This morning we continue our series called Teach Us to Pray with a look at unanswered prayer. In fact, I've titled it Why God Says No. Unanswered prayer is a problem for many of us.
Unanswered prayer can tank our faith in prayer and our faith in God. Unanswered prayer can cause us to stop praying all together. It has from time to time in my life. Who hasn't wondered why God doesn't answer their prayers? Who hasn't been tempted to give up praying because God seems silent when we need him the most? Who hasn't been frustrated because God says "no" to something we really want him to say "yes" to? Good things. I have. And I bet you have too.
But the truth is, I've now lived long enough to realize that some of God's best answers to prayer in my life have been "no," even though at the time they were the hardest to accept.
Before I met Jennifer I was engaged to a woman to be married. And three months before our wedding day she said, "No. I can't go through with it" and returned the engagement ring. I was devastated. It was the worst emotional pain I had ever experienced in my life up to that point. Why did she say "no?" God why did you say "no" to our plans to be married?
I couldn't answer that at the time and went through a real faith crisis in my late twenties. But now I realize that if God didn't say "no" to that relationship, Jennifer, whom I met a year or so later, would have never said "yes." And so I thank God for that unanswered prayer. I'm glad God said "no!"
You can't talk about prayer without wrestling with unanswered prayer and why God says no." It's the elephant in the room. Jesus understood that and on more than one occasion addressed our need for persistence in prayer.
If you have a Bible turn with me to Luke 11:5-10 (p. 725). In Luke 11, Jesus has already answered the disciple's request to teach us to pray. And his answer was what we call "The Lord's Prayer." But then he follows it up with the need for persistence. He doesn't want us to take "no" for an answer, at least not right away.
Look at Luke 11:5-10 (p. 725), Then Jesus said to them, "Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.' 7And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity (that is your persistence) he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. 9"So I say to you: Ask (better translated keep on asking) and it will be given to you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."
In this story, the man is desperate for food, desperate enough to get his friend out of bed at midnight in a culture where people went to sleep with the sunset. And he refused to take "no" for an answer. He kept asking and seeking and knocking until his friend finally let him in to raid the refrigerator.
Jesus tells this story to stress the need for persistence in prayer. We have to keep asking and keep seeking and keep knocking sometimes before God answers. But why? Why does God say "no"?
I don't know the answer to that question. I'm not sure anyone does. Like we've said all along in this series there's a mystery to prayer. But I'd like to suggest four reasons why God might say "no." These insights aren't mine. They come from a book I read recently by Jerry Sittser called When God Doesn't Answer Your Prayer. My wife Jennifer put me on to the book after she read it and frankly I couldn't put it down.
Jerry Sittser had an unspeakable tragedy happen in his life back in the early 1990's. He was riding in a mini-van with his mother, his wife, and his four young children when they were involved in a horrific car accident. As always, Jerry had prayed for safety that day, but his mother, his wife, and one his daughters were killed. Three died. Four survived. Talk about a faith crisis. It was horrible!
About the accident he writes, "The scene of the accident was chaotic and apocalyptic, like something out of a disaster movie. We had to wait almost an hour before an emergency vehicle transported us to the nearest hospital which was another hour away … And in the sad, holy silence of that emergency vehicle I prayed … But a few days later a question arose in the back of my mind. Why are you praying, Jerry? You prayed for protection that morning and look what happened! Why didn't God answer that prayer? Can you take prayer seriously, ever again?" And so Jerry Sittser began a long, hard spiritual journey to understand why God says no. And in his book he offers these four reasons to be persistent in prayer.
First, persistence drives us to God.
Persistence comes when God says "no" and can be a positive thing. Persistence reinforces our relationship with our loving heavenly Father. And the point of prayer IS the relationship we have with God. It's not about the things that we get from God. God wants to be loved, not just to be used.
There's no question that unanswered prayer can wear us down. It can wear down our faith and our hope. We start to question God's love and goodness and generosity. We doubt whether he hears us at all. And if he does hear us, we wonder why he's not doing anything.
But the problem with that is that we start to view God as a cosmic vending machine that's supposed to cough up what we want if we deposit enough prayers.
I love my kids, it's been great having them all home this week, but there have been times over the years when I've felt like a vending machine, when all they want is for me to put gas in the car or a make a deposit into their bank account or give them money for food. Enough already!
We pray, not just to get what we want. We pray to get to know God. God wants to answer our prayers, like a loving father wants to meet the needs of his kids. But God wants us to know him even more. Knowing God is the best answer to prayer. And unanswered prayer can actually fan the flame of our desire to know him. Persistence is meant to drive us to God.
At the end of the parable Jesus says in verses 11-13, "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" The Holy Spirit.
