PRAYING FOR KEEPS
A Bad Prayer Day – How To Respond To Unanswered Prayer
March 26, 1995
In Job 20:30 we read, “I call to You, oh God, but You never answer and when I pray, You pay no attention.” Does that sound familiar? Surely none of you have ever said those words or ever felt those feelings before. The Bible, though, says that we are to pray about everything, anytime, anywhere. And it tells us from cover to cover that God will answer all of our prayers.
I will be honest with you, I have made many requests to God. I have asked Him for various things and God has not always answered my prayers the way I wanted Him to answer the prayers. What’s the deal? What’s the problem? Is this false advertising? Is God using His cosmic sense of humor? Why doesn’t God give me what I ask for? The problem is this. Most of us don’t understand the way God answers prayer. God answers all of our prayers but most of us don’t understand how God does that.
God answers our prayers in three ways. First, He says, “Yes.” I love that, when God says yes. I ask God for something specific, He answers, “Yes.” And we tell our friends, we tell our churches, we tell our co-workers, “God said ‘yes!’ Isn’t prayer great? Don’t we serve an awesome God?”
A second way God answers prayer is by saying, “Wait. Wait.” We hate to wait. We are an instantaneous society—express lanes, pizza delivery in 30 minutes. We want things now. “Come on, God, get on with it.”
The third way God answers prayer, “No.” He says that two-letter word that we despise. God says, “No.” There is such finality to that word. It is kind of a negative response, isn’t it? God saying, “No”? You might not believe this, but you are going to after this message—throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, God gives illustration after illustration of instances where He says, “No.”
Abraham said, “God, make Ishmael the son of promise.” God responded by saying, “No, Abraham.” Jonah said, “God, I want to take a Mediterranean cruise, please, please God, Club Med is for me.” God said, “Jonah, no.” David said, “God, save my baby.” God said, “No.” How could a loving God refuse the requests of people that matter to Him? Why would God do such a thing?
Briefly, today, I want to argue God’s case and to show you why God says, “No.” God says no when He has a better outlook. God sometimes says no to your request or my request when He has a better outlook on the situation. You are praying, you are asking God for something and He’ll say, “No.” We may have to realize at that point, God could have a better outlook on this request and that is why He is telling me, “No.”
How many of you listen to the radio when you are driving? How many of you drive during rush hour? When you are listening to the radio there is one thing that will draw your ears into the speakers. When the DJ says these words, “Now, let’s get a traffic report.” You listen and then suddenly you hear this muffled voice from high above the freeway system saying, “Well, everything looks pretty good right now. There is, though, a three car pileup at 114 and 635, so you better watch out if you are going down MacArthur…” And he names all these streets and things and you are saying, “Okay, I’d better stay away from that area because there is a pileup, or I can take an alternate route.” And we are happy that the DJ can talk to someone who sees the entire freeway system. If the DJ was talking to someone stuck in traffic, we would say, “Who cares, big deal.”
When we pray, when we talk to God, we have got to realize that God is in His heavenly helicopter seeing the entire freeway system of your life and my life. We have to trust in that fact because God, oftentimes when He says “no,” has a better outlook. A better outlook.
Hebrews 4:13 “He (talking about God) knows about everyone, everywhere. Everything about us is bare and wide open to the all-seeing eyes of our living God. Nothing can be hidden from Him.”
Proverbs 2:8 “God guards the course of the just…” (I don’t know about you but I am happy that God guards me when I pray) “and protects the way of the faithful ones.”
I thank God for His denied requests in my life. And I think you do too, especially when you go to a high school reunion. You thank God that He did not answer all of your requests because those babes look like they have spent some serious time in caves and those hunks have turned into chunks. So you say, God thank You very much that You have a better outlook on the situation and You have guarded me and protected me.
