Unanswered Prayer - Whose Fault?

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 8, 2015

Luke 18:1-8 Prayer Questions: Unanswered Prayer: Whose Fault?

Is God an Unjust Judge?
In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus tells one of His more unusual stories. You can turn there with me if you like, or we’ll have it up on the screen. Luke 18:1-8:

1Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

4"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

6And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

I say this is an unusual story because it appears that Jesus is comparing God to an unjust judge. Does Jesus really want us to think of God as a judge in a courtroom who is more interested in the novel in his lap then seeing justice done; but who—if we just keep pestering Him enough—will eventually give us what we want just so that we go away?

Well, no.

What Jesus is doing is using an argument from the “lesser to the greater.” He’s saying that if even the worst judge in the world could eventually be persuaded to grant justice, then how much more will God—who is infinitely just and good—how much more will God be willing to do justice for his own people? Jesus is comparing the worst in man to the best in God. He wants us to know that God is not like this judge at all, and so we should be confident in bringing our prayer requests to Him.

In fact, in the first verse of our passage, Luke explains that that is precisely why Jesus told his disciples this parable: “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

But by saying we should “not give up” on prayer, Jesus is acknowledging something everybody who has ever prayed has experienced: sometimes our prayers don’t get answered. At least not the way we would like.

Charles Darwin’s cousin—a man named Francis Galton—once attempted to analyze prayer scientifically. Noting that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes a petition for the long life of the British sovereign, he compared the life spans of royalty to other groups in society and found them to be the shortest lived of all. A prayer repeated millions of times a day by Anglican believers had no provable effect. (Yancey, 218)

While that’s too bad for the princes and princesses, more close to home there are all sorts of stories in this room. Stories of praying for grandparents with cancer only to see them succumb; of praying for relationships to heal only to see things end in divorce; of praying for rebellious children only to have them become more and more prodigal; and praying for friends who don’t know Jesus only to see them remain stubbornly in unbelief.

What about unanswered prayer? Why, exactly, do we sometimes feel like the widow in Jesus’ story, crying out again and again for justice that doesn’t seem to be coming?

It’s a question I’m not entirely capable of answering. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable coming up to anyone and saying to them: this is why your prayer isn’t being answered… I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to have a prayer formula that is guaranteed to work.

And yet, looking at the Bible, I find many potential reasons our prayers might not get answered. In 1 Peter 3 there is a verse that tells husbands to treat their wives well so that, quote, “nothing will hinder your prayers.” (1 Peter 3:7) There are things we often do that end up being obstacles to our prayers. And so, if you are praying for something and it is not happening, you may want to do a self evaluation to see if any of these things are happening. 5 potential reasons for unanswered prayer.

The first reason, quite honestly, is sometimes our prayers don’t get answered the way we want because we’re not praying. Prayerlessness.

Be honest with yourself: how often have you said, “God, why are you letting this happen to me?” when that was the only time you’ve ever talked to God about the matter?

It happens to me more often than I care to admit. I worry about something, I lose sleep over it, I whine about it, I get upset about it—but I don’t make it a matter of purposeful, pointed, persistent prayer.

James 4:2 says:

You do not have, because you do not ask God.

Before we go blaming God for ignoring our prayers, we have to make sure we have prayed.

In fairness, Francis Galton’s study of prayer’s futility should be balanced by the reports that his contemporaries wrote in direct rebuttal. The most notable is probably the case of George Mueller, who famously set out to run an orphanage without ever asking for financial support or going into debt. He simply prayed for God to provide, and inevitably God did. For example, on one well-documented occasion, he gave thanks for breakfast when all 300 children in his care were sitting at the table, even though there was nothing to eat in the house. As they finished praying, the baker knocked on the door with sufficient fresh bread to feed everyone, and the milkman gave them plenty of fresh milk because his cart had just broken down in front of the orphanage. In all, Mueller cared for over 10,000 orphans and claimed fifty thousand answers to prayer.

In order to get an answer to prayer we must first pray.