In other words, God wants to give us more than just good gifts. He wants to give us himself. That's the punch line in the parable. I want to give you the Holy Spirit. I want to give you myself. I'm not sure the disciples saw that coming. But God's best answer to prayer is himself and the peace he brings.
The Holy Spirit wouldn't make life easy for the disciples, but he'd be with them through the tough times just as the Spirit is with us. God's peace and God's presence are the best answer to prayer. Persistence drives us to God and causes us to want more of him.
Second, persistence purges and purifies us.
Unanswered prayer can force us to change how we're praying. It can cause us to reevaluate what we're asking for. So instead of giving up, our prayers move us closer and closer to the heart of God. Shallow prayers for comfort and convenience morph into deeper prayers for courage and character, patience and persistence.
The best example I know of this is the Apostle Paul's prayer for healing. He writes about it in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8, To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
Paul was given incredible revelation by Jesus Christ. Jesus visibly appeared to him in a blinding light on the road to Damascus that led to his salvation. Paul was personally taught by Jesus in the desert of Arabia. He says in verse 4, that he was caught up into the third heaven, into paradise itself, and given revelation that he couldn't even express. So to keep him humble he was given a thorn in the flesh.
Scholars are divided as to what that thorn was. Some think it was some kind of eye disease, others think it was epilepsy or malaria, migraines or a speech impediment. We don't know exactly what it was. But we do know he wanted it gone. Paul was in pain and he wanted healing. And so on three separate occasions he pleads with God to take it away. But every time God says "no, no, no."
And it finally dawns on Paul that God was using the thorn, whatever it was, to develop his character and keep him humble, and show him that God's grace was enough.
So we read in verse 9, But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
"No" was God's answer, because God wanted to give Paul a bigger "yes," the "yes" of his grace. When we're weak God is strong. The thorn isn't named intentionally, so we can fill in the blank with our own thorn. But if God doesn't remove it and change our situation then he wants to change us. Persistence purges and purifies us. It makes us stronger and more like Jesus.
Third, persistence changes things.
That's what happened in the parable. The man keeps asking and seeking and knocking and finally his tired friend opens the door. His persistence pays off and changes the situation. There's a time to persist and there's a time to stop persisting. And only the Holy Spirit can show us when that is.
Persistent prayer can change the course of history. I love what Richard Foster says in his best-selling book Celebration of Discipline, "We are working with God to determine the future! Certain things happen in history if we pray rightly. We are to change the world by prayer."
The Bible is full of examples of prayer changing things. But how and why and when is a mystery. Does God need to be badgered like a tired friend or a stubborn parent? I don't think so. But there are times we need to do the badgering for our sake. Persistence can clarify our mind, strengthen our will, and deepen our desire for things that really matter.
So we persist in prayer for the salvation of a loved one, the reconciliation of a relationship, the peace of the world, justice for the oppressed. We pray until God says to us, like he said to Paul, no, no, no.
I've told you this story before, how my mother, brother, and I prayed for decades that my dad would trust Christ. I gave up many times along the way. Why wasn't God answering!? But somehow God always brought me back to prayer. And when dad was 76 years old he put his faith in Christ. Persistence changes things and comes when God says "no."
Persistence drives us to God. Persistence purges and purifies us. Persistence changes things. And persistence changes us.
God is a persistent God. He's been chasing after wayward sinners like us ever since the fall of Adam and Eve. He is relentless in his pursuit of a relationship with you and me. Like a spurned lover he won't take "no" for an answer. If the Bible teaches us anything about God, it's that God never gives up.
Persistence is a value to God. And he wants us to be like him. And to be like him is to be persistent and not to take "no" for an answer, at least not until he says so. Persistence changes us and makes us more like our heavenly Father.
In his book Sittser writes, "Strange as it may sound, we need unanswered prayer. It is God's gift to us because it protects us from ourselves. If all our prayers were answered, we would only abuse the power. We would use prayer to change the world to our liking and it would become hell on earth. Like spoiled children with too many toys and too much money, we would only grab for more. Unanswered prayer protects us. It breaks us, deepens us, exposes us, and transforms us."
Unanswered prayer is a mystery. We don't know all the reasons why God says "no." But we do know that persistence drives us to God, purges and purifies us, changes things, and changes us.
It's been a long, painful journey for Jerry Sittser after losing his mother, his wife, and his daughter. But at the end of the book he writes this, "It's been eleven years since the accident and I've had the privilege of raising three of my children as a single father. And I can say that God has answered my prayers. They are extraordinary human beings - scarred by the accident, to be sure, but also enveloped by his grace. It has been an honor and joy to raise them. God has been good." God has been good. God has been good. Let's stand for closing prayer.