This study examines the issue of prayer, and in particular the problem of unanswered prayer. There have probably been many times in the past when each one of us has faced trouble and we have then laid our problems before the Lord. We may have even asked others to join in prayer with us, but all to no avail. Did we not pray hard enough? Was our faith wanting? Was God just exercising his sovereign will? Why do so many of our prayers get the "no" or "not yet" answer? Why must we face the pain of unanswered prayer?
The problem of unanswered prayerIs God listening?
Some time ago I saw on Television a rather tragic incident. A bus load of children from a church group had been swept away in a flood. Back at the church, the parents joined in prayer for their children. Most were saved, but some seven perished. One of the mums came out of the church with her child intact. Her comment was, "I thank God for hearing my prayers". Now my problem with her comment was this. If God had heard her prayers, why didn't he hear the prayers of the other seven parents? If God had been responsible for the rescuing of the survivors, why did he choose not to rescue the seven? Was it just some arbitrary decision? Did he intervene in the lives of those children with an awareness of their futures in line with his ultimate intentions for mankind? Or did he just act on the basis of the faith of those who prayed, or possibly even their righteousness?
We were taught as children that God cares for us, that he meets our daily needs. Plenty of Bible stories seem to teach that truth and many of them have left a vivid impression on our minds. Take for instance the story of Jesus and the disciples in the storm. When the disciples called out to Jesus, he rebuked the wind and waves grew still. It was easy to teach from the story that Jesus cares for us in the storms of life. The only trouble is that when the storms of life overcome us, and they will at some time or other, then we are bound to either blame God for not intervening as he did on that lake all those years ago, or blame ourselves for our little faith.
In the face of unanswered prayer we often spring to the aid of God. We surmise that it is surely not possible for God to be unaware of our predicament, nor that he would willingly refuse to answer our prayer. We therefore tend to argue that he had some mysterious intention for our good within the disaster. That is, although he did not cause the disaster, for he does not act in an evil way, yet he did allowed the disaster so that he might bring good from it.
Some years ago in Australia a baby was taken by a dingo (Australian native dog). I remember the mother, Lindy Chamberlain, saying that God had taken her baby and therefore she need not be sad. I doubt if she was saying that God had organized the dingo to take her child, but she probably was saying that God had allowed it within his sovereign purposes for the Chamberlains. Yet when we take that line we implicate God in the horror of the event. We have suggested that he has knowingly stood aside and allowed the event to take place for some undisclosed purpose, while on other occasions he has intervened for our good. Certainly that is the way we deal with the mass of daily events we pray for. We are continually thanking God for his assistance in our lives and in the lives of others, but when that assistance seems to be withheld, we then argue that it was for some divine purpose which was beyond our understanding.
Of course, the reverse approach we have in dealing with unanswered prayer is to blame the one who prays. I remember a group praying for the healing of a minister friend of mine. They continually assured me that he was getting better, so much so that I actually announced that he had been healed. I had taken their words at face value, when in actual fact their words were but an expression of their need to have no doubt in their mind for his healing. He died and then came the recriminations. The group had never doubted for his healing so therefore we were to blame. Our little faith had caused his death.
This then is our problem, the problem of unanswered prayer. This problem leaves us wondering if we have not asked correctly, if we are not worthy, if we have not understood God's intentions, or even worse, if God is disinterested.
A place of shadows
We will never understand the business of prayer until we have come to understand the nature of this world
This world is a place of unreality - a "shadow land". God said let it be and it came into being. It came from nothing and to nothing it will one day return. It is dust, and we are dust. Our only reality lies in knowing the one who has reality. Nothing here is permanent. Nothing is ours, it is all on loan from the Creator, Luke.16:12.
