Sermon Series Week 2: Why? Making Sense of God’s Will
Why do my Prayers go Unanswered? July 20, 2014
Mark 14: 32-42
Last week we began our sermon series asking those ‘Why?’ questions that seem to trip us up so often. We explored the question of why the innocent suffer, and I hope you were intrigued enough to do some further thought and study. This week we are going to tackle this question: Why do my prayers go unanswered? You’ve probably heard or even stated Jesus’ words on prayer, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Sounds like an open and shut case. As long as you pray with faith, your prayer will be answered in the way you want it to be. And if your prayers go unanswered it must be due to something like this list included on a Christian website:
- Ø You are not seeking to please the Lord
- Ø You have unconfessed sin in your life
- Ø You pray with improper motives
- Ø You lack faith
This is extremely harsh. Would we say to a parent who just lost a child that he/she lacked enough faith so God withheld healing? Would we say to a dying friend that they must have unconfessed sin so they are going to die? Of course not. If we believe the points on this list are the reasons for unanswered prayer we are in essence saying we were not holy enough to receive an answer to our prayer. Yet Jesus healed the sick in whatever state he found them. He did not question people’s faith nor did he quiz them on confession or verify they were seeking to please God. He healed the sick because the sick needed healing.
Let us not ignore the importance of faith. If we simply pray because it’s time to pray, or pray with the thought that we will ask God for help but we have every intention of taking our burden back the second we say ‘amen,’ we are not really praying at all. Prayer is a matter of trust and conversation. We speak to God, bring our petitions and burdens, and trust God will see us through whatever trial we are experiencing. Our faith does not have to be perfect. We can all be like the man with an epileptic son – “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
So how do we handle it when our prayers go unanswered? If it’s not because of our lack of faith or our imperfections, than why do our prayers at times go unanswered? Jesus said we could move mountains and faith the size of a grain of mustard seed is enough, but should we take these sayings literally? The author of our text raises a point about the way Jesus routinely spoke using hyperbole. Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration to make a strong point. When Jesus spoke about sin, he said things like, “…if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and if you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” I don’t believe Jesus was advocating for self mutilation. I do believe Jesus was getting us to take a hard look at the dangers of sin in our lives.
But again we come face to face with the frustration of unanswered prayer. If we look a little deeper we may want to consider our prayers as a whole. When we pray for a good grade in school because we didn’t study enough for an exam, why are we disappointed when this prayer goes unanswered? That would be no different than cheating which we know to be wrong. What about those prayers for healing of ourselves or loved ones? We mentioned last week that we take precautions with our health – getting check-ups, eating right, exercising, taking vitamins all to prevent illness. If all we had to do was pray for healing with faith in the name of Jesus, none of these steps would be necessary. We should not be using prayer as our get-out-of-jail-free card.
Please do not get me wrong here. I believe in divine healing. I believe in praying for the sick. I believe in petitioning God to comfort those in need. But I also understand what it is to have prayers go unanswered. I currently live with a condition that began in 2012. Right around Easter that year, I discovered a blurred spot in my vision of my left eye. I didn’t think much of it until I went to the doctor who put me on an immediate fast track of multiple surgeries and treatments for a detached retina. After 5 surgeries, numerous follow-up treatments with multiple doctors, I have extremely poor vision in my left eye and I experience double vision thanks to one of my surgeries. Believe me when I tell you I prayed throughout this ordeal. My church family prayed for me. My family prayed for me. I had pastor friends lay hands on me and pray. But I have this condition that I live with as a result of unanswered prayer. Or do I? Perhaps God worked through my doctors and nurses. My body was experiencing something abnormal, and I do have some usage from this eye. While it is not perfect and I often cry out ‘Why me,’ I believe God saw me through this trial.
There are two distinct examples of unanswered prayer in the New Testament. Paul spoke about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ which very well could have been a physical condition that went unhealed in spite of prayer. Yet Paul embraced his physical challenge, never losing his faith that God was with him. “God would not heal him, but God would help him deal with the struggle.” The other example is that of Jesus himself as read for us from the gospel of Mark. Jesus prayed in the garden for the cup of suffering to pass from him. Yet Jesus did suffer and die on the cross, raising from the dead three days later. What we learn from these unanswered prayers is that even if God does not answer our prayers, God never abandons us. God is always with us seeing us through every trial.
I have had to adjust my life around my limited vision. Yet I find a much greater compassion for those with limited sight. I can truly empathize with the way the world is directed toward those with good vision. There is good that has come out of my lack of healing. There is also good that came from Paul’s lack of healing of his thorn in the flesh. His faith was actually strengthened and his resolve even more sure as he counted it a blessing to suffer for the sake of Christ. The fact that Christ was not spared from the cross has served as the redemption for us all.
This line of thinking bears the question: Does God allow tragedy to enter our lives in order for good to come out of it? I don’t think so. I believe that in spite of the trials, illness, suffering we endure, God sees us through and brings good out of evil. As Paul noted in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
So what do we know about how God answers prayer? Here are a few points:
- Ø God often answers prayer through the use of people just like you and me.
Many people pray for help from homelessness only to have church members respond by building houses. Many people pray for help to feed their children through the weekend only to have a special bag sent home for their children through the Backpack Buddies program. God is constantly at work in our lives nudging us toward putting our faith in action. When we respond to that nudging, maybe we become the answer to prayer to a group that meets here regularly but have never felt truly welcomed by any other church. The more we pay attention and listen for God’s calling, perhaps we can be the answer to someone else’s prayer.
- Ø God will not suspend another person’s free will to answer my prayer.
This goes back to our idea of being puppets or actors on the stage. We have the gift of free will. Our prayers will not make God counter this point.
- Ø God’s answer to prayer may well be to walk with us through the face of suffering and to transform that suffering into something useful in our lives or the lives of others.
We are here in this community to change lives for Jesus Christ. At times that will come through suffering. At times we will be challenged even to what we feel is the breaking point. But what I know is God is with us caring for us through the difficult times and that somehow, someway; good will come out of our time in the wilderness.
So what is the purpose of prayer? Do we pray for miracles? First of all let me say without a doubt that I believe in miracles. Yet with this belief comes the fact that miracles are rare. Miracles often violate the forces of nature or defy logic. Perhaps there is someone here who can attest to the fact that by all logical intents and purposes, you should not be here right now but should be dead. My father was a walking miracle for many years. No less than five times were we called to the hospital with the message that this was it – he would not live through the night. But these cases are rare indeed; otherwise they would not be called miracles.
What is the purpose of prayer? Prayer is a conversation with God. God often guides and directs us to be the miracle for others. God at times will answer our prayers simply by holding us and walking with us through the storm. We cannot see God as the ultimate vending machine or a genie-in-a-bottle. God is God and we are God’s creation. Spend time communicating with your Creator. Know that all things will work together for good to those who love God. Amen.
 Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2011.