Men and women the world over pray. Some spin prayer wheels to which written prayers are attached. Those who use them believe that each turn of the wheel will have just about the same meritorious effect as saying the praying out loud. Others learn prayers and recite them by heart, their effectiveness is believed by millions to be directly related to getting the words right. Yet others will talk on and on and trust that their very wordiness will get them what they want. These various approaches to prayer are all the fruit of human ingenuity. They reflect a deep awareness that there is something more to life than the mundane materialism of so much of everyday life but they are not the way the Bible conceives of prayer.
As Christians we believe in prayer – at least we do in theory though our actual practice may not always give that impression. We come across prayer again and again on the pages of our Bibles and we long to pray more effectively than we do. It will probably not be long however before we run into the reality of unanswered prayer. We simply don’t get what we’re looking for and the effect of that can be very discouraging. We may soon even find that our prayer lives have dried up almost completely.
When that happens we need help, we need to be able to think clearly and to respond properly. What we probably don’t need at such a time is some bright spark to come breezing along and to tell us that it is all down to our lack of faith and so compounds our discouragement even further.
Don’t get me wrong faith is vital as we pray but to put the emphasis upon our faith when we should rather be focusing upon our God will not prove to be very helpful at all.
So this evening we will think a little about the whole matter of unanswered prayer, a subject to which Paul draws the attention as he relates some of his own spiritual experiences to the Corinthians.
Some of The Facts of Unanswered Prayer
I don’t think I need to say a great deal in order to prove to you that not all prayers are answered in the way that the suppliant might desire. If you do need proof then here in 2Cor.12:8-
"Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me..."
We can deduce from this that unanswered prayer is not just the experience of poor Christians but also at times of the very best of Christians. And when we go back to Scripture we find that this deduction is backed up by the examples of other godly men.
Indeed some of the greatest men of God in the Bible knew what it was to have some at least of their prayers unanswered. And of course we should learn from them. When God on occasion rejected their requests, the great thing about these men was that they had such a good attitude to it all:
They did not charge God foolishly and
Nor they did not forsake God
These godly men could at times bring their requests directly to God only to find that he would not give them exactly what they asked but they did not lose their faith and neither need we. So when we have prayers that seem to go unanswered we should not allow ourselves to be overly disappointed or discouraged. We, like they, may have brought our prayers directly to him and in the most proper manner too but we should perhaps ask ourselves a different question and not worry too much about our method. Perhaps the question we ought to be asking is: "Is this request in the will of God?"
For a few moments let us consider the experience of two Old Testament saints before we think about this example of Paul here in the NT.
Moses was a remarkable man. He was brought up as a prince in Egypt but chose to be associated with God’s people rather than to enjoy "the fleeting pleasures of sin" that were available to him in Egypt. He became God’s chosen leader of God’s own people, the Israelites, and yet he was known to be a humble man:
Num.12:3 "Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth."
Now Moses had a close and intimate relationship with the LORD and in his dealings with the Lord he most certainly knew about prayer. Moses had seen his prayers answered again and again as he interceded successfully on behalf of:
Pharoah concerning the plagues
his own people over the matter of the Golden Calf
his sister Miriam over the matter of her leprosy:
In this last instance Moses prayed in a very straightforward and plain manner:
Num.12:13 "And Moses cried to the LORD, "O God, please heal her—please.""
And the outcome a week later was that Miriam was thoroughly clean of all her leprosy.
So Moses was no stranger to prayer. And yet this same man Moses also knew what it was like to pray and not to receive the answer he was hoping for:
But the LORD was angry with Moses and would not listen to him. Consequently, despite his prayers, Moses never did enter the Promised Land of Canaan. Yes, he was allowed to see it from a distance but he died and was buried in the land Moab. There was a reason why Moses was not to be allowed to enter the Land. As the end of the 40 year period of wandering in the wilderness was coming towards its close, the people Moses was leading started to complain all over again about a lack of water. (God had provided for them before when they were in real need but the people’s memory was short and all they could see was their current plight and so they moaned about it. Moses was frustrated and instead of following the Lord’s explicit command he tried to solve the problem his way and this meant that he actually dishonoured God in the sight of the people of Israel.