But suppose that you have made something a matter of regular and repeated prayer and God still isn’t answering the way you want. Another reason might be selfishness. Sometimes our prayers don’t get answered the way we want because we they are self-seeking. Some prayers “put the focus on our things, not the things of God.” (Yancey, p. 223)

The next verse in James says:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3)

We need to remember that God is not some giant Santa Claus, handing out presents to all the good little boys and girls in order to keep us all happy. It is not God’s intention to always provide us with every little thing we think will make our lives better.

Besides, many of the prayers we pray are simply frivolous. For every time I pray that UNI will win a football game, I need to remember there’s probably somebody on the other side praying that they’ll lose.

Rock star Janis Joplin used to growl, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Prison chaplains sometimes hear criminals confess that the only time they pray is when they feel in danger of getting caught. Of course, if God were to answer those prayers affirmatively, it would make him an accessory to crime.

Bill Hybels gives a checklist we can use to make sure our prayers are not self-seeking. Before bringing a request to the Lord, we would do well to ask:

If God granted this request:

• Would it bring glory to him?
• Would it advance his kingdom?
• Would it help people?
• Would it help me to grow spiritually?

If we can’t answer “yes” to any of those questions, there is a good chance that our motive in that prayer is simply our own comfort and pleasure. And we’ll know we should reconsider the things we bring to God in prayer.

Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want not because the prayer itself is wrong, but because the person doing the praying is. This third reason our prayers may go unanswered I’ll label callousness. Sometimes God denies our prayers because our hearts are hard.

We’ve already mentioned in the course of this series the way the Lord’s Prayer links our willingness to forgive to our request for forgiveness. Sin that we hold onto and keep repeating can get in the way of our prayers. Psalm 66:18 says:

If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.

One thing in particular the Bible singles out as disruptive of our prayers is our social concern, or lack thereof. Proverbs 21:13 says:

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.

According to these two verses, there are ways to virtually insure that God will not listen to you. Turn your back on the poor. Give your heart to a secret sin. Let your heart grow hard and it is very likely that your prayers will bounce back to you like a tennis ball thrown at a brick wall.

But, at the same time, God promises to listen to those who share His heart for those in need. When we long for and pursue righteousness, God is eager to hear our prayers. Isaiah 58 says:

6 "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
(Isaiah 58:6-9)

I love the beauty of that passage. I love the promise it ends with. When we make it a point to have compassion on those in need, then God promises when we call, He will answer. When we are out there blessing our community, God says we can cry for help, and He’ll answer: “Here am I.”

Philip Yancey quotes Marin Lloyd-Jones, who answered the question of why people like George Mueller and Martin Luther seemed to receive such spectacular answers to prayer when the rest of us rarely do:

We desire to receive all the blessings which saints have received; but we forget that they were saints. We ask, why does God not answer my prayer as He answered that man’s prayer? We should ask, why is it that I have not lived the type of life which that man has lived? (p. 226)

There’s a fourth reason our prayers might not get answered the way we want. I’m going to label this reason faithlessness. Sometimes our prayers aren’t getting answered the way we want because we don’t really believe that God can make a difference.

Back to the book of James. James 1:5-8:

5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

Sometimes our doubts get in the way of effective prayer. We pray because we know that’s what we are supposed to do—it’s the church thing, the pious thing. But deep down, we really don’t believe it’s going to make any difference. So it becomes a formality. Something we do to fit in.

The Bible teaches that God is omnipotent. That He is the Creator of the universe and that everything that happens is under His control. If we aren’t convinced of that, there’s probably no point in praying. If we don’t believe the miracles reported in the Bible really happened—and if we don’t believe something similar is still possible today—there’s really no reason for us to ask anything of God.

Os Guiness gives a very helpful definition of doubt in his book In Two Minds. He says,

When you believe, you are in one mind and accept something as true. Unbelief is to be of one mind and reject that something is true. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and disbelieve at the same time, and so to be in ’two minds.’