We see around us the surging troubles of a troubled world. We understand that the images before us reflect the surging troubles of the Eternal realms, but they are only that - reflections of reality. That being the case, it is unwise to treat our present experience as though it was the "be all and end all." Yet we seem to function as though this world is all there is. If our life is not full and complete, free from disease and want, then we feel we have been abandoned by God. Either that, or our faith is wanting. We seem totally unaware that being a disciple does not protect us from the ebb and flow of daily life. The action and reaction of events have their way and we will find ourselves caught up in them in the same way as every other human, Phill.4:11-13. Jesus did not pray for his followers to be taken out of the world but rather that they might be protected from the Evil One, John.17:15. We have to struggle through life like anyone else, and it is in that struggle that we can be changed into the likeness of Jesus. Life can be for us a great purifier. So we are to struggle on in this place of shadows. At times the shadows will seem more real than the light, but in truth, the only reality here is the knowledge of God.
Even though we would all agree that this present realm fast fades away, we none the less feel that we are protected from its imperfection - that as children of God we can call on our Father in Heaven for his aid against the troubles of this present age. We happily apply the Old Testament promises for material blessing to our present situation, oblivious that they but foreshadow the spiritual blessings of the coming Kingdom. God cares for the birds, will he not care for us? Again we fail to see that God cares for us in the business of realizing his Kingdom, not in the business of possessing all the things of this age - happiness, health, wealth, etc. Experience certainly denies that we have some special claim to an easy life. It is simply not possible to demonstrate that Christians are protected from the run-of-the-mill troubles that face each human. Nor is it possible to demonstrate that we have a better recovery rate due to prayer. We would have to show that we suffer less from disease and the like, and that we have a better recovery rate than non believers. That is, Christians don't get cancer as much as non believers, and when they do get it, they have a better cure rate than non believers. About the only thing we could show is that believers seem to be more successful than non believers. That is, we do train our congregations to be good capitalists, whatever that proves.
So we need to remind ourselves of the words of the chorus, "this world ain't my home, I'm just a-passin through." We have no privileged claim to the good life, of "mammon". Praying for successful living gets us nowhere.
A non-intervening God
Understanding the problem of unanswered prayer requires an understanding of God's involvement in this world.
To what degree does God associate himself with the running of this world? Did he just wind it up like a clock and then let it run, or does he order each event? If we see him detached from the world then we have little to worry about unanswered prayer. Obviously no prayer would be answered, but then the Bible does teach that God answers prayer. We could argue that he functions in an interventionist way. He steps in at the behest of Christians, but then we are back to our original problem. Why doesn't he always step in when we ask him? We may want to take the line that God's involvement in the world is that of total control, but that leaves us with a dilemma. Why bother praying? We could argue that he orders the events of life in relation to our faithful prayers, but then again we are left with the mystery of unanswered prayer.
Our problem is, our God is too small. We fail to see the wonder of his person. It is surely better to see the world as a totally free system in which we function as totally free individuals. Although I do need to say that the term "free", with regard to this world, bears little relationship to the freedom we have in Christ. As far as this world is concerned we are actually slaves to the system - to sin. What I am saying is that as part of the created order we live our lives free from the control of a divine computer-operator. We make our own way and face the consequences of our own decisions, the consequences of the decisions of others, and the brute force of nature.
Yet in the surge of cause and effect lies a greater cause and a greater effect. Without interfering with the natural flow of events, God is bringing all things to their appointed end. In the total freedom of this natural universe, within the good or evil actions of mankind, the ultimate purposes of God move to their appointed end. His Kingdom comes. He is Lord.
So it is most likely that the circumstances of life are not "managed" by God. He is not the Divine Manipulator. If the Lord does not serve as the Divine Mr. Fixit, what then shapes the surge of events that wash by us daily? Immediately we can say that they are natural cause and effect. This being the case, all the prayer in the World will not stop the lava flow, the flooding river, or the howling wind.
We can also say that the events of life are greatly shaped by human intervention. Does prayer influence human actions?
Finally, we can say that the events of life are shaped by the intervention of the forces of evil. Again, does prayer influence the actions of the dark powers?