How did Moses react when his prayer was rejected? Did he stomp off and moan and complain? Did he lose his faith? No. We find that Moses continued to lead and prepare the people to enter the Land that the LORD had promised to them: he certainly did not lose his faith.
In King David we have to do with another godly man. Yes, he made mistakes in his life and committed awful things that never ought to have been done but he found favour in the eyes of the LORD who blessed him by "forgiving his transgressions by covering his iniquities". "God did not count his iniquity against him" but rather regarded David as a "man after his own heart".
As a highly favoured godly man David certainly was no stranger to prayer and worship – you only need to open the Book of Psalms to realise that. But the experience of such a man also extended to include the painful experience of unanswered prayer:
As long as the baby still lived there was hope and so David went on and on praying with great zeal and passion. In fact so intense was his emotional involvement in this prayer vigil that his servants were fearful for his mental well-
And what can we say about the apostle? Was he a novice when it came to the matter of prayer? Could that be the reason that he failed here to receive the answer he was looking for?
Well to ask the question is to answer it. Of course Paul was no beginner when it comes to prayer. He wrote about prayer in nearly all of his letters mentioning it more than forty times in all. Amongst other things he wrote:
General instructions concerning prayer
Commands, invitations and encouragements to pray
About his prayers and those of others
About his confident expectation that prayer would prove itself effective:
Phil.1:19 "I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,"
Paul wrote about prayer without ceasing; the need to always pray and go on praying; he wrote about the need for earnestness to be associated with prayer.
Paul knew about prayer alright but he also experienced unanswered prayer and here it was serious, repeated prayer from excellent motives that went unanswered!
Without further explanation we would have been left wondering why on earth the Lord hadn’t answered Paul’s prayer when his desire was to be free of buffeting and harassment that he might minister Christ with greater liberty and, as he thought, greater effect.
As we meet with unanswered prayer in our lives we may well examine our behaviour and our motives and find nothing wrong and be left wondering "Why?" And humanly speaking we may find such a question unanswerable.
In this particular instance we are given an explanation as to why Paul’s repeated, persistent prayer did not receive the answer that Paul was hoping for.
God "hears" every prayer – there is no problem with God’s hearing at all -
Sin Ps.66:18 "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened."
Selfishness Jas.4:3 "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."
And yet our problem with unanswered prayer does not lie here. Our problem is when, as far as we’re aware, we’ve done nothing amiss. That was Paul’s case and God still said "No".
God said "No" because he had a higher purpose in view. This teaches the truth that God’s "No" is sometimes better than his "Yes"! Just think how foolish Peter would have felt if the Lord had literally heeded him when he cried out:
Lk.5:8 ""Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.""
Paul’s Threefold Prayer
Paul tells the Corinthians that he prayed three times about his "thorn in the flesh". This "thorn" highlighted Paul’s weakness and frailty as he sought to be a good minister of Jesus Christ and he initially believed that such weakness could only serve to hinder the proclamation of the gospel.
The answer he received was to utterly transform his ministry! Far from being a handicap weakness was the best possible stage upon which the power of Christ might be exhibited! There were hints of this already in the OT. Do you remember the story of Gideon? The LORD systematically reduced the size of his army from 22,000 to 10,000 to just 300. This is what we read in the Book of Judges:
Jug.7:2, 4 "The LORD said to Gideon, "The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’... And the LORD said to Gideon, "The people are still too many."
Did Paul have to pray three times before the Lord told him why he was not going to get exactly what he was asking for or was he giving the same answer each time with it taking Paul a little time to allow the information really to sink in? We don’t know the answer to that but we do know that when Paul did eventually understand what the Lord was saying to him he readily acquiesced. The truth of Christ’s power being operative through our weakness was something that subsequently coloured all of the way in which Paul carried out his ministry as we can see from other letters he wrote:
Phil.4:13 "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
I want to end this evening with some words written by a soldier who was to lose his life in the American Civil War. May we respond to the Lord’s dealings with us in a similar way.
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.