God also says “no,” though, when He has a superior outline. God says no when He has a superior outline. If you are like me, when we pray we get down on our knees and we say “God, here is my agenda, Man, here is my outline. Roman numeral one, one, two, three, a, b, c. Roman numeral two, Roman numeral three. This is the best thing for me God, I am telling You. I know myself. I want to forge my own future and here, God, You go ahead and rubber stamp it. Here it is, God. Here is my outline.”
God says, “You have got it a little wrong. You have got it a little mixed up. When you pray you should exchange your outline for My outline. You should put your outline on the table and let Me come in and show you what I am going to do with you because My outline is the best outline.” But when we look at God’s outline we say, “Oh, I don’t like that. I’m going to have to have some endurance. I’m going to have to have some courage. It’s going to cost me something. I’m going to have to end that relationship. I’m not going to be able to go to that place anymore.” We want our outline because it’s always easier. I always have an easier way than God, don’t you?
The Bible says in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord.” And notice the plural of the word “ways.” God has a myriad of ways that He can work, a myriad of outlines in your life and my life. “My ways are higher than your ways.” (You could substitute the word outline here, for My outlines are not your outlines neither are your outlines My outlines declares the Lord.)
Before I read the next text, I want to explain the context of this section of scripture. The 11th chapter of Hebrews mentions the Hall of Faith. You know what the Hall of Fame is, don’t you? The ones for baseball, basketball and football. All the great players are honored. There is a Hall of Faith mentioned in the book of Hebrews where all of the great men and women of God are listed. They are talked about in great terms, how they were men and women of true belief, of true faith.
Hebrews 11 says that, now and then, when the great men and women of God prayed and asked God specifically for something, God would answer their request as quick as zigzag lightning, like the lightning we have seen over the last couple of hours here in the Metroplex. They asked God for something—whoom—they would get it. “Thank you, God.” The text also says that some of the great men and women of God asked for things and God did not always answer them the way they wanted Him to answer them. Sometimes God said no because He had a superior outline.
Hebrews 11:39-40, “These” (talking about the heroes of the faith) “were all commended for their faith. Yet none of them” (talking about the ones who did not get an answer, the way they wanted to get an answer) “received what had been promised.” God had planned something better. I will say it again. God had planned something better. God had a superior outline.
You know Daniel, don’t you? Daniel said, “God, please keep me out of the lion’s den. I don’t want to have to deal with Simba and Mufthasa. I don’t want to mess around.” You know what God said? God said, “Daniel, you are going to have to follow My outline. I am going to put you in the lion’s den and I am going to shut the mouths of the lions and I am going to deliver you and I am going to get great glory from the situation.” It was a more difficult path, a more difficult thing. Look what happened. God did it.
I am sure you remember the faithful Hebrew firemen, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They said, “God, we don’t want to go into the furnace, please.” God said I have a better outline for you, a superior thing. He took them through the fire, they emerged and God was glorified.
The Apostle Paul, did you hear that, Saint Paul who wrote much of the New Testament had one great desire in his life next to preaching Jesus. It was to go to Rome and to have a giant crusade. Paul wanted to do that. In the book of Romans Paul prayed three times, “God, I want to go to Rome.” And I am sure Paul wanted to rent out the Roman Coliseum, hand out flyers and have a miracle crusade. Thousands would be there, he would preach and many people would come to know Christ personally. Paul wanted that. He desperately sought that. God, though, said, “Paul, right now, no, because I have a superior outline.”
Guess what happened to our man Paul? Paul becomes shipwrecked, has to deal with a bunch of snakes (I hate snakes, don’t you?), he found himself in chains. The book of Acts says, yes, Paul did go to Rome but he went to Rome and lived in a prison cell. Wow. And I am saying, “Wait a minute, God, you are telling me that you have a superior outline for my life and a superior outline for Paul’s life? But Paul wanted to preach in Rome yet you have him now in a prison cell. God, what’s up?”
Here is the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey says it. God knew how Paul was wired up. He was a driver, he was a charger. He knew if Paul was in prison he would stop, he would focus and he would write. And from that prison cell the Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament. I ask you, which is greater, having Paul preach a three-day miracle crusade in Rome or penning the New Testament? Which had the eternal result that God had in mind? God had a superior outline.