That is what James means by a “double minded man,” it’s an unstable place to be. As the Chinese say, "Doubt is standing in two boats, with one foot in each."

This is not to say that if you believe hard enough you will always get what you want. I reject all forms of a “name it and claim it” gospel. Believing harder does not obligate God to do anything. As I’ve been saying throughout this series: prayer is not magic.

But perfunctory prayers to a god you don’t really believe in aren’t likely to yield many results either.

God’s Uniqueness
So, we’ve got 4 possible reasons our prayers might not be getting the response we want. Prayerlessness. Selfishness. Callousness. And Faithlessness. If you are longing for something to happen, but one of those things characterizes your life, you may want to make some changes.

But still, that doesn’t answer every prayer question, does it?

What if there is something you’ve been making the object of persistent and purposeful prayer? Like the widow in the parable you come to God day after day. And you are sure it’s not a selfish prayer. As much as possible, your heart is open to the needs of those around you. And you believe. Deep down in your deepest heart of hearts you believe God can change this thing you’re praying about. But still, it’s not happening. Still, God has not answered your prayer the way you want. The cancer is still winning. The marriage is still on the rocks. Your child is still a prodigal. Your friend still doesn’t believe. What about that?

That leads me to a fifth reason for unanswered prayers. What I’m labeling God’s uniqueness. Sometimes our prayers don’t get answered the way we want because God—in His sovereignty—has a different plan.

Philip Yancey writes: “Between the two questions ‘Does God answer prayer?’ and ‘Will God grant my specific prayer for this sick child or this particular injustice?’ lies a great pool of mystery.” (230)

And we can’t explain away that mystery. Sometimes we just have to live with it.

God says this in Isaiah:

8 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the LORD.
9 "As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:8-9)

We need to always remember that God has a job that is far beyond our comprehension. He has a universe to run. He has the eternal destiny of billions upon billions of people in His hands. He makes decisions that we could never fully comprehend, for reasons that we may never fully understand, but we must believe that His plan is good and He has our best interests in mind.

I often picture God as a military general looking over a battle map. While we are in the trenches fighting, we have only a small picture of the battlefield. But God sees the big picture. He sees where the enemy is most vulnerable as well as where reinforcements are most needed. And He has a plan for winning the victory.

A professor of mine told the following story: During World War II British codebreakers found a way to decipher the German code called Enigma. This was one of the most important factors in the Allies being able to defeat the Nazis. However, the fact that the code was broken had to be kept secret, or the Germans would stop using Enigma and the advantage would be lost. So there were times that Winston Churchill—England’s Prime Minister—had advance warning of German bombing raids on certain English cities. But rather than warn the citizenry to evacuate—which might have revealed to the Germans that the code was broken—Churchill sometimes did nothing. Of course, that must have caused him great pain. It must have been gut-wrenching to know bombs were falling on people he could have warned. But Churchill had a bigger picture in mind. He chose not to save some to serve the greater purpose of winning the war.

In a way, God must be making decisions like that all of the time.

For Him to simply answer all of our prayers the way we want would mean He’d be abdicating His role as ruler of the universe—He’d essentially be handing the controls over to us—and you can imagine the repercussions. I’ve already mentioned the movie Bruce Almighty in this series. Divine power entrusted to a human being would be a dangerous thing.

It may not ease the pain of your particular unanswered prayer, but we cannot escape this mystery. God is in control. He is making decisions according to His purposes and plans.

Someone Else Does the Answering
Another illustration from WWII. During the war HIS magazine ran a brief article by an army chaplain entitled “Some Pray and Die.” Here’s part of what it says:

Is there such a thing as getting the “breaks” in prayer? What about the fellows who pray regularly, but get killed regularly?...I wish people would stop writing about the soldiers who pray and have their prayers answered by not getting killed. Why do all the other soldiers seem to get the wrong answer?