Let's now deal with these last two points - Satanic interference and the human factor. What bearing have they on prayer?
"He's got the whole world in his hand". Yes, but not quiet the same bloke we sing about. We are bound to have to give weight to the scriptures on this issue. The Evil One has his way as far as this World is concerned. He is the "Prince of the world", says Jesus, John.12:31, 14:30, 16:11. It is his domain. As he points out to Jesus in the wilderness, "I will give you all their (the kingdoms of the world) authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to." Luke:4:6. Yes, a bit of a worry, but don't forget that he has been mortally wounded. Jesus has broken his power, Heb.2:14. None-the-less, the scriptures make it clear that he still manipulates unbelievers, John.13:2, Acts.5:3, 26:18, blinds them, Matt,13:19, John.8:44, 2Cor.4:3-4, performs great wonders, 2:Thes.2:9, Heb:2:14 and causes God's people great trouble, Matt.13:38-39, Zech:3:1, Eph.6:12. We need to be reminded that our "enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour", 1Peter.5:8. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Eph.6:12.
This place of shadows groans and travails under the weight of the curse of human rebellion. Decay and corruption touch us at every point of our life's journey. So not only do we face the natural forces of creation, but we must now face the dislocation caused by sin. Yet even worse, for this dislocation has brought with it the direct involvement of the powers of evil. His interfering and manipulative hand touches us daily. Life's circumstances have become pawns in his hand. This being the case, we have to be careful what we read into life events. They are more likely to be signs of Satanic interference than Divine intervention.
This is not to say that Satan has total control over the circumstances of life. Ultimately this is God's good world, even if it is affected by sin. His influence is primarily in the mind of sinful mankind. He is a liar, a tempter, and by this means manipulates human actions. This is his domain and he does his best to align it to his ways. His confrontation with Jesus throughout his ministry and finally at the cross, demonstrates his power to influence and manipulate the actions of mankind.
Finally, it is important to again state that within the storms of life there is a higher principle at work. Jesus may be overwhelmed by the events of life, events clearly manipulated by Satan. Yet the higher principle of the will of the almighty, powerful and sovereign God, is not superseded by either the brute forces of nature or the manipulation of Satan. Whether in chaos or rebellion, order or love, his Kingdom comes, his will is done.
So much for Satanic interference, but what about the human factor?
The living God is quite capable of being the Divine Manipulator, yet he chooses not to be for our sake. Rather he chooses to give us the freedom to face life's surging troubles and stand with us in that battle. In his strength and with his support, we are to "resist" the Evil One, "wrestle" with him, and fearlessly face the brute force of circumstance. The purpose of this struggle against the forces at work in this world, is our preparation for eternity. It prepares us for our rule with Christ in eternity. So then, our prayers should be concerned more with our own strengthening, and the strengthening of others. Rather than looking to Jesus to fix things up, we are to fix things up in the power he provides through the prayer of faith.
Our stand against chaos is not just defensive, rather we have the privilege of bringing order to the chaos, and to that end God empowers us. We have the task of perfecting and extending God's rule in our personal lives, the life of the church and in his broken world. This is something God gives us to do in the power he supplies. The Spirit filled people of God have the authority to determine the practical realization of the Kingdom in the here and now and the power to do it. We work to hasten the realization of the Kingdom, 2Peter.3:10-13. The Lord reveals the ground rules for the realization of the Kingdom, while at the same time providing the means for the doing of it. He empowers us for the ordering of creation and the defeating of the Evil One for the establishment of his eternal rule. In a sense then, we actually do it - in his power. Such prepares us for eternity. It is training in the use of the weapons of warfare for the coming battle in the eternal realms, Ehp.6:10-18, against the mortal foe whose defeat at the cross has assured our victory.