God also says no when He has a greater outcome in store. Isaiah 46:10, “My purpose will stand, says the Lord, and I will do all that I please.” Behind every problem there is a purpose. Behind every problem there is a purpose. For some reason human beings think that God owes them an explanation. I feel that God needs to sit down with me, pull out His Day-Timer and reason with me. “Ed, is it okay if I do this in your life? Ed, is it okay if you move over here? Is it okay if I lead you to do that? And if you say okay, Ed, then I will do it.”
We don’t deserve a thing. We don’t deserve a thing because we have sinned and our sins have separated us from God. Everything is by grace. If God did explain all of His actions to you and to me, we couldn’t understand most of them anyway because we are finite, He is infinite. We are limited, He is unlimited. We have got to trust.
Maybe God is saying no to you right now. Maybe God is saying no to you at this very moment. Have you trusted in the fact that God has a greater outcome? God has a greater outcome.
When God says, “No,” remember two words. Remember His motivation. God’s motivation is always out of love. It is always out of love. He loves us. He is a pursuing lover. The moment God says, “No,” though, the evil one steps in and says to us, “Psst, God cannot be depended upon. God cannot be trusted. He loves to refuse you. He loves to frustrate you.” That is when you have to say, “Hey, Satan, you are a liar, you have been a liar, you are the father of lies. I know God’s motivation and I am going to rest in His love.”
Also remember God’s donation. God gives you and He gives me a grace donation. I jump back to the life of the Apostle Paul. The Apostle Paul had a thorn in the flesh, a physical handicap. Three times, Paul says, I prayed that God would heal me. Three times, God said, “No.” But, after He said no, He said, “Paul, My grace is sufficient for you. And I am going to give you power, I’m going to give you strength, I’m going to give you courage to make it through this difficult time.” Remember God’s donation, His grace donation.
It was tempting, it really was, as I was preparing for this sermon to close the Bible and to walk down the steps and to say, “Okay, let’s have a time when people can join the church and those who want to receive Christ can do so. We will sing a song. I will read the announcements. We will take the offering and we’re out of here. Let’s go to Luby’s early. Or at this hour, maybe LePeep or Jo Jo’s or Denny’s. But God’s word tells me I have got to go on with this message. I can’t stop here about unanswered prayer. I have talked about God’s part, but I can’t stop. There is another part I haven’t even touched on yet and that part has to do with you and with me.
Sometimes we are the cause, we are the reason, why God says no when we pray. God sometimes says no if our requests are wrong. God sometimes says no if I make an inappropriate request of Him. I don’t believe a soul here would intentionally make an inappropriate request of God. But we are capable of it. Peter, James and John, three heavy hitters spiritually, were with Jesus one day on the Mount of Transfiguration. All of a sudden Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus and Peter comes up with this ingenious, entrepreneurial decision and he says, “Jesus, let’s bring our Winnebagos up here on top of the mountain. We can camp out, we can chill out for the rest of our lives. We can bask in your glory. There is Elijah, there is Moses, You’re here, we’re here, let’s just stay here for the rest of our being.” Jesus said, “No.” “No, that request, Peter, is inappropriate. That request is out of line.” And suddenly a cloud enveloped them and Peter, James and John were cut off from the situation.
Another time Jesus wanted to travel through a Samaritan village. And he was denied travel. And the disciples say, “Hey, Jesus, rain on this village fire and brimstone and destroy it. Wipe it out just like that.” And Jesus said “Your request is inappropriate.” And He rebuked them. You see if the disciples can make requests that were inappropriate, I think I can do the same thing and so can you. Here are a few examples. “God, change my wife.” “God, change my husband.” “God, change my co-worker.” “God, change my neighbor.” It is fine to pray for people to change. That is what happens when someone is saved. But if you motivation is to make the other person change and you don’t change, if the motivation is selfishness, if the motivation is just to accommodate your needs, then that prayer request is out of line.
