When God doesn’t answer prayers

Sunday LeftoversA company in Chicago is one of the largest magazine fulfillment firms.  They send out renewal and expiration notices and handle the re-subcriptions for many different magazines.  A number of years ago there was a mistake in a piece of computer software.  A short time later the error was realized when a rancher in Powder Bluff, CO received 9,734 separate mailings informing him that his subscription to National Geographic had expired.

national-geographic-logoWith a small amount of apparent exasperation, he sent in the money for his renewal along with the comment, “I give up!  Send me your magazine!”

Sometimes we are tempted to think that persistence in prayer operates the same way — if we just pray for something enough times, God in “divine exasperation” will give us what we want.  But is that true?

Consider David in Psalm 27.  It seems probable that David wrote this psalm while Saul was chasing him and attempting to kill him so that David wouldn’t be crowned as king of Israel.  In the midst of that trial, David trusted God. David desired God. And David prayed to God. He “did everything right.” And (it seems from vv. 10 and 12), God did not immediately answer his prayer.  Have you ever prayed for something for longer than one year? five years? ten years? If so, you are aware that God does not always answer our prayers immediately. Why?  Here are a few possibilities.

God (at times) keeps us in our trials to reveal whether we want Him, or His provisions. In verses 4-6, David affirmed His commitment to God and voiced his desire for God alone.  But was that really true?  A delayed answer would quickly reveal whether, “One thing I have asked from the Lord…” was really true or whether David just wanted Saul to stop chasing him around Israel.  Similarly, the delay in God’s response to us often reveals what we really want from Him; too often the fleshly heart just wants the problem solved and is really uninterested in God Himself. God is just another lottery ticket to fix our problem, and He won’t have that for us.

Another way we might say this same truth is that God (at times) doesn’t answer our prayers because he makes us Christlike while we pray.  In the process of continued prayers for the same concerns and needs, we begin to emulate more of the character of Christ and demonstrate more dependence on God.  It has been said often that prayer is the means by which our hearts are conformed to the heart of God.  And that transformation generally does not take place through one prayer; it takes time to be transformed and matured.  So it takes multiple prayers for our hearts to be moved towards God’s desires.  So by delaying His answer, God inclines our hearts to move increasingly towards Him and His motives.

God (at times) keeps us in our trials to keep us dependent on Him and to remove every secondary desire of our lives that has become primary — so that He alone will be primary.

If God would always answer every prayer immediately so that we never had to pray for anything more than once, we likely would become complacent and prayer could become just another ritual to get our desires.

In his booklet, “Enjoy Your Prayer Life,” Michael Reeves notes,

Being a Christian is first and foremost all about receiving, asking and depending. It’s when you don’t feel needy (and so when you don’t pray much) that you lose your grip on reality and think or act in an unchristian manner. In fact, as you grow as a Christian, you should feel not more self-sufficient but ever more needy.

So by having us pray repeatedly for the same things, God keeps us aware of our dependence on Him.

God (at times) keeps us in trials to teach us to give thanks while we wait.  Too often we fail to thank God for the afflictive trials He is using to change us.  We are ready to be grateful after the crisis.  But can we be thankful and joyful in all things (1 Thess. 5:16-18)?  Can we bless the name of God in the midst of the affliction?  Being forced to persist in prayer gives us the opportunity to cultivate that gratitude.

In summary, it can be wearying to pray for the same needs over and over.  Yet by that persistence, God isn’t being badgered into responding to our needs; as we are faithful to repeatedly pray, he works good, sanctifying purposes in us.

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