So we are decision makers and builders of the Kingdom. We are to expedite its realization, here and in eternity. If this is the case, then there is little point in praying for something that we are unwilling to apply ourselves to. It may be of the Lord's will and therefore right to pray it, but even with all the faith in the world, it will not be realized (at least in our experience) unless we are willing to commit ourselves to its realization. The Spirit filled people of God have the power to realize God's will. Prayer to that end should rightly concern empowering for ministry, provision of resources, encouragement and strengthening in the battle, rather than "you do it for us Lord".
The relationship between God's forgiveness and our forgiveness of others, well illustrates this truth. Jesus continually spoke on the relationship of the two. "If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." God has promised to forgive our sins when we ask him. Here is a partition that we can ask in faith knowing that we will receive it. Yet how serious are we in the asking? Are we serious enough in the asking of this gift from God to be willing to try and forgive others when they ask us? Clearly if we are not willing to apply effort in the giving of forgiveness then we can have little expectation of God granting our request for forgiveness.
So then, petitionary prayer must be shaped by a right understanding of the present state of this world and the part we are to play in the realization of the Kingdom, both in this world and in the age to come. The problem of unanswered prayer disappears when we rightly understand these truths.
The focus of prayer
The point made so far is that although our prayer life tends to be concerned about the daily needs of ourselves and others, that such is really a waste of time. The center of God's will concerns the realization of his Kingdom, and it is at that point where he intersects with our lives and where prayer is effective. Beyond that there is but shadows.
Our prayers then, need to focus on the realization of the Kingdom. Our prayers must focus on the business of perfecting the Kingdom in the present moment and the business of working to hasten its coming in power. Of course, the Bible does not leave us with bare principles but rather clothes those principles with practical details. We have numerous commands and promises, all of which are directed for the realization of the Kingdom and all of which should be a matter of prayer. We can go still further, for the Bible actually contains detailed teaching on prayer and examples of godly prayer, all of which focus on the business of realizing the Kingdom of God.
Bible teaching on prayer
1. Jesus' teaching on prayer. Luke.11:1-12.
Jesus begins by detailing an example list of petitions.
i] May God's person be honoured.
ii] May his Kingdom come - in our lives, our Christian community, the wider local community, and in power in the last day.
iii] May we, his people, be obedient in the task of serving our God in the business of realizing the Kingdom.
iv] May we be given the resources necessary to serve our Lord in the work of realizing the Kingdom.
v] May he forgive us when we fail him in that task.
vi] May we be protected from the onslaught of the Evil One as he seeks to frustrate the coming Kingdom.
Here then is a primary list of petitions that center on the business of realizing the Kingdom of God. Each petition can be prayed with the assurance that God will hear and answer.
The parable of the Midnight Friend reaffirms this idea. He got what he wanted so we can expect much more cooperation when dealing with our Lord. On these matters, when we ask, we will receive. Just in case we may have thought that this story is a general..... ask anything and get it promise.... the "good thing" is clearly defined. "How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" The presence and power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ is that which assures our membership in the Kingdom and equips us as servants of the King. All this is ours for the asking.
2. Jesus' upper room discourse. John.14-16.
Jesus had come to establish the Kingdom in power. This was now to be the task of his disciples - "that they might bear much fruit". This would require in them a growth of knowledge and faith. Primarily it would require that they be "one" with him and each other - that there be love. In the fulfilling of that task they could ask anything and it would be granted. John.14:12-14, 15:7-8, 16:23b-24.
3. The early church at prayer. Acts.4:23-31.
The prayer runs as follows. You, O God, are Lord. Your intention is to establish your Kingdom in power. The Evil One rages, yet your intentions stand fast and are fulfilled no matter what. Enable us, therefore, in your power, to work for the establishment and perfection of your Kingdom in word and sign.
4. Jesus' prayer in John 17.
The prayer concerns the task given the disciples, as those who have been sent into the world for the realization of the Kingdom. The points of his prayer are:
i] Sanctification via the truth. The business of being shaped into the image of Jesus.
ii] Oneness in the Christian fellowship. The business of realizing the Kingdom within the Christian community.
iii] Protection from the Evil One. The business of struggling against the powers of evil to bring in the Kingdom in power. Victory.
iv] To stand with Jesus in the day of glory.
