When God doesn’t answer our prayers
Let’s be honest, the life of prayer isn’t always a joyride. Sometimes it can seem that God doesn’t hear our prayers and His presence seems far away. We feel discouraged as the prayers we’ve prayed for years remain unanswered. Perhaps it’s the family member who’s still unconverted after all these years, or that sinful rut we can’t escape, or our church which feels like it’s stagnating, or maybe we’ve been battling depression for years now and still see no light at the end of the tunnel. And heaven is silent. So we can lose heart and feel like giving up.
In a word, maybe sometimes we feel broken…
Broken hearts pray best
But this sense of brokenness is the critical moment of prayer. The Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) said, ‘If we will have God hear our prayers, they must proceed from a broken heart’ (from a sermon on Josiah’s Reformation).
The nation that King Josiah (c. 649-609 BC) led had turned away wholesale from God. However, the young king had begun a series of reforms and demolished idols left, right and centre. Next, he turned his attention towards repairing the temple. During these repairs, Hilkiah the priest discovered a copy of the Law and passed it straight onto Josiah. The king’s reaction was instantaneous. He knew the Kingdom of Judah had come nowhere near keeping these commandments of God, so he tore his clothes in true Hebrew fashion and sent Hilkiah to inquire of the Lord through Huldah the prophetess (2 Chronicles 34:8-21).
The Lord responded with confirmation of impending judgement, but God was abundantly gracious towards Josiah personally:
Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and its inhabitants, and you have humbled yourself before me and have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.2 Chronicles 34:27
[Josiah’s] prayer was not a distinct prayer of a composed tenor of speech, yet it was a prayer, because with these tears he did send up sighs and groans, and uttered broken words from a broken heart. There was such a language in his heart that God did understand, for God understands the language of his own Spirit in the hearts of his children.
Josiah was certainly broken. He had no stiff upper lip to speak of; no big speech to rally the people. All he could do was weep. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there – those times when you feel so powerless to do anything about a situation and all you can do is sob a broken prayer from a broken heart and hope that God will hear it.
Will He? Sibbes goes on with great encouragement for all believers (put this in your pipe and smoke it!):
We do never lose a sigh, a tear, or anything that is good, which proceeds from his own Spirit, but he will answer abundantly in his own time. For he that gives a desire, and prepares our heart to pray, and gives us a Mediator by whom to offer them up, will doubtless accept of them in his own Son, and will answer them.
And this is exactly right because it is the ‘Spirit himself [who] intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express’ (Romans 8:26 NIV 1984). David writes, ‘You have collected all my tears in a bottle’ (Psalm 56:8 NLT), and, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ (Psalm 51:17).
‘The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ His prayer was heard, and he ‘went home justified’ (Luke 18:13-14 NIV). We too can be justified (and much more besides!) if we come humbly as sinners before God through Jesus Christ.
Sibbes sums it all up: ‘Humility empties the heart for God to fill it.’
Persevere, He will hear
There are no shortcuts in prayer. It can be a long old slog at times. Not all of us are like John Welch, the son-in-law of John Knox, who developed a dodgy knee condition from spending every night in prayer praying that God would give him Scotland. But we can be like the persistent widow coming each day to seek justice (Luke 18:1-8). Jesus told His disciples this parable, ‘to show them that they should always pray and not give up’ (Luke 18:1 NIV). Our gracious Father is no unjust judge! If something is just and right according to God’s will, we ought to never stop praying until we receive it!
In a sermon on this parable which I heard recently, the preacher said that if children always got what they want immediately, they would not appreciate it half as much than if they were made to wait until the right time. He illustrated this point by pointing out that the Israelites weren’t given all the Promised Land all at once – they were neither big enough nor ready for the whole land (Exodus 23:29-30). It was also a test of their faith in God (Judges 3:1). When God delays, they are the delays of a loving, heavenly Father. Time and time again, the Bible says to ‘wait upon the Lord’. God will answer at the perfect time:
And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?Luke 18:7 NKJV
We should submit to God’s will and trust in His goodness for our every need. ‘We walk by faith and not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7). Faith sometimes means being content in this, even if we don’t fully get it (Deuteronomy 29:29). Take heart and continue in prayer: all will be well, Christian believer; our God is on His throne (Isaiah 6:1).
Look to Jesus!
You can’t write something like this without also pointing out that the Lord Jesus Himself knew the pain of unanswered prayers and the absence of God’s felt presence more than anyone. And we’re told that God the Father loves Jesus as much as He loves us! (John 17:23).
‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me,’ was His prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39 NKJV). ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’ was His cry on the cross. Thankfully that first prayer was left unanswered and for us He bore the punishment that by rights should have been ours. But this also means He knows exactly how it feels.
What was Jesus’ other prayer whilst He was dying? ‘Father, forgive them.’ Thank God that He answered this prayer! It includes us. God does not refuse the prayers of His Son. And He did not die for us, only to let us struggle on alone. Take comfort from these facts, brothers and sisters. The Lord Jesus interceded for us then and He continues to intercede for us – even now.