from bible.
Case study number one is Moses, the appointed mediator between Israel and God. He prayed successfully for Israel many times, But on one occasion Moses was angry with the people and dishonored God in public, and he hit the rock twice to draw water. God would not let Moses enter the promised land. We read in Deuteronomy 3:23, 26:
At that time I [Moses] pleaded with the LORD: […] Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan […] “That is enough,” the LORD said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. (NIV)
The answer Moses got was “No, and don’t keep asking.” My version is, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you get? Is it the ‘n’ or the ‘o’. Moses was the most humble man in the world, and still God said “no”.
Case study number 2 is King David. He was a man whose prayers were answered many times. Even after committing murder and adultery, David cried out to him. He was forgiven. He was allowed to live. He was even allowed to stay as king. When his child fell sick, we read in 2 Samuel 12:16,18:
David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground […] On the seventh day the child died. (NIV)
The prayer for forgiveness received the answer “yes”. The prayer for his son’s healing received the answer “no”—and he was David, the man after God’s own heart.
Case study number 3 is Paul the apostle. He was given a thorn in his side to keep him humble after being taken into heaven itself. His begs God to have the thorn removed. That request was denied, and we read in 2 Corinthians 12:8-9:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (NIV)
Moses, David, and Paul: all were men of God, and all were told no. Paul was told that God’s power is completed in weakness. We see God`s power in the miraculous but what we fail to see is God’s power in weakness. It takes enormous faith to endure a broken neck or a bad marriage with contentment.
Fifth, we must consider why some wrongly expect God to answer “yes” all the time. I believe God heals. We have seen miracles at MBM. But we do not live in an era of “signs and wonders”.
“Signs and wonders” is a technical phrase in the Bible. It is used when God performs a large cluster of miracles for either salvation or judgment at key turning points in God’s plan in history. God uses “signs and wonders” in the period of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt: the miraculous plagues, the parting of the sea, water from the rock, giving manna from heaven, the earth opening and snakes biting the people. “Signs and wonders” also describe the ministry of Jesus and the apostles: everyone who came to Jesus was healed, demons were bound, crowds of four and five thousand were fed with a happy meal, six hundred litres of water turned into wine, three people were raised from the dead. He walked on water, calmed the raging sea, and directed Peter to find money in the mouth of a fish. The apostles escaped from jail by angels, and Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the apostles and the Spirit.
We are not in that era anymore, and no one anywhere in any church and at any time in the history of the church was or is in that era. You may have heard of the large ‘Bethel’ church in the United States. They prayed believing that a two year old child who had tragically died would rise from the dead. It only extended the pain and continued the sad reminder, for after seven days praying the child did not rise from dead.
The glut of “signs and wonders” were given during the time of Jesus and the apostles so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Others wrongly expect “yes” all the time by turning wishful thoughts into the promises of God. I got a phone call one day, “Why, Ray, Why?” “John is that you?” His pastor’s 19 year old son had died. The church was told that God had given a prophecy that he would live, if they prayed and kept believing. So for weeks the whole church met every day at 5am, praying and claiming healing. The young man died and the faith of God’s people was damaged. Why? They trusted a promise that God had never made. The young man is in heaven, but they didn’t prepare him well. They were not prepared for God to say “no.”
Sometimes the problem is because some people hold to a part of God’s word but ignore others. So, yes, James says that if someone is sick, get the elders, anoint the sick with oil and pray for them, and they will be healed. We do just that at MBM. But it is not a guarantee.
Sickness did not go away in the New Testament church. Apostles like Paul got sick, as he says in Galatians 4:13,
“As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you [...]” (NIV).
Timothy was in Paul’s inner circle, and he got sick alot, according to 1 Timothy 5:23, where Paul says to him,
“Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (NIV).
Paul’s other co-workers got sick, so we read in 2 Timothy 4:20,
“I left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (NIV).
Sometimes we wrongly trust promises out of context. I think of the young man who came to me distraught. He said, “I prayed, believing that God will give me the desires of my heart, quoting Psalm 37:4,
“Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” (NIV).
The desire of his heart was for a particular girl. She dumped him. What he didn’t understand is that God knew his desires better than he did. He is now married to someone he now calls the love of his life. He is not complaining. Father knows best. Plus imagine if three girls are praying for the same guy.
Sixth, aren’t you glad that God has sometimes said, “no”? Remember that job you wanted but didn’t get, and then three months later that company went bankrupt. Remember that person you wanted to marry more than life, and now you realize you dodged a bullet. Don’t you wish sometimes that God did say “no” to our prayers. Don’t you wish God didn’t say “yes” to every prayer you prayed. In fact, you are going to heaven because there was one prayer to which God would never say, “yes”, when Jesus asked, “Abba Father, let this cup pass me by.”
Seventh, there are hindrances to prayer. You are warned that God will not listen to your prayers if you treat people badly. 1 Peter 3:7 says,
“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (NIV).
In other words, God is saying Why do you expect me to listen to you when you won’t listen to your wives?
To a nation that ignored the needs of the powerless, Isaiah said “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen” (Isaiah 1:15).They did not defend the cause of the fatherless, nor plead the case of the widow. God is saying, “I will not step in when you cry out to me if you won’t step in when others cry out to you.”
Prayers are hindered by self-centred motives, so James 4:2b-3 says,
“You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (NIV).
If you ask God to bless you with no regard to bless others, don’t bother asking. You pray for a job, a promotion, success in business, but refuse to be generous. Know this, friends, God is not an idiot!
Eighth, God has answered some big prayers, so keep praying. Albania was the most atheistic country in the world. My first mentor John prayed for Albania for 30 years. That country now allows Christian missionaries. Pray kingdom prayers, not just personal prayers.
Thirty years ago three of us in 1990 prayed every Thursday night for the planting of MBM. God keeps answering those imperfect prayers. As we went from six to 1100 adults and kids, meeting on two sites and soon to be three, from seventy cultures and seeing 80 new disciples saved each year, ten home grown missionaries , and sponsoring a number of church plants. Friends we have seen at MBM many people saved from every background, faith, sexuality, and culture. We’ve seen the sick healed, lives mended, marriages restored. Those enslaved to sin have been set free. Injustices in court cases have been overturned. And yes, we have also seen others die, stay sick, not be saved, and end up divorced. Don’t let the “nos” stops you from praying big. God is still saying “yes, yes, yes” to those requests prayed back in 1990. So pray for our church goals. Ask God to establish five congregations by 2025. And it was not at my timing. I prayed that the Lord would give us a hundred in the first year of MBM. It took four years before we were a hundred.
If you don’t pray you don’t share in the joy of answered pray. Pray big. Ask the impossible. Start 2020 with a list of ten impossible prayer points, and get ready to be surprised. Don’t let the “nos” stop you from praying big kingdom prayers.
Lastly, most times you just don’t know how God will answer your prayers, but some prayers you are guaranteed, “yes”. Jesus said, “Any one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. So call on him, right here and right now! A broken and contrite heart God will not despise, so humble yourself. Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will open.