Faith and prayer
Having built up a core of material that we can rightly bring before the Lord in intercessory prayer, we need now to consider the part faith plays.
In my experience the prayer of faith tends to be regarded as a determination not to doubt that God will answer our prayers. Having asked God to intercede we are supposed to then dispel all doubts that God may not answer our prayer. To doubt will result in failure.
Mark Chapter 11:11-26 is an excellent passage in teaching us about the prayer of faith. Jesus had entered Jerusalem in fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah. After viewing the temple he left the city. The next day he set off toward Jerusalem again, and as he did so he came upon a fig tree. It was out of season so it didn't have any fruit, none-the-less, Jesus cursed it for being without fruit. He then entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple. "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers". The next morning Peter noted that the fig tree had withered and it was then that Jesus spoke about prayer.
The incident of the fig tree was an object lesson. I take it that it was not so much a lesson that believing prayer will allow us to strike down fig trees at a single word, but rather that if we are not a people of faithful prayer then we will wither like that fig tree. The people of Israel had polluted the Temple. They had made a mockery of prayer, and thus the end of the fig tree would be their end as well. So the point of Jesus' exhortation to the disciples is simple enough - "Have faith in God". Don't be like the people of Israel who now stand under the judgement of God.
The prayer life of those who put their trust in the living God has this notable feature. It is prayer that rests upon a sure belief that God will act according to his will. In this passage his will concerns the forgiveness of sins and the acceptance of a lost brother (sinner) - a promise and a command. The prayer of faith achieves both.
The passage exposes the issue of faith. Effectual prayer depends upon a sure belief that God will act as he has promised. To doubt the declared intention of God to bring all things into subjection to himself, is to fail to see that intention realized in our own experience. To believe that God will act for the realization of the Kingdom and to pray to that end, is to participate in that realization.
A good example of this can be found in the Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit, Mark.9:14-32, Matt.17.14-23. The disciples had been given authority to cast out Demons (Note. This is a specific promise to a specific group of people at a specific time, and must not be generalized). This authority, given to the disciples, declared the gospel in sign. The release of the prisoners was part of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and demonstrated the coming power of the Kingdom. The disciples' failure to drive out the Evil Spirit earned for them the rebuke, "O unbelieving and perverse generation." Afterward they asked Jesus why they had failed. Mark notes the failure of prayer, while Matthew records the failure of faith. The two, of course, are linked. Their little faith meant that they had doubted the capacity of God to do that which he had promised to do through them. They only needed to ask in faith, believing that God would keep his word. In failing to do that, they had failed to participate, within their own experience, in God's purpose of bringing in the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of God will come in glory whether we are faithful or not. In this realm of shadows, if we place ourselves in the center of God's will and we pray, believing that his will be done, then we will experience the coming of the Kingdom within our little moment. Little faith ends up with little of anything.
The church and prayer
So far I have argued that God intersects with our lives at the point of his intended purpose to establish his Kingdom in power. It is his intention to gather a people to himself, and to reign in the eternal realms through that servant community. Effectual prayer must center on that intention of God. The matters of life that lie beyond the purposes of God are in actual fact but images of a shadow land. Prayer focused on the shadows, or worse, Satan's domain, ends up in the "Yes, no, not yet" confusion. We then end up with the problem of unanswered prayer.
We have also seen that the Bible details much of the central purposes of God and therefore provides a core of matters for prayer. It also details our necessary faith if we are to realize our prayers. The issue now before us is whether we can extend that core of Biblical detail into the practical here and now. Can we widen that core of Biblical detail to include matters of immediate concern to the local church? The simple answer is maybe.
