2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
We continue in our sermon series that addresses lingering questions people may have that serve as a stumbling block to faith. We’ve covered how we can believe both in science and in God; how there can be evil and suffering in the world when there is a good, compassionate, and loving God who we say is in control; and how the wounds left in the wake of evil, pain and suffering can be healed; and if the Bible, our key reference to address any of these questions, can be trusted as true; is Jesus the only Way to God. Last week, we looked at one of the key stumbling blocks to faith --hypocrisy in the church. For more conversation on any of this, contact us through our website.
Today, we are going to look straight into the abyss—that place of emptiness, the echo chamber that results from the silence of what seem to us unanswered prayers.
Before going further, let’s consider what is prayer. Prayer is a conversation between God and us where our goal is to align our will with God’s. We get to bring God our hopes, dreams, fears, and desires, but ultimately, we should be striving to say as Jesus did, not my will but yours be done. What we ask should be subject to God’s values as expressed in God’s Word.
Sadly, some people have a mechanical, transactional view of Christianity that demands a particular outcome from God and if that isn’t satisfied then they are ready to walk away.
We wonder how is it that God can care about trivial things like finding a convenient parking spot on a rainy day, yet be silent on important things that could make the difference between life and death?
We read verses like Matthew 21: 21-22, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Or Matthew 17: 20…Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” When we have prayed in faith, and we don’t get what we have asked for, we get confused and discouraged, and some have walked away from God and the church because of it.
May I suggest first that we should be careful not to reduce God to being like a heavenly vending machine expecting that we need only insert prayer and then get out what we want. Faith is trusting that God hears and cares and is absolutely able to respond to our prayer. The key is acknowledging that the response may not be in the way we might expect or desire.
Let me allay concerns that the reason prayer may seem to go answered is because we don’t have enough faith. There are numerous examples in the Bible where Jesus commends people for their tremendous faith and that is why they were healed (ex. The woman with the issue of bleeding (Matthew 9, Mark 5, Luke 8); the Centurion seeking healing for a member of his household (Matthew 8). There are also the people who were helped and there was no mention of their faith at all (the woman whose son was raised from the dead as the funeral procession was passing by (Luke 7); or, as in the case of the father of the son with convulsions, whose faith was wavering—remember he said Lord, I believe help my unbelief. (Mark 9: 14-32)
While we were yet sinners Jesus died for us. While we faltered and continue to falter in faith, Jesus still chose to offer the ultimate sacrifice that we might have eternal life, being healed from the dis-ease of sin.
So what are we to make of all this?
First of all, prayer is definitely important. Jesus frequently set aside time to pray and modeled the behavior for those who follow him. But, there are several things to keep in mind as we consider how God answers prayer and how we read the Bible regarding prayer.
The verses cited earlier have particular contexts. The context of John 15:7 (..if you abide in me—remain in me and I in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you)—is regarding specifically work done for God. Similar context for Matthew 17:20 – have faith of a mustard seed. Matthew 18: 15-20 – if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven--is about reconciling with someone who has sinned in the church.
Even if we were to more broadly apply the concepts that are the focus of these passages, however, we find that Jesus may be using a common form a speech during that time that was characterized by exaggeration of things that physically were not possible. This type of exaggeration is known as hyperbole. Adam Hamilton says we often read Jesus hyper-literally when we should be reading hyperbolically. When Jesus says in Matthew 5: 29-30 that if your hand or eye causes you to sin, get rid of it, no one believes he really meant that, but we are to take from that is sin is very serious. Be careful of what you feed your soul through your eyes and what you set your hands to. Or that rich people can’t get into heaven any more than a camel can get through the eye of a needle. Somebody should be shrieking right now since most people in the US would be left behind given our relative wealth to virtually all the rest of the world. Moral: be careful of your relationship with money and don’t let it become an idol. When there are gross exaggerations, we are given a hint to look more deeply at the text to mine the lessons and principles embedded there.
God may know what you are asking for is not the best thing for you and has something better in store for you, with such wisdom often revealed in hindsight. (Examples might include people you used to date; jobs you thought you wanted; things you wanted to buy but didn’t.)
Corollary to that- God may want and need for you to do something else.
God may know you are not yet ready to handle or receive what it is you are praying for, hence a longer time than anticipated to wait.
God may be trying to teach us something about ourselves or about God.
The answer to your prayer may be fulfilled beyond your seeing and knowing. Your deepest desire may be accomplished by someone else who you set up to the task or blessing through your prayer and/or the example of your life’s story. (Examples might include your children or generations yet unborn and African Americans and other oppressed people who never saw their prayers answered, yet the impact of their prayers are being felt today. A Biblical example is David who wanted to build a Temple for the Lord but his son, Solomon, was to build it instead.)
Biblical examples of unanswered prayer:
Apostle Paul who prayed 3 times that a thorn in his flesh would be removed. It never was and all Paul got instead was a proclamation that God’s grace would be sufficient and God’s power would be manifested in Paul’s weakness. God didn’t heal him but helped him persevere. (2 Corinthians 12:8)
Jesus prayed, in his humanness, that his time of betrayal, suffering and death would be averted. That unanswered prayer yielded the greatest sign of God’s tremendous sacrificial love for us. Had that prayer been answered, we would still be lost in our sin.
May we abide in Christ. Get so close to God’s heart in conversation we know as prayer, that God’s will becomes our will. Ask God to open your eyes to the way God IS answering your prayers. All prayer is answered. Responses may be yes, no, not yet, or not you. Usually when we feel prayer is unanswered it is because we are experiencing trials, challenges, obstacles, and hard or difficult circumstances. On those days when God’s plan is not obvious and the seeming silence is deafening, may you be encouraged by these words from the lyricist, Ginny Owens:
“If You Want Me To” (1999 Without Condition):
The pathway is broken And the signs are unclear And I don't know the reason why you brought me here But just because you love me, the way that you do I'm gonna walk through the valley If you want me to
'Cause I'm not who I was When I took my first step And I'm clinging to the promise You're not through with me yet So if all of these trials bring me closer to you Then I will go through the fire If you want me to
It may not be the way I would have chosen When you lead me through a world that's not my home But you never said it would be easy You only said I'd never go alone, yeah oh oh
So when the whole world turns against me And I'm all by myself And I can't hear you answer, my cries for help I'll remember the suffering Your love put you through And I will go through the valley If you want me to, hmm yeah
As we draw this series to a close, I invite you to reach out and let me know if there are other questions that still remain for you. Perhaps we can address them in an upcoming sermon or series. All of these sessions have hinged on one critical thing—a choice. You have a choice to examine the evidence as we’ve tried to do over the last few weeks and believe. May we echo the sentiment of the father of the son with convulsions, “Lord I believe. Please help my unbelief.” Mark 9: 24.
Action steps: do the survey—what are your prayers and hopes for our church. Start a prayer journal so you can see how God is moving in your prayer life. Keep alert to needs around you and find ways to respond. You may be the answer God is sending to someone else’s deepest prayer.
*Sermon Series based in part on work of Mark Clark in his book, The Problem of God (Zondervan, 2017) and today’s sermon also influenced by a message offered by Rev. Adam Hamilton, January 30, 2022. Further reading on Rev. Hamilton’s thinking on this topic offered in his book entitled Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018)