Maybe a more honest and authentic prayer would be this. “God, I don’t have the courage to change myself. I don’t have the courage to face my own fears. I want to do that right now and You show me what is wrong with me, help me to get this giant redwood out of my eye before I get on someone else for a tiny sawdust speck in their eye.” Examine your requests. As you examine your requests, your prayers will be purified and you will see, does this really honor God or Christ?
Another inappropriate request would be “God, give me this new account. Please, God, I am in sales, give it to me, God, come through now, God, please God.” It is fine to pray for help in business. I recommend it. But if the motivation behind that prayer is to show off in front of your peers after you make all the money, it is inappropriate. If your boss told you not to go after the account and you know if you close the account you can say, I told you, and slam it right in front of his face, that is inappropriate. Improper, inappropriate requests. Examine those requests. Sometimes your requests can be wrong.
There is another reason that God sometimes says no, and this has to do with you and me. Our timing can be off. Our timing can be off. Oftentimes, God answers our prayers later in order to answer them better.
Mary and Martha run up to Jesus one day and they say “Jesus, Lazarus is dying.” Jesus and Lazarus were close friends. Jesus heard the words but He didn’t respond. “Jesus, Lazarus is dying.” Jesus hung out with the disciples a couple of more days. Lazarus dies. Then Jesus says, “Now, now I will go and see about Lazarus.” And Jesus brings Lazarus up from the grave. I ask you, which is the greater miracle? Would the greater miracle have been for Jesus to respond to the scene in the 911 fashion and heal him from a fever or is the greater miracle Jesus bringing someone back from the dead? You see, there was a timing problem.
Again, we hate to wait. Think about children. They rant, they rave and they throw fits. “I want it now.” “I want to wear makeup now.” “I want to drive the car now.” “I want the new Nintendo now.” And there is a child in all of us. Could your timing be off?
There is a third and final reason, and I will conclude with this one. Sometimes when God does not answer our prayers it has to do with a problem in our lives. And I am getting specific here, a problem in our lives. The problem could be unconfessed sin. The Bible says if we have living sin going on in our lives, God will not answer our prayers. He will say no. If I am committing sexual sin outside the marriage bed, if I am involved in the sin of drug addiction or alcoholism, or many other things, and it is going on and on and on and I have not really dealt with it, I have not come clean with it, I have not repented of it, it will contaminate my prayer life. It really will. Could there be unconfessed sin in your life?
Another problem that we can incur would be unresolved relational conflict. If you have unresolved relational conflict, if I have unresolved relational conflict, it will hinder our prayers. In a marriage, a parent-child thing, a friend. “Well, Ed, I have tried to apologize, I have tried to make it right, but the person still holds a grudge.” If you have done everything you can possibly do biblically and the person still doesn’t want to turn, hey, you’re clean, you’re clear, God will not use that as an obstacle in your prayer life.
Selfishness is another thing that can cause us to miss what God wants to tell us. Selfishness. The Bible says in Malachi if we don’t give to the poor, if we don’t help those who are less fortunate than we are, that could be an obstacle. At the time the book of Malachi was written, the Israelites were demonstrating sly behavior. The Israelites said, “God, we want to worship You.” And they would bring God the reject animals, you know the mangy, tick-infested animals. “Here, God, we want to worship You with our best, Lord. Here it is to You.” And then they would take the best animals and they would take them down to market and make a lot of money and stuff their wallets full. “But, Lord, we are giving you our best.” You know what God said to Malachi? “You are expecting Me to show you favor when you are robbing Me, when you are cheating Me. Who do you think I am.” If you are not giving to a local Body of Christ where you are a member, if it is here or is somewhere else, I am talking about a tithe, than that can be a hindrance, that selfish spirit.
The mystery of unanswered prayer. We have talked about it from God’s perspective. We have talked about what we need to do. And now it is my prayer that we would take these things that we know—K N O W—and understand why God says no and deal with it and become true men and women of prayer.