The scriptures give the church legislative authority - it can make decisions. Matt.16:17-20, 18:18-20, John.20:23. It is clear that Peter, and those who stand with him in their confession of Christ, have a delegated authority to legislate. i.e. to "bind", forbid. and to "loose", to permit. In simple terms, the independent decisions of the church have already been ratified in Heaven - they are of God's sovereign will. The church has the right to assess matters of faith. It has the right to assess the validity of the repentance of a brother or sister, offering the forgiveness of sins. That offer is endorsed in heaven. The promise of the scriptures is that the decisions made by the church in the presence of Christ have already been ratified in heaven.
Here then is a profound authority for the fellowship of believers to determine the practical outworking of Biblical principles, and to know that such determinations are of the will of God and therefore rightly matters of believing prayer. It is clearly not an authority to include matters outside the primary intention of God's will. Rather it is an authority to give practical expression to the will of God.
As an extension of the authority, it seems right to argue that the church may determine how the Kingdom of God is going to be realized in its midst in the practical here and now. We are to understand the Biblical principles, study the relevant commands and promises, hear the Spirit inspired ministry of the prophets and teachers of our church, ponder, discuss and decide. Such decisions have the authority of God and are rightly matters of believing prayer.
So there is Biblical support to the notion that the two or three gathered together have the authority to apply the principles of God's will and to pray for action on that will. It is though difficult to determine to what extent that authority exists. The practical application of principles can end up a rather unwieldily monster and not something our Lord can easily endorse.
A Biblical survey
1. The will of God. Ephesians.6:17-18.
The Bible encourages us to pray "according to his will". That is, our prayers must be linked to God's intentions. His intentions can be determined from Biblical principles, or more particularly from general propositional commands and promises contained in the scriptures. This then is the point of the passage before us. "Take the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests". We usually understand the Sword of the Spirit to be the Bible, but probably it is prayer - prayer that is linked to the intentions of God. It is on this basis that Paul goes on to ask for prayer support in the ministry of the gospel.
2. Brotherly love. 1 John.3:22.
The context of this passage is the command to love one another, 3:11-24. Love is the gift we may pray for knowing that our request will be answered.
3. Sin and sickness. James.5:13-16.
This is probably not a very common occurrence, but it does seem that any purposeful disruption of the Christian fellowship can bring with it the direct punishment of physical sickness. eg. 1Cor.11:30. This is probably the sickness referred to in James. Repentance and the prayer of forgiveness will bring with it healing. It would not be wise to build a theology of healing upon this verse, although the exercise of a healing ministry which extends beyond this restricted understanding is a possibility. A theology of healing is probably better developed on the basis of the gifts of healing given to the church, which ministry is effective when exercised as an extension of the realized body of Christ to broken humanity.
4. standing firm. Luke.21:36, Matthew.26:41.
We are encouraged to pray that we will stand firm in times of tribulation and so be able to stand before our Lord in the last day. This prayer centers on the intention of God and as such can be prayed with confidence.
5. Vindication. Luke.18.1-8.
This is a "How much more" parable. The unjust judge will vindicate the righteous, so how much more will the heavenly Father vindicate his people who cry unto him. Another prayer centering on God's intentions for the establishment of his Kingdom.
6. The unknown prayer. Romans.8:26-27.
Our limited understanding means that we fail to ask for much that is central and of pressing need. The Spirit fills the gap and speaks for us.
7. Constant prayer. Acts.12:5.
For the early Church, prayer was a pressing need. cf. 1Thessalonians.5:17. To look to the Lord of the universe to act in power for the realization of his Kingdom, is to rest in peace, Phill.4:6.
The problem of unanswered prayer has nothing to do with a failure of method, sin in the person praying, little faith, or a fickle God. Most often the prayer is unanswered because we didn't pray for the right thing. For a prayer to be answered it must be in the will of God. Our intercessions and supplications need to be attuned to God's intentions rather than our own personal desires. When the intentions of our prayers intersect with God's intentions, it is then we will see action. If we continue with "Father Christmas" type prayers - wealth, health and happiness - then we will have to learn to live with the problem of unanswered prayer.
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