What I want to know is this: what sort of an extra-special, super-powered prayer is needed to make everything turn out the way you want it? That sounds facetious, almost irreverent, but I’m serious. I really want to know. I’m an army chaplain, and I could use some special prayers with my men—and heaven knows, we need them badly at times. Because the fact is there are always more men who pray to come back then there are men who get back. Quite a lot more. What is the deciding factor?

The thing for all of us to remember is this: someone else does the answering…. What you have in mind may not be what God has in mind. If you ask him something, you must be willing to take what he gives…. That is why I am a bit depressed by the writings of those who try to get other people to pray by telling them that you get what you want. People must learn to want what they get… When I talk to soldiers about prayer I try to tell them that they must be adults. God expects us to be men. Only children demand a happy ending to every story. How old must we be before we begin to realize that even prayer can’t get us everything we want, unless the thing we want is right for us to have?

Who gets the breaks in prayer? Nobody. There is no such thing. We get what God in his infinite love and foreknowledge, sees fit to give. That’s not always the same as getting what we want. But it ought to be. (found in Hunter, p. 60-61)

Keep Knocking
I’d like to take you back to the parable we started with.

Jesus is acknowledging that sometimes we pray and pray without getting the answer we want. Sometimes we feel like the widow repeating our plea over and over again.

But remember the point of that parable. God is better than an unjust judge. A whole lot better. He is a loving father who wants to grant His people’s requests. His reasons for not answering our prayers may not always be clear, but His desire is that we keep praying. He invites us to keep rapping on His window.

Even in the face of unanswered prayers, He wants us to always pray and never give up.

Making Sense of the Graveyard at Miango
One more story.

Charles Edward White is a college professor who has spent several terms as a visiting teacher at the University of Jos in Nigeria. While there he visited a missionary graveyard in a quiet garden beside a chapel on Nigeria’s Central Plateau. Most of the graves, he observed, were small: two- and three-foot mounds to accommodate child-sized coffins. Thirty-three of the fifty-six graves, in fact, held the bodies of small children. The tombstones went back as far as 1928 and old-timers in the mission could tell him the stories of only the most recent deaths.

Two of the infants lived just one day. Others lived a few years, falling victim to tropical diseases. One grave held the body of a 12 year-old boy who fell off a suspension bridge over a rain-swollen creek. Next to him was the grave of his missionary father, who died when he went into the water to save his son.

Professor White listened to these and other accounts of missionaries who had come to Nigeria in full awareness of the dangers, and of their children who had no such choice and succumbed to those dangers. He imagined the sorrow of households that no longer heard the happy cries of a three-year-old, that lost a first-grader just as she was learning to read. He writes:

The graveyard at Miango tells us something about God and about his grace. It testifies that God is not a jolly grandfather who satisfies our every desire. Certainly those parents wanted their children to live. They pled with God, but he denied their request.

The graves also show us that God is not a calculating merchant who withholds his goods until we produce enough good works or faith to buy his help. If anyone had earned credit with God, it would have been these missionaries. They left all to spread the gospel in a hostile environment. But God does not hand out merit pay.

Not only do we learn about God’s nature from the Miango graveyard, but we also discover truths about his grace. God’s grace may be free, but it is not cheap. Neither purchasing our salvation nor letting us know of the gift was inexpensive.

Beginning with Abel, many of the witnesses to divine grace sealed their words with their blood. Jesus asked the Jews which of the prophets was not persecuted? When he first sent out his disciples, he promised them betrayal and death. Then, at the end of his ministry, he promised his followers that as they carried his word, they would face trouble and hatred.

Then professor White concludes: “The only way we can understand the graveyard at Miango, is to remember that God also buried his Son on the mission field.” (Yancey, 230-231)

For a missionary couple who stand beside a mound of earth in a garden in Nigeria, no logical explanation of unanswered prayer will suffice. They must place their faith in a God who has sent His Son on a mission to conquer sin and death. It is a mission whose victory is already won, but a mission that is not yet fully complete.

For those of us who face our own list of unanswered prayers, we must place our faith in the same God. We may not fully understand, but we have to trust that He is just. He has a plan. He knows what He is doing.