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The problem of answered prayer

November 2020 | by Alan Thomas

Last month we reflected on the absurd approach of ‘prayer experiments’ which assume a kind of slot machine view of how prayer is supposed to work, with God as the Great Provider, jumping to do our bidding. But let us approach this from a different direction and ask: ‘why should God answer prayer at all?’

He is Creator and we are mere puny creatures. Why should he pay any attention to us? He doesn’t need us, it doesn’t help him when we pray, it doesn’t burnish his ego to have us pray to him. He has no need of us or our prayers at all. And beyond this, we are not mere ‘creatures’, we are sinful creatures. We are hard-hearted, wicked rebels against him and so all we can fairly claim from him is punishment.

So why should God answer prayers? We may regard the slot machine approach to prayer as at the extreme end of the ‘God should answer our prayers’ spectrum. A little further along is the quid pro quo approach of man-made religion, where a god is supposed to answer because we earn his blessing.

Here a worshipper does something for his god to make him answer his prayers. He may offer a sacrifice and expect such an offering to make his god favourably disposed. A worshipper may carry out gruelling deeds of penance and in return expect his god to bless him with healing. A wealthy man may pay an enormous sum of money to construct an impressive religious building and in return believe he will be granted health and happiness by his god. You scratch your god’s back and he will scratch yours in return.

Of course, it is easy to ridicule such an approach with its woefully low view of God and exalted view of ourselves. But perhaps sometimes we pray like this. We have served our Saviour diligently in our church and at great personal cost in terms of time given up and money contributed. Year in and year out we labour and then watch our church shrink.

We pray for conversions, we plan and carry out our evangelism, and yet we see no conversions and no new members. It is easy to think that we deserve answered prayers, that we have earned a blessing, isn’t it? And to wonder why we bother if God won’t ‘answer’ our prayers.

Grace can be difficult when other people get it and we don’t. We can thank God for many blessings, confessing that as sinners we don’t deserve devoted children or wise parents or a well-paid job or musical talent. But when we don’t have such blessing and others do, it can be hard to accept that we don’t actually deserve such blessings at all; we have no right basis for thinking otherwise and thus for complaining when our prayers are not answered.

Why should God answer prayers? We should remind ourselves, as we touched on last month, that God has given us the immense privilege of access to God in heaven above through faith in Jesus Christ. Outside of him there is no expectation of answered prayer. True prayer exists in the context of a relationship with God through Christ.

And prayer is much more than petition. True prayer includes the other vital components of adoration and thanksgiving and confession. We may come to God through faith in Christ in prayer, but perhaps our prayers are too much about ourselves and our worries. Intercession in isolation makes for self-centred prayer. And such prayers are less likely to be God’s will and thus answered.

Biblical prayer, in the context of our saving relationship in Jesus, includes adoration of God himself. While right in and of itself, adoration also lifts our thoughts away from our earthly and too often self-centred thoughts, giving us a proper balance and perspective. Thanksgiving to God for his many kindnesses to us is also inherently right and proper, but again puts our intercession in context, by reminding us of how much God has done and is doing for us.

This will imbue our prayers with peace and joy. Repentance and confession of our sins and sinfulness turns our thoughts back to ourselves, but in a healthy way by forcing us to confront again and again our unworthiness, thus paving the way for an appropriately humble and contrite approach to our petitions.

But even when we do narrow our focus to intercession, the teaching of the Bible, exemplified by Jesus himself, is once again different from the shopping lists too prevalent in prayer meetings (and our own private prayers). What do we find? We read requests for an increased knowledge of God in Christ, for wisdom to live godly lives and thus the growth of churches (John 17:2-3, 17, 20-21; Ephesians 1:17-19; 3:16-19; 4:1-3; Philippians 1:3-6; Colossians 1:9-11, etc.).

These are not outcomes which are readily measurable in prayer experiments. But they are what really matters. We have no encouragement that God will answer prayers for healing, employment, promotion, or other such matters. True, we are taught to pray for our daily bread and this gives us a basis for petitioning God for the necessities of life. It is right to pray then for work so we can provide for ourselves and any dependents. But this isn’t the same as having the basis to expect a highly paid job or even the job we most want, is it?

We can pray for healing but we have no basis for expecting perfect health. In this fallen world it is frequently the case that we have to learn to pray, ‘your will be done’. We know it is his will that we live godly lives in Christ Jesus, so should we balance our petitions accordingly.

So the next time you hear someone raise the alleged problem of unanswered prayer, you might care to ask on what basis they think God should listen to them at all?

Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.